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  • Unclean Lips:Dirty Words and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep
  • Josh Lambert (bio)

This article has been amended to correct the Hebrew alphabet text, which was reversed letter by letter in the original article. Pages affected: 744, 746, 754

On September 14, 1933, Henry Roth completed a draft of the manuscript that would become his novel Call It Sleep, widely acknowledged as among the preeminent achievements of American literary modernism.1 Three months later, on December 6, federal judge John Woolsey announced his verdict in U.S. v. One Book Called “Ulysses,” a case that must have interested Roth very much. Woolsey’s decision would “determine whether” James Joyce’s famous novel was “‘immoral and licentious,’” as the New York Times phrased it at the end of August, eagerly anticipating the ruling. Woolsey ruled, of course, that Ulysses was not obscene, legalizing its sale in the United States.2

But consider Roth’s perspective in the summer of 1933, when he was twenty-seven years old and finishing his first novel. He may have laughed at the philistinism of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice (NYSSV) and its director, John Sumner, who was responsible for suppressing many novels in the 1920s and 1930s, but Roth could not have been certain that Ulysses would finally, after a decade, be freed by the courts.3 As far as he knew, Ulysses might be declared obscene once more, meaning that no reputable American publisher would print it, no American bookstore would display it, and no copyright protection would be afforded to it. At this time, Roth himself had published virtually nothing. He had no contract for the novel that he had dedicated nearly four years, most of his adult life, to writing. Consider, then, the courage, or brazenness, or foolhardiness, necessary for him to include in his manuscript the very same taboo, so-called dirty words that had transformed Joyce’s novel into contraband. If an internationally revered author like Joyce had not been able to [End Page 741] convince the authorities that such words should be permissible in literary fiction, what would possibly induce an unknown like Roth to introduce the controversial words “shit,” “fuck,” and “cunt” into the manuscript that was his one chance for literary success?

In answering this heretofore unasked question about Call It Sleep, this article also puts forth a new answer to another, more familiar, question about Roth’s book: that is, why did this extraordinary novel—a densely allusive, high modernist fiction describing a young Jewish immigrant’s fearful exploration of the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1910s—“vanish” soon after its publication at the beginning of 1935, reappearing with much critical fanfare and going on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies only in the early 1960s?4 Attending to the question of obscenity helps to understand the novel’s trajectory and points to one of the underappreciated, transformative ways that American Jews contributed to the development of modern standards for the representation of sex.

In the 1990s, when he was in his eighties, Roth published a series of autobiographical novels cumulatively titled Mercy of a Rude Stream. These books describe the adolescence and early adulthood of a stand-in for Roth named Ira Stigman in the years leading up to his beginning to write his first novel. While we should be careful about facilely reading this late work, marketed as fiction, as unmediated autobiography, the manuscripts of those novels reinforce the sense that all serious critics of Roth’s work—including Morris Dickstein, Mario Materassi, Steven Kellman, and Hana Wirth-Nesher—have had that virtually all of Ira’s experiences, perceptions, and attitudes represent, in one form or another, Roth’s own.5

Mercy tracks Ira’s sexual miseducation, beginning in the summer of 1914, when its protagonist is eight years old. In an early incident, a stranger attempts to molest Ira in a public park. Though a couple of passersby foil the man’s first attempt to touch Ira, the man goes on to masturbate, ejaculating onto a tree while grasping Ira’s buttocks. Ashamed by his part in this man’s masturbation, Ira...


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