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Pieces of a Man: Considering Shifting Landscape as Autobiographical Critique

Simon Turner
p. 103-111


La carrière discontinue et la production littéraire minime de Henry Roth explique que sa biographie ait souvent suscité autant d’admiration de la part du public et des critiques que sa fiction. Publié en 1987 son recueil de nouvelles, Shifting Landscape, fait la jonction entre son blocage en tant qu’auteur (blocage devenu presque légendaire) et la reprise de son activité créatrice, soixante ans plus tard. Les nouvelles du recueil nous éclairent à la fois sur les éléments biographiques qui contribuent à la stérilité littéraire qui le frappe, et sur la facture particulière de l’écriture qui est la  sienne dans la deuxième période de sa carrière. Le présent article tentera de montrer la place privilégiée qu’occupent les nouvelles de Roth par rapport aux deux temps de création, aux œuvres jumelles qui leurs sont associées (Call it Sleep et Mercy of a Rude Stream) et à cette rencontre entre œuvre et existence qu’elle met en scène. De même il proposera de nouvelles possibilités d’interprétation du recueil, utilisé ici comme unité de mesure pour réexaminer la façon dont art et confession constituent la trame de l’œuvre de Roth. Shifting Landscape et Mercy of a Rude Stream sont faits de récits métafictionnels. Ils sont conscients de la relation intrinsèque entre autobiographie et fiction et constituent des commentaires post-modernes sur l’écriture. Ce changement paradigmatique dans la production littéraire de l’auteur constitue un facteur que l’étude de l’œuvre de Roth devrait prendre en considération de manière générale.  

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Henry Roth
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1Published in 1987 by the Jewish Publication Society, and appearing in a second edition in 1994, Shifting Landscape effectively broke the near-legendary creative block Henry Roth had been suffering since the publication of his semi-autobiographical debut novel Call it Sleep in 1934.1 Edited by Mario Materassi, Shifting Landscape collates all the shorter pieces that Roth wrote between 1925 and 1987 held together by a “connective tissue”2 of quotations from Roth’s letters and interviews. These are employed to frame the collection’s loose amalgamation of stories and autobiographical fragments within a biographical and historical context, lending, in Roth’s own words, “continuity” to “the desolating discontinuity” (xiii) of Roth’s post-Call It Sleep career.

2For a number of reasons, Shifting Landscape operates as a highly apposite paradigm of the ways in which Roth’s work has been read and received within a biographical interpretative framework. In addition, it can be seen to contribute to an environment where the details of Roth’s life have become increasingly integral to an appreciation of his writing. More than this, however, Shifting Landscape’s formal characteristics, considered alongside the generic indeterminacy of the Mercy of a Rude Stream series published in its wake, suggest new critical frameworks in which Roth’s work might be appreciated as a shifting landscape in itself, critical frameworks that would evade the dogmatic and reductive autobiographical readings of Roth’s fiction which, at first glance, Shifting Landscape would seem to encourage. My purpose in this essay, then, is, on the one hand, to delineate some of the narratives – political, literary, personal – within which Shifting Landscape situates itself; and, on the other, to situate the collection, and Roth’s work as a whole, within new (and as yet tentative) critical paradigms. To this end, I consider the work’s ‘composite’ status, and the significance of the dual authorship of Shifting Landscape in relation to postmodern concerns with the permeable boundaries between fiction and autobiography.

3Firstly, however, Shifting Landscape’s context, and the manner in which it is presented and framed for its readership, needs to be delineated. If the first edition of 1987 seemingly came out of the blue, the second edition of 1994 was published at an entirely different juncture in Roth’s career, and must be understood in those terms. In 1987, Roth had been effectively (though not entirely) silent for over half a century. By 1994, however, the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream (entitled A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park) had been published, and much is made of this fact in Shifting Landscape’s jacket design and framing devices within the text proper. A banner on the second edition’s front cover proclaims Roth to be “Author of Mercy of a Rude Stream and Call It Sleep” (the subordinate placement of Roth’s most famous novel here is telling); whilst on the back cover, the hyperbolic blurb refers to “the sheer lyrical power and psychological brilliance of Roth’s two major novels” (emphasis added). The biographical information supplied on the jacket makes reference only to Roth’s date of birth, and notes that he “continues his work on his monumental autobiographical novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream.” Call It Sleep is not referred to.

