Strange things happen every day in the world of publishing, but perhaps the longest strange story to emerge from within its clotted depths is that of Henry Roth. It is like a tale from Borges’s Library of Babel: a writer, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, composes a novel about his childhood in a Lower East Side slum. Upon publication in 1934, the book, Call It Sleep, is ignored, its publisher goes bankrupt, the author turns to other work as a toolmaker, a blueberry picker, a mental hospital attendant, a waterfowl farmer. In 1956, in a symposium in The American Scholar, Call It Sleep is hailed by Leslie Fiedler and Alfred Kazin as one of the “Most Neglected Books of the Last Twenty-five Years.” A revival of sorts begins; a paperback edition is published in 1964 and sells a million copies. Total apathy toward the book careens at this time toward passionate interest in...


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