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.