Houghton Mifflin Co. (10/5/2004)
$26.00; Hardcover, 400 pages
Forget Portnoy’s Complaint. Never mind American Pastoral (1997) or I Married A Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). In fact, you had better chuck the whole Zuckerman trilogy altogether. In his old age, Philip Roth is a reformed man, and we know better than to remind a quasi “baal teshuva” of his previous behavior.
The Plot Against America contains the most Jewish narrative and characters I have ever seen flow from Roth’s pen, and I am not sure I don’t find the new religious Roth any less fascinating than the provocative one who inspired the appellation of “self-hating Jew”.
“The Plot” explores a fictional scenario wherein Charles A. Lindbergh serves Franklin Roosevelt a resounding defeat in the 1940 election. Lindbergh inaugurates an isolationist policy founded upon an “understanding” with Adolf Hitler that promises to keep America at a respectful distance while the Nazis conquer the world. Somehow, America mysteriously is to aid Germany in a phase two that Roth never really explains completely, but the unfolding story tracks Philip (Roth refers to himself and his family by name) and his family as they find themselves alienated in their Newark community while grappling with their roles as Jews in an increasingly anti-Semitic America.
Roth’s fictional tale fits into the broader literary picture. He manages to join hands with the historical fiction camp-a-club whose prestigious card-carriers range from classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities to Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall. But while the historical fictionists classically interpreted local detail while preserving the integrity of the story, Roth alters historical events completely. In this sense, Roth jumps aboard the creative non-fiction bandwagon – one he shares with the writers of esteemed publications like Fourth Genre, Creative Non-Fiction and River Teeth – who simultaneously declare allegiance to fact and fiction.
Naturally, they find this declaration of allegiance easy, as they are unable to distinguish between the two, but Roth navigates this boundary by playing liberally with presidential race outcomes, all the while telling an autobiography of sorts, quite true to his own Newark experience.
Philip, the character, finds himself standing in the middle of a family portrait that is quickly tearing at the seams. Sandy, his elder brother, eagerly supports Lindbergh, allying himself with his Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of B’nai Moshe, who rose to such celebrity status as to enjoy private audiences at the White House due to his appeal to Jewish constituents to support the Republican party. One character calls it “koshering” Lindy for the Gentiles.
Evelyn and her husband, and thus Sandy, by affiliation, are traitors in Herman Roth’s and his wife, Bess’ eyes, as well as in the eyes of many of their local Jewish neighbors, notably Shepsie Tirschwell, who owns the Newsreel Theater, which tells the news with an eye for renouncing the president. Nationally syndicated radio host Walter Winchell, who bemoans the Nazi-ization of the American government, serves as Jewish spokesman, presidential candidate, and ultimately, as martyr.
This tremendous political and religious gulf amongst Americans unfolds across a variety of episodes: from anti-Semitic confrontations on the family trip to Washington D.C. to the creation of the program “Just Folks” by the Office of American Absorption (OAA), that declares itself “a volunteer work program for city youth in the traditional ways of heartland life” (Herman declares it an assimilation program in disguise).
There is also the return of the character Alvin with an amputated leg following a wound while serving in Canada to fight against the Nazis – to a dinner visit at the Roth house from Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf. We also have Herman finding himself relocated by the OAA from the Metropolitan Newark district to a district office in Danville, Kentucky. Every step of the way, the tag team of Evelyn, the good rabbi and Sandy clashes with the Roth family unit.
Roth’s “The Plot” largely succeeds for its literary images, though its plot too is strong. Lindbergh launches a very literary campaign: he steals the show at the Republican Convention, appearing unannounced in his Spirit of St. Louis and delivers his speeches still wearing his flying goggles and boots. He flies his plane over Washington from time to time, and civilians salute below.
Both Philip and Sandy appreciate their president’s image; Philip is an avid stamp collector, while Sandy is an artist. Where Sandy uses his art to climb the socio-political ladder, Philip loses his stamp collection altogether (a metaphorical blindness, or loss of innocence), while fleeing home in the dark of night and virtually losing his life in the process.
Philip has a stamp of Lindbergh, and he has nightmares about the stamp, feeling guilty for not disposing of such an anti-Semite, even in stamp form. Sandy also has images of Lindbergh, though his images are of his own invention. This bond between Sandy and Philip of forbidden images (where Philip can’t tell on his brother, or he is sure to lose his prized stamp as well) presents a fascinating meditation on images in general.
Roth’s book is replete with metaphors, all woven together wonderfully, but we must ask what “Jewish writing” means, if anything, to Roth. In his “Some New Jewish Stereotypes,” quoted in “Reading Myself and Others,” Roth comments on “the pleasure of recognition, the plain and simple kick that comes of seeing the words kugel and latkes in print.” However, the simple notion of text about Jews won’t do from Roth’s perspective.
To me, Roth is a Jewish writer because he is a Jew and because his writing reflects such a depth of character and of exploration. He thinks deeply about Jewish values, because he is a writer and a deep thinker and a Jew. I could call his literary method Talmudic in its rigorousness, I could call the character development Malamud-esque. I could tease out cultural, biographical elements. I could create an encyclopedia of Roth’s references to Jewish objects. But ultimately, Roth earns his perch in the pantheon of Jewish literature simply because he does it so well, so consistently, so deeply and because he does it so Jewishly.
And in conclusion, I will borrow another of Roth’s lines and apply it to him. “He is one of those Jews, like Job, who wonder why they were born.”
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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