|Humanist Essay for March 2011
"Am Honored to Inscribe"
In 1994 I attended a talk by Henry Roth, author of Call
It Sleep. This intense novel of immigrant Jewish life in
the U.S. was published in 1934, when Roth was 28 years
old. The book received critical acclaim, but then it
languished for decades until its release in paperback in
1964, when a front-page review in the New York Times
Book Review launched it to bestseller status. Time
passed...thirty more years, and still Roth did not publish
The occasion for Roth's re-entry into public life was the publication, at last, of a new novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream. My own project at the time was a collection titled Ancestral Notes, research for which had led me to Call It Sleep. I wrote to Roth, who now lived in Albuquerque, asking if he would read my manuscript. He replied that he needed all of his energy to complete his own work. The point was driven home when I joined the standing room only crowd at Temple Albert to see the frail 88-year-old.
Roth was gratified, but not complacent. He had three more volumes to complete, he announced, and intended to do so. But we could feel the doubt that hovered over this ambitious project. In fact, he only lived one year longer, leaving his editors to hammer out the final volumes from the 2000 pages he had written.
Well, what did Roth have to say about his literary career? About his legendary writer's block? About the 30 years during which this new work had gestated? I will never forget the substance of his message, though after all this time I must paraphrase: "What I am most proud of about this book, which was not true of 'Call It Sleep,' is that it was written by a good man." And he went on to talk about the callow youth who had penned that astonishing first novel. That man was not anyone the elder Roth would care to claim or know. But in all the years which had passed since, years in which he'd lived a mundane life of husband, father, laborer and teacher, he had accomplished something much more significant - he had become a mensch. And he reported that he stood before us on that day as a decent human being, and this was his measure of success.
After the talk I stood in line to get Roth's autograph on my copy of Call It Sleep. He remembered our correspondence, and wrote on the dedication page: "For Zelda Leah Gatuskin / I anticipate the work will be noteworthy / Am honored to inscribe / Henry Roth"
Others inspired me during this time. Regina Turner, our guest speaker for March, was bringing the International Anne Frank Exhibit to New Mexico through the NM Human Rights Projects. I clipped the articles and re-read the Anne Frank autobiography, as I dug deeper and deeper into my family roots and my own consciousness. Regina herself became a role model and friend. I participated in a small way in the exhibit and surrounding activities, but my focus was still mostly on myself, my book and my writing career.
It is easy to fixate on specific projects and goals. Passion and ego drive us along. Accomplishments and credits accumulate. Sometimes we achieve brilliance, and occasionally the world notices. But fundamentally there is only one task before us that is necessary, if we are to live in a humane society, and that is to become decent human beings - preferably before our energy is spent. Regina's focus on teaching tolerance and compassion to young people gives me hope, and continues to inspire.