The Plot Against America

By – November 10, 2011

Auda­cious­ly orig­i­nal and rich­ly iron­ic, Roth’s new fic­tion, already cat­e­go­rized as anoth­er of the Roth books” because its nar­ra­tor bears the author’s name and facts res­onate auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal­ly, bores in on what it means to be a Jew in Amer­i­ca. The years are 1940 – 42. The rever­ber­a­tion is 2004. Charles A. Lind­bergh has been elect­ed America’s 33rd pres­i­dent, defeat­ing FDR in a land­slide. Armed with sub­stan­tial research and strate­gi­cal­ly deploy­ing set-piece hamish humor, Roth explores through the eyes of young Philip Roth — sev­en when the Repub­li­cans nom­i­nate the famous Nazisym­pa­thiz­ing avi­a­tor — the com­plex theme of Amer­i­can anti-Semi­tism. He posits an inge­nious what if,” and then cun­ning­ly clos­es the gap between far­fetched hypo­thet­i­cal and pos­si­ble real­i­ty. The con­cept of a fan­tas­ti­cal premise that pro­vokes seri­ous rumi­na­tion is hard­ly new to Roth: in The Breast, David Kepesh awak­ens one morn­ing to find him­self turned into a giant mam­ma­ry gland and must con­front ques­tions of iden­ti­ty. In The Plot Against Amer­i­ca Roth’s incred­i­ble imag­i­na­tion func­tions to deep­er, wider and more Jew­ish-inflect­ed pur­pose: Who are America’s Jews? How and why do they see them­selves (or not) assim­i­lat­ing into the heart­land? How do gen­tiles see Jews? To what extent is any Amer­i­can who hap­pens to be any degree Jew­ish shad­owed always by a Jew­ish counter life? One may be remind­ed of Sartre’s sar­don­ic obser­va­tion that the world decid­ed that it’s not up to Jews to say who is Jewish.

Roth embeds his satire in an engag­ing nar­ra­tive about child­hood and Newark’s Jews, many of whom, insu­lar and para­noid, artic­u­late clichés that turn out to be hor­rif­ic truths (the novel’s open­ing word is fear”), prompt­ing read­ers to brood on the wis­dom or futil­i­ty of flight, col­lab­o­ra­tion, resis­tance, iner­tia, and on the lessons of his­to­ry. The tale is told by an adult who looks back to when he was inno­cent” for the last time — the word dilates in its ety­mo­log­i­cal sense as free­dom from harm — to when he enjoyed an unfazed sense of secu­ri­ty” because of the big pro­tec­tive repub­lic” in which he lived and because of his fero­cious­ly respon­si­ble par­ents.” This may be Roth’s most affec­tion­ate por­tray­al of fam­i­ly yet.

But the domes­tic scenes dark­en with the iso­la­tion­ist clam­or that it’s only the Jews who want war, their plot against Amer­i­ca. Wal­ter Winchell, aggres­sive­ly play­ing to vul­gar stereo­type, coun­ters that the plot­ters are Hit­lerites and Jew-hat­ing Chris­t­ian fronts who would destroy the Con­sti­tu­tion, while some Jews say oth­er Jews just don’t get it. At the cen­ter of the deep­en­ing cri­sis is young Roth, who comes to under­stand how fear dri­ves his moth­er, father, beloved old­er broth­er, cousin, and extend­ed fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends, char­ac­ters and car­i­ca­tures, to give way to dis­ap­point­ing, absurd and vio­lent behav­ior. Com­ic, trag­ic, ragged in its reach and res­o­lu­tion, but with numer­ous mem­o­rable scenes, all ren­dered with Roth’s superb, unerr­ing ear, The Plot Against the Jews defies neat sum­ma­ry. Because of the den­si­ty of the pseu­do facts at the heart of this extra­or­di­nary riff on his­to­ry, Roth includes a 27-page post­script, which con­tains A Note to the Read­er, A True Chronol­o­gy of the Major Fig­ures, Oth­er His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures in the Work, Some Doc­u­men­ta­tion.” Read­ers may want to start with this section.

Joan Baum is a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at The City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York and writes reg­u­lar­ly on schol­ar­ly and pop­u­lar top­ics for var­i­ous publications.

