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‘Losted’ in Brownsville: Experiential Realism in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep

Matthew Asprey Gear

Abstract

This paper explores the construction of an imagined urban landscape through the employment of subjective point of view in Henry Roth’s modernist novel Call It Sleep (1934). This involves an engagement with Robert Alter’s recent critical writings on 19 th and 20 th century European novels in terms of their ‘experiential realism’. Alter’s flexible approach to reading fiction goes beyond a consideration of mere urban representation and towards an understanding of the complex relationship between setting, subjectivity and language in the novel.

Call It Sleep maps an early 20 th century version of Brownsville in Brooklyn, New York City, through the subjective language of a Jewish immigrant child named David Schearl. Brownsville is always a subjective entity, and always in flux, dependent on David’s emotional state. This paper examines a key sequence of the novel – David’s ordeal as he loses his bearings in the streets – in light of Brownsville’s documented history.

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