Roth’s Politics


I Married A Communist

(Jonathan Cape, Random House, 1998).

American Pastoral

(Jonathan Cape, 1997).

The Human Stain

(Jonathan Cape, 2000).

The Plot Against America

(Jonathan Cape, 2004).


I Married A Communist (IMC), American Pastoral  (AP) and The Human Stain (THS) between them make up Philip Roth’s historical trilogy- with a fourth novel, The Plot Against America (TPAA), acting as a kind of coda or addendum. All three novels have the same basic structure: the protagonist’s life is told to the narrator, the “I” in the book, either by the central character himself  or by a relative, like a brother, or by both. Each book in the trilogy takes place in a different decade in recent American history. Each features a decent, intelligent central character whose life is destroyed for no apparent good reason.

Roth has played with the forms of autobiography for much of his fictional career. In these novels, he plays with the conventions and devices belonging to biography. None of his three protagonists would be subjects for a biography under normal circumstances i.e. none of them are rich or famous or public figures. The distinctions each man (they’re all men) has achieved in life, what each has made of himself, are more anonymous, which doesn’t mean they’re worthless or easily won. One was a star college athlete who developed into a prosperous glove manufacturer; one was a college dean; the third was a working stiff who became a successful radio actor and thus represents the closest to a bona fide celebrity among the three.

Ringold, the worker/actor, Levov, the athlete/ manufacturer and Silk, the academic, are successful common men from the century of the common man, that is, not from the 20th century as a whole, but from the “American century”, the just over half of the last century that began with America entering the Second World War and includes the post-war rise of the USA as a global superpower. Those decades brought uncommon opportunities to the common man in both Europe and America, but especially in the US where a (white) American middle class emerged out of often harsh immigrant poverty and working-class deprivation into lives of affluence and unprecedented safety and security- the development that forms the background to Roth’s trilogy.

            In IMC, set at the beginning of the process in the 1950s, Ira Ringold, a rough-hewn working man from the bottom of the social heap becomes a member of the American Communist Party, then a radio actor during the golden age of radio drama. He marries Eve Frame, a beautiful ex-silent movie star with a troubled daughter. But the marriage breaks up, McCarthyism and the Red Scare distort 1950s America, Ringold is blacklisted and his ex-wife denounces him in a sensational bestseller called I Married A Communist.

            American Pastoral is set in the 1960s and tells the story of Seymour ‘Swede’Levov, a star high school athlete and general golden youth, “the household Apollo of Weehauqic Jews” who marries a shiksa ex-beauty queen and becomes rich running his family’s glove-manufacturing business. But The Swede’s American good life is shattered when his beloved only child, his teenage daughter Merry, gets involved in the Sixties youth revolt and blows up a local post office to protest the Vietnam War, killing a passer-by, before she vanishes into the radical underground.

            In the 1990s of The Human Stain, Coleman Silk is a veteran academic at Athena, a small liberal arts college in rural Massachusetts. A black man who has passed for a white Jew all his adult life, ironically Silk finds himself accused of racism, quits his job, then his wife dies of a stroke. At 71, Silk begins an affair with a 34-year-old cleaner from the college, Faunia Farley, a serially abused woman whose two young children died in a fire and who is being stalked by her crazed ex-husband Les, a Vietnam vet. Silk’s and Faunia’s brief idyll ends when they are murdered in a car crash staged by Les Farley.

             Each novel brilliantly weaves some of the main political themes of its decade into the narrative- 1950s anti-communism and McCarthyism in IMC; the Sixties in AP; and 1980s/1990s political correctness (which Roth identifies as a persistent strain of pursed-lip propriety and vengeful moralising in American life) and identity politics in THS. Politics is as much as part of these novels as it was in the realistic fiction of Victorian England or 19th century Russia, of which Roth’s work is a late flowering. All three books also share a common moral theme of innocence outraged- the why me? factor. Here are three decent men, grown men, men of substance, whose lives are destroyed: they don’t fail or run out or decline, they’re torn apart from the outside, leaving the devastated victims asking, why me? And leaving the narrator who, in his role as their biographer, is both their advocate and critic, both spokesman for and judge of his subjects, to pose his own cooler and more objective version of the same question- why them?

In a conventional biography, the events themselves supply the drama, often flavoured with a stock account of the hero’s early struggles and, sometimes, the story of his sad decline when the public forgets or turns its back on him. But Roth sets up his trilogy to deliver exactly the opposite information to a factual biography. Most biographies are about how their subjects achieve, triumph, succeed in whatever it is that makes them worth writing about, but IMC, AP and THS  are about how and why their subjects failed.  Roth’s “biographical” subjects are also quasi- autobiographers, since large parts of these novels are reported speech by the main protagonists- or by other characters who knew them so well they can almost be said to be speaking for them- while the writer, the “I “ character (who may or may not be the same as the writer Philip Roth) is supposed merely to have recorded what he’s told.

The intricately woven plots circle around the crucial not-so-great events in their protagonists’ lives and each time we come back to them, we get more information, we learn facts that have been left out before, we begin to be in a position as readers to answer the questions that the character cannot answer but that Roth will answer for him (and for us). All three books start with their own denouements (or close to them) and work backwards. They are like whodunnits where victim, hero and villain are the same person.

Whodunnit becomes why me?  Now on the face of things, Why me? is not an attractive question. Why me? is the question children ask all the time, though they sometimes they phrase it in different ways, for example by protesting, “ it’s not my fault” or “it’s not fair”. It’s all the same question, one that presumes innocence; and innocence, for all that we fawn over it and treat it with sentimental reverence, is not a wholly attractive quality. Not beyond a certain age, at any rate.. As adults, we get impatient with innocence. We all know children are not innocent over the age of, say, 3 or 4. Their cruelties and perfidies and amour propre, their pride and their humiliations, may be on a totally different level from those of someone past puberty, but that’s not the same as innocence. Listen to a parent who keeps getting asked why me?.

Because, that’s why!”

 “Because, that’s why…” really means “because you deserve it.” On some level. In some way. Maybe not today. Maybe not this specific blow or loss or punishment. But you deserve everything you get.

            Which is the same answer great art, great literature, has been giving to adults who ask the why me? question ever since Sophocles. “Because you deserve it or, if you don’t like that answer, because it’s your fate. Destiny. But destiny is character and vice versa- or something like that anyway. Don’t ask me any more”

Thus the oracle. There’s a lot of truth in the oracular response, perhaps as much truth as we’re ever going to know (or as much truth as we can make use of), but it isn’t the whole truth. It wasn’t the whole truth about Oedipus in the ancient world and it isn’t the whole truth about The Swede or Ira Ringold or Coleman Silk in these novels. Men who are on the whole decent and well-meaning. Men who have good qualities. Men who’ve tried to lead lives that benefit others and their society, and in many ways succeeded in doing so. So when they’re struck down, we feel they’re entitled to ask, why me? We don’t find the question so unattractive when it comes from them- we don’t find them so childish- because of their basic decency combined with the enormity of what befalls them. Everyone’s life fails, everyone dies, we know all that, but this is different. What does it mean to be destroyed?

             Does this question also have a political parallel? Obviously America hasn’t been destroyed but it’s taken some hard knocks and on 9/11 there was destruction of lives and property and even greater psychic destruction of the country’s image of itself and its own immunity. Roth’s trilogy was written before 9/11 (although it could be said that 9/11 is what they’re leading up to) so it’s the Cold War and Vietnam that feature here. But the real damage, the true weapons of mass destruction that threaten America, are internal, according to Roth. He shows us the destructive process taking place within American society itself. That’s what gives these books their political dimension. When their heroes ask why me? and what happened?, they’re asking those questions about America as a whole as well as about their own lives.

