History as fiction

Print edition : December 03, 2004

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth; Jonathan Cape, 2004; pages 391, 16.99.

AT 71, Philip Roth seems to be experiencing a rare literary resurgence, if that is really the word to use to speak of the second half of a body of work that spans four decades, consistently winning prizes, critical acclaim and a good measure of notoriety along the way. In 2005 he will become the third living American writer (the other two being Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow) to have his or her work published in a comprehensive edition by the Library of America, within his or her lifetime. And as if American Pastoral (1997), I Married A Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), his three great novels of recent years, were not enough, here comes The Plot Against America, his new novel, with a cover that shows a one-cent stamp of the Yosemite National Park with a big black spidery swastika stamped across it - and a plot based on what happens in the United States when an anti-war, isolationist election campaign wins Charles Lindbergh the 1940 presidency.

Published in an election year in the U.S., the novel seems poised to be a thrilling comment upon contemporary American politics: but Roth tells us that it is not so. In an essay published in The New York Times Book Review, entitled "The story behind The Plot Against America", he writes that the novel does not set out to be an allegory about present-day politics in the country. "I set out to do exactly what I've done: reconstruct the years 1940-42 as they might have been if Lindbergh, instead of Roosevelt, had been elected President in the 1940 election. My every imaginative effort was directed toward making the effect of that reality as strong as I could, and not so as to illuminate the present through the past but to illuminate the past through the past." (Not insignificantly, in the same essay, Roth calls George W. Bush "a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one".)

Roth's recent novels have been especially preoccupied with moments when personal lives are caught up within the forces of history. American Pastoral is about the personal tragedy of the father of a terrorist daughter; I Married A Communist is about the Communist witch-hunts; and The Human Stain traces the unravelling of a college professor's life by the paranoia of political correctness. All these novels, profoundly political, have also been about deep personal tragedies, and The Plot Against America is no less so.

The stamp-collecting child narrator is named Philip Roth, his parents are named Herman and Bess, and his adored brother is named Sandy. Herman Roth sells insurance for Metropolitan Life, Bess is a stay-at-home mother, and the Jewish family lives in an apartment in Newark, New Jersey, where Philip Roth did in fact grow up. Roth, born in 1933 to first-generation Jewish-American parents, grew up in the same area that he brings to life so vividly in the novel. Herman and Bess not only share the names of his parents but are also based on them. "I've tried to portray them here as faithfully as I could - as though I were, in fact, writing non-fiction," writes Roth in The New York Times Book Review.

And that is the general tone of the novel - a mix of personal narrative and documentary-style history-telling, except that Roth is fictionalising history. In a huge and dramatic `what if' exercise, the entire novel is structured around what happens in America when Charles Lindbergh becomes President: America does not join the War; the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentropp, comes to dinner at the White House; and across the country, assimilation programmes with names like Just Folks and the Operation for American Absorption are being drawn up to `integrate' the small (3 per cent) Jewish minority into the mainstream of America. It all comes home to Philip when, in a tragic twist of fate, his hated neighbour little Seldon Wishnow and his struggling single mother are relocated to a small town in Kentucky - where they end up as the only Jewish family, Seldon has no friends at all, and his mother ends up dead in anti-Semitic riots.

Fortunately for America - and for the rest of the world, because the consequences of America's staying out of the War would have been tremendous - none of these events took place outside these pages. The back cover of the novel shows an untouched Yosemite, trees and skies and clear waters untouched by the swastika. The 29-page postscript, which includes a "true chronology of the major figures", tells us that while Lindbergh did attend the Berlin Olympics in 1936, later describing Hitler to a friend as "undoubtedly a great man", his election campaign never went beyond anti-war rhetoric at America First rallies. Good sense prevailed, and America joined the war in Europe.

Why, one might ask, would a novelist want to work with such a plot? In a sense, all fiction begins with the question "What would happen if?"; as Roth has said, literature is put to all kinds of uses; and what could be a more dramatic moment in American history in the 20th century than the decision to join the war against fascism? The novel paints for us a picture of what might happen when good sense does not prevail. Especially (for readers, too, put literature to their own uses) at a moment when America is not anti-war but itself waging a `war against terror', employing measures like the Patriot Act, Homeland Security, and Terror Alerts.

The novel is not an allegory about the present except to the extent that all literature is, ultimately, informed by the way things are. The most profoundly moving sections in the book tell of Philip's childhood. Despite the changed political climate, the family decides to set off on its long-cherished dream of driving to Washington - a trip for which Philip's mother "had been saving in a Christmas Club account at the Howard Savings Bank for close to two years, a dollar a week out of the household budget to cover the bulk of our prospective travel expenses". As they enter the American capital, they get lost:

"Immediately upon entering Washington, we made a wrong turn in the heavy traffic, and while my mother was trying to read the road map and direct my father to our hotel, there appeared before us the biggest white thing I had ever seen. Atop an incline at the end of the street stood the U.S. Capitol, the broad stairs sweeping upward to the colonnade and capped by the elaborate three-tiered dome. Inadvertently, we had driven right to the very heart of American history, and whether we knew it in so many words, it was American history, delineated in its most inspirational form, that we were counting on to protect us against Lindbergh."

But buildings, however inspiring they may seem, are no protection against hate. Soon there is a policeman appearing next to them, giving them "royal treatment", holding up the traffic as he escorts them to their hotel. And after an afternoon looking at Washington's monuments, when the Roths return to their hotel, they find that their reservation has been cancelled. Herman, fresh from revisiting the most glorious sites of American history, is furious:

"The people watching all smiled at one another when my father mentioned the Gettysburg Address.

I whispered to my brother, `What happened?' `Anti-Semitism,' he whispered back."

As the story proceeds, from month to desolate month, things get worse for the family. Philip's cousin Alvin, who runs off to fight against the fascists, returns with one leg amputated. All around them, in a campaign for "assimilation", Jewish families who have been their neighbours for years are suddenly being relocated to states around America. Herman's friend at the newsreel emigrates to Canada. Most tragic of all is the disintegration of Philip's childhood. His adored older brother, Sandy - who has never lied, simply because he has never done anything wrong - learns to conceal his Lindbergh drawings, hitherto beloved but now hated for the hateful figure they represent, from their parents. Philip conceals the Lindbergh stamp that forms a part of his treasured collection. The beginning of these concealments is the end of their childhood.

Sent off by the Just Folks project to spend a summer on a Kentucky farm, Sandy returns ready and eager to join the Lindbergh camp. Herman and Bess wonder if they should have emigrated after all. When anti-Semitic riots break out across the country, Bess sends Herman and Sandy on a 1,500-mile drive down to Kentucky - a drive that is, for Philip's 41-year-old father, `his Guadalcanal... their great descent into the hard American world' - to bring Seldon back to live with them. And watching all this happen, young Philip watches life crumble around his family.

This, then, is the real success of the novel: the deep feeling with which it tells the story of one family struggling, as one of the characters says, to live out "a nightmare", while the rest of America lives a dream. The novel is about being Jewish in America, but also about being American; it is about ordinary people struggling to remain ordinary, to remain human, in extraordinary times. "Because what's history?" asks Philip's father rhetorically when he is telling his sons about the characters and events he has seen at the Newsreel Theatre. "History is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in his house to an ordinary man - that'll be history too some day."

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is with the Indian Administrative Service and writes on arts and culture.

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