Henry Roth & the Second Oldest Profession

Received a broadcast notice from NYC bookselller Abby Schoolman last week with a list of books from the library of Henry Roth being sold on behalf of the author's Trust. Included is one of the titles William Targ published from his private press. He also published a short piece by Roth - Nature's First Green - which probably was the first time I encountered his writing. It caught my eye because of the cheeky inscription Targ had added to the colophon (above) - "the second oldest profession."

Targ was an interesting guy, with a long career in publishing. The books he published under Targ Editions varied widely in format and content, from Roth to Issac Asimov. And he commissioned many of the day's best "fine press" printers to produce his books. Worth having a look if you don't know his imprint.

I acquired my copy of Nature's First Green around the same time (1994) the literary world was abuzz with the news of Roth's return to writing, with the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream. He'd produced nothing since his acclaimed debut in 1934 with Call It Sleep. I remember very clearly a statement from the publisher that it was part of a six-volume series, all of which had been completed. Mercy did not enjoy strong reviews, and publication of the second volume (A Diving Rock on the Hudson) didn't make things better. Roth died before the third volume's publication, and some time after that the publisher (quietly) revised the publishing program from six to four volumes. The only (easily found) online reference to this change I can find is on Roth's Wikipedia page:

"Before his death, Roth commented numerous times that Mercy of a Rude Stream comprised six volumes. In fact, Roth did write six separate books. He called the first four “Batch One,” and the last two, “Batch Two.” Roth's editor at St. Martin's, Robert Weil, along with Felicia Steele, Larry Fox, and Roth's agent, Roslyn Targ, found the epic would be best served in four volumes, as the four books of "Batch One" contained a stylistic and thematic unity inconsistent with the remaining two books."


That smells a bit: why didn't people make this argument before the presses started running? Maybe it was a convenient way for the publisher to cut losses on a project that was trending down. The two "Batch Two" books were eventually edited and published in 2010 under the title An American Type.


Speaking of Call It Sleep and Targ, above is a first edition inscribed to him, currently on offer at $48,500. I read the novel back around the time that Targ book landed on my shelf. Eh. Arion published an edition, signed by Roth, in 1995. Not one of their hottest titles, despite the usual Arion attention to detail and production. Roth's not an easy read, and he didn't publish enough stuff to keep the modern first collectors engaged. But have a look at Abby's list, maybe you'll find some common ground with Roth in his library.