Type Casting

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 The book, chiseled out of one of the sizeable autobiographical chunks of writing Roth left unpublished, is apparently much cleaner than the source material.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.

One thought on “Type Casting

  1. As painful as these posthumous clean-up jobs are, I think the potential benefit outweighs whatever damage/disservice is done to the work or author. And it seems most of the time these funereal restorations are a failure, but sometimes, just sometimes, disobeying the author’s wishes and self-evaluation yields something. What if Dickinson’s family had agreed to burn her poems? Or if Virgil’s (alleged) deathbed wish to have the Aeneid destroyed was carried out?

    We have plenty of bad and mediocre books; one more won’t hurt us. But the prospect of burying something great is not a risk worth taking. As long as it is clear in the introduction what work was done to/on the manuscript, I think we have to roll the dice with these.

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