Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Rhetoric and Fascism in Jack London's the Iron Heel, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, and Philip Roth's the Plot against America

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Rhetoric and Fascism in Jack London's the Iron Heel, Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here, and Philip Roth's the Plot against America

Article excerpt

In 1 939 Kennedi Burke published "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" in the Southern Review. This essay appeared before many Americans understood much about what was happening in Germany, and it clearly explained, through a rhetorical analysis of ??? Kampf, the nature and the extent of Hitler's threat to die world. Probably the nation's leaders were not regularly reading the Southern Review, but if they had read this essay they may have understood better Hitler's threat to the world much sooner than they apparently did.

The article subsequently appeared in Burke's 1941 The Philosophy of Literary Form; it and another essay in that volume, "Literature as Equipment for Living," provide a rationale for a rhetorical analysis of both traditionally understood literary works as well as works like Mein Kampf. The article asserts that literary works are like proverbs, and that both proverbs and literature offer strategies "for consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling" (293). Burke further asserts that both proverbs and literary works are "strategies for dealing with situations" (296), which suggest to us ways to understand the world around us, including what attitudes we should have toward it and what actions we might best take in response. However, a literary work must "be realistic. One must size things up properly. One cannot accurately know how things will be, what is promising and what is menacing, unless he accurately knows how things are" (298). Burke's theory gives literature a practical role in human affairs, and this essay attempts to make practical use of literature somewhat along the lines of Burke's essay on Hitler and fascism. The three novels examined in this essay - Philip Roth's The PL· Against America (2004), Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908), and Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935) - describe how fictional political opportunists employ techniques and actions that exacerbate economic, social, and international conditions and thereby enable a fascist takeover of the American government. Through their descriptions, these novels size things up so that the conditions, events, and actions portrayed are plausible, and readers who follow carefully domestic American politics might not only see similarities between these descriptions and contemporary events, but might also identify strategies for responding to at least some of the noted similarities.

Reviewers and scholars who have discussed Roth's The PL· Against America have pointed out similarities between the book's description of the rise of a fascist government in the United States and the increasingly restrictive actions of the recent administration of George W. Bush. Blake Morrison in the Guardian calls the book "paranoid [. . .] and utterly plausible" (9), and James Wolcott in the Nation says that although die novel is set in the 1940s, it is "pure now," with "die taunting jack-o'-lantern grin of George W Bush haunting the back of the mind as one consumes the pages" (23). Michael Rothberg notes that "President Charles Lindbergh's know-nothing populism and folksy Americanism have reminded more than a few readers of a certain American president closer to home" (306), and Paul Berman in the New York Times has this to say:

Not once in any of this does Roth glance at events of the present day, not even with a sly wink. Still, after you have had a chance to inhabit his landscape for a while and overhear the arguments about war and fascism and the Jews, The Pht Against America begins to rock almost violently in your lap - as if a second novel, something from our own time, had been locked inside and was banging furiously on the walls, trying to get out. Roth shows us President Lindbergh in his aviator's gear, speaking in a plain style - and you would have to be pretty dimwitted not to recall our current president, striding around the carrier Abraham Lincoln in his own flying attire, delivering his "Mission Accomplished" speech. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.