June 3, 2010 / 5:50 PM / 9 years ago

Author Henry Roth's hero resurrected in final novel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The curious story of Jewish-American novelist Henry Roth has taken one last turn.

Author Henry Roth is shown in this undated photo taken by Hugh Roth and released to Reuters June 3, 2010. REUTERS/Hugh Roth/W. W. Norton & Company/Handout

Fifteen years after his death, the author who wrote one of America’s great immigrant novels has been resurrected with the publication of his final work, “An American Type.”

From a manuscript of Roth’s last writing, which sat untouched for years, a young fiction editor at the New Yorker, Willing Davidson, shaped what will be Roth’s posthumous parting shot — an autobiographical story about arriving at adulthood and falling in love.

“An American Type,” in U.S. bookstores on June 7, is his sunniest novel, those most familiar with his work say. It was edited from a manuscript of nearly 2,000 pages written by an elderly arthritic Roth during the late 1980s.

“Roth in many ways thought a lot about himself, but in this book he turns his attention outward,” Davidson, 32, told Reuters. “In doing so, he discovers a lot of comedy and joy in life around him.”

The novel reintroduces his alter ego Ira Stigman — also the hero of his earlier novel “Mercy of a Rude Stream” — as he travels across the United States and courts his eventual wife M., based on his real-life spouse Muriel Parker.

Set in 1938 and mapped largely from his journals written at that time, it is perhaps one of the last firsthand accounts of the United States during the depression.

Roth’s last novel is a first for Davidson, who took on the project four years ago when the papers were handed over to the New Yorker from former Roth editor Robert Weil.

“It was a little daunting because I didn’t know if I could do it, if there was a novel there. I tried to look for a narrative arc and then cut way and refine, and then cut away,” said Davidson, who insists there is not enough material left for another novel.


Henry Roth is best known for his first book, “Call it Sleep” (1934), about a Jewish immigrant family arriving in New York in the early 1900s. He is nearly as well known for the sixty years of writer’s block that followed.

After receiving scant attention on its first release, its re-publication in the 1960s sparked its popularity. The book has since sold millions of copies worldwide.

A second novel was expected soon after “Call it Sleep” but Roth, in a frenzy of self-loathing, burned all but one chapter. He had a colorful life — later working in a mental asylum in Maine, and as a waterfowl dresser, a Latin tutor — but kept pen from the published page until his later years.

He was reclusive and troubled. Memories of teenage incest with his sister, and later depression, hampered his writing. Not until the publication of “Mercy of a Rude Stream” in 1994 did the largely forgotten author reappear.

The four-volume autobiographical novel — parts of which were published after Roth’s death in 1995 — was edited from a first batch of manuscripts written in Roth’s later years. The second batch made up “An American Type.”

Robert Weil, who spent six years editing “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” said it was time to hand over the baton for Roth’s last, very different, novel.

“He was galloping the last legs of his life and he wanted to write something with a sweeter sound to it,” Weil said.

“I felt ‘An American Type’ needed a different sensibility. Willing understood its purpose.”

Much of Roth’s journals and correspondence is today kept at the Center for Jewish History in New York.

In one letter written in 1964, a friend, Ted Bookey, wrote to Roth: “Like it or not, ‘enry, you are going to be a remembered episode in American and world literature. Imagine the crap, the falsifying, deluging crap, that’s going to be written about you. On a thousand typewriters the myths are raining.”

For some time the typewriters had gone quiet, but with the publication of this last novel they can again, for a while at least, sound.

Editing by Mark Egan and Christine Kearney

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