Synopses & Reviews
When the renowned aviation hero and rabid isolationist Charles A. Lindbergh defeated Franklin Roosevelt by a landslide in the 1940 presidential election, fear invaded every Jewish household in America. Not only had Lindbergh, in a nationwide radio address, publicly blamed the Jews for selfishly pushing America toward a pointless war with Nazi Germany, but upon taking office as the thirty-third president of the United States, he negotiated a cordial understanding with Adolf Hitler, whose conquest of Europe and virulent anti-Semitic policies he appeared to accept without difficulty.
What then followed in America is the historical setting for this startling new book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Philip Roth, who recounts what it was like for his Newark family and for a million such families all over the country during the menacing years of the Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews had every reason to expect the worst.
"During his long career, Roth has shown himself a master at creating fictional doppelgängers. In this stunning novel, he creates a mesmerizing alternate world as well, in which Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election, and Philip, his parents and his brother weather the storm in Newark, N.J. Incorporating Lindbergh's actual radio address in which he accused the British and the Jews of trying to force America into a foreign war, Roth builds an eerily logical narrative that shows how isolationists in and out of government, emboldened by Lindbergh's blatant anti-Semitism (he invites von Rippentrop to the White House, etc.), enact new laws and create an atmosphere of religious hatred that culminates in nationwide pogroms. Historical figures such as Walter Winchell, Fiorello La Guardia and Henry Ford inhabit this chillingly plausible fiction, which is as suspenseful as the best thrillers and illustrates how easily people can be persuaded by self-interest to abandon morality. The novel is, in addition, a moving family drama, in which Philip's fiercely ethical father, Herman, finds himself unable to protect his loved ones, and a family schism develops between those who understand the eventual outcome of Lindbergh's policies and those who are co-opted into abetting their own potential destruction. Many episodes are touching and hilarious: young Philip experiences the usual fears and misapprehensions of a pre-adolescent; locks himself into a neighbor's bathroom; gets into dangerous mischief with a friend; watches his cousin masturbating with no comprehension of the act. In the balance of personal, domestic and national events, the novel is one of Roth's most deft creations, and if the lollapalooza of an ending is bizarre with its revisionist theory about the motives behind Lindbergh's anti-Semitism, it's the subtext about what can happen when government limits religious liberties in the name of the national interest that gives the novel moral authority. Roth's writing has never been so direct and accessible while retaining its stylistic precision and acute insights into human foibles and follies. Forecast: With its intriguing premise and thriller-tense plot, it's likely that this novel will broaden Roth's readership while instigating provocative debate." Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"There are occasional breaches in the 'what-if' conceit...but the overall effect of the novel is staggering....This magnificent novel is both appropriate to today's headlines and timeless for its undermining of the blind sentiment that 'it can't happen here.'" Booklist (Starred Review)
"[H]ilarious and terrifying by turns, it's a sumptuous interweaving of narrative, characterization, speculation, and argument...at the summit of Roth's achievement. An almost unbelievably rich book, and another likely major prizewinner." Kirkus Reviews
"While the author tries...to turn a wide-angled camera lens on the United States...The Plot Against America hurries toward a preposterous (albeit clever) ending and takes place in a political landscape that remains cartoony in the extreme." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[Philip is] the ideal narrator for this sinuous and brilliant book, with its extreme sweetness (new in Roth), its black pain, and its low, ceaseless cackle." The New Yorker
"This may be alternative history, but it is chillingly and convincingly realistic....The reader watches, horrified yet totally absorbed, as America spirals down the path toward fascism....[A] remarkable achievement. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"When everyone else in the room is shouting, Mr. Roth's piquant storytelling is what makes you want to listen and suspend disbelief." Frank Rich, The New York Times
"Written in pitch-perfect prose....Wherever one stands, this novel is a reminder that the American people are culpable for their president; they pick him, and therefore they must be held accountable for his actions." Miami Herald
"[A] terrific political novel....The Plot Against America begins to rock almost violently in your lap as if a second novel, something from our own time, had been locked inside and was banging furiously on the walls, trying to get out." Paul Berman, The New York Times Book Review
"The Plot Against America stands almost in a category by itself, a book driven by twin engines of historical curiosity....It turns theories into history and obsession into art and makes for some of the most fascinating reading of the season." Chicago Tribune
"[T]he windup will not only keep you glued to your chair but also spur you into deep contemplation about American history....Rich as [the novel] is...Roth cannot quite make us forget that this book is a fantasy, that the things related in it never happened." Chicago Sun-Times
"A sense of forboding, of something horrible about to happen doubly horrible because it will happen here, on familiar streets permeates page after page of The Plot Against America, giving it a compulsive readability." St. Petersburg Times
"[P]owerful....Although much of this novel is really an affectionate picture of urban Jewish society on the eve of World War II, its ability to capture uneasiness and creeping paranoia is brilliant and disturbing." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Roth has imagined this past so thoroughly in all its details that within a few pages the reader is under the book's spell....Roth's late-career metamorphosis into a social novelist is impressive, but what is even more impressive is the glow of compassion in much of his later work." Newsday
"The Plot Against America displays none of Roth's characteristic mix of rage and hilarity. Nor does it adequately convey much of the profound sympathy for its characters that has enriched Roth's best novels." Baltimore Sun
"The Plot Against America builds with force and pathos to a fever pitch; up until the last two chapters, it might very well be the best thing Philip Roth has ever written. But then the author drops the ball, with an abrupt and awkward climax." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"It may well be [Roth's] best [novel], and it may well arouse more controversy than all the rest combined....The Plot Against America is far and away the most outward-looking, expansive, least narcissistic book Roth has written." Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"Confounding and illuminating, enraging and discomfiting, imaginative and utterly terrifyingly believable....As crucial as history, it is also as ferocious." Daniel Handler, The San Francisco Chronicle
"[W]hereas in [past] books the internal strife that drives [Roth's] characters also drives his narratives, this time the internal takes a back seat to the historical....[I]t makes for the most intense book Roth has written to date." Rocky Mountain News
"How plausible is the scenario of Mr. Roth's novel? Not very, although it cannot be entirely dismissed....For the novelist, a grand political narrative is less important than its intimate effects, and...for a while, Mr. Roth captures our interest." Wall St. Journal
"Roth writes clearly and at times with flair....His depiction of his family brings fine moments of real emotion. But the book's impact is minimized by its fizzle of an ending, which leaves these compelling characters stranded." Providence Journal
In this alternate history, Pulitzer Prize-winner Roth considers what it would be like for his Newark family and for a million such families all over the country during the menacing years of a Charles Lindbergh presidency, when American citizens who happened to be Jews would have every reason to expect the worst.