 What destructive process are we talking about? Exactly what happened to the America that our heroes’ decency and liberalism helped to make, and that in return was supposed to guarantee the future of that selfsame decency and liberalism.? The immigrant struggle out of poverty. The political struggle for equality and rights for the common man. The sheer hard work- you work hard, you get rich, your kids are safe and have an (even) better life than you had. From the bottom to the top of the social ladder, or near enough, in what- three generations? Four? The amazing American socioeconomic escalator. Fifty years after the end of the 2nd World War and ordinary middle-class Europeans were living at about the same level Americans reached by the early 1960s. Whatever happened to the American Dream, which the post-war world and America’s superpower status between them were supposed to have converted into the American Guarantee, into America’s very own self-awarded Seal of Approval?

            Because something did happen to it.  Something went wrong and the evidence is right here, spread over the 1100- odd pages of IMC, AP and THS (plus 400 pages of TPAA). When Roth’s heroes are destroyed, the process doesn’t take place in a vacuum: they’re destroyed in particularly American ways, swallowed up by the fault lines in American society. It’s as if the glossy, affluent surface of American life opened up in gaping fissures and down they tumble into the inferno, into what Roth calls (in AP) “the indigenous American beserk”. But where did those crevasses come from? The novels are set in different decades- the 1960s, the 1990s and so on- but the date they all hark back to, the Zero Hour for all three, is 1945, because that’s when the characters came of age, along with their biographer Roth/Zuckerman. 1945 is also the crucial date in modern American history, the end of the 2nd World War that left America a newly minted great power. As Roth describes it in AP, it was a time “when the Swede, his neighbourhood, his city, and his country were in their exuberant heyday, at the peak of confidence, inflated with every illusion born of hope.” Elsewhere in the same novel, he calls it “the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history.”

After that kind of opening, you might expect things would go downhill, but it’s not as simple as that. History is a complex process. And fiction is an even more complex process whose motto might be something like “both things are true.” Roth shows us a logical progression of events from the moment post-war American society takes off, the Dream escalator picks up speed, the American century opens for business- and at the same time the Red scare, McCarthyism, gets under way. Right from the beginning, the two strands go together: power and paranoia, the light side and the dark side, hubris and nemesis. America came out of the war in great shape. In the course of the war, a democratic American military created, or rather recreated for the second time in the country’s history, a Republican America, a Revolutionary America. As Roth writes, “the revolution fought and won by the American working class was in fact WW2, the something large that we were all, however small, a part of, the revolution that confirmed the myth of a national character to be partaken of by all.”

Global, total modern warfare, civilians and militaries in it together, whole societies mobilised (and targeted) can’t help but be a progressive force- for those who survive. People get aroused, they’re called to sacrifice, and soon they start thinking it has to be for something, there has to be a new, better world at the end of so much suffering and devastation. It happened across Europe with the political impulse that came out of resistance movements and partisans. It happened in England with the Labour Party who threw out Churchill in 1945, the great saviour and national hero unceremoniously dumped in favour of mousy Atlee and the promise of a National Health Service. And it happened in America, except that America had already had its socioeconomic “revolution” with the New Deal. The American military was FDR’s levee en masse. American arms spread the gospel of the New Deal the way the Jacobins spread the gospel of the French Revolution through Europe.

Then all of a sudden the war was over, FDR was dead, leaving America all but untouched- in fact stronger than ever, a global economic colossus- but with a new game in town, the Soviet Union. Two superpowers facing each other across Europe’s blasted heath, capitalist and communist, the Red power and the what? The White power? The Red, White and Blue power? On the one hand, the Evil Empire of Stalin and his gulags. On the other hand the American Empire, undeclared and to some extent genuinely unsought, but ideologically, spiritually, geopolitically an Empire. And America’s grande armee, no sooner demobbed than it’s re-mobbed, called back to a civilian version of the colours to fight a new, Cold War commanded by the unlikely (except in terms of height) Napoleonic figure of Harry Truman.

            It’s all there in I Married A Communist. IMC is Roth’s blow-by-blow account of the great change after 1945, how all the pent-up democratic, progressive spirit- literally revolutionary in the case of the American Communist Party- left over from the war was transubstantiated, its gold smelted into the lead of patriotism and anti-communism in a kind of reverse alchemy, into supporting the opposite of revolution, into reaction. Under the sign of the Cold War, the American republic becomes an Empire at the very moment that it’s become a modern republic, just as the great immigrant cocktail of the 19th and early 20th century finally shook down and American patriotism achieved a genuine stature by helping to save the world from Fascism.

 Empire trumps republic. The counterrevolutionary logic of Cold War trumps the progressive, social-democratic logic of the war against the Axis. The collective, democratic spirit aroused by World War Two gives way to a different organising principle, to Anti-Communism, the enemy without (and above all within). There was always going to be a clash between the only two great powers, America and Russia. But Anti-Communism as a national hysteria, the creation of the United States as national security state, the military-industrial complex in people’s minds, that was something else, peculiarly American.

            It took a while. It was not a simple process. It began right at the end of the war with America taking the first steps to empire, encouraged and tutored by the old bully boy of British imperalism Winston Churchill. The first step was to demonise and cast out the American left. The same thing had happened after WW1 with the Red scare and the Palmer raids. The people who run America, the big guns, were quite ruthless throughout the 20th century in reimposing control, closing down any radical openings, shutting down society when they had to. In fact, the only times they lost were at times of unexpected national crisis- the slump when the class traitor FDR slipped through; then The Sixties after the Kennedy assassination, when the same thing happened with race traitor, LBJ. Still, World War Two was the “people’s war”. It took a lot of Cold War fear, a lot of The Russians Are Coming ideology to hammer the lid back on.

In this post-war process, American Communists were like the avant garde, the first to be dealt with. That’s the subject of IMC. The witchhunts. The Enemy Within. McCarthy and HUAC and the rise of Richard Nixon. The central character in IMC is Ira Ringold, dirt-poor working man turned Communist turned radio star who is destroyed, blacklisted, demonised. Politically, the brilliance of IMC is that it shows IR’s creation as well as his destruction because, again politically, the transition from WW2 to Cold War, American republic to American Empire was always both things together. The one was always right on the heels of the other: the republic comes into being and is destroyed at the very same moment. The most progressive forces in America coalesce and are scattered in a double movement. Everything about post-war America is not monolithic, but ambiguous. If Roth’s historical novels are written under a sign, it’s under the sign of ambiguity. The whole trilogy is ambiguous to the core. When we hear Roth’s own voice commenting on the action in the guise of his narrator Nathan Zuckerman (another ambiguity), time and again what he has to tell us, the author’s message if you like, runs as follows- everything is ambiguous, nothing is one thing without its opposite Other, everything is (self-) contradictory. Everything.

            That includes politics, because the rise of empire doesn’t extinguish the habits of the republic, not for a long time anyway. Ira Ringold’s political education, his coming to political consciousness is consciousness for him: one of the wonderful things about the book is the  subtlety with which Roth treats the well-worn theme of men who are caught up in their politics and define themselves through politics: ideologues, revolutionaries, reactionaries. Roth is as subtle here as Dostoevsky or Conrad or Solzhenitsyn ever were. Ira’s political development is twofold, and therefore ambiguous from the start. One half of it is his recruitment and education at the hands of the Communist ascetic and ideologue, Johnny O’Day. But the other, equally important half comes about when IR accidentally discovers he has a talent for dressing up as Abraham Lincoln and delivering Lincoln’s great speeches to working men’s picnics or meetings or in schools- which in turn forms the basis of his acting career.

