Redemption and Responsibility in Henry Roth’s “Mercy of a Rude Stream”

If there is a list somewhere of great American novels, Henry Roth’s remarkably accessible and powerful masterpiece, Mercy of a Rude Stream, must surely be at, or near, the top. Mercy is Roth’s massive, four-volume follow-up to his classic first novel, Call it Sleep, published in 1934, when he was 28. Roth’s first book is an autobiographical narrative of Austrian- born David Schearl, the son of Jewish immigrants opening when the two year old David and his mother joined his father in the U.S. in 1908. David’s family lived first in the tenements of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and then on the Lower East Side. The novel ends with a dramatic incident when David is 6 or 7.

After Call it Sleep Roth didn’t publish another novel for 60 years until the first volumes of Mercy appeared in 1994. Mercy picks up the story of the same youth in 1914, now an eight year old named Ira Stigman, when his family moved to Harlem. Ira is uncomfortable in his new surroundings since he is removed from his circle of friends as well as his cheder — his after- school Jewish studies group — which helped to center and give him focus. There are few Jews in his new neighborhood and he is often too intimidated by the local Irish boys to go out and play like he was used to.

As the years of the Great War (1914-1918) come and go, we follow Ira through his ups and downs — mostly downs — in grade school, middle and high school up until his last year at City College. Academically, with one or two outstanding exceptions, he never rises above the mediocre. Nevertheless Ira shows sufficient personality and promise to win the heart of Edith Welles, an NYU professor ten years his senior, and to befriend Larry, a popular Jewish boy from the upper middle class who also recognizes something special in him.

Reviewers have noted that the narrative momentum of Mercy builds until the end when Ira is involved in two tension- filled, highly suspenseful incidents, one which is drawn out for more than forty breathtaking pages. Roth here achieves a narrative tour de force perhaps unequalled in serious 19th or 20th century fiction. Roth’s great gift is the way he manages to invest everyday life with drama and conflict. His style has been called lyrical. His writing is down to earth and immediately draws the reader in.

As in Call it Sleep, his father is the great ogre of his life, intimidating when not terrorizing him. His mother is his great teacher and protector, creating the security and love that will in time allow his genius to blossom. Unlike some of the great talkers in his two books — his father and grandfather, his mother and her sister Bertha — both David and Ira are generally quiet and mercyrudemonosyllabic, reserving their talk for their narration. Roth is a great master of dialogue, brilliantly capturing the slang and rhythms of everyday life and including something of the Yiddish flavor of David’s and Ira’s talk with his family, especially his mother.

It was only in 1979, forty five years after Call it Sleep appeared, that Roth began to write the drafts that eventually made up Mercy. Ira’s mature perspective is incorporated via discussions with Ecclesias, his computer alter ego, set off in different type. This device affords Ira the opportunity to fill in some of the key details of his declining years, living in a trailer in New Mexico with his wife M. of 50 years and suffering more and more with the years from rheumatoid arthritis.

Most critically, Ira employs Ecclesias to prepare the reader for the stunning revelation of his youthful “abomination” — Ira’s incestuous relationship with his sister Minnie, beginning when she was 11, and he was 13. Only when Minnie was 17 did she put an end to their sexual relations. At about the time their intimacy ended, Ira began to have sex with his fourteen year- old cousin Stella. The book ends when 21 year old Ira begins his first of his two adult relationships — his ten year long affair with Edith Welles.

Only after hundreds of pages in Mercy is Ira is ready to divulge his secret – the guilt and shame surrounding which we infer has been at the heart of Roth’s decades long writers’ block. A considerable difficulty Roth/Ira confronts is that neither in Call it Sleep, nor until well into the second volume of Mercy, has the existence of his kid sister Minnie been mentioned.

(It’s noteworthy that while David Schearl in Call it Sleep doesn’t have a sister, Ira Stigman does. At one point David is directly asked if he has a sister and he replies that he doesn’t. Perhaps Roth is signaling his real life sister Rose that however closely his novel may mirror events in their lives, he nevertheless intends to keep their secret.)

With Ecclesias, Ira wonders how he will manage now that he has decided he must include Minnie if he is to continue his writing. Must he go back and rewrite the first 350 plus pages of his text or can he get away with simply inserting Minnie into the narrative at this point. Thus, by means of Ecclesias, Ira prepares the reader and solves his problem. Ira may have left Minnie out of the first part of Mercy in order to avoid portraying a clever and determined 12 or 13 year old imposing his sex drive on a reluctant but finally compliant Minnie as is later suggested.

Once Minnie is introduced Ira writes unreservedly about the joy of his transgressions. As Nathaniel Rich writes in the New York Review of Books (“A Prodigal Struggle with Demons,” April 23, 2015), “Ira, despite his deep feelings of shame, writes shamelessly about the thrill of incest.” For Ira, incest is “the jackpot of the transcendental abominable… Better, more obsessively sought after, for being a sin, an abomination! Boy, that fierce furor … He wouldn’t miss it, exchange it, for anything else in the world.”

