The Plot against America: A Novel
by Philip Roth
A review by Laura Miller
When, in 2002, Philip Roth won the National Book Foundation's medal for Distinguished
Contribution to American Letters, the most august lifetime achievement award he's
likely to receive unless he's called to Stockholm for a Nobel Prize, he devoted
his acceptance speech to a long and cranky argument about his right to consider
himself an American writer rather than a Jewish writer. This is Roth's oldest
gripe -- that as an artist and a man he's been subjected to unfair claims on his
loyalty and identity. And while it may seem regressive for a writer of Roth's
renown to be swatting away such ancient reproaches (does anybody still make them?),
his ability to keep old grievances alive is what fuels him.
All this makes Roth's latest novel, The Plot Against America, doubly
surprising. The book's premise -- what happens to the Roth family of Newark,
N.J., when Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential
election and America descends into an orgy of anti-Semitism -- is an embrace
of the catastrophic anxieties Roth once rebelled against. He envisions the kind
of America where, like it or not, he is a Jew first. But equally unexpected
is the novel's credibility: By setting it in a wholly imaginary history, Roth
has paradoxically managed to write his most believable book in years.
Roth's feelings of persecution have been the engine of much of his fiction,
and for his readers it's always a complicated balancing act: Is the thrill of
being swept up in his stormy wrath worth the suspension of common sense that's
often required? The tirade about the Monica Lewinsky scandal that kicks off
Human Stain, for example, has a certain Swiftian magnificence, but as a
description of what happened in America in 1998 it is dead wrong. The nation
was not caught up in a puritanical witch hunt; rather, Americans largely refused
to be whipped into such a frenzy, in defiance of the best efforts of right-wingers
and certain media figures. (Wallowing in a gleefully smutty gossip-fest about
Bill and Hillary Clinton's private lives is another matter -- that's still going
on, to judge from the covers of supermarket tabloids.)
Sexual persecution is the specter that really winds Roth's watch, but in an
era of gay marriage and openly polyamorous households, it's hard to find a situation
in which a heterosexual male of conventional proclivities can feel truly ostracized
as a result of his sexuality. As a result, Roth has had to contrive some pretty
preposterous scenarios, populated by an assortment of straw-man oppressors,
in order to maneuver his main characters into a position in which they can be
unjustly tormented. You can see all the strings and gears here, as in The
Human Stain, in which Coleman Silk is given a wife solely so that she can
be hounded unto death by a university's administration and thus provide sufficient
justification for Silk's foaming hatred of that administration.
With The Plot Against America, we're asked to believe something far
more dramatic: that our country could, under the right circumstances and under
the influence of powerful demagogues, degenerate into hate-stoked rioting on
the level of Nazi Germany's notorious Kristallnacht. Yet -- a dismal thought
-- this is more plausible than the propositions Roth has been presenting us
with lately. Roth's handling of the story is sober, considered and subdued,
another surprise. Roth's fire-and-brimstone eloquence has hypnotized many a
reader who might, in a less persuasive fictional climate, reject the paranoid
fantasies he concocts. Here, where the threat is real (however speculative the
"history" may be), he has abandoned his fury.
For The Plot Against America is a book about fear. "Fear"
is the very first word in it, and for Roth fear is the natural companion of
love, the secondary subject of the novel. The book is a tribute to his parents,
Herman and Bess, and the tender order and fierce integrity of the life they
created for their two sons, Sandy and Philip, in mid-20th century Newark. Roth
seems unaware of the vast and lively fictional genre of alternate history, but
this novel belongs to the small subset of it that is less interested in the
unfolding of global events than in the way those events affect the most intimate
experiences of the people who live through them.
From the moment Lindbergh offers himself as a Republican candidate opposed
to intervention in the war in Europe, he becomes the villain of the Roth household.
This puts Herman at odds with such rich, assimilated Jews as Rabbi Bengelsdorf,
a Newark macher renowned for his public speaking, horsemanship and "several
books of inspirational poetry routinely given as gifts to bar mitzvah boys and
newlyweds." Bengelsdorf is a marvelous creation, part object lesson in
the perils of collaboration and part meticulous parody of self-important men
everywhere: "'Newark has the best drinking water in the world,' the rabbi
said, and said it as he would say everything, with deep consideration."
But while the desperate rabbis of Europe might have cooperated with the Nazis
in hope of somehow lessening or managing the devastation awaiting their communities,
Bengelsdorf is merely a fool. Like everyone else in the novel, he's in thrall
to a notion of America; the novel's most ferocious battles ultimately boil down
to a collision of contradictory Americas. For the rabbi and his "wealthy,
urbane, self-assured" friends, America is their own success story, in which
they, the tiny first generation of Jews to attend Ivy League colleges, "mingled
with the non-Jews, whom they subsequently associated with in communal, political
and business endeavors and who sometimes appeared to accept them as equals."
To the Roths, America is the set of constitutional and governmental protections
that allows them to live unmolested in Jewish neighborhoods. What they share
with their neighbors is not a particularly Jewish culture but simply a blessed
relief from the prejudice that, anywhere else, made them feel like outsiders.