            Abraham Lincoln. The embodiment of the America republic (of America itself!). The Revolutionary War launched the republic but with the glaring omission of slavery. The American Civil war completed it with the work of The Great Emancipator, Lincoln. Then comes mass immigration, industrialisation, the whole thing gets thrown back into the (literal) melting pot to be completed once again, democratised once again, through World War Two and the grande armee. Hence Ira Ringold, a Communist, who is also Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. There’s Communism or socialism on the one hand; and there’s the passion for democracy and equality that are built into America on the other hand- “hard-wired” into it, as they say. But the two never quite gell. When he plays Lincoln, Ira says, ”I understood what this country is all about”. Saying Lincoln’s great words- a government by the people, for the people, of the people. Embodying American Democracy, which doesn’t just mean pulling the lever on a voting machine every four years, but the spirit of democracy. Democracy as a force. Democracy as a principle. Democracy the way Tocqueville saw it that carried with it the spirit of social equality. It wasn’t voting Tocqueville was afraid of: it was social equality, that is to say, the mob- or in polite language “the tyranny of the majority”. The haves feared the have nots in the 18th century as they do today. America’s Founding Fathers feared the same spirit of Democracy and tried to restrain it, to hedge it around and wall it off. A republic, yes.  Democracy- well, not really. But it was too late.

The original American Revolution was a political revolution as distinct from a social revolution. Ever since, there have been people in America wanting to complete it, to draw out its potential. And there have been other people in America equally determined to stop them. Ira Ringold belongs to the first group, the party of the first part. To Ira, communism is American- it’s all-American. Needless to say, he loses this argument. Post-1945, the winning argument is the exact opposite: communism is unAmerican, an unAmerican activity. In his trilogy, Roth follows that argument as it unfolds through the twists and turns of the next three decades when, instead of social equality, you get social disruption. The drive to social equality is denied, crushed, brutally cut off so it turns to the dark side and what you get in its place is anarchy, corruption, social disruption, the inferno,

 The broad thrust is there, the cost of exploitation and repression, the blowback factor, but in terms of the details, no, of course, they’re not so simple. For one thing, the American Communist Party weren’t angels. There were Red spies under a number of government beds. Nor was “actually existing socialism” of the Soviet sort any nirvana, God knows. 1950s America may not have had a Labour government or an NHS, but they had the GI bill, rising wages, social mobility and a certain social openness (so long as you weren’t black or Jewish). Above all, there was the tremendous post-war economic escalator carrying the children and grandchildren of illiterate European peasants to undreamed-of affluence, to lives literally beyond their parents and grandparents’ dreams. From the ghetto to the suburbs. Not a chicken in every pot but two cars in every garage, plus a washing machine, a fridge, a television…....

Then there’s the element in American life Hannah Arendt put in these words: “the result, in contradistinction to European development, has been that the revolutionary notions of public happiness and political freedom have never altogether vanished from the American scene, they have become part and parcel of the very structure of the political body of the republic.”

            My own generation of Europeans, born at the end of the war, growing up in the post-war world and the early years of the “American century”, we all knew that. We didn’t know what it was. We couldn’t have put any of it into words. But we knew there was somewhere called America and it was different from Europe, not just geographically. We knew it from the movies. We knew it from comic books. We knew it from photographs of cars with enormous fins and buildings called skyscrapers. We knew there was somehow in some way a New World, the city on the hill, and that the cliches corresponded to a reality. When we went there- and most of us did finally make the trip- we discovered you can breathe it. You get off the plane in America and underneath the blast of hamburger smell and gasoline smell, you breathe the body odour coming off America’s body politic, sweet and quite distinctive- the smell of freedom.

            What Roth’s trilogy is about is how that smell has been all-but- extinguished over the last fifty years. How Republic gave way to Empire, the haves triumphed over the have nots, the counterrevolution beat the revolution- when the political genius of America had lain in keeping the two in balance, never quite letting the one overwhelm the other. Iran Ringold is among the first to go. Then comes a kind of coda that Roth doesn’t cover. Precisely because political radicalism has been snuffed out in America, the spirit of rebellion goes into the arts, into culture, into personal lifestyles, and we get the Beats, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Carl Solomon, Neal Cassady et al. So that when the radical politics comes back in the Sixties, it’s a curious revolution, as much cultural as political, drugs, rock n’roll, civil rights, anti-war, anti-capitalism, all mixed up together.

 Roth picks up his story in the Sixties but this time not from the side of the radicals, but from the viewpoint of the mainstream. Political radicals may have had a terrible time in the 1950s but political conformists, which is to say the great majority, prospered. The American Dream came true for tremendous numbers of people, though only a minority have done as well as the Swede. From the time he was a high school sports star The Swede has been a star of the American Dream, one of its poster boys. But the 1960s, when the whole process starts to reverse itself, the arc reaches its apogee and heads downwards, the Cold War becomes Vietnam War, JFK is followed by LBJ then Nixon (the faces alone tell the story), the New Left replaces the old Left and is defeated in its turn.  By the 1990s and the third novel in the trilogy, The Human Stain, Coleman Slick couldn’t be further away politically from the revolutionary Ira Ringold. The historical gulf between Ira Ringold and Coleman Slick (and between both men and the Swede) is quite clear, and profound. Slick is a retired college professor. He’s not political at all. His secret isn’t anything like belonging to the Communist Party (there are virtually no Communist Parties left in the world to belong to). His twin secrets are being a black man who has passed for white, and being an old man having a passionate affair with a woman half his age and who comes from the underclass. Private secrets, personal secrets, important to the man Coleman Slick himself no doubt, and to those who love him, but otherwise harmless enough.

Only, as the Sixties taught us, the personal is the political. By the time we reach the 1990s, with progressive politics having given way to political correctness in the US, the political has become the personal and therefore far from harmless. The driving force in Slick’s life has been the desire to free himself- the lust for  freedom. In pursuit of his own freedom he’s dissembled and hurt others, thus setting up the hubris which invites nemesis.  Politically his trangressions are transgressive. That is to say, they carry a positive political charge. They’re like sparks of freedom on a gunpowder trail that leads to social change, and so they must be crushed. These last political sparks must be crushed even if they’re only visible, at this stage in America’s imperial consolidation, in people’s private behaviour, and “bad” behaviour at that.

The public event that sets the tone for THS is the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal just as the public event that sets the tone for IMC, that squares the circle of America’s half-century and brings the Anti-Communist 1950s together with the Imperial 1990s was Nixon’s quasi-state funeral in Yorba Linda, California  in 1995 . Like Roth I watched  it on television and, as he writes, “the whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable.” Nixon’s funeral was a full-scale display of the mendacity and corruption of America’s political and economic ruling class  “All of them mourning platitudinously together in the California sunshine and the lovely breeze: the indicted and the unindicted, the convicted and the unconvicted” , the thugs and crooks and the smoothies and the sharks, Clinton included, twisting themselves in knots to praise Nixon as a great man. Nixon, The Great Manipulator- the Nixon of vicious, Red-baiting anti-communism who rode to power on HUAC and on the destruction of Helen Gahagan Douglas and who used his power to bring us Watergate. Blindingly clear the message of that funeral. Nobody, least of all the US media, seemed able or willing to read it at the time (but Roth did). You destroy the Ira Ringolds and this is what you get. Nixon himself belonged in the Fifties, his political essence, his meaning was there, he was merely resurrected in the 1970s, when his political corpse was propped up and voted in to represent a reaction which had already gone way beyond him and was brewing in California under Reagan, and among the millionaire crazies in the South West looking for their new Goldwater, (which is why Nixon was so paranoid about his own legitimacy in power and tempted into overkill to sustain it. His real enemies were on his right not his left).  50 years later, the tuning fork of the White House is vibrating to Clinton/Lewinsky. To Monicagate instead of Watergate. To bedroom farce instead of to Shakespearean tragedy. To Opera bouffe rather than Wagner. Due to Clinton’s human weakness and faillibility (his “human stain”), but also, exactly as Hilary Clinton said, due to the activities of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

