The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Jeremy Tambling

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth: A Leap out of Murderer’s Row

  • Michael HollingtonEmail author
Living reference work entry

Latest version View entry history




Call It Sleep has usually been hailed since its rediscovery in the 1960s as a key text in the history of Jewish writing about New York. It is this, of course, but it can also be seen in the broader context of the modernist city novel, as part of a great tradition of experiment that begins with Bely’s Petersburg of 1913, undoubtedly climaxes with Joyce’s Ulysses of 1922, and lingers on for at least a decade or two after Joyce. 1925 saw the publication in America of Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer and in London of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and 1929 the appearance in Germany of Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the writing in Australia of Seven Poor Men of Sydney by Christina Stead. This latter was not published until 1934, the same year as Call It Sleep, but even then, the tradition seems not to have played itself out, for Sartre’s Le Sursis of 1945 contains many echoes of it, in particular of Dos Passos.

As much as any of these writers, Roth is profoundly indebted to Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique as a means of exploring the essential inner loneliness of city dwellers, in this case that of a young boy David, the son of Jewish immigrants from Galicia in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, growing up in New York in a multilingual environment in which Yiddish is dominant but Polish and Hebrew also play a part, leaving him at several removes from “normal” integration with his city surroundings. As in Joyce, the technique consorts with the intense realism of naturalist writing, in particular that of the German Sekundenstil, the moment-by-moment rendering of external realist detail that has here taken an inward turn to register consciousness as it flows or jerks forward. David is an extremely observant child, and so the two styles exist side-by-side, the notation of what he perceives in the outer world and of his inner thoughts and emotions regularly overlapping with each other.

Despite this, Roth was to repudiate Joyce in later life, turning against what he saw as his aestheticism and denouncing the artificiality and superficiality of his representation of Jewishness in the hero of Ulysses Leopold Bloom (see Kellman 2005: 88–89). By contrast, another major modernist writer about the city, T.S. Eliot, retained his allegiance throughout, for in 1979 he declared that “Eliot was the major influence on my life” (Kellman 2005: 91). Call It Sleep follows The Waste Land in a number of respects – very literally, for instance, in its frequent evocations of the patches of land filled with rubbish and detritus that furnish David’s playgrounds in the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan but also metaphorically, as in its numerous evocations of New York as another “unreal city.” This is a novel that seeks purification and redemption from the filth and degradation of the modern city and from “the immense panorama of anarchy and futility of contemporary history,” to quote Eliot on Joyce (Eliot 1975: 177–178). Like “The Fire Sermon” in The Waste Land, it prays for deliverance (“O Lord thou pluckest me out” – see Eliot 2015: I 66) or, following Kafka, for a leap out of murderer’s row (“Das Hinausspringen aus der Totschlägerreihe” Kafka 1949: 212).

Call It Sleep can be seen as a version of the Bildungsroman, driven by the intense questionings of a young child, taking on here a metaphysical dimension (in place of “what is money?” in Dickens’s Dombey and Son and “what is luck?” in D. H. Lawrence’s The Rocking-Horse Winner, we get here “what is death?” and “what is God?”) even as they nevertheless focus on a vision of the modern metropolis. Ultimately, David’s development is a quest, following his readings in the cheder of the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6, for a direct visual experience of God on the streets of New York – in Walter Benjamin’s terms, for a “secular illumination” (see Benjamin 1969: 179) – which, in its naivete and urgency as an escape from a profound sense of existential guilt and terror of his father’s wrath, almost causes his death. Thus, David’s quest is not for the clichéd “streets paved with gold” sought like Dick Whittington by most immigrants arriving in New York but streets paved with the electric fire of divine revelation. David’s three mentors on his path are an unlikely crew, at least as far as any kind of knowledge and understanding, material or spiritual, of the city of New York is concerned. The first and most important of them, his mother, is like many immigrant wives in her inability to master the language of the place to which she has been transplanted. Her wisdom belongs squarely in the past of rural Galicia, and the Yiddish which she uses throughout draws its poetic vigor and strength from this premodern world (in part one, she can’t even properly pronounce the name of the Brownsville street on which she lives). The marvelous Bakhtinian comic character Aunt Bertha is in some respects more promising: she at least decisively rejects the world of the shtetl and throws in her lot wholeheartedly with New York life: “I hate quiet and I hate death,” she declares (166). Yet her very prosaic, materialist conception of life – she aspires to own a candy store and manages to achieve this modest ambition – limits her capacity to provide guidance for David, with his “immortal longings,” despite her being hugely sympathetically disposed toward the child. Rabbi Pankower, again, is a misfit, denouncing the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (254) of New York and denying the possibility of any form of redemption in or through the realities of modern urban and industrial society – “God’s light is not between car-tracks” (Roth 1977: 254), he insists, in rejection of David’s quest.