Discussion Questions

From: Houghton Mif­flin

1. In what ways does The Plot Against Amer­i­ca dif­fer from con­ven­tion­al his­tor­i­cal fic­tion? What effects does Roth achieve by blend­ing per­son­al his­to­ry, his­tor­i­cal fact, and an alter­na­tive his­to­ry that might have happened?

2. The nov­el begins Fear pre­sides over these mem­o­ries, a per­pet­u­al fear” [p. 1]. With this sen­tence Roth estab­lish­es that his sto­ry is being told from an adult point of view by an adult nar­ra­tor who is remem­ber­ing what befell his fam­i­ly, over six­ty years ear­li­er, when he was a boy between the ages of sev­en and nine. Why else does Roth open the nov­el this way? What role does fear play through­out the book?

3. How plau­si­ble is the alter­na­tive his­to­ry that Roth imag­ines? How would the world be dif­fer­ent if Amer­i­ca had not entered the war, or entered it on the side of Germany?

4. When the Roth fam­i­ly plans to go to Wash­ing­ton, young Philip wants to take his stamp col­lec­tion with him because he fears that, since he did not remove the ten-cent Lind­bergh stamp, a malig­nant trans­for­ma­tion would occur in my absence, caus­ing my unguard­ed Wash­ing­tons to turn into Hitlers, and swastikas to be imprint­ed on my Nation­al Parks” [p. 57]. What does this pas­sage sug­gest about how the Lind­bergh elec­tion has affect­ed the boy? Where else does this kind of mag­i­cal think­ing” occur in the novel?

5. Her­man Roth asserts that his­to­ry is every­thing that hap­pens every­where. Even here in Newark. Even here on Sum­mit Avenue. Even what hap­pens in this house to an ordi­nary man — that’ll be his­to­ry too some­day” [p. 180]. How does this con­cep­tion of his­to­ry dif­fer from tra­di­tion­al def­i­n­i­tions? In what ways does the nov­el sup­port this claim? How is the his­to­ry of the Roth fam­i­ly rel­e­vant to the his­to­ry of America?

6. After Mrs. Wish­now is mur­dered, young Philip thinks, And now she was inside a cas­ket, and I was the one who put her there” [p. 336]. Is he to some degree respon­si­ble for her death? How has his desire to save his own fam­i­ly endan­gered hers?

7. Observ­ing his moth­er’s anguished con­fu­sion, Philip dis­cov­ers that one could do noth­ing right with­out also doing some­thing wrong” [p. 341]. Where in the nov­el does the attempt to do some­thing right also result in doing some­thing wrong? What is Roth sug­gest­ing here about the moral com­plex­i­ties of actions and their consequences?

8. When Her­man Roth is explain­ing the deals Hitler has made with Lind­bergh, Roth com­ments, The pres­sure of what was hap­pen­ing was accel­er­at­ing every­one’s edu­ca­tion, my own includ­ed” [p. 101]. What is Philip learn­ing? In what ways is his­to­ry rob­bing him of a nor­mal child­hood? Why does he want to run away?

9. What moti­vates Rab­bi Ben­gels­dorf, Aunt Eve­lyn, and Sandy to embrace Lind­bergh and dis­miss Her­man Roth’s fears as para­noia? Are they right? In what ways do their per­son­al aspi­ra­tions affect their per­cep­tions of what is happening?

10. In what ways are Bess and Her­man Roth hero­ic? How do they respond to the crises that befall them? How are they able to hold their fam­i­ly together?

11. Roth observes that vio­lence, when it’s in a house, is heart­break­ing: like see­ing the clothes in a tree after an explo­sion. You may be pre­pared to see death but not the clothes in a tree” [p. 296]. What caus­es Her­man Roth and Alvin to fight each oth­er so vicious­ly? What is it that brings the vio­lence swirling around them off the streets and into the house? Why is vio­lence in a home so much more dis­turb­ing than on the street or the battlefield?

12. Much is at stake in The Plot Against Amer­i­ca — the fate of Amer­i­ca’s Jews, the larg­er fate of Europe and indeed of West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, but also how Amer­i­ca will define itself. What does the nov­el sug­gest about what it means to be an Amer­i­can, and to be a Jew­ish Amer­i­can? In what ways are the Roths a thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can family?

13. What does the Post­script, par­tic­u­lar­ly the True Chronol­o­gy of the Major Fig­ures,” add to the novel?