            It’s ironic- so long  as you have the strength like Roth to pick the irony out of tragedy. The process that ends with Coleman Slick and his lover Faunia Farley’s double murder, when they are run off the road by the disturbed Vietnam Vet Les Farley, begins with Ira Ringold’s destruction as the representative of an alleged, vast left-wing conspiracy. From the McCarthyite 1950s to the 1960s and Vietnam to the culture wars of the 1990s. A single thread of strife- class conflict a Marxist would say- that takes sociocultural as much as overtly political forms because in a full-out democracy like America, everything is political. Interesting to contemplate the exact nature of the force that destroys Slick and Faunia (and all but destroys Clinton). Roth describes it as “the tyranny of propriety”. We don’t normally think of “propriety” as having the power to be “tyrannical” except in certain specialised religious situations like Calvin’s Geneva. The phrase reminds us of America’s famous (or infamous) Puritanism- or it might if Philip Roth hadn’t specifically warned against any such lazy interpretation, writing that “Europeans unhistorically call” propriety “American Puritanism”. While it’s true that New England’s Puritanism was an important factor in early America, it was not the only one. In the 19th century, it lost its religious character and mutated into an idea of Promethean selfhood, via writers like Emerson. After the Civil War, selfhood in turn was misinterpreted as, and identified with, rugged individualism proved by material success .[1]

Religion gives way to morality, then morality gives way to propriety. This is the authentic line of development for American individualism,“the American line that took the unlimited self as its greatest resource”, the making not of Uber-man but of  Uber-bourgeois. When the American bourgeoisie had its crisis in the 1960s, half a century later than the European crisis of bourgeois liberalism, it came about in a broadly similar way to the way it had occurred in Europe-the impact of an unpopular war (Vietnam rather than 1914-18); a threat from the left (the New Left instead of Bolshevism); racial hostility (against blacks rather than Jews); and economic malaise (the start of the Long Downturn in the 1970s) triggering a mass political movement from the right (the Republican Right rather than Fascism).[2]

America as the New World and the American as the “new man” who is also a “self-made man” were forged out of a triangle of forces: Puritanism, Nature and Democracy. Once observers of the infant United States stopped being awestruck at its unspoiled Nature, they worried about the Democracy. De Toqueville’s Democracy In America is one long, anxious argument with himself over the threat of a “tyranny of the majority” in the US. Was it likely? How likely was it? The tyranny of the majority was supposed to be the prime danger of democracy, democracy’s disease: it was democracy’s revolutionary potential, as America’s Founding Fathers were well aware. A republic faced two dangers: decline into oligarchic corruption or being swamped by a tyrannous majority. The Founding Fathers tried to deal with both by, as it were, legislating, or constitutionalising them out of existence, mandating a weak central government and a restricted franchise, but the latter turned out to be only a temporary expedient. As a strategy, it was dismantled almost at once by Jacksonian democracy- there was too much power in mass politics for politicians not to want to make use of it (‘Democracy in America’ itself was written in response to the Jacksonian “democratic revolution”). Then came the mass immigration of the 19th century and the industrialisation that turned America and most of Europe too into mass societies whose populations couldn’t be kept out of politics anyway. So what strategy do you turn to if you’re one of the rulers? If you’re one of the haves who wants to keep the lid on the far more numerous have nots? Taking the revolutionary tyranny of the majority and turning it into a reactionary tyranny of propriety might appeal

            In modern times, the vector for this American syndrome was the Cold war, and the emergence of American global power. Even if the Soviet Union hadn’t existed, America would probably have sought to define itself against some other enemy, some alternate external group on to whom the conflicts and struggle of American society could be displaced (QED as they have been on to Terrorism since the collapse of Communism). Here’s the whole of Roth’s description of the tyranny of American propriety: “It was hard, halfway through 1998, for even him to believe in American propriety’s enduring power, and he was the one who considered himself tyrannised: the bridle it still is on public rhetoric, the inspiration it provides for personal posturing, the persistence just about everywhere of this de-virilizing, pulpit virtue-mongering that HL Mencken identified with boobism, that Philip Wylie thought of as Momism, that the Europeans unhistorically call American puritanism, that the likes of Ronald Regan call America’s core values, and that maintains widespread jurisidiction by masquerading itself as something else- as everything else.”

Remember this is the author of Portnoy’s Complaint talking. In Roth’s hands, propriety (and the outraging thereof) is a major theme alongside his other key theme of antisemitism. All Roth says is true, but there’s a way to characterise contemporary American propriety that sees it more as a political strategy than a religious hangover. Contemporary propriety has roots in the Anti-Communism of IMC, the Red-baiting of the 1950s (remember Moral Re-Armament?)  domesticated and absorbed into America’s bloodstream, where it became entrenched as an overall conservative conformity, a public moralism of the right.

             “Core values” is a political term masquerading as a moral one. Core values are about the restoration of hierarchy, authority, order, obedience, after the haves almost lost it to the have nots in the Sixties, to libidinous free-thinkers and antinomian artists like Alexander Portnoy and his creator, one Philip Roth. In Europe, the terms are left and right- socialism and conservatism- but in America the terms are different: democratic republicanism on the one hand, public happiness married to political freedom; and on the other hand, public moralism and privatised authoritarianism . The overtly political nature of the struggle is never spoken about; or rather it’s spoken about in a code that Europeans find confusing. Right and Left are like two armies fighting in the night, blundering about in the shadows, their clashes displaced. Struggles for the dignity of labour become McCarthyism and Red-baiting. Protests against the Vietnam War turn into a children’s crusade of dropouts turned teenage bombers. A would-be right-wing coup takes the form of an impeachment trap for an adulterous or quasi-adulterous President. Progressive social democratic thought gets cut off and diverted, under massive right-wing pressure, into arguments over gay rights, abortion, school prayer, the flag, the so-called Culture Wars. None of this makes America into some great historical exception. It merely gives an American cast, an American style to the classic shape of modern mass politics with its twin termini of revolution and counterrevolution whose ultimate European forms (to date)  were Communism and Fascism.

            Roth’s three novels are American tragedies. There’s hubris in each one and nemesis, not only individual hubris and nemesis but also collective hubris and nemesis. The hubris and nemesis of America, for which ignorance is no excuse, non-participation is no excuse, even opposition, like Iron Rinn’s (Ira Ringold’s stage name) is no excuse. The same part that fate plays in individual tragedy, history plays in collective, political tragedy. You can’t avoid your individual destiny and you can’t avoid the society you belong to, including your collective responsibility for its crimes and misdemeanours, for its hubris as opposed to, or more often running alongside, your own.

The Sixties were the key decade. The Sixties were when the balance tipped. People felt it at the time.  The day Kennedy was assassinated, people knew something had changed. Never mind 9/11. November 22nd 1963 was the day America changed, or at least the day that the American trajectory dipped downwards, turned its back on one sort of future and started down the slope towards another sort of future. It doesn’t matter that Kennedy was a flawed personality, a convinced Cold Warrior, who was never going to usher in radical reforms. So long as he lived, there was still a gap held open between American public idealism and American public moralism. A gap wide enough for America itself to pass through. That was the hope- ambiguity, at least. There was still the thought the thing could go either way, and more, hope that it was going to go the right way, that the public happiness and political freedom Hannah Arendt talked about would be America’s final, considered gift to the world. Not helicopter gunships and cluster bombs. Not CIA coups and proxy armies. Not “shock and awe”. Not an Empire in all but colonies.

Instead in the 1960s, US power, prepared by Cold war and 1950s anti-communism, turned homicidal in its attempts to crush Third World revolutions. By the 1980s, the paranoia had become institutional, an ideological blowback preceding the terrorist blowback of 9/11, and America was full of secrets- not only Communism was a secret any more in America, but also liberalism had become a secret, humanism was a secret, politics was a secret. If you want to stand, really stand for public happiness and political freedom in their true, fully embodied meanings, then you’d damn well better keep it to yourself or you’ll be destroyed. Destroyed by the left as much as by the right. The noble resistance of the old union guys and the radicals turns into the idealism of civil rights, then into the anti-Vietnam War Movement, which was half-protest and half-bombings, and so on through identity politics into political correctness, at which point the hope of social change gets abandoned, exchanged for social no-change, and a demand for individual respect. The ghetto person gives up any hope of becoming a university professor and settles for the booby prize of demanding he be treated like one anyway. Identity politics is politics frozen- petrified, in fact.