"It was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far
more than religion," Roth writes -- and there is a powerful sense that
the neighborhood and family depictions here are largely autobiographical. "Nobody
in the neighborhood had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style
or wore a skullcap either outside or in the houses."
Philip and his family know they are Jews, and that this threatens to set them
apart (early in the novel, Herman rejects a promotion that would require moving
to a gentile neighborhood), but they identify as Americans. Philip, "steeped
in an American English that sounded more like the language spoken in Altoona
or Binghamton than like the dialects famously spoken across the Hudson,"
revels in the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, and finds the bearded stranger
who goes door-to-door collecting donations to establish a Jewish homeland in
Palestine bewildering. "We'd already had a homeland for three generations
... Our homeland was America."
Lindbergh's presidency splits the Roth family. Bess' sister, Evelyn, marries
Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who is appointed by Lindbergh to direct the Office of American
Absorption. They lure Philip's older brother, Sandy, into an OAA program with
the sinisterly wholesome title of Just Folks. Just Folks sends urban children
to heartland farms for the summer, with the ostensible aim of "encouraging
America's religious and national minorities to become further incorporated into
the larger society." Sandy becomes a partisan of Evelyn's view that "the
greatest fear of a Jew like her brother-in-law was that his children might escape
winding up as narrow-minded and frightened as he was."
Sandy and the Bengelsdorfs are woefully mistaken about the ultimate ends of
the OAA, but until its true nature emerges, they espouse many of the same ideas
Roth himself has voiced. You could see The Plot Against America as an
act of contrition, a concession allowing that the fears of his parents' generation
represented, if not a present reality, then at least a potential one. In other
words, it can happen here. The Jews of Newark are always merely a step away
from panic, dogged by "an atavistic sense of being undefended that had
more to do with Kishinev and the pogroms of 1903 than with New Jersey 37 years
later." Previously, like Sandy, Roth called this paranoia. But in this
novel, Newark's Jews are not so terribly off the mark.
The young Philip Roth in The Plot Against America is a child who has
soaked up the ambient fear around him and attached it to everything from the
cellar (haunted, he thinks) to the cousin who returns from fighting with the
Canadian army against Hitler minus a leg. He cherishes his stamp collection,
which somehow comes to stand for all the American ideals he and his family are
about to see shattered. (Later on, his mother will urge his father not to send
a letter to the gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who has become the most outspoken
opponent of the Lindbergh administration, because someone might intercept it.
"Never. Not the U.S. Mail," Herman replies.) Philip has a recurring
nightmare that his series of stamps showing national parks have been overprinted
with swastikas, and that the presidents' faces have been replaced with Hitler's.
Much of The Plot Against America consists of the child Philip's relatively
ordinary boyhood experiences -- adventures with a mischievous friend, efforts
to decipher the mysteries of the adult world, the slow revelation that his parents
are mere human beings, and the trials of having to play with a geeky family
friend, a boy to whom Philip will ultimately do a terrible wrong. The voice
is an adult's, but not intrusively so. And meanwhile, underneath it all, the
hum of menace grows louder and louder, until the disaster stalking Philip's
America becomes indistinguishable from the routine disasters of growing up,
and then suddenly eclipses them.
The novel's hero is Herman Roth, an insurance salesman who lacks the killer
instincts of his entrepreneurial brothers. This leaves him more vulnerable to
the anti-Semitic machinations of the government, and sometimes the book feels
like a defense of him to a younger version of Roth who mistakenly saw Herman
as weak. The uncles and other Jewish businessmen in The Plot Against America
crackle and leap from the page -- the passages about them have the immediate
feel of stories traded across the dining room table, full of rants and jokes
and gestures, full of life. By contrast, the modest, industrious Herman might
The nightmare of the Lindbergh presidency becomes, for Roth the novelist, a
way of applying a brutal pressure to his father and mother, an experiment that
reveals, in extremis, their true worth. At the moment of greatest crisis, each
of them is called upon to act, and each shows the clarity of genuine courage,
mobilized by their most deeply held ideals. "There were two kinds of strong
men," Roth writes, "those like Uncle Monty and Abe Steinham, remorseless
about their making money, and those like my father, ruthlessly obedient to their
idea of fair play."
But while The Plot Against America concedes (after a fashion; the book
has a rather gratuitous "secret" revealed at the end) that the rise
of a murderously anti-Semitic regime is possible, even in the U.S., it is not
his Jewishness that spurs Herman Roth's defiance of that regime, but his Americanness.
Roth has not strayed so far from his old ways after all. To be Jews, for Herman
and his friends, is "neither a mishap or a misfortune or an achievement
to be 'proud' of." It is rather "in the nature of things, as fundamental
as having arteries and veins, and they never manifested the slightest desire
to change it or deny it." To insist on a place in this country no matter
what the "nature of things" might be, this, for Herman Roth, and eventually
for his son Philip, is to be American.