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Henry Roth Papers

 Collection
Identifier: P-702

Scope and Content Note

The bulk of the Henry Roth Papers document the author’s personal and professional life from the 1960s until his death in 1995. The papers encompass a wide range of material, including hundreds of fan letters; correspondence with Roth family members and significant figures in Roth’s life; a large number of journals and notebooks containing rough drafts of Roth’s work as well as his inmost thoughts; unpublished and published manuscripts by Roth; topical items documenting Roth’s interests in Israel, Judaism, and Leftist politics; publications by and about Roth; and books of various editions of his works. The papers also include a postcard and art print collection, photographs, biographical material, and a list of monographs once housed in Roth’s personal library. The bulk of the Roth’s manuscripts contained in this collection pertain to the Mercy of a Rude Stream series, but also consists of many short stories and a manuscript by Herman Roth, Henry’s father. Also included are manuscripts for An American Type, published posthumously in 2010. Manuscripts relevant to Call it Sleep are located at the New York Public Library. Listed among the correspondents are President Jimmy Carter, Eldridge Cleaver, Luther Cressman, David Greenhood, Chaim Herzog, Norman Mailer, Mario Materassi, Harold Ribalow, Bill and Roslyn Targ, Stuyvesant Van Veen, and Eda Lou Walton.

The original order and folder titles were retained wherever possible.

Dates

  • undated, 1918-2010

Creator

Language of Materials

This collection is in English, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at mmeyers@ajhs.org.

For reference questions, please email: inquiries@cjh.org

Biographical Note

Henry Roth was born February 8, 1906 in Tyszmenicz, Galitzia (now the Ukraine). He immigrated with his mother Leah (Farb) to the United States in 1908; Roth’s father, Herman, had arrived in New York City in 1907 and had found work and a home for his family. The Roths lived for a short time in Brownsville before moving in 1910, with Henry's newly born sister Rose (later Broder), to the Lower East Side, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. For the next few years, before relocating to Harlem in 1914, young Henry soaked in the sights and sounds of an immigrant culture that would eventually be immortalized in his first novel, Call it Sleep. While still a child, Roth identified himself as a rebel by declaring his atheist beliefs at the age of fourteen. Later in his life he would embrace and discard the Communist Party, become involved in political events and causes, rediscover Judaism, and reveal family shames and secrets cloaked in fiction in the Mercy of a Rude Stream series. But in 1934, at the mere age of twenty-eight, Roth accomplished what some critics call his greatest achievement—he wrote a decidedly sensual novel describing the experiences of a newly arrived immigrant child—Call it Sleep.

In 1924, Roth graduated from De Witt Clinton High School and enrolled in the City College of New York with hopes of becoming a biology teacher. His journals reveal that he won a scholarship to Cornell but “lacked the enterprise to go.” It was at City College that he first encountered literature professor and poet Eda Lou Walton, whom he met through a mutual friend. A professor at New York University and more than a decade older than Roth, Walton captivated the young man and soon the two were living together. She supported Roth both emotionally and financially while he completed his degree in 1928 and wrote Call it Sleep. She continued to do so for another decade until he met his future wife Muriel Parker, and ended his relationship with Walton; unfortunately the relationship ended on a sour note and tensions continued between the two until Walton's death.

Having joined the Communist Party after graduating college, Roth was disillusioned and disappointed when his comrades criticized his work for not being proletarian enough. Despite some favorable reviews of Call it Sleep, Roth continued to write, but virtually abandoned his aspirations to be an author. During the summer of 1938, he met Muriel, a composer, at Yaddo Artists’ Colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. They married on October 7, 1939, and Henry began building a resume filled with odd jobs. In the 1940s, he became a precision metal grinder in both New York and New England. Next, he moved to Montville, Maine with his wife and their two sons, Jeremy and Hugh, and began working as an orderly in the Augusta State Hospital—a psychiatric institution—for the next four years. Later he established a waterfowl farming business and tutored Latin and math, lifelong passions, on the side. It was Muriel who supported the family through teaching in a nearby elementary school. Roth’s short stories, such as “Broker” and “Somebody Always Grabs the Purple,” continued to appear in prominent magazines such as The New Yorker. But in the 1940s, despite glowing remarks about his novel in progress, If We Had Bacon, whose opening chapters had been accepted by Scribner’s and printed in Signatures, Roth burned nearly all of his journals and manuscripts in a storm of discontent and discouragement. He proceeded to publish a few short stories in the coming years, but remained successful in dissuading himself of his own writing capabilities.

