The Plot against America: Philip Roth's Counter-Plot to American History

By Siegel, Jason | MELUS, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Plot against America: Philip Roth's Counter-Plot to American History


Siegel, Jason, MELUS


"There's the not-so that reveals the set--that's fiction."

--Philip Roth (Exit 120)

"One can produce an imaginary discourse about real events that may not be less 'true' for being 'imaginary.'"

--Hayden White (57)

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004), which presents an alternate history of the United States during the years 1940-42, has been interpreted by reviewers and critics as a social satire, a cautionary tale, and a veiled allegory of the George W. Bush administration. I draw on Linda Hutcheon's theory of historiographic metafiction to examine Roth's exploration and revision of the ways we represent and comprehend history. Specifically, I posit that Roth submits his counterfactual history, not as a tendentious fictional commentary on "real life," but as a true history that challenges and supplements our notion of American identity as defined by the cause and effect of actual events that comprises its factual history. Roth demonstrates that the identity of a nation cannot be encapsulated in a chronicle of actual events, but that the innumerable potential plotlines that do not come into being largely on account of historical contingency reveal the plurality that comprises any given place at any given time.

In Roth's view, historical truth is not defined by actions, events, and outcomes, but by the various possibilities inherent in any moment that reveal the divided consciousness of the body politic. For example, one who defines historical truth as a series of actions, events, and outcomes might characterize the United States in 2010 as a nation dedicated to the liberal values of government-provided universal health care and green energy on account of Barack Obama's victory over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. In Roth's view, however, such analysis ignores the innumerable potentialities that existed prior to the election, such as the possibility of a Republican victory, that demonstrate the ideological plurality of the American people belied by Obama's landslide victory. In The Plot Against America, Roth applies this logic to the 1940 presidential election to suggest that the definition of the US as the country that fought and defeated the Nazis ignores the currents of fascism and anti-Semitism running through American life in the 1940s. Roth thus submits his fictional alternate history as a true history that takes into account historical possibilities in addition to actual events.

For Roth, truth can be approached and probed but never fully reached or defined. His fictitious counter-history of the US is therefore as true as any strictly factual account of the 1940 presidential race and its outcome in that it seeks to uncover strains of fascism, anti-Semitism, and racism that were as much a part of American life in the 1940s as the desire to stop genocidal fascists from taking over Europe. According to this view, historical truth cannot be encapsulated in any single monologic master narrative, but must be sought through a plurality of factual and fictional narratives that reveal the multiplicity of experiences that constitute our nation's histories.

Hutcheon defines historiographic metafictions as contradictory narratives "which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages" (5). The contradiction arises from the incommensurability of works that at once display their own artifice and assert a basis in historical fact. Hutcheon's theory of historiographic metafiction refutes Fredric Jameson's claim that the genre is politically ineffectual due to its depthless representation, which prevents the recuperation of any "lived context" (8) as an originary referent and produces a waning of affective expression, a replacement of satirical parody with neutral pastiche, and a nostalgic depiction of history as a series of stereotypical icons hermetically sealed off from the present (1-54). …

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