Philip Roth's Populist Nightmare

By Schweber, Matthew S. | Cross Currents, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Philip Roth's Populist Nightmare


Schweber, Matthew S., Cross Currents


One did not have to look for who would work in the concentration camps
and the liquidation centers--the garrison would be filled with
applicants from the pages of a hundred American novels.
--Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night

Where would American literature be without him? The fierce intelligence; the unbridled imagination; the merciless eye; the magisterial voice--Philip Roth, archivist of that lost Jewish Arcadia, Weequahic, New Jersey; anthropologist of the modern Jewish identity; scourge of self-satisfaction, pettiness, vulgarity, greed, piety, sentimentality and cant.

To all his acolytes--defiant outsiders and self-styled mandarins adrift in a shallow Panglossian culture--Roth looms like a secular Prophet, smiting the Philistines in Goodbye Columbus; mortifying the ethnocentrists in Portnoy's Complaint; mocking the Voluptuary in the Kepesh novels; skewering his hysterical, self-righteous critics in Zuckerman Bound; dissecting the anti-Semites on the one hand and the Zionist chauvinists on the other in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock; and most recently, in American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, exposing America's bedrock individualist creed as gossamer that the rootless, self-made man clutches at his peril.

Roth registers our grievances, vindicates our arguments, diminishes our enemies, reflects our sentiments, and affirms our outlook. And by transforming our common experience into a scripture of Art, he sustains us in exile. I shudder to imagine our letters without his audacious vision. Fortunately, I don't have to. Our Bard already has. In The Plot Against America, his twenty-third work of fiction, Roth pre-empts himself or rather, the nurturing world from which his dauntless authorial self sprang. Through the prism of a shadow American history, a nightmarish contortion of the novelist's idyllic childhood unfolds and, writ large, of American Jewry's New World pastoral.

The 1940 Presidential election hatches the plot. Faced with a deadlocked nominating convention and seemingly invincible opponent in FDR, the Republican Party turns to a white-knight--the renowned aviator, pioneer of the solo transatlantic flight, Charles A. Lindbergh. The very same Lindbergh who'd lived in Germany as the Nazi's honored guest until April '39 and who'd spent the year since his return, as the anti-war America First movement's celebrity spokesman, barnstorming the country praising Hitler and accusing the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration" of leading the country to war. Few pundits give the maverick a chance.

But on Election Day, an anxious electorate wearied by the Depression and threatened with yet another bloody European war spurns New Deal architect and patrician internationalist Roosevelt for the plainspoken, rugged, heartland isolationist, "Lindy," The People's Hero. And, true to his word, upon assuming office, President Lindbergh promptly signs an entente cordiale with Hitler and Hirohito "to keep the U.S. out of foreign wars," he declares, "and foreign wars out of America." Virtually everyone in the nation rejoices, exulting in the solitary, self-reliant course Lindy charts for its future.

That is, everyone but the Jews. For the old "persecuting spirit" Hawthorne once portrayed has awakened. Just beneath the surface of Lindbergh's blithe fortress Eden percolate hysteria and suspicion. The people--incited by an Administration comprised of crude, unregenerate Jew-haters like Interior Secretary Henry Ford and Vice-President Burton K. Wheeler--spy a duplicitous enemy in their midst. The insidious, war-mongering Jew.

Suddenly, the happy and undistinguished life of the loyal, working-class Roths of Newark, New Jersey takes an ominous turn. For the Lindbergh Presidency will assail their security--their "unconscious oneness" with the land of their birth--as never before. And along with millions of Jews like them, it will confront them with their peoples' eternal question--the question from which as Americans they imagined themselves forever immune: is it time to flee? …

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