A review of The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

“Turned wrong way round, 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.” [1]

VISIT TO HYDE PARK

On a hot day this past summer, my wife, son David (16) and I paid a visit to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, NY, an easy day trip from New York City. (It was a relief on such a hot day that the various buildings were air-condititioned!) Prompting the visit was a New York Times article on the site, plus the fact that David had been studying World War II in his history class. At the end of our visit to the FDR home, library and museum we stopped at the gift shop, where a video of some of FDR’s speeches was on view — I could tell what a charismatic orator he was.

Roosevelt led our nation through the difficulties of a Depression and a World War, and I will not even attempt to deny his importance and value to our country. However, FDR is by no means a personal hero of mine, due to his repressive policy on Jewish immigration from Nazi-occupied countries before and during WWII. (More on this later.)

Things could have turned out considerably worse, though, historically speaking. What if instead of FDR having been elected to an unprecedented third term in 1940, the isolationist, Nazi-sympathizing, and probably anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh had become president instead? This is the possibility that Philip Roth explores in his 2004 novel The Plot Against America (henceforth TPAA).

PHILIP ROTH

The prolific Philip Roth (born 1933) is, it is safe to say, one of the leading “literary” American authors of the present day. [2] My only previous experience with him was in reading one of his earliest novels, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), a comic and raunchy book (with an unforgettable last line!) which I remember enjoying a lot, and which may still be his best-known work.

Many of PR’s novels tend to fall into series, linked by a common character or characters. TPAA is part of the “Roth” series, where (as we shall see) PR portrays himself (in a more-or-less true guise) and perhaps his family as well. Other series of his are the “Zuckerman novels” and the “Kepesh novels”. He achieved his first fame with his short-story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959).

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA

In TPAA, PR depicts himself and his family (or some semblance thereof) in the neighborhood where he actually grew up — the Weequahic section of Newark, which was very much a Jewish area back in the days before WWII. “Philip” in the book is about 8 or 10 years old. But this alleged reality takes place in an environment which has been altered from actuality in one crucial way: as mentioned above, Charles Lindbergh (CL) runs against FDR in 1940 and is elected president.

CL, in real life, first became famous for his pioneering solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, from New York to Paris, in 1927. Later in life, he turned to less savory paths. He was a Nazi sympathizer, who at one point accepted a medal from Nazi Germany, declining to return it even when Germany became our enemy. He actually felt that if we had to choose, Germany was a better ally than the Soviet Union, because of the twin specters of Communism and the potential rise of the “semi-Asiatic masses”, whom he considered genetically inferior to the Europeans. [3]

Unsurprisingly, CL took an isolationist stance, being against aid to the British in their life-and-death struggle with the Nazis. His anti-Semitism arguably manifested itself, for instance, in a famous speech, “Who are the War Agitators?”, given at Des Moines in September 1941. [4] Here, he blames three groups for urging the US toward war: “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration”. Regarding the Jews, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government”. In a somewhat ominous passage, he says “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation”.

So much for the real Charles Lindbergh. In PR’s “alternate history”, CL becomes president and promptly reaches non-aggression pacts with Germany and Japan — the “Iceland Understanding” and the “Hawaii Understanding”, respectively. His anti-Jew stance, as president, sets the tone for a broad groundswell of anti-Semitic sentiment and actions amongst the people at large. In one powerful early scene, Philip and his family attempt to check in to a Washington, DC hotel, but are told that there is no space available, and that there is no record of a reservation that Philip’s father made well ahead of time. The narrative leaves no doubt in one’s mind as to why this happened.

Later on, the anti-Semitism is institutionalized in the establishment of the “Office of American Absorption”. In an eerie opposite to the concentration-camp idea, Jews are pressured — through loss of their jobs, for example — to leave their own neighborhoods and settle in some distant, distinctly non-Jewish part of the country. The idea is evidently to foster a loss of Jewish practices and identity, through its dilution and mingling with the culture of Americans at large.

Things take even more of a downward turn later, when anti-Jewish violence breaks out. One of the big questions faced by the Roth family is whether or not to emigrate to Canada….

ALTERNATE HISTORY

TPAA was the 2004 winner of the “Sidewise Award for Alternate History”. [5] One benefit of reading TPAA was that it made me aware of “Alternate History” as a genre. To be sure, a lot of this writing is probably rather forgettable, being run-of-the-mill science fiction, or by writers of the questionable stature of L. Ron Hubbard and Orson Scott Card. But there are notable exceptions. An early instance of alternate history — though one probably more accurately called “alternate biography” — is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1846 short story called “P’s Correspondence”. In this work, a man (whose mental balance is understandably in question) reports on British literary personages, whose life-paths took rather different forms than what we are customarily taught: Byron lived to old age, Dickens died young just after Pickwick Papers, etc. I read this story in the course of preparing this review, and once again felt rewarded by my encounter with a Hawthorne work [6] — very much along his usual lines of holding conventional “reality” up as one of the less important aspects of the world. Other alternate-history books worth mentioning (see the Notes at the end of this review if you want to know the alteration of history used in each of these) are Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) [7]; Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle (1963, thought by many to be his best book) [8]; Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) [9]; and Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) [10]

COULD IT HAVE HAPPENED?