The 1960s brought great change to Roth’s personal life. He grudgingly relinquished his self-imposed anonymity when Call it Sleep was rediscovered and hailed as “The Great American Novel” by literary critics. He also discarded his long-held Communist ideals and rediscovered his allegiance to Judaism during the Arab Israeli War. And while he had never ceased to write, he began to commit himself more seriously to the art when he accepted the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship in 1968 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Henry and Muriel Roth moved into the Frieda Lawrence ranch in Taos, New Mexico and the sleeping author awakened. The Roths remained in New Mexico for the remainder of their lives, living in spartan, but comfortable conditions. Roth began to publish short stories and memoirs such as “Itinerant Ithican” and “Kaddish” more frequently. His manuscripts and journals from the 1970s and 1980s indicate the seedlings of the various volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream and the as yet unpublished Maine Sampler.

The 1970s also saw Roth embracing Zionism and traveling to Israel. His topical files and journals indicate a growing interest in the state of Israel and the Zionist cause. In one such entry, Roth writes, “…the [Six Day] war completed his liberation from the Soviet mystique [and] …since moving away from the East Side and its homogeneity…spun a…fresh strand…of affinity…with his people.” He began writing more in his journals about racial tensions both in his neighborhood of Albuquerque and the world at large. Furthermore, the correspondence series contains drafts of letters to President Jimmy Carter as well as an exchange of letters between Roth and Black Panther and ardent Zionist Eldridge Cleaver that documents Roth’s growing concern for political issues.

The once reclusive author also began to grant more and more interviews—especially after he gained world renown with Italy’s 1985 Premio Nonnino prize for Mario Materassi’s translation of Call it Sleep. There is a great deal of correspondence between Roth and Materassi that documents not only their working relationship, but also the father-son relationship which eventually blossomed from it. Roth spent most of his life trying to recapture the inspiration and state of mind that resulted in his first novel, but many of his journal entries ruminate on the writer’s block and depression that plagued him for much of his life. Several of the journal entries throughout the years focus on the same event or chain of events, as if by constantly recreating them he could finally reach a catharsis. Roth addresses these issues and many more in his 1987 monograph Shifting Landscape, which contains both essays and short stories.

Indeed Roth did recreate, to an extent, the inspiration that resulted in his first novel. The first two volumes of the Mercy of a Rude Stream series (A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park and A Diving Rock on the Hudson), as largely autobiographical as Call it Sleep, received mixed reviews from critics surprised to discover its author was still alive. The series caused many readers to reread Sleep—or read it for the first time—and to write the author about the effect his work had on their lives. It also prompted old acquaintances from his Lower East Side days to write him and reminisce. Several of these letters exist in the correspondence series and serve as a touching monument to Roth’s legacy.

Henry Roth died October 13, 1995 at Lovelace Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the age of 89. His wife Muriel preceded him in death in 1990. The Henry Roth Papers document the lifetime of one man, but as friend Ted Bookey cynically writes, "Like it or not, ‘enry, you are going to be a remembered episode in American and world literature. How interesting it will be to see your anonymity grow…. Imagine the crap, the falsifying, deluging crap, that’s going to be written about you by industrious Ph.D.’s [sic] and tender-loving critics;...think of the bull market for Roth’s discarded [sic] shoes and socks and the relics that will be sold. On a thousand typewriters the myths are raining."

