Henry Roth published half of his life’s literary work after he was dead. His first autobiographical novel, Call it Sleep, received mixed reviews when he published it at 28 years of age. For a variety of reasons, he was unable to complete a second book, and he then abandoned writing for a long, long time.
In the 1960’s, when Roth was in his forties, Call it Sleep was rediscovered. The book made it to the New York Times best-seller list, sold over a million copies and was hailed as the greatest American novel of the immigrant experience. Roth, who had been subsisting by duck farming and a variety of low-paying jobs, was an odd and bitter man by then. He was less than jubilant about his book’s unusual success story, and still did not return to writing.
The ice finally thawed in 1979 when Roth, at the age of 73, put out another book, Nature’s First Green. Following that publication, he went on an sixteen-year writing binge which resulted in six more books, with four of those being published after his 1995 death. It’s worth noting that he also had serious health problems during those last, amazingly productive years. His final book, An American Type, was published in 2010.
Roth was never a happy man, but he was a great writer fueled by powerful drive to fulfill his potential. The late-blooming success of Call it Sleep, his 45 years of writer’s block, and his triumphant return to the typewriter in his final years are all fascinating chapters of an astonishing artistic journey.
The message I take home from Roth’s story is that you never can tell what will happen with your writing, and that when the impulse to write is strong, it will not be denied.