What if Lindbergh, instead of desiring to remain a private citizen, [11] had indeed decided to run for president against FDR? Would he have had a chance of winning? Was America, at that point, in a stable equilibrium, such as a marble at the bottom of a bowl — always returning to a similar position regardless of disturbances? Or was it more of an unstable situation like a man balancing on the top of a fence, where a small push in one direction or another could have large consequences?

Before one answers too quickly that we are a stable society with a basic position of equal treatment for all, and a moral stance that would not have let us turn away from Britain’s plight and Nazi Germany’s aggression and mass murder — let us look at things the way they actually were, at that time. As I indicated above, FDR closed the door on many Jewish refugees. One famous example was the voyage of the St. Louis in 1939. This ship, carrying Jews fleeing the Nazis, was first supposed to discharge its occupants in Cuba. But when this was denied, the ship sailed to America, hoping to find haven for its passengers there. FDR squelched this idea however, forcing the St. Louis to steam back to Europe, where its occupants were dispersed to Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. I am very familiar with this story because my maternal grandparents were on this ship. They were lucky enough to be among those who ended up in England; this probably saved their lives, since the other three destination countries were later overrun by the Nazis. [12] For a scholarly treatment of America’s shameful rejection of Jewish refugees in the Nazi period, the authorative book seems to be The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 by David S. Wyman (1984).

Anti-Semitism manifested itself in other ways, in the real-life America of that time. In a 1939 Roper poll, only 39% of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Somewhat later, during the 1950’s, many colleges, including Ivy-League institutions, restricted Jews to 10% of the admitted student body. [13] Near where I grew up in Forest Hills, New York, the large private community of Forest Hills Gardens would not admit any Jews until the mid-1970’s. [14]

For a real-life parallel to Jews being driven from their jobs in PR’s version of history, look at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), whose investigations, starting in the late 1940’s, led to the blacklisting of hundreds of Hollywood artists — directors, radio commentators, actors, and especially screenwriters — by the industry. [15]

And — in what is not exactly anti-Semitism, but rather something even more shocking — the New York Times, then as now the “paper of record”, almost unbelievably relegated Holocaust news items to its inner pages, and in “the century’s bitterest journalistic failure”, did not trumpet forth, as it should have, the slaughter of millions of Jews that was going on. [16]

As for isolationism: one poll showed that, even at the height of pro-war sentiment, 83% of Americans opposed direct American entry into WWII [17] ; the prospect of spilling much American blood probably contributed to this. The principal organization dedicated to isolationism was the America First Committee … and Lindbergh was its most recognizable spokesperson. Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech (referred to above) was an America First event. His remarks about Jews, made therein, actually, blessedly, led to a decrease in his stature, in the eyes of the public. But one can only speculate as to how the masses might have acted differently if instead of FDR at the helm of the nation, it had been CL or someone of his stripe.

Perhaps someone might argue that, no matter who was president, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) would have precipitated America’s entry into WWII. But remember “President” Lindbergh’s signing of the Hawaii Understanding. If that non-aggresssion agreement had actually been in effect, the Japanese might never have attacked us … and Pearl Harbor might never have happened!

MY APPRAISAL OF BOOK

There are many things to admire in TPAA. There is of course the skillful presentation of “alternate history”, which led me to so much pondering about its plausibility. We have also a persuasive look into the world of a pre-pubescent boy, with all of the magical thinking, fears, enjoyments, and limitations that this age entails. The writing is always very competent and sometimes even better than that. Lending interest is a symbolic element in the treatment of stamps (Philip collects them, they get printed with swastikas at least in his imagination, Lindbergh is an aviator who delivered air mail). There is humor, though more in individual passages than woven into the fabric of the writing (but given the nature of the story, that is perhaps understandable).

For downsides, the prose can sometimes be rather pedestrian. There is perhaps too much time spent on family matters in the middle of the book, when I was, instead, eager to follow the political developments, in all their horrible fascination. And for all the dramatic developments that do occur, somehow what stayed in my mind the most was that first evidence of anti-Semitic popular sentiment buoyed by Lindbergh’s presidency: the refusal of the room at that Washington, DC hotel. Perhaps this indicates something of a predictability in the story line?

