Ruth R. Wisse
Commentary, Dec. 2004
“he found ways of turning his generation’s inexperience into epic adventure”
The Plot Against America
by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 400 pp. $26.00
It once seemed as though Philip Roth had come on the American scene too late to have any compelling historical subject with which to engage his literary powers. Born in 1933 to a decent, hard-working Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, he missed out on the formative deprivations of the immigrant experience and the great Depression, as well as on membership in “the greatest generation” that fought in World War II. As a writer, too, he came along after Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and an earlier Roth—the redoubtable Henry—had pioneered an “American Jewish literature” that was richly flavored in the brine of their native Yiddish.
In his fiction, Roth acknowledged his status as a latecomer by casting himself as the perennial son. Still, he found ways of turning his generation’s inexperience into epic adventure. His first book, the collection Goodbye, Columbus (1957), touched a nerve in Jewish readers who recognized (however painfully) their own foibles in its satire, and it also caught the fancy of a broader public that was getting used to the Jewish presence in American fiction. Much like Ozzie Freeman, the boy in one of Roth’s stories who threatens suicide in order to force his rabbi to admit that God could have brought about a virgin birth, the young author had the chutzpah to provoke attention.
One of the ways that Roth compensated for the thinness of his experience was to run riot with the possibilities of fiction itself. His breakthrough into fame came with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the on-the-couch comic monologues of a psychoanalytic patient who is to sex as Pete Rose is to baseball. Had Franz Kafka turned one of his protagonists into an insect? Roth went Kafka one better by turning one of his into a female breast. Did Alfred Hitchcock insinuate himself into each of his films? Roth wrote many novels disguising himself as the narrator. Why tell the story of a life one way when, as the author of The Counterlife (1986), you can tell the story one way and another way? In book after book, Roth has violated the boundaries of fact and fiction with the boldness of a smuggler on the Mexican border. None of the many prizes he has received for his work—including the National Medal of Arts, a Pulitzer Prize, and two National Book Awards—may be as welcome to him as the eagerness that has greeted his every act of talented transgression.
In The Plot Against America, Roth claims for himself the significant historical moment that he missed out on in real life. Here, he tells the story of his childhood as it would have happened had Charles A. Lindbergh become the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1940 and then gone on to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in that year’s election. Instead of the feeling of protectedness enjoyed by American Jews under Roosevelt, the fictional Roths of this novel, along with all the Jews in their neighborhood, are subjected to a candidate who has an “understanding” with Hitler, to the panic induced by his election, and to the consequences of an American administration with Nazi sympathies.
This is not the first time that Roth has used his actual family—his father Herman, his mother Bess, an older brother, and himself, Philip—as protagonists of his fiction. But it is the first time he has invented for them a landscape of menace akin to the one experienced by their fellow Jews in Europe. In a rare explanatory essay about his creative intentions, Roth has written that he chose the Lindbergh character, or rather the Lindbergh character “chose himself,” as a “leading political figure in a novel where I wanted America’s Jews to feel the pressure of a genuine anti-Semitic threat.”
Roth sets up his plot in his trademark film-script tempo:
When the first shock came in June of 1940—the nomination for the presidency of Charles A. Lindbergh, America’s international aviation hero, by the Republican convention at Philadelphia—my father was thirty-nine, an insurance agent with a grade-school education, earning a little under fifty dollars a week, enough for the basic bills to be paid on time but for little more. My mother—who’d wanted to go to teachers’ college but couldn’t because of the expense, who’d lived at home working as an office secretary after finishing high school, who’d kept us from feeling poor during the worst of the Depression by budgeting the earnings my father turned over to her each Friday as efficiently as she ran the household—was thirty-six. My brother, Sandy, a seventh-grader with a prodigy’s talent for drawing, was twelve, and I, a third-grader a term ahead of himself—and an embryonic stamp collector inspired like millions of kids by the country’s foremost philatelist, President Roosevelt—was seven.
Compressed into this paragraph is a description of the main cast of characters, including those biographical details that will feature prominently in the novel’s development. Except for the most obvious one: this all-American family is, incidentally, Jewish—incidentally, that is, until President Lindbergh turns their Jewishness into an offense.
Not everybody in the Roth household and its surrounding neighborhood reacts to the new order of things in the same way. Unlike the Jewish fathers in works by Franz Kafka and Isaac Babel who shame their sons by submitting to Gentile hostility, Herman Roth is a “Loudmouth Jew” who sounds off in public against the administration. A nephew and ward of the family goes off to Canada to enlist in the war against Hitler. But, as opposed to these “proud Jews,” there is also Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a quisling figure who assures Americans, as a Jew, that Charles Lindbergh has been wise to keep the country out of the European conflict: “How will the cruel fate that has befallen [the Jews of Germany] be alleviated by our great country going to war with their tormentors?” Bengelsdorf’s secretary, then wife, is Philip’s Aunt Evelyn; she advances the Lindbergh agenda by sending Philip’s brother Sandy off to Kentucky to a reeducation program named “Just Folks,” there to be turned into a proper Gentile. Later, when Philip feels oppressed by the cloying presence of a Jewish boy downstairs, Aunt Evelyn arranges to have the offending child and his widowed mother relocated to Kentucky as well. In some of their victims, repressive regimes inspire rebellion, in others mutual betrayal.