All three of these characters, however, as well as the feared and hated embodiment of Jewish patriarchy, David’s father Albert, display an intense vividness of speech that can be said to form part of the most fundamental focus of the book – upon language. Call It Sleep is a great poetic novel, summoning a rich array of literary sources – Melville, and his relation to Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Twain and Huckleberry Finn, and of course Joyce, to name but a few – to give it epic grandeur and scope. “It was language, language, that could magically transmogrify the baseness of his days and ways into precious literature,” Roth wrote of Joyce out of the side of his mouth that acknowledged his own enormous debt (Kellman 2005: 89). “Tu m’as donné ta boue et j’en ai fait de l’or” (“you gave me your mud and I made gold from it”), as Baudelaire wrote of Paris in the time of Haussmann’s upheavals in that city, in a line also admired by another city poet T. S. Eliot, Roth’s mentor-in-chief. The medium of this alchemy is poetic writing, and Call It Sleep shades off at its edges from Bildungsroman into Künstlerroman. David is not the narrator of his own story, but the myth of his paternity that he invents toward the end of the novel can be seen as a first step in a writing career. In any case, it is clear that the story could not exist without its being filtered through his memories of eavesdropping on half-understood conversations between adults about their various guilts and sins (Roth’s own, if we look for a biographical objective correlative, was incest with his sister) – and difficulty of understanding is one of the features that place the book fairly and squarely within the moment of high modernism.

Everything is heightened through language in the poetic and metaphoric evocation of the supposedly mundane private experience of city dwellers in Call It Sleep, placing it at a further remove from mock-epic than Joyce’s Ulysses, underpinned as that book is by joke modern equivalents for episodes in Homer. David’s mother declares that by marrying Albert “she threw a stone upon my heart” and urges her son to “knit another dream for me” in compensation (130). Albert declares of David that he has a “downright gift for stumbling into every black moment of the year,” asserting that he has “pleaded as I would with death” with him, and of Aunt Bertha that she is “jesting with the angel of death” if she expects to defy him on the strength of having gained a husband (78, 83, 187). Aunt Bertha’s stock-in-trade is comic hyperbole – “I look like one butter firkin on top of another,” “we must cleave to them like mire on a pig” (144, 148). She also has a ready gift for colorful curses, usually directed at Albert, such as “may his head be cloven as they [my knickers] are” (156) or “may a trolley-car crack his bones” (156), and the prediction that he’ll “have pangs and haemorrhoids as an appetiser” (380) for the punishments due to him for his crimes. In what is virtually her last appearance in the novel, she stages a magnificently theatrical outburst of wailing and cursing:

Oh! Oh! Woe me! Woe me!’ Aunt Bertha filled the room with.

A loud gasping and lament. ‘Woe me! Did you see what he did?

He threw me! And me with a child in my belly. Monster! Mad dog!

It’s not drawers you’ve ripped this time. It’s a child you’ve destroyed!

