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Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth
Steven G. Kellman
W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
384 pp., $25.95
Abram Van Engen
The Nature of Redemption
It makes for a good story, that's for sure. At the age of 28, a poverty-stricken Jewish immigrant writes a book that's published to critical acclaim, then suffers from a decades-long writer's block, only to find his voice again in his old age with a monumental, four-part novel that picks up where the first left off. It reads like good fictionso much so that Philip Roth nearly turned the story into a novel of his own. He never did, though, probably because Henry Roth, the man in question, had already written the story himself. Beginning with Call It Sleep in 1934 and concluding with Mercy of a Rude Stream in the '90s, Henry Roth wrote fiction composed of memory. In writing Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, Steven Kellman has faced the difficult task of separating the one from the other: the story of David Schearl and Ira Stigman (Roth's alter egos) from the story of Roth himself.
For a good biographer like Kellman, however, that is not the only taskor even the primary one. As George Marsden has written, "The first goal of a good biographer should be to tell a good story that illuminates not only the subject, but also the landscapes surrounding that person and the horizons of the readers."1 We don't just want to know what really happened; we want to know why it happened. And from the beginning of this biographyfrom the very titleKellman tells us precisely why Roth's life took the shape it did: a "quest for redemption," he writes, connects a fragmented life, culminating in Roth's final return to words.
That Roth's life needed redemption, Kellman makes strikingly clear. In 1907, at the age of eighteen months, Henry arrived in New York in his mother's arms. They'd emigrated from Galiciahis father had gone ahead some time beforeand Roth pictures his parent's reunion scene in the prologue to Call It Sleep: "But these two stood silent, apart; the man staring with aloof, offended eyes grimly down at the water his wife beside ...