Merry Levov's BLT Crusade: Food-Fueled Revolt in Roth's American Pastoral

By Bylund, Sarah | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Merry Levov's BLT Crusade: Food-Fueled Revolt in Roth's American Pastoral


Bylund, Sarah, Philip Roth Studies


"[Cjoncentrating on her BLT as fixedly as her mother's livestock focusing on the fodder at the trough [...] gave her courage to go on alone. [...] By the time she left Chicago she had discovered she no longer needed a home."

- Philip Roth, American Pastoral

"[F]ood is a strong 'edible dynamic' binding present and past, individual and society, private household and world economy, palate and power."

- Warren J. Belasco, Appetite fir Change

In Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), die "post-Jewish" (73) American protagonist, Seymour "The Swede" Levov, lives the charmed, American pastoral life of the 1950s. He is an all-star athlete with prodigious strength and good looks who enlists in the Matines but is spared going to war. Then he marries a "post-Catholic" Irish beauty queen, takes charge of his immigrant father's glove-making business, and settles down in a colonial stone house built in beautiful Rimrock, New Jersey. However, Philip Roth, via his remarkably imaginative narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, reformulates this idealized age of rags-to-riches glory. For, although die Swede is die successful, third-generation inheritor of the American dream, he abruptly becomes "history's playdiing" (87). Merry, his once cheerful daughter, evolves into a 1960s anti-war, anti-American radical who rejects the family wealth, embraces anti-capitalist politics, and plants deadly bombs,1 murdering four people. The Swede's daughter is driven by an inexorable hunger to brand America's political dealings and mainstream lifestyle as capital crimes. Moreover, Merry consistently exploits - and is exploited by - the potent link between consumption and autonomy, or "palate and power" (Belasco 5), in order to dismantle the complacent pastoralism of the bourgeoisie American dream.

Roth's critique of twentieth-century American ambition zeroes in on the optimistic ranks of 1950s, middle-class American immigrants to which die Levovs belong. This segment of society is powered by conspicuous consumption, fiscal security, feelings of entitlement, and a naïve, almost imperialistic, desire to "convert" other cultures and countries to this standard of living. Roth pits the Swedes eager consumption of the assimilated, bourgeoisie lifestyle against Merry's bulimic and, later, anorexic renunciation of this self-satisfied, consumer-centered existence. As a result, food and the act of consumption become Merry's (and Rodi's) potent means of destabilizing America's post-war era of seeming plentitude, wholesomeness, and benevolence.

Many critics have already explored the raw, bittersweet zeal with which Zuckerman scrutinizes and often reworks die turbulent paradoxes of Jewish American consciousness in American Pastoral (and the nine other Roth novels featuring Zuckerman as narrator and/or protagonist). However, in terms of Merry's insurgence, the pervasive presence of what Craig Cox terms "dissenting consumption" (38) has yet to be presented for serious consideration. Even so, these othet critiques only enrich my reading. For instance, Derek Parker Royal sizes up Roth's narratological maneuvering of Zuckerman, stressing that the novel isn't truly the Swede's story, as many reviewers failed to notice ("Fictional Realms" 4). Royal also notes, "What makes [Roth's] American Trilogy," of which American Pastoral is the first book, "so intriguing are die ways in which history reveals the fiction behind the American dream" ("Contesting" 120). Given Zuckerman's role in reconstructing the rise and fall of die Levov family, the dietary choices Merry makes are, as we shall see, all the more significant.

Another critic, Aliki Varvogli, even posits diat Zuckerman identifies much more strongly with Merry than with the Swede, his childhood hero. Essentially, Varvogli argues that Merry, as a political activist, and Zuckerman, as a writer, are kindred spirits in that they are both potential agents of cultural change: "Whereas the writer uses language in his attempt to be an agent of change, the inarticulate Merry resorts to bombing" (111) and to consuming or not consuming various foods, I would add. …

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