On your head my miscarriage. Oh you’ll pay for this! May they hang you! (396)

Rabbi Pankower has much in common with Bertha as he addresses his cheder class with yet more violent curses and insults that are themselves not however devoid of humor. To one, he thunders, “Woe to that plaster dunce who still cannot say them [the four questions of the Passover] in Yiddish… Blows will he scoop like sand,” to another, “perhaps, today, you can glitter a little… Who knows, a puppet may yet be made who can fart.” His failure to produce the required flatulence brings down on him yet more baroque, biblical curses – “may your skull be dark!...and your eyes be dark and your fate be of such dearth and darkness that you will call a poppy-seed the sun and a carroway the moon” – and the sarcastic response to the boy’s tears at his cruelty that “if you could read as easily as your eyes can piss, you were a fine scholar indeed” (226, 212, 213). But on the other side of the coin – “his voice heightened, deepened, grew rich with huskiness” – he produces extravagant praise of David: “in my cheder he was as a crown in among rubbish, as a seraph among Esau’s goyim!” (385).

Together with characters who speak like Jewish equivalents of Melville’s Ahab, the novel also constructs a narrative persona that gives every minor incident in the tenement life of lower Manhattan the status of epic. A canary escapes from its cage in one of the flats and draws a crowd of children transfixed by the drama of its flight and the prospect of a reward for its recapture. In Sekundenstil again, every moment of its flight is excitedly rehearsed – “An’ den we seen ‘im on sebn-fawdy-six, across the stritt an’ ziz! He gives a fly back an’ zip! Op to duh roof…Schmeelkee’s house he flew. So we all grabbed our hats an’ runned inna duh hall. Yuh catch ‘em wid a hat – like dot!’” (290). When street loafers steal milk from his dairy wagon, Albert sets off after them in the manner of the Hollywood chase, heightened here to make him appear like some heroic figure in mythology, his progress again recorded in second-by-second detail: “he snatched the whip out of the socket, lashed the horse. Stung, the beast plunged forward. The wheels ground against the curb. ‘Giddap!’ Again the whip. Hooves rang out in pounding, powerful gallop. The waggon lurched, careening around the corner on creaking axle, empty bottles banging in their boxes. His father, jaws working in fury, eyes blazing, swept the street with one glance. It was empty, sunlit and empty” (276–277).

Out of this rich panoply of linguistic resources (and I have mentioned only a few of the elements that constitute it), the novel assembles its essential binary problematics, of purity versus dirt and chaos, of light versus darkness, and of height versus depth, in its search for meanings that might enable city experience to transcend its mundane, materialist surface appearance. For the first of these, David’s exposure in his cheder in Part Three of the novel (“The Coal”) to the recitation in Hebrew of Chapter 6 of the Book of Isaiah obviously forms a cardinal reference. Isaiah relates how an angel places a live coal on his lips and thus purifies his speech and himself: “And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.”

David struggles to understand this passage in a literal way in one of many moments of stream-of-consciousness that strongly reflect Leopold Bloom in Ulysses: “Wonder if Isaiah hollered when the coal touched him. Maybe angel-coal don’t burn live people” (277). At a metaphorical level, it has a number of resonances, one of them connected with the modernist urge to “purify the dialect of the tribe,” as Eliot phrases it in Little Gidding in echoing Mallarmé’s homage to Edgar Allan Poe as a writer who sought to “donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (and Mallarmé was a presence in the background during the composition of the book – the novelist’s mentor Eda Lou Walton had fallen under the influence of the Mallarmean Witter Bynner in California prior to meeting Roth in New York – see Kellman: 84). That writing and purification go hand in hand here can be shown in a passage where David watches her as she finishes cleaning the windows of their tenement flat: “His gaze followed hers. Spotless now, the panes betrayed no more of their presence than a jewelled breath – except where tiny flaws spiralled inexplicable hues into warping rarities” (327). Here, the writing seeks absolute clarity and precision as an “objective correlative” of the window cleaning.