By exposing “his” and other Jewish families to the scenario of an encroaching Nazism and its sympathizers, Philip Roth has produced his most suspenseful novel to date—according to the raves, a “page-turner,” “a devourable tale,” “riveting from the first sentence.” Our knowledge that, in Europe, families like his were dragged off to their deaths makes us eager to know what will happen here, and how. Will the real-life good guys in the novel, like the liberal columnist Walter Winchell and New York’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, win out over the imaginary villains like Lindbergh’s Vice President Wheeler, who impose on the Jews a low-grade reign of terror? Will Philip get hurt? Will his father and mother be able to protect their family until the danger has passed?
As we read the novel, the anxieties aroused by the plot become supplemented by a more profound anxiety over its significance. What exactly did Roth have in mind by importing the Holocaust into America? What is the point of his freighted alternative history? If the novel is to amount to more than a suspense mystery for adults, what does its author mean to imply about the Jews, and about America?
To compare The Plot Against America with its forgotten predecessor, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 best-seller, It Can’t Happen Here, is to acknowledge how much more plausibly Roth has portrayed his imagined America. The substantiality of the Roth family, and the use of “himself” as a child narrator, go a long way toward establishing credibility. In one wonderful sequence, the family takes a road trip to the nation’s capital, only to find that the citadel of democracy has been claimed by anti-Semites who now enjoy the approval of their government. Mother is afraid that her husband’s anger will “frighten the little one,” but in the father’s retort—“The little one knows everything already”—we sense the alert child who will grow up to become the author of this book.
Roth also has it over Lewis in supplying a much more convincing rationale for the advent of a protofascist President. Sinclair Lewis’s demagogue, Buzz Windrip—modeled on the Louisiana politician Huey Long—is far less convincing as an American idol than Roth’s aviator-hero, who, instead of drumming up bigotry, appeals to the quintessential American desire for peace. In his campaigning, Roth’s Lindbergh never mentions the Jews, and offers no domestic program other than a promise to keep Americans out of combat. Sounding less like Hitler than like Howard Dean, he wins the election over FDR with the motto, “Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war.”
In fact, Roth did not have to tinker very much with American history, or with his memories of his childhood, to evoke Jewish fears circa 1940. Roosevelt himself was no Churchill: although he tried to shore up the country’s military preparedness, he also took pains to avoid being targeted as a warmonger. And even after entering the war, he shunned rescue operations on behalf of the European Jews targeted by Hitler. There were, as Roth relates, some Jews who spoke out forcefully, but by and large the American Jewish community, if not as passive as some historians have retrospectively charged, did not distinguish itself by acts of political daring.
All of this rings true, and makes us willing to accept the idea that an antiwar candidate might actually have come to power and kept America out of the conflict. Far less credible, however, is the premise of America’s Nazification. This rings almost as false as the accusation of some, at the time, that “the Jews” were taking over the country.
Interestingly enough, when it comes to describing that which is historically less plausible, Roth’s artistry also begins to fail him. Here are the two brothers whispering in the dark after Sandy’s return from his reeducation program in Kansas:
Did you eat ham?
We had ham for dinner about two times a week. Mr. Mawhinney makes his own ham. He has a special family recipe. He says if a ham isn’t hung up to be aged for a year he doesn’t want to eat it.
Did you eat sausage?
Yeah. He makes the sausage, too. They grind it in a sausage grinder. We had sausage sometimes instead of bacon. It’s good. Pork chops. They’re good too. They’re great. I don’t really know why we don’t eat it.
Because it’s stuff from a pig.
So what? Why do you think farmers raise pigs? For people to look at ’em? It’s like anything else you eat. You just eat it, and it’s really good.
Even a writer as skillful as Roth cannot bring to life so phony a conversation. A Jewish boy in Newark in 1940 might well have identified with a tractor driver on a Soviet kolkhoz—but with the pig farmers of Kentucky? It is not a fascist government that has turned Sandy into a ventriloquist’s dummy; it is his novelist-creator.