But Ira pays a terrible psychological and emotional price. Rich lays it out.

Ira is painfully aware of how his desire cripples him, warps him, stunts his growth, and turns him inward. He is immured by his sexual appetite, “appetite always mortised to fear and self-reproach.” His life shrinks to the size of his incestuous compulsion. His sin infantilizes him, keeps him in a perpetual tawdry adolescence. He feels that he’s been ruined for adult relationships, and adult responsibilities. And like any obsessive, he can’t stop.

By 1979, most of the principals in Roth’s life and fiction had died, including his parents as well as Eda Lou Walton (1890 -1961), the model for his lover, Edith Wells of Mercy. His sister Rose was still alive. She stoutly denied the affair, threatened to sue, and received a $10,000 settlement

Only in his 70s was Roth finally able to rise above his guilt and shame and take up his mission.. Both in Mercy and in An American Type, the continuation of his story, we get the portrait of an aging, and after his wife’s death in 1990, a grieving and inconsolable old man. Despite all his physical and emotional struggles, for the five years Ira survived M. he persevered, using all his remaining energy to finish his novel and to oversee the publication of as much of Mercy as he could. In the end Roth lived to help direct the publication of the first two parts of Mercy, and he left the rest of his thousands of pages of typescript in capable hands.


Redemption in Mercy

The theme of compassion and clemency is in the very title of Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth opens his novel with an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII where the King, old and broken, fears that the “rude stream” will show him no mercy.

… My high flown pride

At length broke under me, and now has left me,

Weary and old with service, to the mercy

Of a rude stream that must forever hide me.

In a unique commentary to his epigraph, Roth declares that, unlike Shakespeare’s Henry, whose reference to mercy Roth reads as ironic, he, another Henry, in another age, intends the mercy of his title to be taken literally. “The rude stream,” he insists, “did show me Mercy.”

Robert Weil, in his “Editor’s Afterward,” confuses the issue but he does so instructively, posing the question some might ask:

[Why would Roth] so deliberately debase his alter ego Ira? Few people like seeing their idol so compromised or disgraced; no one indeed wants to see his revered novelist revealed to be a predator, an agent of incest, and victimizer himself. So why then did Roth in his eighties [choose] to make Ira as sexually compulsive and loathsome as possible? (1258-1259)

Weil’s comment seems to indicate that either he doesn’t believe that Henry Roth committed incest with his sister; or that if they did, Roth either should not have admitted it or should have softened the characterization of Ira. I suspect that most readers would reject Weil’s notion that Roth chose to make Ira “sexually compulsive.” Instead, Roth’s difficult choice was whether or not to tell all of his story, a choice it took him decades to make. Roth began to write only after he found his way to fashion his novel with the Universalist themes of mercy, absolution and responsibility.

Weil’s comment is instructive because he points to the courage that it took for Roth to own up to the disgrace of his youthful behavior, even if it meant putting his reputation at risk. Some authors, like Roth, have one story to tell – their own. Roth believed that he had the ability and thus the responsibility to recreate his world. By the time he came to write Mercy he had come round to understanding that if he were not to remain silent he must wholly confront his past. Thankfully he embraced his responsibility and recognized that his youthful transgressions and his unique abilities had put him in position to blaze a trail, to serve as a type for others who might also be living with discreditable secrets.

Roth lived and believed in the possibility of a second act. He offered his story as an example to show that people can graduate from their mistakes, even their outrages, and go on to live meaningful and valuable lives. Moreover, Roth wanted to do for his readers what literature and in particular, James Joyce, had done for him. He credits Joyce with providing him with a model, showing him how to turn leaden everyday existence into art.

Roth and Joyce

Roth had mixed feelings about James Joyce. After the first few pages of Ulysses, Ira labored to get though much of the rest of the novel. (He never mentions Joyce’s best book, Dubliners.) Ira believes that it was due to cowardice that Joyce took the road to obscurity. He guesses that obscurity was Joyce’s means of escaping critical personal issues. Finnegan’s Wake, says Ira, is “a verbal shroud.”   On the other hand, Ira credits Joyce with showing him how the banality and the tawdriness of his own poverty-stricken, immigrant background, “the baseness of his days,” could be transmuted into art.

…Ulysses demonstrated to him not only that it was possible to communicate the dross of the mundane and the sordid into literary treasure, but how it was done. It showed him how to address whole slag heaps of squalor, and make them available for exploitation in art.

Weren’t fourteen years of school, from kindergarten to college, the raw material of literature? Didn’t it qualify for alchemical transformation? … If that was latent wealth in the domain of letters, why, he was rich beyond compare: his whole world was a junkyard. All those myriad, squalid impressions he took for granted, all were convertible from base to precious, from pig iron to gold ingot. (710)

I suspect that one has to share something of Roth’s genius in order to glean the writing lessons that Roth learned from Joyce. Roth’s style on the other hand, is much more accessible to readers than is Joyce’s. Roth’s fiction is vibrant and sparkling with the tensions and turmoil of his character’s life, amazingly and breathtakingly crafted into art — an open road with many signposts.

