Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Pilot against America: Stamps, Airmail, and History in the Plot against America1

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Pilot against America: Stamps, Airmail, and History in the Plot against America1

Article excerpt

There has been a growing critical awareness of the extent to which Philip Roth's 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, which was first reviewed as a commentary on the George W. Bush presidency, raises more far-reaching questions about the experience and writing of history. A very recent collection of essays edited by Debra Shostak, for example, groups Plot with American Pastoral (1997) and The Human Stain (2000), as a means of highlighting the fact that these three novels about American identity and history serve "to uncover the processes of history that make selves and to expose the problems of telling that history" (13).2 From the outset, Roth signaled his desire to have Plot read as a metafiction about the relationship between literature and history. In his essay, "The Story Behind The Plot Against America," written for the New York Times upon the publication of his provocative novel, Roth closes by making very broad claims about his goals in this novel and other of what he calls his "recent books":

We are ambushed, even as free Americans in a powerful republic armed to the teeth, by the unpredictability that is history. May I conclude with a quotation from my book? "Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unex- pected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic."

In writing these books I've tried to turn the epic back into the disaster as it was suffered without foreknowledge, without preparation, by people whose Ameri- can expectations, though neither innocent nor delusional, were for something very different from what they got. ("Story" 5)

The novel's conceit, its counterfactuality, aims to achieve Roth's goal of shift- ing the reader's perspective on the past. The novel makes the known historical narrative unpredictable by changing one key fact. We are asked to consider what the world would have been like if Charles Lindbergh had been elected President of the United States in 1940. There is an interesting Rothian irony here: by quoting his own novel in the Times, and glossing its surprises so openly for readers who have yet to read the novel, Roth is preparing those readers to be less surprised by the novel's hitherto unforeseen elements. Apparently, Roth is less interested in narrative surprise than he is in exploring the workings of a sense of the unexpected within the novel itself. For the reader, then, there is a doubled perspective: we get to watch the characters experience the unfolding of the unexpected (the "disaster") while we keep in mind all we know about history as an "epic" (keeping in mind that "disaster" as I'm reading Roth won't always be bad, while "epic" won't always be triumphant-they are merely ways of specifying perspective in relation to what is known). One way to understand the doubled perspective conceptually is to imagine how a reader would come to this novel without knowledge of the events of WWII, the rise of Nazism in Germany, and the cataclysm of the Holocaust. It would be a limited read- ing, indeed. A fuller reading of this novel, then, entails an appreciation of the simultaneity of the epic and disaster views. Roth wants to present the events as an unfolding disaster, but he can't escape the backdrop of the epic.

Clearly missing from Roth's justification of his approach is any mention of a pedagogical function. By way of contrast, here is Primo Levi in his collec- tion of essays, The Drowned and the Saved (1988), making a similar argument about realism and the representation of the improbable nature of the rise of Nazism:

We must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experiences, we have collectively witnessed a fundamental, unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It took place in the teeth of all forecasts; it happened in Europe; incredibly, it happened that an entire civilized people, just issued from the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar, followed a buf- foon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. …

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