Philip Roth has been accorded the rare honour of having his complete works published by the Library of America while he is still alive. The critics are generally agreed that Philip Roth enhanced his reputation even further with the trilogy of Zuckerman novels published in the late 1990s and followed up several years later with his alternate history novel The Plot Against America.
The Plot Against America outlines the young Philip Roth’s experiences of the events surrounding the Lindbergh election win over Roosevelt in 1940. Charles Lindbergh was the personification of virile American heroism, in stark contrast to the largely wheelchair bound FDR. His promise to keep America out of the war resonated strongly with the voters and he defeated Roosevelt in a landslide in this alternate history. In fact, the Republicans were in disarray in 1940, torn between isolationists and internationalists to the extent that they really did nominate the platitude spouting businessman with no experience of government. And then they got hammered in the election.
Some conservatives had sounded out Lindbergh for a possible run for the Presidency on the back of his giving isolationist speeches around the country. This novel extrapolates from that starting point as Lindbergh also explains away his late 30’s acceptance of Nazi honours on his visits to Germany. He is a late draft at the deadlocked Republican convention of 1940. He campaigns as a cross between Reagan with the folksy one liner and Nixon, with a flying campaign visit to all 48 states in his own plane – epitomising American heroism.
This is not really a novel about the “big” politics of the era, although between his father, Walter Winchell on the radio, and neighbourhood discussions amongst the Newark Jewish community we gain a sense of the big political moves initiated by the Lindbergh administration: the Reykjavik accord with Nazi Germany and a similar Pacific accord with Japan which kept isolationist America at peace. Domestically the Office of American Absorption aims to assimilate immigrant communities (ie Jews) into mainstream American life. It is through this program that Philip’s older brother spends a summer on a Kentucky farm and grows disenchanted with the ghetto-ised Newark Jewish community. Equally, some more conservative Jews are prepared to reach an accord with the Lindbergh regime, including Philip’s aunt, who becomes engaged to Newark’s chief Jewish quisling, a conservative Rabbi invited to a White House reception in 1942 for von Ribbentrop.
It is not so much this imagined politics that is most impressive as the impacts of these changes within the family and the community, and on the young Philip Roth and his sense of his place in America. To be Jewish was suddenly to be suspect, to be thought less American, and to be in danger of being “relocated” or of having to flee to Canada. The atmosphere of mild paranoia is slowly ramped up against the backdrop of a general perception that fascism could not happen in America (except it might). And this is largely told through the eyes of a 9 year old boy exploring Newark on the bus, going to school, collecting stamps and running away from home.
Ultimately the novel falls at the last hurdle when Roth is unable to find a way out of the situation he has landed his protagonists in in an alien America. The plot shift to return us to a more stable and familiar universe where the US and the Allies win WWII and Robert Kennedy is assassinated in 1968 feels incredibly clunky – a deus ex machina as some reviewers would have it. That explanation makes perfect sense when you see it in action here. Despite this, Roth’s ‘alternate history’ of WWII USA is a great read and encourages me to read his American Pastoral trilogy, sometime, maybe.
Philip Roth’s trilogy is, in chronological order (not publication order):
I Married a Communist (McCarthy era)
American Pastoral (late 60’s and beyond)
The Human Stain (1990’s)