Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Memories of the Lindbergh Administration: Plotting, Genre, and the Splitting of the Self in the Plot against America

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Memories of the Lindbergh Administration: Plotting, Genre, and the Splitting of the Self in the Plot against America

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) was released to a furor of critical attention and speculation. A major event in the United States, the publication of the book hetalded Roth's first television appearances since 1968 (on Today and PBS's Newshouf), and in the United Kingdom, his publisher launched a large promotion campaign frequently fronted by a photograph of the elderly Roth seated before a background of the Stars and Stripes.1 The first chapter of the book was published before release, on September 11, in the Guardian Review alongside a lengthy interview with the writer (20-23). Throughout the interview, the writer talks about the motivations behind his earlier fiction and recalls childhood memories of Newark in the 1940s and 1950s. He speaks at length about his father - Herman Roth, one of the main protagonists of the new novel. The content of the interview suggests that Roth's project in The Plot Against America is less political parable than studied reflection on the impermanence and potential fictionality of history and, moreover, the memory of the writer. His interest is clearly in the personal, in the real and imagined histories of the subject.

Despite the author's protestations to the contrary, reviewers were quick to seize on the book as either a lament for lost liberties under the regime of the Bush administration or a chilling re-imagining of the Al-Qaida threat to the United States.2 However, as Michael Wood pointed out in his extended review essay on the novel for the London Review of Books, such readings represent over-simplifications of Roth's project. Wood suggests that the plot in The Plot Against America is "not against America as an imperial nation or America as the land of liberty, but against America as the increasingly battered utopia of tolerance, an always threatened and never fully accomplished vision of shelter and respect for all" (3). With such an analysis, however, Wood also effectively looks at the plot of the title as a political reference, a reference based upon the promises of an idealized version of the United States drawn from outdated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political rhetoric. For Wood, the novel is a comment upon the world exterior to that between the covers of the book, a comment upon what Roth himself has called the "unwritten world" ("Authors Note" ix).

Wood and his critical counterparts can hardly be blamed for their view that America itself is the subject of this book. The novel plays on a presiding climate of fear in the United States, presenting a pupper, autocratic president, and a nation that is, at least superficially, dedicated to the preservation of world peace and the upholding of global civil liberties. In addition to the seeming topicality of the book's subject matter, Roth's fiction has, at some level, always spoken to the nation of itself. This is especially the case in the American Pastoral trilogy, which examines the meaning of American identity and nationhood in the latter half of the twentieth century and, in the process, Actively reinvents a variety of historical and contemporary real-life personages from Paul Robeson to Bill Clinton. However, Roth is not a writer to be trusted in terms of the construction of his fictional realities. This is a writer who has played games with himself and his readership for five decades, and The PLt Against America is no exception, delving into the consciousness of a seven-year-old Jewish boy called Philip Roth with a set of fictional parents beating striking resemblances to previous portrayals of Herman and Bess Roth. Indeed, the jacket inscription reads that the novel presents "the historical setting for [...] Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family - and for a million such families all over the country - during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency [.. .]." In the novel's "Postscript," however, the book declares its status as artifice, thus deliberately straddling an indeterminate borderland between fiction and reality, or between "written and the unwritten worlds. …

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