4In 1987, Shifting Landscape might easily have served as a full stop or a footnote to a tragically truncated career. By 1994, Roth’s fortunes had changed dramatically, emphasised by the fact that the St Martin’s Press edition of the text makes little or no attempt to trade off Roth’s fame as the author of Call It Sleep, giving greater weight instead to his later output. There could, of course, be an entirely mercantile reason for this – St Martin’s Press, as the publishers of the Mercy of a Rude Stream series in America, would inevitably have a vested interest in promoting it in preference to Roth’s earlier work – but this would be to ignore the extent to which Shifting Landscape situates itself within the narrative of Roth’s life, a narrative which has been supplied with a drastically different ending to the one predicted when Shifting Landscape was initially released.

5This biographical impulse is similarly evidenced in the use of images in the second edition’s jacket design, images which are illustrative of the collection’s stated intention to recover some kind of narrative continuity from the discontinuity of Roth’s life. We are presented with two photographic stills, set side by side. The left-hand image shows a panoramic view of New York City, contrasted with a stark image of the New Mexico desert. Where the New York photograph emphasises the vertical plane, the New Mexico image draws the eye towards the horizontal, to a vast expanse of flat land and sky, its only remarkable feature a barren outcropping of rock placed at the left-hand extreme of the image. The discontinuity between the images is further emphasised by the colour scheme. New York is depicted in cool and stylish black and white which, when offset against the sepia tones of the New Mexico image (which suggest that the photograph has faded, lost its lustre), gives off a sense of modern, and Modernist, urban chic.

6These juxtaposed images, then, offer an visual analogy to the received wisdom pertaining to Roth’s career: That Roth was at the height of his powers in the New York of the 1930s (the period of the production of Call it Sleep), and that his life in New Mexico can be seen as loosely contemporaneous with the gradual decline of his capacities as a writer. The New York-era Roth, the images imply, was possessed of a vibrant, bombastic, upward-thrusting modernity, whilst the Roth of the New Jersey period is washed out, arid and sterile. However, there is a further aspect to the images worth considering in relation to Shifting Landscape’s project to rehabilitate Roth’s mid-period work. For all their dissimilarities, they are aligned to suggest a kind of physical continuity. The top of the building at the very extreme edge of the New York image appears, at first glance, to line up with the top of the New Mexico image’s rocky outcrop, which, in the manner of a disorientating cinematic montage, gives the impression that New York and New Mexico blur into one seamless (shifting?) landscape, which is, in effect, precisely the intention of the collection as it stands.

7The second edition of Shifting Landscape is also remarkable for the inclusion of an introductory essay by Leonard Michaels entitled “Life and Art in Henry Roth”, appropriate for a piece that acknowledges, rightly, that Roth’s case of writer’s block has potentially garnered greater fame (or infamy) than his “near-legendary” first novel (xvi). Michaels takes up and elaborates upon the narrative of rejuvenation which is merely implied by the jacket information and illustrations. After a stark opening portrait of the artist as an old man nearly crippled with arthritis (xv), Michaels goes on to outline the near-Herculean feat of Mercy of a Rude Stream’s production. This prodigious outpouring of material puts the lie to the notion that Roth, by the end of his life, was something of a spent force, an orthodoxy which is deliberately encouraged by the opening section of the introduction where Roth’s essential human frailty is painfully exposed.

8An equally telling component of the narrative of desuetude and rejuvenation – I hesitate to say ‘resurrection’ – that Michaels describes is its relationship to broader political events. Roth’s attempts at producing a proletarian novel amounted, in Michaels’ emotive terms, to “a kind of artistic suicide,” a failure on Roth’s part to find a suitable “objective correlative” to his writing. Communism, according to Roth, “fell like a giant shunt” upon his writing career (xvii), and in the explanatory material for “If We Had Bacon”, the only extant portion of Roth’s aborted follow-up to Call it Sleep, Roth elaborates upon this theme to draw a direct relationship between the block and the ideological restraints of socialist realism: “Trying to write, you might say, with an eye on the revolution, or on the Party, trying to write with a maximum of social consciousness was not the kind of thing I was cut out for. Nevertheless, I felt a compulsion to do so, and since I couldn’t do it…” (46).

9If Communism represented a stifling of Roth’s artistic temperament and ambition, and might be at least partially to blame for the decades of writer’s block, then Shifting Landscape’s narrative pattern also portrays, by way of contrast, a renascent interest in the particularities of the Jewish experience on Roth’s part as being among the motive forces behind his literary renewal.3 Roth cites the Arab-Israeli Six Day War in 1967 as the turning point in his political affiliations, where a critical conflict of interests emerged between Roth’s membership of the Communist party (which supported the Arab cause) and his Jewishness, which would have aligned him more readily with the Israelis. The ideological complications brought to the surface by the conflict effectively forced Roth’s hand, prompting “a resurgence of my long dormant literary vocation” (167). The narrative circle of the relationship between Roth’s life and writing as presented in Shifting Landscape is neatly closed by this confrontation. Where art and ideology clashed in the 1930s, Roth, by his own admission, essentially wrote himself into a corner in an effort to warp his style to the dictates of Soviet Communism; whilst in 1967, an analogous crisis point led, inversely, to his rebirth as a writer.

