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dialect and history in call it sleep

I’ve never been a fan of writing in dialect; it always seems so stilted and it is too frequently a form of condescending to the speaker—it treats the characters as if they aren’t really speaking the English that the writer and the reader do, thereby drawing both into an elitist stance that I find repugnant and philosophically untenable. For example, if you ask me how to spell “Whatchya doin’,” and you catch me in a non-self-aware moment, I spell “What you doing?”

The exceptions are few—and really I don’t think they are so much exceptions as that the books in question conquer my qualms by excelling elsewhere. I’m thinking of Twain’s, Huck Finn or Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or, my most recently read novel, Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth. This is not to say that I think Call It Sleep is nearly as good a book as either of those two—on the contrary—but I do think all three novels use dialect to help call attention to the cultural differences between people. In addition, the obvious intelligence of many of the novels’ characters belies the stereotypes about “non-standard” language speakers, so that using dialect is subversive as well as expository.

Call It Sleep, an early 20th century, New York immigrant story, told mostly from the perspective of a young Jewish boy, employs at least four or five different dialects (to my untrained eye) and so the focus on cultural difference is especially strong and apt. Jews, Poles, Italians, Irish, and many others mix in the city and in the narrative, often sharing only smatterings of English, all spoken very differently. At one point the boy is lost because he can’t say the name of his street so a passerby or the Irish cops that try to help him can understand; when his mother shows up to fetch him, she says it still another way, so it is no wonder the boy can’t make himself understood. The struggle to communicate in the New World is part and parcel of their experience.

Despite the language and other cultural issues present in the book, I found the book mostly a tedious run through the mind of the child. Writing in the early 1930s, Roth was apparently influenced by the early century stream of consciousness novel; he fills his book with many stops and starts and exclamations that do nothing to advance the plot or fill in the boy’s character and succeed only in annoying me. Joyce or Woolf, Roth is not. The family melodrama and overblown religious symbology do nothing to help. I think the book is best as a historical document, reminding us what life was like for immigrants then and, to some extent, now.

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