Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"How to Hate, and Whom": Ahabian Ire in Roth's the Great American Novel and the Plot against America

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"How to Hate, and Whom": Ahabian Ire in Roth's the Great American Novel and the Plot against America

Article excerpt

Set in pre- World War II America, The Plot Against America (2004) envisions aviation hero Charles Lindbergh becoming President of the United States and signing non-aggression pacts with Germany and Japan. Those agreements - along with domestic policies aimed at convetting Jewish children into "Just Folks" and at relocating Jewish families to the Midwest - transform American anti-Semitism into all-out pogroms, especially after the assassination of Walter Winchell, the novel's outspoken radio-columnist critic of Lindbergh. Narrated by a much older "Philip Roth," who recounts his childhood memories of the Lindbergh administration, The Plot Against America illustrates how a bigoted president might have allowed fascism to dominate the American scene. Democracy prevails, however, following the disappearance of Lindbergh and the ascension to office of FDR, with the book's true heroes being everyday people like Philip's mother and father, along with Walter Winchell. Thus, fascism does not overtake the United States: "Nor is my point that this can happen and will happen," says Roth; "rather, it's that at die moment when it should have happened, it did not happen" ("Story behind Plot" 11).'

Still, not all is well for the novel's narrator, whose opening utterance reveals a telling and unrelenting insecurity about his being Jewish: "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. [ . . .] I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews" Plot 1). More, though, haunts die narrator dian a fear of bigotry; at issue, I propose, is a concern related to diat voiced by Roth in 1984: "I knew less about anti-Semitic repression from personal experience than I did about the repressions Jews practiced upon themselves, and upon one another, as a consequence of the history of anti-Semitism" ("Art of Fiction" 1 80). Attention to the phenomenon of self-directed repression allows us to appreciate more fully both the perpetual fear of the narrator and Roth's remark about the work's narrative artistry: "I don't see die book as being told from the child's point of view, but rather the man is thinking through the boy's experience" ("It No Longer Feels" 2). Attentive to the narrator's process of "thinking through," I concur with David Brauner, who argues that Roth's narrator everywhere intimates both his childhood and adult fear, guilt, and ethnic self-denigration (186-217). 2 For those and other reasons, I suggest, die narrator may also, either consciously or subconsciously, posit his childhood and adult timidity as existing in relation to the insecurity of the young black boy, Pip, in Moby-Dick (1851). We shall see, moreover, that this odd alignment stands related to Rodi's concern, as expressed years earlier in Portnoy's Comphint (1969), diat centuries of debilitating Diaspora life had produced "frightened, defensive, self-deprecating, unmanned" Jews who "had gone by the millions to gas chambers without ever raising a hand against their persecutors, who did not know enough to defend their lives with dieir blood" (299) ? Although the worlds of Moby-Dick and the Holocaust may seem distant in Roth's imagination, I shall argue their alignment in the association of ideas generated by the book's older narrator, as well as in the heretofore overlooked compatibility of The Plot Against America with the more conspicuously MeIvillean resonances of Roth's The Great American Novel (1973). What emerges is the importance of the greatest American novel for Roth's literary creativity and social commentary in The Plot Against America.

Vital to that intertextual play of ideas is the way the narrator associates his narrative with events that are "epic" (Pht 114) in proportion and then contrasts his insecurity with the romanticized Ahabian valor diat he attributes to his father, to Walter Wnchell, and (early on) to Cousin Alvin. A projection of Ahabian valor upon one's father was, of course, within the range of our author's repertoire, for in 1974 Roth diusly characterized his fathers "undiscourageable" and "stubborn determination" to stave off financial ruin: "The struggle [. …

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.