10By framing itself within a continuum of narratives – autobiographical, historical, political – Shifting Landscape can be seen to facilitate a cogent, linear, even teleological interpretation of Roth’s life and work, moving from early success, through “sterility” (Roth’s own term), towards a redemptive final act in which the writer rediscovers his calling. Shifting Landscape does much, then, to situate Roth’s writing within a biographical context which greatly enhances the reader’s appreciation of the mid-period work. However, a reading of the collection – and Roth’s output considered collectively – merely as a working through of personal experience (as though it were, in effect, a glorified journal), would be highly reductive. If Roth’s writing is open to critical appraisal based upon an autobiographical or confessional model, then this is because Roth encourages such associative readings through his literary practice. Where Shifting Landscape deliberately (and problematically) frames Roth’s writing within an autobiographical context, the Mercy series takes this framing one step further, actively blurring the boundaries between fiction and autobiography, challenging, indeed, the fallacy of autobiographical ‘truth’ which might easily form the basis of an overly simplistic confessional reading of Roth’s work.

11The problems inherent to such a critical appraisal of Roth’s later writings are clearly indicated in Mary Gordon’s New York Times review of the second volume of the Mercy series, A Diving Rock on the Hudson in 1995. Tellingly, Gordon goes out of her way to praise the novel’s “honesty”, as well as its “garrulity.” In short, those qualities displayed in A Diving Rock which most closely associate the work with a confessional mode of discourse – literature as unfettered emotional expression on the part of the author – are emphasised over and above any of its formal complexities or stylistic intentions. If style is acknowledged, it is to suggest a deadening of effect, a falling off of quality from Roth’s mid-thirties high watermark, which itself lazily replicates the orthodox reading of Roth’s post-Call it Sleep career as a traumatic sixty-year silence. Where Gordon deals with Roth’s formal decisions, the indeterminate nature of the Mercy series is acknowledged, but only as an indication of a kind of structural imperfection engendered by the ‘trauma’ Roth is perceived to be working through. So, for example, the conversations with his computer Ecclesias, which suggest Roth is engaging with a distinctly postmodern metafictional discourse, are reduced to expressions of literary confession: Ecclesias, in Gordon’s reading, is only employed so that Roth can ‘reveal’ his incestuous relationship with his sister.

12What Gordon does hint at, but does not expand upon, is the extent to which Roth’s later work is set in opposition to the formal perfection and impersonality of high Modernism; though again Gordon fails or refuses to recognise authorial intention, asserting that Roth’s ideas of “rightness” have been devolved from the realm of the literary to the realms of the psychological and spiritual. The imperfections of the Mercy series, rather than simply being expressive of authorial trauma as Gordon asserts, must ultimately be understood in terms of the narrative shift between modernism and postmodernism; and Shifting Landscape is perfectly situated to bridge the gap between these two opposing periods in Roth’s career. Indeed, if part of the collection’s function is to wrest continuity from the discontinuity of Roth’s life, then it might equally operate as a means of revealing continuity in his aesthetic processes, especially when considering the degree to which Shifting Landscape suggests a concomitance between the two.

13Where Mercy of a Rude Stream’s dialogue with postmodernism, signalled by its generic indeterminacy and stylistic devices (such as Roth’s conversations with Ecclesias and the incorporation of previously published material)4 can be ascribed to intentionality on the part of the author, the circumstances of Shifting Landscape’s production render any bold statements as to its ultimate aesthetic intent superfluous. The collection’s original subtitle, “A Composite”, suggests a fragmentary form, a hybrid of disjointed component elements stitched together within a loose autobiographical framework, and as such its design must be considered as essentially heterogeneous. A dialogue exists between the individual pieces and the material that contains them – fragments of interviews, letters and articles giving details about the original circumstances of the composition and publication in each instance – just as, comparably, a dialogue exists between Roth and his editor, Mario Materassi, throughout the work. It would be easy to discern a paradigmatic oedipal relationship between Roth ‘the father’ and Materassi ‘the son’ within Shifting Landscape’s pages, particularly considering Roth’s designation of Materassi as a “devoted surrogate son” in the foreword (xiv), and the tragic breakdown of the pair’s friendship in later years, which Materassi has couched in comparably familial terms.5 Easy, but reductive. Shifting Landscape should not be considered the fractured product of warring intelligences, but rather as an interesting experiment in dual authorship, even if Roth himself seems to have taken a back-seat role in the collection’s design.6

