Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is a remarkable book, depicting a realistic chronicle of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, through the infantile eyes and stream-of-consciousness of David Schearl. With two intertwining stories, the novel immerses the reader deep in the world of New York’s immigrant ghettos, and David and his family’s daily struggle with attempting to acclimatize to their harsh and foreign milieu.
David’s first experience of America becomes a microcosmic specular reflection of every immigrants’ experience, which we as readers become part of. Reading this book is a willful, submission of one’s mind to the literary mediumship of David’s consciousness, which at first feels peculiar as one readjusts to a puerile perception of the world, but the further one reads the more one becomes enveloped in his state of consciousness. David’s struggle with America, its streets, languages and people become our struggle because as readers we are immigrants or tourists in the foreign world of David’s consciousness. We are reading this novel in our familiar tongue of English, but it is narrated from the perspective of a foreign narrator, who is attempting to comprehend the foreign language and world of America, in Yiddish. Roth turns the scales, by positioning the English-speaking reader in the role of a foreigner, akin to David.
The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is poetic English, while spoken English is portrayed with a Yiddish inflection. In the Introduction to Call It Sleep, Alfred Kazin claims that “Roth caricatures the terrible English […] in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home” (xv). This is true to a certain extent, but if we analyse Roth’s use of English closely then an alternative reading may be formed. The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is Yiddish, but it is translated and written for the reader in English. Therefore, it could be interpreted as not legitimate English or David’s English because he is not communicating his thoughts in English. They are translated into English for us, while the English dialogue in the text is not translated and is spoken in English with a Yiddish lint.
This interplay with language provides a glimpse of the struggle Roth and many other writers of immigrant texts face when attempting to convey a multi-lingual world with a mono- or bi-lingual means of expression. The difficulties of this is also implied further from the semantic ambiguity of the bilingual punning of David’s name, which means different things in Yiddish and Hebrew. In Hebrew, David means ‘beloved’, while in Yiddish David means ‘scissors’.
This role-reversal of native and foreigner is one of the outstanding accomplishments of Roth’s novel, which also evokes the use of these two binaries in American society. Can an American be considered a true native of America, if they are merely descendants of European immigrants who invaded the native land of the indigenous people? Are Americans not all in the same boat (pardon the immigration-connoting pun), with regards being foreigners and immigrants? I find this concept particularly interesting because my research interests include Native American literature and culture, colonialism and post-colonialism.
What is also worth noting about Call it Sleep, in comparison to other immigrant stories, is the juxtaposition of the old world with the new world. David’s infantile amnesia prevents him from fully remembering his country of birth and he is left with only vague memories. His experience of the new world, however, is still foreign, which situates him in the immigrant status as his parents. David’s conceptualisation of the old world is shaped by his parents’ and family’s recollections of it. The subtle contrasts between the old and the new world reveals Roth’s attitudes towards them.
Since the majority of the novel is communicated from David’s perspective, there is an absence of an omniscient narrator to provide us with a total view of the immigrant ghetto of New York City. As readers, therefore, we are provided with a fragmented and restricted view of America and American society.
From the culmination of themes towards the end of the novel, however, critics interpret the railroad tracks scene as a moment of transformation, rebirth or redemption. Hana Wirth-Nesher claims that “David becomes a naturalized American by becoming a Christ symbol (460). This is plausible to the extent that David’s fascination with Christian symbolism and ritual objects that litter the novel. If David’s near-death experience on the railroad tracts could be read as similar to Jesus’s self-sacrifice then this reading could be interpreted negatively as condemning Jesus’s actions. David’s actions if fulfilled could have resulted in his death, which may be classed as suicide, but he failed to achieve divine communion. Therefore, his actions were in vain.
Consequently, Call It Sleep provides an insightful depiction of the immigrant experience, especially the Jewish immigrant experience, in America. Although there are certain scenes in the book that could be edited because they are protracted, overall it is a spectacularly vivid read.
Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Roth Call It Sleep ix-xx.
Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep. New York: Picador, 1991. Print.
Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call It Sleep.” Afterword. Roth Call It Sleep 443-462.