Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America

by Chris Mack

May 11, 2019

Philip Roth is considered by many to be one of the greatest novelists of the last 50 years, and in fact he created great literary works for all of those 50 years.  His first short story collection Goodbye, Columbus, won the National Book Award in 1960, and his last novel, Nemesis, was published in 2010.  He was 71 when he wrote The Plot Against America (published in 2004) while on his third major wave of literary greatness.

Roth is famous for blurring the line between reality and fiction.  His thinly veiled alter ego Nathan Zuckerman appeared in nine of his novels.  In The Plot Against America we have a fictional Philip Roth that mirrors the real one.  Roth’s father Herman really did sell insurance for Metropolitan Life, his brother Sandy became a commercial artist, and the real Philip grew up at 81 Summit Avenue in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, just as in the novel.

But Roth then reimagines his childhood by rewriting history, what Roth calls the “unfolding of the unforeseen”:  “… the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.  The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.” (p. 114)  Using the dramatic events leading up to World War II, this device enables Roth to examine the major theme of the novel:  what it means to be an American.

Roth frequently rejected the label of Jewish-American writer.  “The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me,” he said. “If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.”  Yet his autobiographical style meant that his Jewish roots were often front and center in his work, never more so than in The Plot Against America.  Given the actual historical backdrop of the holocaust, only obliquely mentioned in the novel but always on the mind of the reader, the rise of anti-Semitism in America precipitated by the election of Charles Lindberg as President creates both the drama and the pervasive foreboding of the story.  It is against this rise that the father Herman struggles against, and the young Philip struggles to make sense of.

Like the author, Herman frequently repeats that he is an American first, while never rejecting nor denying his Jewish roots.  Herman represents the humble embodiment of the American dream, the child of immigrant parents, raised in a ghetto, then rising above it through grit and hard work to build a middle class life for his family.  He is fiercely proud of and has rightfully claimed his identity as an American.  Yet he, his family, and the Jewish community of Newark learn a lesson frequently taught throughout history, that the less powerful members of a society are often overruled in their choice of identity by the powerful.

With the question of identity and what it means to be an American comes the question of culture, and the competing interests of homogeneity versus diversity in American life.  The American Office of Absorption created by Lindberg and the turncoat Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is a vulgar expression of the wish that minorities and immigrants assimilate into the dominant majority culture, in this case Christian and white.  The culturalism that assumes our dominant culture is superior precedes and then gives way to the open expression of anti-Semitism, and eventually riots and murder in the name of patriotism.

While written to reflect the attitudes in America in 1940, The Plot Against America is also a book of our time.  It is impossible to read this book in 2019 without seeing the parallels to current debates on what it means to be a “real American”, and how our traditions of freedom, respect, and diversity can be quickly compromised by the racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia embraced by a far too large segment of our population.  As the famed biographer Ron Chernow said, “[Roth] shows how a democracy can be corrupted, not by big, blaring events, but by a slow, insidious process, like carbon monoxide seeping in under the door.”

Every character in the book, with the possible exception of Lindberg, is interesting and worth getting to know.  But perhaps the most touching aspect of the book is the narrator’s age, a young boy of less than ten (though he often telescopes to the perspective of a present-day adult).  In the book we watch as the young Philip metamorphoses from happy and carefree to frightened and confused.  His, innocence, like his stamp collection, is forever lost under the dark shadow of a Nazi swastika.


Chris Mack is a writer in Austin, Texas.

© Copyright 2019, Chris Mack.

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