This Golden Land

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Perhaps nowhere is the dream and myth of immigration so potent as in America, the Golden Land, Di Goldene Medine, as it was called by the Eastern European Jews who migrated there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the beginning, America declared itself a country of immigrants, our national motto E pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one.’ In New York Harbor, those who entered by way of Ellis Island (which would process over twelve million immigrants in its history) were greeted at the end of their arduous journey by the Statue of Liberty:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’[1]

But as David Schearl experiences in Henry Roth’s 1934 semi-autobiographical novel, Call It Sleep, about a Jewish immigrant family arriving in New York City in 1907, the difficulty of the journey doesn’t end there. Lady Liberty may be welcoming, but she is also forbidding:

And before them, rising on her high pedestal from the scaling swarmy brilliance of sunlit water to the west, Liberty. The spinning disk of the late afternoon sun slanted behind her, and to those on board who gazed, her features were charred with shadow, her depths exhausted, her masses ironed to one single plane. Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword.

There may be opportunity in this Golden Land, but there is also the crucible of assimilating in America’s melting pot, of honoring the old customs while adjusting to the new. In the young protagonist’s case, there is the additional trial of forming an identity separate from his beloved mother and violent father, of negotiating the rough, poor environs of New York’s Lower East Side. As a New York Times reviewer put it: ‘Quarrelsome grown‐ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat‐infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David’s father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail.’

It’s the child’s eye view that is so consuming and alive in this book, a tour de force narration from the perspective of eight-year-old David. The author uses a striking multi-lingual technique which replicates (in English) the different languages that signify the boy’s divided world. At home, his parents speak an eloquent and expressive Yiddish; on the street, with its clash of cultures, Roth employs a pungent immigrant patois. His characters and the Schearl’s New York City environs are vividly drawn. This impressionistic journey of a boy trying to make sense of an adult world, of the safety and restraints of tradition, of what happens when the ‘huddled masses’ are pressed together in dire conditions yet manage, somehow, to thrive in a tarnished Golden Land, is unforgettable. As David’s mother says to the rabbi: ‘[A]s for learning what it means to be a Jew, I think he knows how hard that is already.’ 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Where Call It Sleep creates a world from two years of an immigrant family’s life on a New York City block, Annie Proulx’s sweeping epic Barkskins, published in 2016, spans three centuries and the North American continent, with stops in Europe, Asia and Australia, beginning in New France in 1693. Proulx writes of a different kind of immigrant encounter: that of the natural world with the European settlers who would explore, extract, exploit and ultimately destroy it. These first encounters were not auspicious for the indigenous tribes living and hunting in the vast forests, attuned to and stewards of the trees’ interconnected web of life, nor for the forests themselves, which were uprooted, cut, burned and cleared to satisfy the new inhabitants’ bottomless thirst for land and lumber. 

René Sel and Charles Duquet (later Anglicized as Duke) came to the forests of what is now Canada as indentured laborers (habitants) meant to clear and populate New France. Their new seigneur lays down the settler’s manifesto early on: ‘Men must change this land in order to live in it.’ Sel will marry an indigenous Mi’kmaq woman and raise a métis (mixed blood) family on his land grant. Charles Duquet will become a lumber baron, his descendants the owners and extractors of forests that René Sel’s descendants will log.

The rising and sinking fortunes of each family will mirror the rise of the French and English colonies and the new United States as they consume what they believe to be limitless forests, displacing the indigenous tribes who have no cultural conception of ownership. The tribes will be forced to adapt to the white man’s ways in order to survive. Like Roth, Proulx uses a multilingual technique to convey her characters’ divided worlds, adding liberal spatters of French, Dutch and Mi’kmaq to flavor the narrative. Their lives are often cut short by disease, violence, drowning, fire, and logging accidents. But it’s the forests whose ebbing life is chronicled here that are the living heart of Barkskins. Proulx’s book is a cri de cœur for a dying ecosystem.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] From The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883).

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Filed under American Culture, American History, Books

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