Contrasting dirt, impurity, and chaos is everywhere in the novel’s rendering of city life. I have already mentioned the numerous “waste land” passages, and it might be appropriate to quote one or two of them – that in which across an “open lot” there is “a wind that prowled over that area of rock and dead grass, that would spring at them when they passed it” or another, where April and cruelty feature just as they do at the opening of The Waste Land: “before him the soft, impartial April sunlight spilt over a hill of shattered stoves, splintered wheels, cracked drain pipes, potsherds, marine engines split along cruel and jagged edges” (108, 248). Rubbish and detritus accumulate in the city, it seems, rather than being consumed by fire, and the ritual ceremony of burning chametz, leavened food forbidden during Passover, ends here in failure as the street cleaning sweeps the burning embers away, mixing it “with rubbish and manure” – “he’s pushin’ our chumitz wid all duh shit!” (240).

Of particular importance is the pervasive association of sex with dirt and degradation in Call It Sleep. To paraphrase Yeats, love has indeed pitched his tent here in the palace of excrement, and the most significant, climactic sexual encounter, that between Leo and Esther, takes place in a basement toilet. Throughout, David is terrified of the girls in his neighborhood, who by and large tend to take the lead in initiating sexual contact – beginning with his crippled neighbor Anny, who wishes to show him her “knish” (Yiddish slang for vagina, named after a food that resembles it in shape and appearance) and is scornful of his extreme disinclination (52–53). When Leo invites him to share in the near-rape of Esther – “don’t’cha wanna give ‘er a feel ‘er nutt’n?” – “the darkness hid the revulsion of his features if not of his voice” (342).

David is horrified too by the vulgar triumphant glee of the boys who see his mother naked in the bath, “an’ duh hull knish! All de hairs!” (291). His extreme anxiety about his mother’s sexual organs marks this out of course, with Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, as one of the great modernist novels devoted to exploring Freud and the so-called Oedipus complex. Here, the idea of the child’s hatred and jealousy of fathers and father figures is sociologized as well as psychologized. Albert is embittered by immigrant experience in New York: it serves to increase the violence already latent within him, he too in some sense a parricide in Galicia as he stands by while his father is savaged by a bull. Thus, he terrorizes both his wife and his son David, of whose paternity, it emerges late on in echo of Strindberg’s The Father, he is unsure. Genia, the mother, indeed turns to another man in despair at her own immigrant experience of isolation and ill-treatment – Albert’s work colleague and lodger Luter, seeing an obvious opening, goes out of his way to show appreciation of her. And David of course experiences violent jealousy of him as well.

All these feelings stoke an urge in David to transcend, at least symbolically, the base and sordid world of the body. As early as the move to Avenue D and 9th street, to a flat on the top floor, he begins an upward gravitation: “he became very fond of his own floor… After one climbed from the tumult of the street, climbed the lower, shadowier stairs, a little tense, listening to toilets, entering this light was like reaching a haven. There was a mild, relaxing hush about it, a luminous silence, static and embalmed” (142). And here we encounter the second and third binaries, hardly separable from the first in this anatomy of the New York tenement house – down below are the toilets; up above is the light for which David yearns.

