• Review
By – November 10, 2011

In his nov­el Amer­i­can Pas­toral Philip Roth brought back the protest and stu­dent vio­lence of the 1960’s. Indig­na­tion, Roth’s lat­est nov­el, exam­ines the unease beneath the benign sur­face of the 1950’s and the over­reach­ing ambi­tions of adolescence.

Dri­ven from home by his over­pro­tec­tive, over-lov­ing father, Mar­cus Mess­ner, nine­teen- year-old native of Newark, New Jer­sey, escapes his clois­tered work­ing-class Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood to the leafy cam­pus of Wines­burg Col­lege in Ohio. There, in the shad­ow of the Kore­an war and the threat of the draft, Mar­cus meets Mid­dle Amer­i­ca — tra­di­tion, Protes­tantism, col­le­giate hier­ar­chy, fra­ter­ni­ty fel­low­ship — and tries to stake out his posi­tion on these unfa­mil­iar grounds. 

Indig­na­tion, Mar­cus’ response to Wines­burg cam­pus life, brings him up against the expec­ta­tions of the col­lege. Sum­moned by the dean to dis­cuss his adjust­ment to the col­lege, Mar­cus can’t stop him­self from coun­ter­ing every one of the dean’s points and cli­max­ing his argu­ments by cit­ing Bertrand Rus­sell to sup­port athe­ism. Against his bet­ter judg­ment, Mar­cus falls in with a self-assured cam­pus leader — the Jew­ish pres­i­dent of the inter­fra­ter­ni­ty coun­cil on this WASP cam­pus — who intro­duces him to facts of cam­pus life that are bet­ter not to know. And his first encounter with love and sex entan­gles him in the men­tal break­down of a deeply trou­bled girl. 

Mar­cus’ naïve brava­do thrusts him into a posi­tion from which he can’t retreat until it’s too late to act on the knowl­edge he has gained. As the Wines­burg cam­pus explodes in an out-of-con­trol panty raid, so com­fort­able cam­pus assump­tions and Mar­cus’ life are unset­tled by the advance of dis­tant Com­mu­nism and post­war social realign­ment. Tight­ly told, Indig­na­tion is Roth’s account of a peri­od of grad­ual awak­en­ing, both per­son­al and nation­al. Mem­o­rable for its pic­ture of hard­work­ing Newark and its sense of com­ing change, Indig­na­tion is a vin­tage snap­shot in the album of Amer­i­can social change.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

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