14This perceived subordinate role is telling. Materassi states in his introductory piece to the collection that he believes the works must be judged on their literary merits, while simultaneously situating them within a broader autobiographical schema, claiming the shorter writings to be “invaluable documents of the existential pilgrimage of their author” (xxxii).7 Shifting Landscape as Materassi conceives it, then, acts as a paradigm for the subordination of Roth’s authorial intentionality within the reductive confessional model of criticism as exemplified by the Mary Gordon review cited above, with Roth’s voice being framed and elided by the autobiographical narrative imposed by the collection’s teleological design. However, the fact that Materassi deliberately draws the reader’s attention towards the autobiographical structure he had in mind when editing Shifting Landscape, suggests that caution should be exercised before assuming that his intentions are seamlessly compatible with such simplistic biographical readings of Roth’s fiction. Shifting Landscape is a “composite,” neither simply fiction, nor simply autobiography, but a complex and compelling hybrid of the two. As such, intentionally or not, it exposes the essential fallacy of reading Roth’s work as unproblematic confession, acknowledging as it does the degree to which autobiographical criticism is a self-perpetuating discourse. Put simply, autobiographical or confessional critiques insist upon readings of Roth’s work within the framework of his life, a critical appraisal which, in turn, encourages publishers to emphasise the autobiographical character of Roth’s writing, as Shifting Landscape illustrates.

15My intention in this essay has been to delineate the ways in which Shifting Landscape is engaged with the autobiographical narrative of Roth’s writing, the extent to which the collection situates itself within, contributes to, and complicates a critical discourse which considers Roth’s work merely as “an aperture into the workings of a sample imagination” (xiv), a term Roth employs to describe Materassi’s achievement as an editor. If a definitive authorial intention is ultimately difficult or impossible to establish in Shifting Landscape, given its hybrid authorship and fragmentary form, then its potential effects are more easily discerned. On the one hand, Shifting Landscape’s insistence upon framing Roth’s work within the context of his life may potentially have the effect of encouraging and exacerbating reductive confessional readings of his fiction. On the other, however, its exposure of the workings of such discourse through its hybrid “composite” form, whereby the acknowledged imposition of a teleological biographical framework becomes an active, and problematic component of the text, may succeed in engendering a new self-consciousness in such readings in the future.

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Gordon, Mary. “Confession, Terminable and Interminable,” review of A Diving Rock on the Hudson. New York Times Book Review 26 Feb. 1995: 5+.

Kellman, Steven G. “Henry Roth: 1906-1995.” American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement IX: Nelson Algren to David Wagoner. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Scribner's, 2002.

Roth, Henry. A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park. London: Phoenix, 1995.

—. Shifting Landscape [2nd edition]. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.  

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1  The second edition of Shifting Landscape, published by St Martin’s Press, will be the primary focus of this essay.

2 Shifting Landscape (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1994): xiv. Subsequent page references will appear in parentheses.

3  Michaels is more explicit in his associations between Judaism and art, and Communism and writer’s block, asserting that “when Roth’s mystical state of mind, an aspect of his Judaic identity, lost out to Communism, he lost his art” (xxvii).

4  This occurs most explicitly in A Star Shines in Mt. Morris Park (London: Phoenix, 1995), which includes the text of “Somebody Always Grabs the Purple,” a story Roth originally published in The New Yorker in 1940, and which was also republished in Shifting Landscape.  See Shifting Landscape, 62-67, A Star Shines, 68-72, and Alan Gibbs’s article in this collection.

5  The American Jewish Historical Society’s collection of Roth’s papers includes letters to Roth written by Materassi during this period.  See Collection P702, Box 5, Folder 10.

6  Roth asserts in his foreword that “the book is primarily Mario’s, not mine” (xiv).

7  Roth makes reference to a similar assertion of Materassi’s in his foreword, dubious about his editor’s claims that “the pieces [in Shifting Landscape] were interesting in their own right” (xiii).

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Simon Turner, « Pieces of a Man: Considering Shifting Landscape as Autobiographical Critique »Journal of the Short Story in English, 44 | 2005, 103-111.

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Simon Turner, « Pieces of a Man: Considering Shifting Landscape as Autobiographical Critique »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 44 | Spring 2005, mis en ligne le 05 août 2008, consulté le 27 mai 2022. URL :

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Simon Turner

Simon Turner has been writing a doctoral thesis at the University of Nottingham since 2003. Research interests include the Vietnam War, twentieth century American literature, and cultural memory studies.

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