            There are various ways to describe this situation, where everyone is innocent and everyone is guilty and paradoxes abound. Realistic is one description. That’s probably what Roth himself would call it. The artist’s job is to plumb the mysteries of the human condition, which turn out, as the title of the third novel in the series says, to be the Human Stain. The stain, that is, of humanity, of having to lead this life in a human body with a human brain. Human all too human. Shit happens. Nothing is completely good or completely bad. Everyone has his or her reasons, which is not the same as saying that everyone’s reasons are good ones. Mostly, they’re mixed, good and bad. But if we’re talking about a bottom line, and of course we are- death alone ensures we are- then everyone gets what he or she deserves, which is that same death.  Because the bottom line for mankind is, we’re just not good enough. Hence the need for salvation and forgiveness in religion.

            Read from this perspective, Roth is not a cheerful writer. From this perspective, his three novels are American tragedies, even if the very notion of American tragedy is a contradiction in terms, since it goes against the grain of America’s sunny optimism- or rather it threads the needle between Americans’ sense of election and their consciousness of sin, that double-sided historical hysteria from which Roth distills his term, “American propriety”.

            Read from this perspective too, you could argue that Roth’s historical trilogy is not a political trilogy at all. These novels are not like Shakespeare’s history plays. True, public events appear in them, but their principal characters aren’t real people, nor are they the rulers, the movers and shakers of the polity. They’re private individuals, and fictional individuals to boot. Roth’s works aren’t like Dickens’ great novels either, which are overtly political in the sense of addressing certain public issues of their time, doing a kind of artistic muckraking, as well as offering a general critique of Victorian England and its “core values”. If anything, Roth’s critique of America works the opposite way around from Dickens. Roth alludes to political events. He frames his books with political themes appropriate to the different decades. But then he X-rays them, the way an X-ray flashes through tissue, to get at the flawed individuals underneath. If the politics are flawed, he implies, it’s because the individuals are flawed. The individuals make the politics and not, as a Marxist might argue, the politics making the individuals. Actually, as everyone knows, this is a two-way street. Where you put the emphasis is what counts. And where Roth puts the emphasis doesn’t make him a political writer: it makes him an apolitical writer.

Or maybe it simply makes him a novelist who’s interested in writing about the human spirit rather than an historian interested in explaining historical change- let alone an activist calling for revolution. As Nathan Zuckerman’s university English teacher tells the young Nathan in IMC: “”Politics is the great generalizer and literature the great particularizer….Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism (between them).”

Even when they’re not antagonistic, politics and literature are different jobs requiring different perspectives. But there are times when they overlap, and Roth is being disingenuous inserting this speech into a novel that deliberately deals with the political, and that tries, like all three books in this trilogy, to link the particular of individual lives with the general of politics and history, to illuminate the latter by the former (if not the former by the latter). There’s a strong strain of conservatism in Roth, not as strong as there was in Saul Bellow, but nevertheless he needs his genius to keep it under control. In his private life, I’d guess Roth is a left of centre American liberal, which means he tends to see politics from an individual and moral point of view, as Americans do, rather than from a structural and analytical one, like many on the European left. Politically speaking, neither position is wrong or invalid. I suppose you could argue the European way has produced stronger welfare states and more radical politics. You could also argue that the American way underpinned the glories of the American republic. And they were glories, no doubt about it. That’s why Roth’s protagonists, all three of whom share their creator’s gift for flights of sustained invective, for comical, hysterical, hyperarticulate rage, are so angry and so bitter at what they see as the passing or eclipsing of those glories.

Which glories are we talking about? Well, the greatest glory of America, unique in the world so far, has been the creation of a genuine multiethnic, multiracial democracy. An astonishing achievement. Worthy of the greatest respect. For all the smooth, shining surface with which America’s vast productive capacity has gilded it, an achievement that’s still riven, cracked, flawed with every kind of unresolved division and unconstrained emotion. And the basic split, the one that encompasses all the others, is right there for all to see: the split between America, democratic and egalitarian, where everybody is, or pretends to be, no more than a “common man” (since this is the republic that dignifies the common man, this is the world’s first and last true home for the “huddled masses, yearning to be free” from poverty, overlords, masters, kings) and an America seething with every sort of racial, ethnic, cultural, neighbourly hatred and resentment and fear of The Other. The split between America the melting pot and America the maelstrom.

The maelstrom is America’s political prima materia. You can use it to make a democracy- you can weld it together that way- or you can use it to divide and rule. In the 19th century, as America was becoming a modern, industrial nation, after the closing of the Frontier, both things happened at the same time. America became a multiethnic etc. democracy and republic, it also became a byword for economic inequality, ruthless capitalism, brutally violent repression of unions and radicals, poverty and misery in its immigrant slums. In Europe, where the mass of men were enduring the same conditions, they eventually get together and made themselves into a countervailing force to the capitalists, to some extent they managed to carve out some socialised power. Not in America. In America, the elite and the owners were always able to divide and rule. No Labour Party in America. No left-wing politics with a real, mass basis. All the minority who own and run America had to do to prevent the majority getting together and threatening their hold on power was to exploit the divisions between earlier immigrants and more recent immigrants, Italians and Poles, Irish and German, white and black (and brown), Christians and Jews, Catholic and Protestant, the last of which happened to be the big one. That was the split that divided the first mass immigrants, from Anglo-German and Scandinavian roots, from the “new” immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe.

   Then came the Great Depression, the whole system fell apart, and FDR stepped in to save it with the New Deal. To the absolute horror of America’s corporate class, America’s country-clubbers and Republicans. To everyone else in the world, FDR is the man who saved American capitalism but to American capitalists he was and remains the Antichrist. The degree of invective mounted against FDR in his own political lifetime was incredible. The visceral loathing directed against him by his fellow rich and powerful. Publically. Politically. Every which way. So much so that his enemies are still trying to reverse everything he did 50 years later.

 World War Two followed with its democratising logic; the Republic was reconditioned, refurbished, re-established. But World War Two was something else besides, another of those political ambiguities (never mind the personal ones) that run through Roth’s trilogy and through the history of modern America. The war created the collective American people, turned the maelstrom into grande armee and its civilian adjuncts, the Home Front as they used to call it, but it also created America as a super power. Suddenly, everything America’s elite lost in domestic policy they could get back through foreign policy, via the Cold War and the anti-communist Red scare. Empire trumps republic. If the war brought the democratic spirit, the spirit of equality and social change, back home, then the Cold War replaced it with patriotism and paranoia back home- patriotism for American global supremacy and paranoia for the enemy within and without. You want social change and equality in America? You think that’s what America is for? Sorry, social change and equality aren’t part of the democratic, republican American Way any longer. Quite the opposite, in fact. Overnight, social change and equality have been reclassified as UnAmerican Activities.

America the global superpower, the greatest nation on the face of the earth, is simultaneously America in terrible, mortal peril, vulnerable to destruction at any moment by its shadowy enemies who in their turn are both all-powerful conspiracies and pathetic losers, grains of dust beneath America’s feet.

There was just enough truth in it to make it plausible. There always is. But Anti-Communism was not fascism. The right’s way of organising the sprawling, shapeless monster that is these United States was only partially successful. Some things eluded their grasp.  The passion for social change and equality lies deep in the roots of America, after all. The roots of the tree that Jefferson said needed regular watering “with the blood of tyrants”. It went underground in the 1950s, but it resurfaced in the form of the Civil Rights Movement, then in the anti-Vietnam War Movement, when it got thrown back in the faces of adult America by America’s children, before it was finally defeated. Self-defeated in part, but only in part. We conveniently forget the ferocious state and police repression unleashed against The Movement and “The Sixties” in general in the US. Not just the Black Panthers. Read about what happened to a group like the Living Theater, for example, who were just a bunch of hippie actors who took drugs and made some anti-establishment noise and tried to live a different way. And were subject to endless harassment and repression. The Vietnamese won their civil war but the Movement lost theirs. And from then on, the trend is clear, of an American empire crushing any and all radicalism, even mildly progressive movements for social change, both outside and inside its borders, and a country can’t do that without getting infected by its own violence. 




