A Sister’s Angry Letter Unravels Roth Incest Tale

Did the late Henry Roth, like Ira Stigman, his fictional alter ego in the four-volume autobiographical novel Mercy of a Rude Stream , carry on an incestuous relationship with his sister? A newly revealed letter written to Roth by his younger sister, Rose Broder, and a curious contract agreement between the two, may finally help settle that question. The true nature of Roth’s relationship with his sister–hinted at by Roth, tugged at by critics–has been pointed to as the reason for the decades-long writer’s block that followed Roth’s 1934 publication of the classic Call It Sleep . While finally writing, in veiled form, about brother-sister incest in 1995’s A Diving Rock on the Hudson may have unblocked Roth’s creative spirit, it unblocked something else in his sister. So troubled was Broder by the portrayal of Ira’s lustful relationship with his younger sister that she threatened to sue Roth and his publisher, though it was unclear on what grounds. Eventually, Broder released Roth from the threat by accepting $10,000, and something of arguably even greater value: his agreement to edit out sibling incest material from the already written manuscripts of the remaining two volumes of his opus.

The general release agreement, dated May 24, 1995, states in part: “It is understood and agreed that in future volumes of the fictional work entitled Mercy of a Rude Stream by Henry Roth, the character of Minnie Stigman, who is identified as the sister of Ira Stigman, will no longer be portrayed as having any further sexual relationship with her brother, Ira Stigman.” The “future volumes” are Nos. 3 and 4, entitled From Bondage and Requiem for Harlem and published in 1996 and this February, respectively.

Roth’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, released the documents to The Observer because Roth’s editor, Robert Weil, said, the story needed to be told. “It’s essential to understanding Henry Roth’s life. He would have wanted people to know.” With the principals no longer among us–Roth died in October 1995, Broder in 1997–the documents remain a slender but convincing argument that Roth and his sister dealt with their apparently incestuous relationship in divergent, but equally emotional, ways.

Minnie Makes an Entrance

After his long, disquieting absence, Henry Roth reappeared on the literary radar screen to great fanfare, in January 1994, with the publication of A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park , the first volume of a promised six. But as far as Rose Broder was concerned, things started to get heavy with volume two, A Diving Rock on the Hudson , the book in which Ira’s family tree suddenly sprouts a sister a third of the way into the book, and Minnie appears. The elderly Ira, writing about his younger self, laments the horror of the incest, but in the last pages of the book he acknowledges that “he had divested himself of a formidable inhibition … belatedly, in spite of himself. How long it had taken him to square with the truth; how long he had clung to subterfuge!”

In the intervening pages, readers watch Ira basically live for “that minute or two when he pumped the cry out of [Minnie] of incestuous consummation.” Every Sunday, when the kids are alone in the house, Ira rolls on a Trojan or two and makes like a pile driver: “For a minute into Minnie, sink it in her, sin it in her. … O-o-oh, look at her: carmine split between lifted thighs.” Then he pays his sister a dollar or more.

During the editing process of A Diving Rock , Mr. Weil said he urged Roth to tell his sister about the book, feeling that it would make Broder uncomfortable: “I felt it was appropriate that he tell his sister that he was publishing such a novel.” Apparently, Broder took great pride in her brother’s work and indeed had typed the original manuscript for Call It Sleep . So Roth sent a “very brief” letter, saying that A Diving Rock dealt fictionally with the theme of sibling incest.

Broder sent back a not very brief letter, dated July 3, 1994. In it she refers to Roth’s “revelation,” saying that she cannot comprehend what he hopes to gain by it. She calls it “dirty,” before opining that innermost feelings need not be aired in order to make a point. Then, after floating the idea that his fans will think he’s being a money-hungry sensationalist, she says that if he doesn’t “delete this material from the book” before publication, she will sue him and St. Martin’s Press. His book would reduce her to “a stupid and uncontrollable slut.” How could he do this to her? she asks. She concludes with her intention to not die a “besmirched” woman. Appealing to his loyalty as a loving brother, she asks that he come to a decision suitable to both of them.

The book was published in February 1995, a few months before brother and sister drew up their contract, with the incest scenes intact, but with a disclaimer stating that “the narrative is not intended in any way to be a depiction of any real events. This novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such.” This was aimed largely at those reviewers who were already treating the Mercy series as “straight autobiography, slightly fictionalized,” as Mr. Weil put it.

