Biography chronicles Redemption of American Jewish author

Imagine if you will, growing up from the earliest age with an abusive father and a depressed mother. Escaping into cheder and immigrant Jewish life on the Lower East Side of New York, Henry Roth thought he had found his way to circumnavigate the terror of his young life. He was 9.

At this point, his father uprooted the family and moved to Harlem. Roth’s fragile peace disintegrated and what followed was a descent into a never-ending circle of disastrous self-fulfilling prophecies.

Steven G. Kellman, in his biography of Roth, acclaimed author of “Call It Sleep,” delves into Roth’s life and background and the parallels between his life and his work.

The book, “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth,” is stunning on so many levels. Roth, whose great intelligence was discovered at a very early age, lived with the antipathy of his father, internalizing the beatings and the berating. He did poorly in school and turned to his sister and cousin for sexual comfort. This incest, in turn, caused incredible guilt and made him feel even worse about himself. He failed at jobs, at friendship and at family.

Roth finally fled his home after taking up with a renowned NYU professor with whom his only friend had had an affair. Eda Lou Walton became his new family and financial support. She took care of him and nurtured him, and it was through this relationship that he wrote one of the most famous books on the American Jewish immigrant experience.

Typed by his sister, who stuck by him through thick and thin, “Call It Sleep” was first published in 1934. It sold fewer than 2,000 copies and Roth, after attempts ranging from magazine writing to a stint in Hollywood, was finally convinced of his inability to support himself as a writer. He married and settled down in Maine to become a waterfowl farmer (specializing in removing precious down feathers).

His life was one of extreme poverty and the lessons he learned from his father were subsequently passed on to his children, whom he began to beat and berate. His sons hated him and put as much distance between themselves and their father as possible.

Roth maintained relationships with many of literary influence over the years, and “Call It Sleep” was republished in 1964 to resounding acclaim and success. If there was one thing in Roth’s life that he was unprepared for, it was this. Suddenly, for the first time, he had the ability to think about what he wanted to do and what he wanted to write.

Over the years he had tried writing about experiences other than his own, but it had never worked. In the end, he spent the later years of his life writing, in essence, his experience after the Lower East Side. This resulted in a four-book series published under the title “Mercy of a Rude Stream.” An amazing feat unto itself, this series was completed near Roth’s 90th birthday.

One of the amazing aspects of Roth’s life is how he always managed to have people there to take care of him and his every need. In his youth it was his mother and Eda Lou Walton, then his wife, Muriel Parker, who gave up a promising career as a pianist to support and work alongside him, and finally a string of admirers. One can only imagine the intelligence and charisma that must have been part of Roth to engender this.

And yet he was self-centered, narcissistic and abusive. We so often hear of the tormented artist, of how it is the pain that creates the explosion of artistic work. In this case it seems to be most assuredly true.

“Redemption” itself is a treasure, with insights into the Jewish immigrant experience, the coming of age of literary America in the ’20s and ’30s, the Depression, Jewish Harlem and the sexual emancipation that came with the Roaring ’20s and women’s right to vote. It is nothing less than a fabulous read, one that will cause you to think and reflect while joining in as a student of American Jewish literary history.

“Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” by Steven G. Kellman (371 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., $25.95).