The process whereby an innocent person comes to embody or take on the collective guilt of a community, and is expelled from the community and punished, thus purifying the community so that it can continue, is known as scapegoating. It’s scapegoating because it’s unfair. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do the damage. The ones who did the damage, the flash crooks and the political thugs, the Kissingers and the Reagans, the G Gordon Liddys and the Billy Grahams, they’re not being punished, far from it: they’re in their glory over at Yorba Linda, burying the arch-crook and their patron saint in the theology of power relations, Richard  ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon. To the applause of a grateful nation. Whereas decent, liberal, anonymous you, who may be no saint yourself- which of us is?- but whose crimes and misdemeanours are certainly down the low end rather than on the high side- you have become Public Enemy Number One, marked down for destruction. Don’t say, it can’t happen here. It happens to Ira Ringold, ‘Swede’ Levov and Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s trilogy. The only difference since classical times is that the destruction is now carried out by furies from within the society rather than without - from the underworld rather than from the upper world of the gods. Nor does the purification really work. All it can do is set things up for the next victim and the next and the next in an unbroken chain

Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley are Roth’s candidates to break that chain. It’s getting late. It’s not morning in America any more whatever The Great Communicator says. Maybe this is America’s last chance. The trilogy form is all about the passage of time. A novel has a beginning, middle and an end. A play has three acts. But with a trilogy, with three novels, a writer pays homage to the formlessness of history, to the fact that it began before the first book he writes and continues after the last, while at the same time giving history a loose shape. The expectation of a plot that starts with the first book, takes some kind of turn with the second and reaches some kind of finish, however provisional, with the last. Since Coleman and his cleaning-lady lover are the central characters in the third book, The Human Stain, the one where the scapegoating theme is signposted for the reader with a quote from Oedipus on the frontspiece and section headings like The Purification Ritual- whereas in the other two novels, much the same process took place without authorial signposts- we can conclude two things. First, that history’s own idea of plot has hotted up, raising the stakes towards some kind of climax. Second, that if our hero and heroine are going to save the day, they’d better get a move on. They’d better pull something out of the bag pretty quickly.

But who are this hero and heroine anyway? Well, they’re not Adam and Eve or Romeo and Juliet. They’re not even the young lovers whose story Roth told in his very first novel Goodbye Columbus, all those years ago. Young lovers, a young couple, are traditional artistic choices to signify, or symbolise, a fresh start. After all, that’s how things start anew in reality. Children grow up, they become adults, they leave home and what prompts them to leave home is the desire to find a mate and start a family of their own. Anthropologically, that’s the structure of the human story,which is antecedent to History. It’s deeper than History with a capital H. History comes out of sex, if you like, rather than vice versa, so if you want a force that can change history, the sexual conjunction is a good symbol for it.

But Silk and Farley don’t qualify as love’s young dream by anyone’s standards. They’re  a genuinely odd couple: he’s 71, she’s 34; he’s a college professor, she’s an illiterate janitor as the Americans say- in British English, “cleaner” conveys her status better. She’s a cleaner at the university, she cleans up after the students, she cleans up their mess. Then she goes down to the local post office and performs the same function there. Lowly work. Immigrants do it. Who are this couple? Roth asks himself the same question, and his answer is surprising:

 “Who are they now? They are the simplest version possible of themselves. The essence of singularity. Everything painful congealed into passion….they’re out from under everything piled on top of them.”  Both of them have “the wisdom of somebody who expects nothing.” At the same time, they’re not cynical or disillusioned to the point of despair.  Despair is one of the things they’re out from under. They’re fully capable of passion, activity, of all the human qualities.

Maybe conventional innocence is no longer enough. Maybe youthful idealism is no longer enough. Maybe history has moved on too far for the United States of America, the clock is ticking, and Roth is telling us it will take an odd couple like this, a couple who’ve been through every kind of experience and come out the other side, to make a difference. Maybe America shouldn’t be looking for innocence, the unstained sheet, but looking on the far side of innocence, when you go through and beyond experience and escape the maelstrom, both the social maelstrom around you and the maelstrom you create yourself with your ego. Only after they’ve been stripped of everything they might have valued, every illusion of status or ownership, career, children, reputation, as well as their clothes plus (god save us from) any illusions of propriety, have Coleman and Faunia achieved their pure distilled individuality. Or impure distilled individuality.,

            (Interestingly, their creator is in the same position although he arrived at it from the  opposite direction. At least, that’s what he tells us in these works. Roth/Zuckerman describes himself as follows: he’s cut himself off from all ties, he lives alone, he lives in a cabin in the woods, he sees almost nobody. His social persona, his emotional entanglements have been burned off if not burned out. He leads a literally monk-like existence since prostate cancer surgery rendered him impotent. His involvement in the part of the human tragi-comedy mediated by sex- created by sex- is over. Roth/Zuckerman has become a singularity defined by his work as a writer. Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley have become singularities defined by their fucking).

            Every time two people come together to form a couple, something new comes into being which offers a chance to break the chain. Of course, nine times out of ten all that happens is they forge another link in the same chain. Maybe this late on in human history- even in the history of a young country like America- it’s too late for Adam and Eve and we need people who’ve gone right through life and come out the other side. Couples who have nothing left to lose and who can therefore, finally, be themselves, shorn of the game-playing and role-playing, the unconscious demons and the all-too-conscious greed, the secrets and the lies and the pretensions. Maybe they’re the only ones who have a shot to restore the harmony, heal the split, between men and women, society and the individual, the maelstrom and the upper world.

            Only it doesn’t happen. Instead of Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley healing the split, the split gets them. The crevasse opens beneath their feet, the maelstrom reaches up and drags them down with it, aided and abetted by the cheers of the respectable. “Caught between, I thought. Denounced by the high-minded, reviled by the righteous-then exterminated by the criminally crazed…whipsawed, I thought. Whipsawed by the inimical teeth of this world. By the antagonism that is the world.” And if we were in any doubt as to Coleman Silk’s wider significance for Roth’s trilogy, his representative status as an admittedly flawed hero in America’s postwar historical furore, we’re told a little later on that Silk was “the man who decides to forge a distinct historical destiny, who sets out to spring the historical lock, and who does so, brilliantly succeeds at altering his personal lot, only to be ensnared by the history he hadn’t quite counted on..”

            Couldn’t that apply to every American? What have Americans been doing in the second half of the 20th century if not “brilliantly altering their personal lots” only to be “ensnared by the history they hadn’t quite counted on.” ?

            So what is the maelstrom or inferno or -as Roth calls it elsewhere (in American Pastoral) -the “indigenous American beserk”? The maelstrom is democracy, modern mass society, in its negative aspect. The maelstrom is a flawed society mirroring the flawed individual. As an individual, either you become conscious and rational and keep moving forwards, or you get swallowed by the unconscious, dragged down into a maw of addiction and craziness. Things get expressed in a positive way or they turn negative. On the level of society, Ira Ringold says in IMC, “an El ride through the Negro ghettoes is enough to indicate to anyone with an open mind what warps people into these shapes.” The key is, it warps everyone- the winners as well as the losers, suburban white as well as inner city black, the “high-minded” and the “righteous” as well as the crazed and drug-addled and criminally violent.

