Mistaking Merry: Tearing off the Veil in American Pastoral

By Sigrist-Sutton, Clare | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Mistaking Merry: Tearing off the Veil in American Pastoral


Sigrist-Sutton, Clare, Philip Roth Studies


At the close of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gidin writes, "Any finality I can imagine for this book seems false, for I write not just about history but imprisoned within it, enclosed within die aftermaths of the Sixties, trying to peer over the walls" (433). In narrating the same decade through the eyes of Seymour "the Swede" Levov, Nathan Zuckerman enacts this reality in his own storytelling. Zuckerman, too, is therefore limited by what he is able to see and say and even uncertain about the assertions he can make within those limitations. Writing in the mid-nineties, he cannot simply set the story aright but must first begin with how it has been "created and revised in historical time" (Gidin, Sixties 433). Zuckerman's own voice and opinion open the novel but are later swallowed up by Seymour's narrative. Some have interpreted this disappearance as merely an affirmation of the Swede's vision. Closer attention to Zuckerman's variance with that vision, however, may imply otherwise. Within American Pastoral (1997), Zuckerman impartsacertain sensibility for the historical framing of Seymour's story, and diough the bulk of the narrative submits to a history as told through the Swede's eyes, the ending of the novel returns to Zuckerman's voice and his dominant inquiry - the historical. Within the logic of a historical novel, Zuckerman must submit to being silenced by a larger-than-life narrative in order to underscore diat his reading of the period is not the one that will dominate historical memory. While this silencing gives rise to a rather conventional portrait of the Sixties, Zuckerman's voice does succeed in reminding us that this portrait is only partial. That partial narrative, so easily mistaken for the whole, is the Swede's, one of mythic proportions, worldly success, and terrible tragedy - a story diat, Zuckerman seems to imply, would imprison one like him.

The novel opens at Zuckerman's forty-fifth high school reunion where he first learns of Seymour's death. The Swede's story emerges out of this nostalgic haze, a mood to which Zuckerman himself does not surrender. Resolute and clear-sighted in 1995, Zuckerman asks, "out of what context did these transformations arise - out of what historical drama, acted unsuspectingly by its little protagonists, played out in classrooms and kitchens looking nothing at all like the great theater of life?" (Pastoral 44). Philip Roth's subject, the effect of the Sixties radical students on the present, finds its expression in a subject incapable of evoking the general historic predicament of the times; as Zuckerman says, this historical drama "lookfs] nothing at all like the great theater of life." Consequently, the Jewish American family moving toward all- American assimilation, however intimate and harrowing as a portrait, cannot be read as historically representative. The reader looking for a more representative swath of die time period, then, has to look elsewhere or, at the very least, to the imaginative margins of the text. Roth's awareness of both the strengths and limitation of his narrative craft imparts to the reader a commensurate sense of the difficulty of reading American Pastoral as a historical novel, set as it is within Roth's larger historical project of the American Trilogy.

The difficult task of interpreting the novel's historical project, then, requires an approach that would look beyond the pot trait of the middle-class American family that it presents - beyond the purported majority status of such a group to what it obscures: both the oppressed racial classes within the nation-state and those struggling for national liberation outside of it. Zuckerman alludes to the politics behind this negated form of representation through the story of the Levov family glove factory, Newark Maid, placing the relatively puny enterprise beside the likes of Chase Manhattan, General Motors, and other corporations that outsourced production in the post-civil rights era. …

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