What to make of Henry Roth‘s An American Type? The book, chiseled out of one of the sizeable autobiographical chunks of writing Roth left unpublished, is apparently much cleaner than the source material. But does that do Roth a disservice? And what would it mean to do a disservice to a self-loathing, cantankerous writer who seduced his sister? In Slate, Judith Shulevitz worries: “I can’t help bristling at these repeated attempts to impose a conventional morphology on an artist who seems to have been determined to eschew one.” She admires that the reworking of An American Type is “skillfully done” but reasonably wonders what got cut out in the process.
In a demolition (sub. req’d) of the book in Harper’s, Witz author Joshua Cohen asserts that the book never should have been published—and, comparing An American Type with the source material, finds an unseemly effort to streamline, polish, and scrub his prose. The before-and-after passage Cohen uses to prove this point doesn’t seem like a Gordon Lish-grade overhaul, though—it matters, of course, that the draft shifts from first person to third, but editor Willing Davidson mainly seems to be attempting to apply some action (or at least active verbs) to the author’s ruminations.
That shift in voice is enough for Cohen to dismiss the book as misbegotten, though: “It is not my belief that these pages should have been published without intervention; rather it is my belief that these pages should not have been published at all…. Batch II [the source for An American Type] is a work best intended for the interest of the author’s family, scholar-specialists, and the exceptionally sentimental; for Rothians sympathetic enough to interpret their writer’s geriatric lapses as a sort of Kabbalistic prosing of mortality itself, or as emblematic of the horrible humanness behind all expressive effort.” Seems like rereading Call It Sleep would be more rewarding.