In an astonishing feat of empathy and narrative invention, our most ambitious novelist imagines an alternate version of American history.
In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.
For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindberghs election is the first in a series of ruptures that threaten to destroy his small, safe corner of America-and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.
About the Author
In 1997 Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral
. In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and in 2002 received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in Fiction, previously awarded to John Dos Passos, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow, among others. He has twice won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
In 2005, Philip Roth will become the third living American writer to have his work published in a comprehensive, definitive edition by the Library of America. The last of the eight volumes is scheduled for publication in 2013.
Table of Contents
June 1940October 1940
Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War 1
November 1940June 1941
Loudmouth Jew 44
June 1941December 1941
Following Christians 83
January 1942February 1942
The Stump 122
March 1942June 1942
Never Before 153
May 1942June 1942
Their Country 204
June 1942October 1942
The Winchell Riots 237
Bad Days 287
Perpetual Fear 328
Note to the Reader 364
A True Chronology of the Major Figures 365
Other Historical Figures in the Work 380
Some Documentation 385
Reading Group Guide
“A terrific political novel. . . . Sinister, vivid, dreamlike. . . . Creepily plausible. . . . You turn the pages, astonished and frightened.”
—The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roths extraordinary new novel, The Plot Against America. Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1940s, The Plot Against America tells the story of the Roth family and Jews across the country when the isolationist aviation hero Charles Lindbergh is elected president of the United States.
1. In what ways does The Plot Against America differ from conventional historical fiction? What effects does Roth achieve by blending personal history, historical fact, and an alternative history?
2. The novel begins “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear” [p. 1]. With this sentence Roth establishes that his story is being told from an adult point of view by an adult narrator who is remembering what befell his family, over sixty years earlier, when he was a boy between the ages of seven and nine. Why else does Roth open the novel this way? What role does fear play throughout the book?
3. How plausible is the alternative history that Roth imagines? How would the world be different if America had not entered the war, or entered it on the side of Germany?
4. When the Roth family plans to go to Washington, young Philip wants to take his stamp collection with him because he fears that, since he did not remove the ten-cent Lindbergh stamp, “a malignant transformation would occur in my absence, causing my unguarded Washingtons to turn into Hitlers, and swastikas to be imprinted on my National Parks” [p. 57]. What does this passage suggest about how the Lindbergh election has affected the boy? Where else does this kind of magical thinking occur in the novel?
5. Herman Roth asserts, “History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in this house to an ordinary man—thatll be history too someday” [p. 180]. How does this conception of history differ from traditional definitions? In what ways does the novel support this claim? How is the history of the Roth family relevant to the history of America?
6. After Mrs. Wishnow is murdered, young Philip thinks, “And now she was inside a casket, and I was the one who put her there” [p. 336]. Is he to some degree responsible for her death? How did his desire to save his own family endanger hers?
7. Observing his mothers anguished confusion, Philip discovers that “one could do nothing right without also doing something wrong” [p. 340]. Where in the novel does the attempt to do something right also result in doing something wrong? What is Roth suggesting here about the moral complexities of actions and their consequences?
8. When Herman Roth is explaining the deals Hitler has made with Lindbergh, Roth comments, “The pressure of what was happening was accelerating everyones education, my own included” [p. 101]. What is Philip learning? In what ways is history robbing him of a normal childhood? Why does he want to run away?
9. What motivates Rabbi Bengelsdorf, Aunt Evelyn, and Sandy to embrace Lindbergh and dismiss Herman Roths fears as paranoia? Are they right to do so? In what ways do their personal aspirations affect their perceptions of what is happening?
10. In what ways are Bess and Herman Roth heroic? How do they respond to the crises that befall them? How are they able to hold their family together?
11. Roth observes that violence, when its in a house, is heartbreaking: “like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to see death but not the clothes in a tree” [p. 296]. What causes Herman Roth and Alvin to fight each other so viciously? What is it that brings the violence swirling around them off the streets and into the house? Why is violence in a home so much more disturbing than on the street or the battlefield?
12. Much is at stake in The Plot Against America—the fate of Americas Jews, the larger fate of Europe and indeed of Western civilization, but also how America will define itself. What does the novel suggest about what it means to be an American, and to be a Jewish American? How are the Roths a thoroughly American family?
13. What does the postscript, particularly “A True Chronology of the Major Figures,” add to the novel?