Psychologically, in Roth’s trilogy, innocent, decent people are destroyed, but then they’re not completely innocent in the first place. None of us can claim really to be innocent. The maelstrom is “the people”, but under the sign of Saturn, the sans culottes full of rage which mostly gets acted out against each other but also against any members of the upperworld who trespass too near, as Coleman Silk does when he takes up with Faunia Farley; as Ira Ringold does because he comes from the maelstrom in the first place and gets dragged back there (in a sense, he never escapes it); as Merry, the bomb-planting, pubescent Sixties revolutionary does for reasons that are not so clear-cut in her case. American Pastoral was the first of these three novels Roth wrote and it’s not as fully thought through as the later two.

            Fifty years on from World War Two and the wonderful democracy-machine that America built to win the war has turned into the maelstrom. I didn’t say so: Philip Roth said so. Democracy’s object, the common man, has become democracy’s nightmare- violent, vicious, drug-addled, ignorant, bestial, the works. ‘The Swede’ Levov working hard, playing by the rules, and rising from immigrant poverty to affluence in two or three generations, a reward as much moral as it is financial is a true believer in the American Dream. Everyone in these three books starts off believing in the Dream as it was Year One of the postwar American social revolution. But fifty years on, the reality is that a tiny minority own 80 plus % of the country’s assets- unimaginable riches while a vast middle class cling by their fingertips to their status and a large minority of what used to be called the common man have little or nothing.

The transformation of “the people” into “the maelstrom” forms the background for the harsh individual ironies that characterise these novels, each of whose heroes is destroyed by forces arising out of the American demotic, what Dean Acheson called ”the attack of the primitives”. The last of the trilogy, The Human Stain, is the best precisely because its multiple ironies intersect most seamlessly. By the time we get to THS, nobody is innocent, or can even claim to be. In AP, Swede Levov’s Aryan image- being a Jew who looks like an all-American golden boy, like a Scandinavian in fact- was wholly innocent and unintended, a piece of sheer good luck. By the time we get to THS, this same motif has become, in Coleman Silk, a deliberate decision by a negro who happens to look white to “pass”, cutting himself off from his family and embarking on a lifelong deception that encompasses his own (white) wife and children. That’s Silk’s far from innocent version of the American Dream, the Dream that lies at the very root of the American experience. “To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving- and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.”

Energy and cruelty. Generations of it until, in the end, rather than America adapting itself to its people, its people have been forced to adapt to America. In the very organisation of their personalities, there’s been a shift from a republican to an imperial, one-size-fits-all standard, worked from the skin inwards, from the outer to the inner man.

            And woman. Merry, the Sixties bomber in American Pastoral who rebels against that very conformity and by her single violent act flings herself into the American street, the American malestrom, where she is raped, exploited and lives as a beggar, becomes, by the time we reach the 1990s and THS, Faunia Farley, also born in comfortable circumstances, also a runaway, also a victim. In Faunia’s case, she’s forced to leave home by a sexually abusive stepfather. Her life of grim deprivation therefore can’t be her own fault. Or can it? Right at the end of the novel we get another view of Faunia Farley, given to us by the companion of Faunia’s biological father, and it’s a harsh view- “His daughter was a criminal. Got pregnant and had a child at sixteen- a child she abandoned to an orphan asylum. A child her father would have raised. She was a common whore. Guns and men and drugs and filth and sex.”

            And what about Ira Ringold, the epitome of the common man circa 1945, the raw material from whom “the people”, now become the maelstrom, were made? What is Ira’s (re)incarnation in the 1990s? By the time we get to The Human Stain he’s turned into Les Farley, homicidal Vietnam veteran, ruled by unchecked primordial emotions of rage and terror. The Ira Ringold who sought to be a political actor in America has become the politically acted upon. The big feller has gone back to being the little man. The individual who rose from the maelstrom, who began his life story by killing another man, then struggled all his life to redeem himself, to rise to consciousness, to study and read, to become a Communist, to make the world in general and America in particular a better place (so there would be no more Ira Ringolds) becomes Les Farley who doesn’t have a political bone in his body, who doesn’t read books, who is educated by America itself to be in his own words a “trained killer”, who kills in Vietnam and comes home a crazed, drunken Vietnam Vet and who ends by killing again, murdering his ex-wife Faunia Farley and her lover Coleman Silk.

The man who wanted to make History becomes a man History re-makes in its own mis-shapen image That’s what happens when you don’t get to make History: it makes you instead. And nowhere more brutally, more ironically than in America, which is set up from the first as the place where Americans will make their own history, take control of their own destiny, cut themselves free from the rules and hierarchies of the Old World. America left the British Empire to constitute itself as a country “by, of and for” the people. But when America develops its own hierarchy, then the split opens between country and people. The people don’t get to make its history: the country makes the history and the people’s only participation is to cheer it on, the fools’ gold of patriotism. To Norman Mailer “America is its own religion”. The historian Richard Hofstadter made the same point when he wrote  “it is our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”

Or maybe we should trace it back even farther. After all, the original American people weren’t Americans: they were Native Americans. And we all know what happened to them.






 Being an American provides an answer to the question of identity that naturally arises when you have a population of immigrants and settlers arriving in what was originally a vast untamed wilderness. Only it’s not a final answer. It’s an answer that raises as many questions as it settles. Identity is therefore the red thread that runs through American literature where it works in the opposite way to Ariadne’s thread. You follow it but instead of taking you home it leads you who knows where? Who am I? What does it mean to be an American? You can’t rely on the pre-exisiting  community, the social class, the pre-existing hierachy you were born into to answer the question for you, as you might do if you’d been born (or stayed) in the Old World. In the New World, you have to answer it for yourself.

Our heroes have all created their own identities in the American manner: Iron Rinn with an idea, Communism; The Swede through success and money; Coleman Silk by “changing” his race. So their destruction is also the destruction of self-creation, this central project, this key American social mechanism. How has the destruction come about? Because the democracy, the republic, has turned against itself as Ira Ringold predicted it would when he was in the army in the 1940s, and found among his fellow grunts redneck attitudes,  philistine “primordial emotions”- the maelstrom’s building bricks. The indigenous American beserk has been unleashed that was held in check so long as there was social hope and the possibility of political progress. It’s only when that hope is choked off, by the time we get to the 1990s and The Human Stain, that all the political and moral categories get shuffled.

On the one hand, we have the professors and their wives, the intellectuals and respectable folk around Athena College and on the other hand we have the underclass, the poor white trash (and poor black trash) members of the maelstrom. Both groups are equally guilty and equally innocent. In each group, there are elements of decency and innocence and of being a victim of unfairness; and in each group, there are evil and rage and corruption. A very mature view, very realistic no doubt. But the collective action, the only joint social enterprise, either group is capable of accomplishing isn’t protest or politics of any kind but scapegoating. The destruction of Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley (which is ironically the destruction of the very individuals, the very values that Roth implies might have saved the situation- the seeds of a better society) brings the two groups together and shows them to be one and the same. Not representatives of the act of creation that began the American Republic, but of the destruction that awaits at the other end of the republican arc when it turns towards the imperial. “The pure and the impure, in all their vehemence, on the move, akin in their common need of an enemy.”