Roth’s lack of conviction about his own central plot device is palpable throughout. Most of the actual fright that occurs in the novel is caused by the kind of domestic violence that has nothing to do with government provocation—as when Philip gets into trouble by forging a note, or when he mistakes a neighbor’s corpse for the corpse of his father. On one devastating night in 1942, blood, we read, “spattered the length and breadth of our imitation Oriental rug, blood dripping from the splintered remains of our coffee table, blood smeared like a sign across my father’s forehead, blood spurting from my cousin’s nose.” A pogrom? No, the damage has been done in a fight between Herman Roth and his nephew. Mob violence against Jews does occur in the novel’s climax, but its menace derives from Roth’s invoking the German precedent of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” Nor does he anywhere show us an American politician elected on a platform of anti-Semitism. As far as his counterhistory is concerned, this political eventuality, too, remains just as it was then and has remained in fact: a foreign growth that has never taken root in this country.
In the rushed and complicated denouement of the novel, Lindbergh simply disappears. Once he is gone, the Vice President is deposed, FDR is effortlessly restored to office, and Roth’s animating political conceit fizzles in two pages like a spent firecracker. In a kind of last-ditch rescue operation, the novelist turns back the clock to the moment when the anti-Semites are still in power, so that we can once again feel, through Philip, a child’s “perpetual fear.” The novel ends lamely on a note of guilt and penance, with Philip reflecting on his betrayal of the boy downstairs.
So what kind of political novel is this? Does Roth intend, as some have speculated, to alert us to today’s recrudescence of global anti-Semitism, and what it might portend for American Jews? If so, that would suggest an analogy between the war against the Jews in Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s and the Arab-Muslim incitement against Jews and the Jewish state that has come to infect whole sectors of advanced Western society.
There is, of course, something (though hardly everything) to such an analogy. Today, as then, the enemies of the Jews are the enemies of America and of democracy. Today, as then, those who defend the Jews have been charged with dragging America into a useless and unnecessary war. Today, as then, America is itself politically divided, between those prepared to battle and defeat the enemies of democracy and those, then on the Right but now mainly on the Left, who wish to keep out of the conflict or who question the bona fides of the United States in prosecuting it.
But there is a complication in pursuing the analogy. If it is to hold, today’s equivalent of the Herman Roth character in this novel would be someone leading the charge for George W. Bush, and today’s equivalent of his nephew would be joining the American military to go fight in Iraq. This, however, Roth does not and apparently dares not imply. Quite the contrary: perhaps fearful that readers might draw precisely such a conclusion from his exercise in alternative history, he launched a preemptive strike before the book’s publication by declaring George W. Bush “unfit to run a hardware store, let alone a nation like this one.”
But if one does not want to oblige today’s American Jews to do anything about “a genuine anti-Semitic threat,” why, then, write a novel explicitly aimed at exposing them to “the danger”? Why ratchet up the peril, raise the temperature of fear? The question, alas, answers itself. Many American Jews, including, it would seem, some of the most enthusiastic reviewers of this book, define their own Jewish consciousness and values not by means of religious worship, observance of commandments, community affiliation, or work on behalf of Israel, but through commemorations of the Holocaust. Behind The Plot Against America stretch the many years that American Jews have consecrated to Holocaust education and Holocaust simulation, activities based on the notion that there is moral and spiritual merit in the vicarious re-experiencing of so dire a past. But while the original impulse behind such commemoration was linked to the vow of Never Again!, implying a need to take effective political action on behalf of the Jewish people, Holocaust memorialization has increasingly slipped into little more than self-indulgent paranoia. For all Roth’s intelligence, and for all his sophistication in turning this tendency to literary advantage, his book also exemplifies it.
There may be, as well, a more urgent personal aspect to Roth’s nostalgia for a time when anti-Semitism was in flower. Creating a fictional climate of fear has paradoxically allowed him to write about his childhood with greater tenderness and appreciation than he has ever done before. The same qualities in his parents’ generation that once drew his satirical ire—above all, their sheer, maddening decency—acquire dignity and worth when seen against the background of an America that wants, as it were, to stamp them out. Without the anti-Semitism, they were simply the Jewish bourgeoisie, avatars of the reviled middle class; magnify the background of fascism, and they step forth as moral heroes.
Naturally, the literary imagination is free to wander where it wishes, and Roth’s produces very lively fiction. But as a novel about politics, this book is irrelevant—except perhaps inadvertently. For, aside from the real possibility of Islamic terrorism directed against Jewish targets in America, there is the no less real potential today for a kind of homegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right (Lindbergh’s direct heirs) with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left. We have had a foretaste of where this malign conjunction could lead in the recent campaign to smear AIPAC and a (non-Jewish) Pentagon analyst for allegedly passing draft classified documents to Israel.
This real-life episode might well have been drawn directly from the pages of a novel entitled The Plot Against America. But it would not be this novel, nor would its moral be the least bit similar. For the real fear aroused by Roth’s novel is not that America is under “threat of becoming fascist” but that many of its leading cultural figures, and a part of American Jewry, are not prepared to sustain a war against the anti-Semites and the America-haters of our own time. The danger it points up is not the danger it describes; the danger it points up is of political infantilization.
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