Extent

46.95 Linear Feet (99 manuscript boxes; 1 oversized box)

Abstract

This collection contains personal papers of writer Henry Roth. It is comprised of extensive correspondence, journals and notebooks of his writing; and published and unpublished manuscripts of his work. There are also papers concerning Roth's interests in Israel, Judaism, and Leftist politics, publications by and about him, and volumes of his works. In addition, the papers also include a postcard and art print collection, photographs, biographical material, and a list of monographs once housed in Roth’s personal library.

Arrangement

Most series are arranged alphabetically. Exceptions are Subseries B in Series II, which is arranged chronologically, and Series VIII, which is arranged by title.

See individual series descriptions for further information on arrangement.

The collection is arranged in eight series:
  1. Series I: Correspondence, undated, circa 1925-2010
  2. Series II: Journals and Notebooks, undated, circa 1925-1992
  3. Series III: Manuscripts by Roth, undated, 1925-2010
  4. Series IV: Publications by Roth, undated, 1925-2011
  5. Series V: Manuscripts on Roth, undated, 1966-2004
  6. Series VI: Publications on Roth, undated, 1935-1956-2005
  7. Series VII: Topical, and Series, undated, 1918-1995
  8. Series VIII: Books, 1960-2010

Provenance

The Henry Roth Papers are on deposit at the Society from the Henry Roth Literary Trust.

Box 2 Folder 18a was donated by Claire Glassner to the American Jewish Historical Society, accession 2012.014. This contains a folder of letters from Henry Roth to Laura Fischer and are own by the AJHS.

Related Material

Related materials can be found in the Henry Roth Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society. Other Henry Roth manuscripts can be found at Boston University’s Mugar Library and the New York Public Library.

Processing Information

In 2015, the Henry Roth Estate added several boxes of materials to the collection from the offices of Lawrence Fox, Mr. Roth’s literary lawyer. These boxes were processed by Caroline Gabrielli and added to the collection, and placed into the collection to fit intellectually where original materials in the collection resided. Box and folder numbers for materials related to the accretion are followed by a letter. For example the manuscripts of the posthumously published novel, An American Type, can be found in boxes 20a and 20b, Series III: Manuscripts by Roth. Also included from the accretion are books from Henry Roth’s library that are either inscribed to Henry Roth or include notes by Henry Roth. These can be found in boxes 62a, 62b, and 62c of Series VIII: Books.

Creator

Title
Guide to the papers of Henry Roth
Status
Completed
Author
Originally processed by Michelle R. Sampson in 2001. Accretion processed by Caroline Gabrielli in 2015.
Date
© November 2015
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
English
Script of description
Latin
Language of description note
Description is in English.
Edition statement
This version was derived from HenryRoth02.xml

Revision Statements

  • August 2004: Converted to ead 2002. Revised as Henry Roth02.xml by Stanislav Pejša. Removed deprecated elements and attributes, updated repository codes, added language codes, changed doctype declaration, etc.
  • April 2005.: Updated stylesheet, removed boilerplate text, added photograph of Henry and Muriel Roth. Tanya Elder.
  • November 2015.: Converted to EAD 2.0 by Alexandre Lederman. Revised as Henry Roth2015v3.xml by Caroline Gabrielli. Updated scope and content note, updated linear feet, updated dates, updated box and folder list related to the accretion.
  • February 2017: Added Call It Sleep 1964 Avon paperback edition inscribed by "Donner" to Box 51; Added letter from Henry Roth to Lillie Donner, April 1, 1965, to Correspondence "D," Box 2, Folder 4 by Tanya Elder. Updated Scope and Content Note for Series I: Correspondence.
  • February 2017.: Folder of letters from Henry Roth to Laura Fischer added to Box 2 Folder 18a by Tanya Elder
  • October 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

Contact:
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New York NY 10011 United States