Upon its publication in 1934, critics hailed Call It Sleep as a modernist masterpiece reminiscent of the work of James Joyce and other modernist writers, as well as a realistic portrayal of immigrant life in New York City. Time magazine described it in a February 1935 review as "the story of three years in the life of a sensitive Jewish slum-child, told with painstaking and pain-giving fidelity to slum dialect, slum neuroses." Yet despite critical acclaim, the book did not sell well, and was out of print for close to 30 years.
In 1960, The American Scholar, the literary quarterly of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, published a piece entitled, "The most neglected books of the past 25 years". In it, Jewish literary critics Irving Howe and Leslie Fiedler proclaimed Call It Sleep as both an American and Jewish classic. The book was republished in 1960 and issued in paperback in 1964. Howe's review of the book on the front page of The New York Times Book Review marked the first time a paperback review appeared on the front page.