In his urge for transcendence, he goes out onto the roof instead, comparing it to previous encounters with light and with snow: “here was a better haven than either, a more durable purity” (p. 292). In brilliant poetic writing, Roth invokes a vision of absolute radiance, perhaps drawing upon another modernist icon, Hopkins: “to the west, the blinding whorl of the sun, the disc and trumpet, triple-trumpet blaring light” (292). At the same time, the very ending of the novel is anticipated in the stress upon the eye’s incapacity to receive such a vision – “too pure the zenith was, too pure for the flawed and flinching eye; the eye sowed it with linty darkness, sowed it with spores and ripples of shadow drifting” (293). There is to be no leap out of murderers’ row. This is implicit through the whole episode involving the Polish orphan child Leo. Leo takes him to even greater heights, not only out onto the roof but there to hoist a kite “to newer heights” (297). As a Christian, he seems to offer David new vistas of spiritual and emotional excitement. Instead of the Jewish Bilderverbot – the strict separation of the ineffable sphere of God from the mundanity of material existence, its non-representability in any language of accommodation – he offers the paraphernalia of Catholic icons, of sacred hearts, and of rosaries to give you, in David’s eyes, a magic power that will release him from that of his father, together more mundanely, with skates, as a means of fleeing the tragedy of his home life. Leo’s family status – no mother, no father, living with an aunt – is also a source of deep envy. In his company, David experiences the illusion of autotelic parthenogenesis, of having the power to create or “write” himself. But if this relationship superficially echoes life aboard the raft in Huckleberry Finn, it is clear that Leo is no Jim. What follows elevation to the rooftop and beyond is anabasis into the depths of the toilet at Aunt Bertha’s home. Leo strikes a sordid bargain with David: he will give him the rosary if he will take him to meet Bertha’s stepdaughter Esther, who seems entirely willing to escort him to the toilet in order to introduce him to her knish. David does this and is finally rewarded with the rosary, but at a terrible price. Back home, during dramatic scenes of domestic violence, the rosary tumbles out, convincing his father that God has spoken to reveal the infamous truth of his supposed son, revealed now as the child of a goy and not of a Jewish father, and the necessity of liquidating him: “God’s own hand! A sign! A witness!” his father was raving, whirling the whip in his flying arms. “A proof of my word! The truth! Another’s! A goy’s! A cross! A sign of filth! Let me strangle him! Let me rid the world of a sin” (399).

Bertha and Genia urge him to flee the house. In the extremity of his misery, David seeks his own revelation, a blinding flash of light to be had by placing a metal milk stoop from his father’s dairy wagon against a tram rail in the street, nearly causing his own death through electrocution. But he survives and is brought home to his mother’s relieved ministration of comfort and care. She offers him food and sleep, whereupon a remarkable final paragraph of poetic meditation upon the phrase that gives the novel its title ensues.

What must first be insisted upon is that the whole phrase (repeated three times, the first two introduced by “he,” the third by “one,” as if moving beyond the perspective of a specific individual to a more general one) is “he [one] might as well call it sleep.” That is to say, it stresses the approximate nature of language, which cannot convey any absolute truth, any unambiguous sign. Any “purification of the dialect of the tribe” can be only relative, for “sleep” is only a name. Like Benjamin and Hegel before him, Roth focuses upon the significance of the borderline state of consciousness between waking and sleeping (repeating, again three times, the phrase “towards sleep”), in which sight, sound, and touch, and feeling are raised to a heightened state which nonetheless lies this side of transcendence. The sentence about vision, itemizing the images one can perceive on the verge of sleep, may stand as a representation of Roth’s essential meaning here: “It was only towards sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images – of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the light on grey stone stoops, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling towards him” (440). Replacing the aspiration toward a totalizing vision passing beyond the here and now of the modern city is an inspired list of the flashes of light it may give to the attentive observer. These, one might say, are the fragments David manages to shore against his ruins.



  1. Benjamin, Walter. 1969. Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn and ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken.Google Scholar
  2. Eliot, T.S. 1975. The selected prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode. London: Faber.Google Scholar
  3. Eliot, T.S. 2015. The poems of T. S. Eliot (2 Vol.), ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. London: Faber.Google Scholar
  4. Kafka, Franz. 1949. Diaries 1914–1923. Trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Ahrendt. New York: Schocken.Google Scholar
  5. Kellman, Steven G. 2005. Redemption: The life of Henry Roth. New York: W. W. Norton.Google Scholar
  6. Roth, Henry. 1977. Call it sleep. London: Penguin.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Clare HallUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK