If you are a research geek like me, you’ll understand that coming across a piece of relatively unknown history that is associated with our area can be very exciting. This was the case when I was recently researching 59 Fourth Avenue, part of the South of Union Square neighborhood for which we are seeking landmark designation and have recently released a series of maps and tours. It is a somewhat unassuming albeit historic building constructed in 1897, designed by the architectural firm of Neville and Bagge. It was already included on our map as part of our Booksellers Tour, as the location of Pageant Book & Print Shop. However, we just found that Pageant also has a noteworthy place in publishing history and Jewish history.
Henry Roth (1906-1995) wrote his novel, Call it Sleep, in 1934, based on his own experience as a young Jewish immigrant child living on the Lower East Side. To this day, it is touted as a classic and one of the best depictions of the Jewish immigrant experience on the Lower East Side. It centers on a boy named David Schearl who came to America with his mother from Galicia (now part of the Ukraine), meeting up with his abusive father who had immigrated earlier.
The story is told through David’s eyes, and winds through the troubled home life of the boy and the often brutal experiences of life on the Lower East Side during the early 20th century. English critic Walter Allen had this to say about the young protagonist: “David recreates, transmutes, the world he lives in not into any simple fantasy of make-believe…but with the desperate, compulsive imagination of a poet.”
The novel met with mostly positive reviews at the time, but it did not sell well. Of the very few negative reviews that the book received at the time, one came from the Communist journal The New Masses (Roth was a member of the Communist party). The publication stated of Roth’s Book: “a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels.”
Shortly following the book’s publication, both it and Roth fell into obscurity for the next few decades. A few critics continued to tout its significance over the years, and in 1960, a small publisher located at 59 Fourth Avenue, Pageant Books, Inc. re-published it, dramatically changing the fortunes for both Roth and the novel. Call it Sleep was then subsequently published in paperback by Avon in 1964, and in that same year New York Times book critic Irving Howe reviewed it and proclaimed it to be “one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th century American.” It would go on to sell one million copies, and its re-publication and subsequent popularity would inspire Roth to write and publish again. In 1987 he published a collection of short stories and essays, “Shifting Landscape.”
#SouthOfUnionSquare is an irreplaceable piece of New York, American and world history, and an unprotected but essential slice of Greenwich Village and the East Village. We hop you’ll enjoy, explore, and advocate for saving this amazing neighborhood.