Absolution From Edith

At the end of the novel, Ira, understanding that he will get the absolution that he needs from Edith, reveals all. He tells her first about his affair with Stella, and he finally also admits to his years-long sexual relations with his sister. He also confesses that once, when her period was a few days late, he contemplated murdering her to shield himself from disgrace and ostracism. In love with Ira, Edith is ready and eager to begin their affair and she gives him the total absolution he seeks.

[Edith ] quelled [his] fears and guilts, as if bleaching them out of sight with her objectivity…. She reduced the onus of his wickedness, eliminated much of the sense of heinousness, quenched the shimmer of guilt, stealth, risk …,”   (1208. Quoted by Weil 1261)

But Ira argues that his sins are irremediable: he is a “louse,” he says, “a schlemiel.” He confesses that he began with Stella when she was only 14; he is not fit to be considered someone worthy of a real relationship, someone fitting to be with her. Edith understands what he needs and she continues with her rationalizations..

“The thing I wanted you to realize … was that in other times and places, other cultures, [a fourteen year old girl like] Stella would be considered nubile, marriageable.. You needn’t feel as if you had committed a grave offense. You needn’t feel you were vicious. You’re not.” ( 1206 -1207)

An admission Ira makes to Edith that was perhaps even more difficult than others, was that the earth moved when he had sex with his sister Minnie. It wasn’t like that with Stella.

With Stella I told you most of the time I felt like a criminal. …That was bad enough. But when I was with Minnie – everything started to dazzle, the walls, the green-painted walls, when she said yes. The calendar on the wall, the furniture … They lilted.   (1218)

(I couldn’t help speculating that this might be one of those admissions intended more for Roth’s readers than it was for the particular fictional character, in this case, of Edith Welles. Perhaps Roth felt here that he needed to go into the darkest, most shameful of his secrets, if he were going to complete his mission to serve as a model for others.)

Edith’s love for Ira comprises her understanding of his potential as a deep and worthy human being and especially as a gifted writer. Ira had patiently waited for his chance to be with her, because he correctly understood her nurturing mission and how many were the ways she could help him. He came to her because he understood that she would not let him sink, despite whatever she might learn about his abominations. He registers no surprise when she says: “I’m not going to let you go to waste, do you understand?” (1217) In real life, with the support and love of Eda May Wells, the woman to whom he dedicated Call it Sleep, the young author wrote his first masterpiece,

Mercy and Responsibility

Ira makes plain in an exchange with Ecclesias that writing his novel and telling his story is the motive, the purpose that gives meaning to his last years. Their discussion comes immediately after one of the most explicit of Ira’s descriptions of his trysts with Minnie. Ira narrates that afterwards the two young people haggled over how much money he should give her for her complaisance. This time she wants an extra dollar.

Ecclesias is abashed at the details of Ira’s escapades. Echoing Conrad, Ira acknowledges “the horror, the horror,” of his actions, and he pleads for forgiveness and understanding. Ira begs for “a buffer against my demon, my dybbuk, my nemesis.”

“[H]aven’t I changed [over the last fifty years],” Ira begs, and he quotes an Italian text, perhaps from Dante, “O me, Angnel, come ti muti!“(Oh my Angel, how you’ve changed!)

Nevertheless, continues Ira, even so my past crimes are such that I have reason to wish that I had never been born.

Well, now you’ve reached this advanced age, responds Ecclesias, what stops you from putting an end to your life?

Ira’s answer is that he has the “illusion,” that he still “owe[s] something to the species, as a specimen.” Even Ecclesias must agree: “Your offering may be of value. There’s no telling. In any case since you’ve chosen this mode of oblation, chosen to live, to scrive, then there’s no undoing the done. There’s only the outwearing it., the outwearying it, the attenuating of remorse, and guilt. … there’s always room for enhanced comprehension,” (p, 391)

Finally Ecclesias puts into words the author’s hope and his mission: “[Y]ou’ve breached a mighty barrier within yourself, and done so, witting or unwitting, for the benefit of others.”

It’s hard to think of another great writer who has breached such a barrier, telling his transgressive story, risking his reputation. (Perhaps Proust comes close, broadly hinting in the early 20th century, that he was a homosexual.) Through Roth’s brilliance as a writer, his mastery of narrative, and his courage, his work triumphs as a model, showing how he searched deep into his rude stream for mercy and redemption — for his own benefit and for the benefit of others. [1]


[1] In 2014, the four parts of Mercy of a Rude Stream were reissued in one 1279 page volume. It includes an “Introduction,“ by Joshua Ferris as well as an “Editor’s Afterward;” and a glossary of Yiddish terms.   An American Type, the continuation of Roth’s story ending with his marriage to M. in 1939 — crafted by Willing Davidson, an assistant at The New Yorker, from 1900 pages of Roth’s typescript — appeared posthumously. Roth died in 1995 at age 89.

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