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Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep (1934) oscillates between the particular and the general. It is focalized almost completely through its protagonist, the young boy David Schearl, who grows from six to eight years old over the course of the novel; his highly idiosyncratic thought processes structure the novel and serve as overarching thematic and linguistic material. David constructs a system of magical associations between household objects and locations, family members, local street life, and Jewish and Christian texts and icons. His inner monologues--his physically unvoiced speech--provide the novel's most powerful passages, repeating comforting phrases and images, providing a rhythmic underpinning to his daily life, and insistently relating his symbolically important icons to the people and places around him.
Against David's status as a uniquely creative individual stands the suggestion that he is nonetheless representative of a class of Americans. A second-generation Jewish-Austrian immigrant, he navigates between the Yiddish of his parents' generation, the English of the Lower East Side streets, and the Hebrew he learns by rote in cheder (Hebrew school). The issues of assimilation and adaptation that arise from these thematic concerns, in conjunction with modernist techniques of close focalization, free indirect discourse, and stream of consciousness passages, have led critics such as Werner Sollors and Thomas Ferraro to dub the novel "ethnic modernism" (Sollors 128). Acknowledging the conjunction of frequently-used critical paradigms of sociological realism, Jewishness, and modernism, they argue, better befits both the novel's use of ethnic material and its characteristically modern examinations of linguistic and ontological uncertainty. (1)
The novel's use of now-familiar topical and aesthetic reference points makes it tempting to view it--and David--as typical of one or more generic, aesthetic, or historical moments. Yet the novel itself suggests that generalizing from David's individual experience to larger societal structures is risky. David, convinced of the universal truth of the mythology he creates, near-fatally electrocutes himself trying to produce holy light from electric streetcar tracks. This event is the novel's climax. It is the last in a long chain of episodes in which David repeatedly tries, and fails, to make his associative conglomeration of symbols physically affect the world around him. The novel thus concretely dramatizes the dangers of extrapolating from individual experience to generalized interpretation.
Much recent work on Call It Sleep, including that mentioned above, attempts to solve the novel's problem with typicality, either by offering a categorization of the novel, or by arguing that the novel, precisely as unique as David, transcends or problematizes these categories. (2) There was, however, a body of criticism contemporaneous with the novel that was committed to examining the dialectic between the particular and the general, and the difficulties of extrapolating from one to another. These were theories of proletarian literature, prevalent in the early 1930s, when Call It Sleep was composed and published. Communist and fellow-traveler writers and critics sought to develop a poetics of proletarian fiction: it defined the formal attributes that would help novels bring about political change. Specifically, they sought out and encouraged novels whose protagonists demonstrated both individuality and "typicality" (a key term during that era), embodying paradigmatic struggles or experiences that readers could then relate to their own lives. These writers and critics were particularly interested in promoting novels that managed to subsume dogma or didacticism in detailed and accurate portrayals of characters and locations, and thus avoided losing their readers' interest. Call It Sleep's dialectic between the particular and the general places it squarely in the midst of this concern about which formal techniques novels should use to change readers' lives. Simultaneously promoting and refusing generalizations, Call It Sleep is a limit case for the idea of novelistic typicality, suggesting that political change based on moments of individual recognition will necessarily be skewed, if not downright impossible.
In arguing for the relevance of theories of proletarian literature to Call It Sleep, I am deliberately favoring history over biography. Roth himself stated numerous times that his own awakening to radical politics came only after he had finished the novel, which he wrote out of autobiographical compulsion: "My own feeling was that what I had written was far too private for me to have given much thought to specific social problems. My personal involvement had absorbed my entire consciousness, leaving no room to focus on anything else" (Bronsen 269). Yet, as we will shortly see, the novel was immediately evaluated by the standards of proletarian literature, including accuracy to lived experience, visual detail, and structural repetition; critics again referenced these criteria when it was republished in 1964. Although Roth did not set out to write a proletarian novel, Call It Sleep nonetheless responds to contemporary concerns about the practice and challenges of novelistic typicality.
