For most of my life Philip Roth’s novels have existed in an environment just beyond my radar. I knew about them in a general sense and was aware that he was held in high esteem as a literary author, but that is as far as it went. Then he died. After several podcasts I listen to did retrospectives of his career I decided I should change that.
The Plot Against America, Roth’s 2004 novel, is a grim alternate history that explores the issue of antisemitism in America.
The story takes place in the narrator’s (young Philip Roth) youth in Newark when Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise appearance at a deadlocked 1940 Republican National Convention and sweeps his way to the nomination. Lindbergh’s campaign frames the choice as between Roosevelt’s warmongering and American First, as he hops from city to city in his personal plane giving speeches on the airfield. Roosevelt, by contrast, is old-fashioned and traditional. Failing to appreciate the threat posed by Lindbergh, Roosevelt loses the election and retires from public life to his estate in New York.
For Roth’s Jewish family, the election is a disaster. Around every corner are people with anti-semitic opinions now empowered by the president and America-Firsters who regard Roosevelt’s globalist supporters as traitors. With the US committed to non-intervention, Philip’s cousin Alvin runs away from home to join the Canadian army to fight Hitler. Roth’s father begins listening exclusively to the left-wing demagogic radio personality Walt Winchell who loudly denounces Lindbergh as a fascist. Every action taken by the government is tinged with bigotry, he believes, the first step toward a pogrom.
The “Just Folks” program sends Jewish youths from urban areas to farms in the heartland. Philip’s older brother Sandy ends up in Kentucky for a summer working on a tobacco farm and returns a convert to the mission of the OAA—the Organization of American Absorption. Then Alvin returns, having lost a leg in combat. Further exacerbating tensions in the family is that Philip’s aunt Evelyn goes to work for Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, the head of the OAA office in New Jersey.
The Plot Against America is presented as a retrospective of a dark episode in American history that both reveals a psychic scar in the country’s collective conscience and ends as abruptly as it began. Roth’s youth during the events described and the nature of conspiracy leaves it unclear what happened to bring Lindbergh to office, let alone what happened while he was there that leads to a bloody climax.
The national and historical developments create the backdrop for what is, ultimately, a family drama. The Lindbergh administration works to break up Jewish enclaves in cities like Newark, and the Roth family is split between those who hold to their convictions, such as his father, those who want to ignore politics, and the collaborators, whether out of naked opportunism or youthful naivete. The characters are vividly drawn, frequently in the graphic detail and sharp colors of youthful memory. There are good gentiles in The Plot Against America, much as there are bad Jews. In both cases Roth captures something fundamental to and fundamentally fragile in the soul of America.
Although it was published in 2004, The Plot Against America was an eerie read for 2018, right down to a Scandinavian summit where an American president with a fervent base is openly condemned for fawning behavior toward another foreign leader, leading commentators to ask what that leader has on the President. Similarly, American prejudices are papered over by a tradition of constitutionalism, but only barely, and there is a preference for collective amnesia rather than for resolution.
The Plot Against America> was hard to read, but rather than being a book that lost its edge since its publication, it is one that has only become sharper. That is probably too lofty a standard to set for when I get to Roth’s other books, but I can now say with certainty that I am going to be reading more.
Next up, I just started reading A Brave New World. I read it in high school but remember nothing except a general sense of distaste. Like with Fahrenheit 451, I want to give it a fair shake.