It might be that PR was somehow aware that his book was, despite its dramatic subject matter, just a bit too conventional in its narrative style … because near the end he throws in a “twist” which departs from the linearity and (in its own terms) plausibility of the rest of the writing….

If one filters out the overlay of alternate history in TPAA, what we have, I think, is a novel of realism — “realism” in the sense of the literary genre of which William Dean Howells (1837-1920) is the first leading American exponent, treating the “commonplaces of everyday life among the middle and lower classes”. [18] But “realism” is perhaps not always as great a thing, in the literary arena, as its name might imply; it can indeed be too “commonplace”, and deal too much with incident at the expense of deeper characterization. This is maybe the case with TPAA. In contrast, consider Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, [19], where we witness a profound inner struggle going on in the title character’s mind. Such is not true of any of the characters in TPAA … and I suppose it would be difficult, if not impossible, for an 8- or 10-year-old boy to be shown as undergoing such soul-searching!

CONCLUSION

Early in 2006, the New York Times sent a letter to a couple of hundred prominent literary figures, asking each to identify “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years”. In the resulting list [20], of the 20 works which received multiple votes, there are more by PR (5, with TPAA among them) than by any other writer. As you may have guessed by now, I would not rate TPAA that highly. But then again, three of the authors with the most votes are Toni Morrison (whose Beloved scored at the top), Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy — all of whom I definitely have some issues with. [21]

The moral of the above seems to be that my literary tastes often run counter to the “establishment” view — at least that establishment exemplfied by the New York Times. My predilections run more to the Tom Wolfian side, as witnessed by my enthusiastic reaction to his I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004). [22] Despite its skillful and intruiging re-casting of history, I found TPAA to be just not that exciting a read, compared to Simmons, electric and written at white heat! I seem to favor Wolfe’s Dionysian approach over Roth’s Apollonian one.

But do not take the above to mean that I am sorry I read The Plot Against America. It is true that I see its main virtue to be that it led me to engage in my own historical thinking and exploration, and some investigation of other literary works, as well. But in its own right (or in its own read?!) it is a very well-written book, and an excellent study of a pre-teen-age child.

NOTES

“WIKI” below = online article in Wikipedia. (The Wikipedia English home page is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page )

[1] History as “relentless unforeseen”: TPAA, pp 113-14 of the Vintage trade paperback edition

[2] PR as a leading present American author: “arguably the most decorated American writer of his era”, WIKI “Philip Roth”

[3] “Semi-Asiatic masses”: WIKI “Charles Lindbergh”

[4] CL’s Des Moines speech is reprinted in its entirety, as part of the end matter of TPAA.

[5] Sidewise Award for Alternate History: http://www.uchronia.net/sidewise/

[6] Rewards of reading Hawthorne: See my reviews of his Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables. Go to my home page (address below) and click on “book reports”.

[7] It Can’t Happen Here: A fascist takeover of the U.S.

[8] The Man in the High Castle: Germany and Japan win WWII

[9] Ada or Ardor: North America settled in part by Czarist Russia

[10] Fatherland: Another case of a Nazified world

[11] CL desires to remain private citizen: http://www.vueweekly.com/articles/default.aspx?i=815]

[12] Voyage of the St. Louis: for detailed coverage, see the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, http://www.ushmm.org/

[13] Real-life anti-Semitism in U.S.: WIKI “Antisemitism”; within that, go to “Specific Countries: United States”

[14] Forest Hills Gardens excluding Jews: http://www.actuporalhistory.org/interviews/images/broome.pdf

[15] Blacklisting of Hollywood artists: see WIKI “House Un-American Activities Committee ”

[16] Failure of the N.Y. Times to properly cover Hitler’s mass slaughter of Jews: See Max Frankel, “Turning Away from the Holocaust”, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/14/specials/onefifty/20FRAN.html

[17] Majority of Americans against entering WWII: “American Isolationism, 1939-1941” by Justus D. Doenecke, http://www.libertarianstudies.org/journals/jls/6_3/6_3_1.pdf

[18] Realism: see Online Columbia Encyclopedia, “realism, in literature”, http://education.yahoo.com/reference/encyclopedia/entry/realism2

[19] Howell’s Rise of Silas Lapham: see my review. Go to my home page (address below) and click on “book reports”

[20] Best American fiction work of last 25 years: N.Y. Times article at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/books/fiction-25-years.html?ex=1305864000&en=d3f9cc78ce4c00b7&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

[21] My issues with Toni Morison et al: Please feel free to email me (address below) if you’d like to discuss.

[22] For my review of Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons go to my home page (address below) and click on “book reports”. I also think Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) a marvellous work.

Tom Frenkel

email: frethoa AT aol DOT com

website: http://home.roadrunner.com/~frethoa

02dec2006

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