According to Mr. Weil, St. Martin’s Press needed to find out what was what because of the potential for a libel suit. “I had to discuss with Henry what indeed happened and what did not–his recollections of whether there was incest or not. I had to demonstrate that there was a sexual relationship to protect St. Martin’s against legal action.”

Roth’s lawyer and literary executor, Lawrence Fox, wasn’t overly worried. But out of an abundance of caution and in the interest of literary history, Roth and Mr. Weil sat for two hours of videotaped conversations. “Legally, there wasn’t a claim,” said Mr. Fox. “I was more concerned about how ugly a lawsuit would be for the family and for Henry.”

Roz Targ, Roth’s agent, said she wanted no part of the thing. “I questioned that they were being overly cautious,” she said, “but what was legally appropriate I would accept.” She added that a lawsuit would have probably improved sales. Indeed, while each volume of Mercy is selling respectably, averaging 10,000 copies in hardcover and 10,000 in paperback, surely St. Martin’s is hoping for a bump in sales in choosing to open the Roth vault. Roth’s younger son, Hugh Roth, told The Observer that he was “not sure how publicizing these documents will add to the artistic understanding of my father’s writing.” To him, St. Martin’s is making “a business decision.”

Mr. Weil said he cannot remember if Roth recalled having sexual intercourse with his sister, but he said Roth “very much had a sexual relationship with his sister.” He noted, however, that, according to Roth, Ira and Minnie’s relationship in no way replicated the pattern of the real lives.

Given the situation, which involved two siblings in their 80’s, Mr. Weil didn’t feel that Broder’s demand was extraordinary. “I just felt that these were her wishes and that it was my job as an editor to comply with her wishes.” Broder signed the contract in May 1995. In the subsequent two volumes, the Minnie-Ira relationship is cleaned up, though Ira does bed a cousin, Stella.

“In retrospect,” contends Mr. Weil, “I feel that the third and fourth volumes have immeasurably improved as a result of the cuts–as Henry would say, it almost was an editorial gift that we got this restraint, because I felt the final works are far more balanced and they read better.”

Ira Behaves Himself

That may be. But did something go missing along with all those pages of excised text?

Felicia Jean Steele, who was instrumental in helping the rheumatoid, practically lobster-clawed Roth churn out pages from May 1989 to June 1993, was surprised by the agreement. “I was surprised that Henry would let himself be censored after spending so much time trying to get all of this out, and to try and construct the novels in the way he thought best. I was surprised he was so ready to have them expurgated.” Roth, she recalls, “seemed to take it in stride. He thought it was better to have the books published than to worry about making sure that they were published in the original form.”

Mr. Fox, who is not a believer in censorship, explains, “At no time did we believe that the accommodation was a vital change to the integrity of the work. It did not undermine or change the tenor of who Ira Stigman was.”

Still, without the agreement, Ira would have remained sexually involved with Minnie, though for readability’s sake, claims Mr. Weil, the intensity of their relationship would not have been duplicated in books three and four.

Martin Garbus, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment cases, said he had never heard of an agreement like the one between Roth and his sister–partly, he said, because there aren’t too many multivolume novels being published these days. “What you’re doing is changing the nature of the story … fundamentally changing the psychic pattern that leads to the character,” he said. “Roth is writing his own truth, and here he is being compelled to change that truth.” Ultimately, said Mr. Garbus, the creative process is not served, and news of Roth’s agreement with his sister may give ideas to other fiction writers’ aggrieved family members. “Once somebody does something like this and people know about it, people out there say, ‘Well, listen, it was done before with Henry Roth, therefore you should do it,'” said Mr. Garbus.

Robert Weil, who with Roth turned 5,000 pages of stream of consciousness into publishable form, feels that it didn’t make much of a difference whether Ira was sexually involved with Stella or with Minnie. Either way, he was predatory, and that, Mr. Weil feels, was the point. And “Henry was very happy with the changes. His major unhappiness with the agreement was the $10,000. He lived in abject poverty most of his life.”

A Sister’s Angry Letter Unravels Roth Incest Tale