This essay will first outline these concerns, detailing the poetics of proletarian literature and examining the early debate over whether and how Call It Sleep fell into that category. It will then analyze how the novel grapples with the idea of generalization through its use of concrete aural and visual detail. Finally, it will explore the political implications of a novel that destabilizes the idea of literary politics by insisting that novelistic typicality is destined to fail at political change. A novel that wishes to instill leftist political goals in its readers, Roth suggests, must commit itself to the impossibility of doing so.
theories and practices of proletarian literature
A sense of anomalousness, as Leslie Fiedler observes, pervades David's life, even though the events of Call It Sleep are not atypical for a young immigrant boy: David is coerced into "playing bad" with an older neighbor girl; he gets lost on the outskirts of his neighborhood; he develops and suppresses a fear of the dark coal cellar in his basement; he starts cheder; and he cultivates the friendship of Leo, a charismatic Polish-Catholic boy. Fiedler emphasizes that, while these events might fall into "the usual pitfalls of the ghetto book," the novel is saved by "the sensibility of this sensitive, poetic ... Jewish child" (38). David's creative interpretation of his experiences, in other words, turn immigrant cliches into personal mythology. On the one hand, there sit death, sex, sin, the dark, his father's volatile temper; on the other, light, purification, and holiness, represented in particular by Leo's rosary and by one passage from the Biblical book of Isaiah. David thus shares with adult proletarian protagonists the compulsion to interpret the world around him as a coherent system of quasi-independent forces--but where the Communist sees capitalism's invisible hand, David cobbles together his own mystical network.
When Call It Sleep was first published, critics hotly debated whether David was, in fact, representative of the proletarian experience. The initial "Brief Review" in the Communist New Masses magazine was one anonymous paragraph. "Another first novel about the Jewish East Side," it begins flatly, lamenting, in a much-quoted line, "It is a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working-class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels." The reviewer denigrates Call It Sleep by lumping it together with an entire undesirable category of novels, characterized by location, age of protagonist, authorial identity, and strong focalization.
Over the next few issues a controversy erupted, as many readers and critics objected to this review by arguing that the categorizations the reviewer uses are more politically useful than he supposes. David Greenhood's letter to the editor the following week chided the reviewer for dismissing valuable categories in which novels may fall: "Just what is the difference between [the review's first sentence] and saying: 'Another first novel about the lower classes?'" Both Edwin Seaver and Kenneth Burke defended the novel's introspectiveness and limited treatment of politics. Seaver argued on the grounds that David's experience provides "an emotional and human propulsion" to Communism, since "such a childhood can mature into a revolutionary manhood." Burke compared childhood to the state of any individual before he is exposed to the "new meanings" of Communism: "Insofar as children are pre-political savages, living in a world of symbolism and magic, I question whether any realistic philosophy could properly condemn a writer for reviving such a picture of childhood." Each response was concerned with the categorization of the novel's protagonist as proto-revolutionary, and with the categorization of the novel itself as a window into immigrant and/or proletarian experience. Crucial to the novel's value, for these contemporary critics, was not its originality, but its typicality: David Schearl could be anyone in the process of becoming an American political subject. (3)
How such typicality could promote revolutionary sentiment without falling into stultified propaganda had been a loaded question since the very idea of proletarian literature came into being with Marx and Engels. (4) While debate raged in the 1930s about what, precisely, constituted proletarian literature--the identity of the author or audience, the subject matter, and/or the explicitness of the work's political leanings--Communist and fellow-travelers alike agreed that authors should avoid blatant propaganda. Instead, prominent theorists of the proletarian novel such as Mike Gold, the editor of New Masses throughout the 1930s, encouraged writing that would "show, not tell," as the precept goes. Instead of narrative commentary, novels should accurately and minutely describe events and situations involving individuals struggling within overarching systems of capitalism (Foley 277). Of the nine requirements for proletarian literature that Gold lists in "Proletarian Realism" (1930), five urge straightforward and detailed fidelity to life, including a lack of "straining or melodrama or other effects" (Anthology 208). An editorial in Partisan Review declared that "literature ... does not lend itself to the conceptual form that the social-political content of the class struggle takes most easily. Hence the translation of this content into images of physical life determines ... the extent of the writer's achievement." (5) These images, full of sensory detail, might typically include minute descriptions of work processes or labor conditions as well as descriptions of radical …