Books: An American Type

Henry Roth, the first of the great Jewish American novelists of the 20th century, never concealed the background that shaped him or the emotions that often left him guilt-ridden and paralyzed. His first book, "Call It Sleep," widely regarded as a masterpiece and perhaps America's first modernist novel, is also a testament to the squalid, hermetic Jewish life of New York City's Lower East Side, where Roth spent his immigrant childhood.

No other Roth novel appeared for 60 years as he stayed clear of Manhattan and took on a series of improbably menial jobs for a man of letters. For half that time Roth experienced the kind of writer's block that was as impenetrable as the Soviet bloc, which is more than a mere metaphor since Roth flirted and ultimately became disillusioned with communism.

In the mid-1990s, Roth roared back with four novels—culled from the vast number of pages left after his death—that largely picked up from where "Call It Sleep" left off. Now, however, the perspective was from an old writer looking back on his misspent life. The more blatantly autobiographical Ira Stigman replaced the child David Shearl of "Call It Sleep." The four books traced Ira leaving the Lower East Side and moving to Harlem with his family, attending City College, revealing a dark, shameful secret and, finally, joining a new family in the company of an older NYU English professor, Edith Welles. She nurtured his writing and his body, and introduced him to the intellectual and aesthetic fervor of Greenwich Village.

Now the fifth novel from the batch of Roth writings that resurfaced more than 15 years ago arrives, aptly titled "An American Type," which all immigrants, sensitive to what the natives look like, quickly come to know.