There’s another famous American novel whose hero exemplifies the American Dream, gets involved with the wrong woman, and ends up universally reviled and murdered by a semi-deranged member of the underclass. After the hero’s death, his story is told by a narrator who was his neighbour and friend and now acts as his posthumous advocate and eulogist, just like the narrator of THS and Coleman Silk. The Great Gatsby is probably the most famous of all American novels. Fitzgerald was no more drawn to structural explanations of American history and society than wass Roth: neither man was remotely a Marxist. But Fitzgerald’s work, especially in the Great Gatsby, is a reliable guide both to the hollowness of the American Dream- Gatsby, like Coleman Silk, achieves his Dream only through deception and corruption, while he remains oddly innocent and more sinned against than sinning- and to the forces that have undermined it. Not “propriety” but the “carelessness” and ruthless determination of the ruling class to hang on to their power and privileges. In Christopher Hitchen’s words, “Fitzgerald’s work captures the evaporating memory of the American Eden while connecting it to the advent of the New World of smartness and thuggery and corruption.”[3] 

 Like The Human Stain, The Great Gatbsy is a decline and fall novel, recounting the decline and fall not just of its hero but of the wider society, of America itself. Fitzgerald turns out to be the deeper, more hard-headed analyst of that decline. Compare the two writers and it’s Fitzgerald, the arch-romantic, who is the realist in showing modern America as a class society in which the poor, however honest and hard-working they may be, count for nothing and are callously thrust aside; and in showing America’s rulers, and the spirit of modern America as hard, corrupt, ruthless, “careless” etc.. Roth, the satirist and materialist, remains romantic both about the ability of immigrant groups and social mobility to keep refreshing the American Dream and about seeing the threat to modern America as old-fashioned American “propriety”. That’s like blaming the moral majority, the political footsoldiers of the right, for the crisis rather than the rich and the powerful who shape, lead, encourage and benefit from them.

The Great Gatbsy is set in the 1920s, long before any of the events Roth deals with in his  trilogy (a fourth book, The Plot Against America, extends the time frame backwards to 1940). As you would expect, history has moved on in the interim. Just how profoundly and inexorably history has moved on becomes clear in the endings to Great Gatsby and The Human Stain. These endings are so similar they make a matching pair. Both novels end with the narrator in a landscape, a lone, white American face to face with the American wilderness- in short, they end with versions of the American primal scene:

“I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes- a fresh, green breast of the new world…the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”  (The Great Gatsby)

“I’d trespassed upon a setting as pristine, I would think, as serenly unspoiled, as envelops any inland body of water in New England. It gave you an idea, as such places do- as they’re cherished for doing- of what the world was like before the advent of man. The power of nature is sometimes very calming, and this was a calming place…it was all on a scale safely this side of the sublime. A man could absorb this beauty into his being without feeling belittled or permeated by fear.”  (The Human Stain).

The differences between the two landscapes are mainly in the eye of the beholder: that is to say, they are psychological and historical differences rather than physical ones (in terms of location, Fitzgerald’s passage describes a view of the Long Island Sound; Roth’s a lake in the Berkshires). When Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby, the decline and fall was recent enough that he could still compare and contrast the “American Eden”- America as a blank canvas, a New World, a chance to start the human story over again, as it appeared to the first European settlers- with what America had become almost two centuries later, this second or “fallen” New World  “of smartness and thuggery and corruption.” That kind of basic irony still had power- it still carried a punch- in Fitzgerald’s day.

By the time Roth came to compose his passage in the 1990s, America had become a country like any other. It couldn’t claim innocence any more and it’s not clear to what extent,  patriotic propaganda aside, it could claim to incarnate any sort of ideal- at least in the eyes of an educated, experienced observer like Philip Roth.  The American landscape no longer acts as a spur to “the last and greatest of all human dreams”, even in memory. Its role now is to offer escape, to prompt thoughts of a world without people altogether. The mood at the end of THS is beyond irony. The underlying attitude to nature is pastoral, nature as beauty, as calm, as spiritual refuge, not the usual American attitude (one shared by Fitzgerald) which treats nature in its aspect of the sublime, panoramic and titanic, a mighty wilderness waiting to be tamed.

In his narrator’s brief epiphany (or rather the opposite, his anti-epiphany) at the secret lake, Roth comes as close as he’s ever come to saying the American experiment is over. Nature itself is has gone into hiding. In two centuries of “America”, nature has gone from being the tremendous wilderness that overawed and dwarfed the puny band of pioneers to a nature humbled, defiled, buried beneath malls and parking lots and suburban subdivisions. If you want to find unspoiled nature in America nowadays, away from the Wal Marts and the strip malls and the off-road racers and the power boats, you have to stumble across some secret spot the way Roth/Zuckerman does here, “some five hundreds yards from the road” with “no trail to follow”.

The impulse that moves Roth at the end of THS  is the same impulse that moved DH Lawrence in Women In Love; and it moves both men towards the same vision of a world serene and unspoiled, emptied of human beings, “before the advent of man.” For Lawrence in 1917 (when he finished Women In Love although it wasn’t published until 1921) the vision was a field of grass with only a hare sitting up. For Roth/Zuckerman in 2000, it’s a shining frozen lake.  In other words, at the close of the 20th century, Roth is working out of the same disillusion that the European modernists felt towards their own continent and their own society when the century began, and for the same reason- the prevailing bourgeois culture has driven on to the rocks.

The passage set on Long Island Sound forms the end of The Great Gatsby whose landscape remains a blank page for Fitzgerald’s narrator to “read” and write on as he will. The emptiness here is the point. The landscape is empty because the larger than life figure who occupied it, Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby, the poster boy for the American Dream itself, is dead. The novel’s hero, who is not really a hero but in part a fraud and a villain (and more a victim than either), is dead: ergo, the American Dream has died. And Fitzgerald, or his narrative alter ego, is left to tease out the ironies involved, the American Eden become the New World of smartness and thuggery and corruption, the American Dream turned into the American Nightmare, etc. etc.- to go on spinning and elaborating his ironies for a few more paragraphs right up until the novel’s famous closing words in which irony reaches for  philosophy: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

By contrast, when we get to THS, the passage with the frozen lake- that piece of purified Americana- is not the end of the novel. Over half a century after Gatsby, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s narrator, is not left to contemplate his landscape and multiply his ironies as he will. Nor will he be permitted to “absorb this beauty into his being without feeling belittled or permeated by fear”. He has another 15 pages to go during which he will be occupied with a human encounter, one that will leave him both belittled (“completely bested”) and full of fear, because the whole point of Roth’s landscape is that it is not empty. Fitzgerald’s landscape was defined by the absence of a single figure, Jay Gatsby: Roth’s landscape is defined by the presence of a single figure, Les Farley, Vietnam Vet, labourer, madman, double murderer of Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley. DH Lawrence, trying to define the first ur-American, decided that the American “soul” was “hard, stoic, isolate, a killer”. In THS, the last man standing, and therefore by analogy The Last American, is a killer incarnate but he’s anything but hard, stoic etc- he’s a gibbering wreck, haunted by his Vietnam experiences. His killing skills were taught to him, he’s a killer created and trained by America itself, a byproduct of its imperial folly (“all he did was what they had trained him to do: you see the enemy, you kill the enemy”).

It may be objected that there are two people out on the not- so- thin ice of  that New England lake, Farley and Roth/Zuckerman. But as we’ve seen, Roth/Zuckerman doesn’t count. He’s no longer a man, he’s had prostate cancer and the ensuing operation has rendered him impotent, in any case he’s already moved to a cabin in the woods, cut himself off from the world and taken up a reclusive existence as a reader and writer. A commentator. An observer. He’s retired to the human sidelines and here, at the very end of THC, he effaces himself still more. He’s the I who becomes an eye. The Great Gatsby ends with an aphorism at the farthest reach of irony but THC ends with an image that lies beyond it:

“…the icy white of the lake encircling a tiny spot that was a man, the only human marker in all of nature, like the X of an illiterate’s signature on a sheet of paper. There it was, if not the whole story, the whole picture. Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantlyu turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.”




Back to the beginning. In IMC, Roth/Zuckerman tells us there are three Ira Ringolds- one is Ringold as Abe Lincoln; one is Iron Rinn, radio star; and the third is “the redeemed roughneck from Newark’s First Ward, Ira Ringold.”  Meanwhile, Eve Frame, Ira’s wife and nemesis, disowns her own Jewish background and recreates herself as a pseudo-WASP movie star.  In AP, Seymour Levov recreates himself, without even meaning to, as The Swede. In THS, Coleman Silk, the most audacious self-creator of all, recreates himself from the black protestant son of a railway dining car waiter to a white Jewish professor of classics and Dean of Athena College. Roth plays with his own identity too in these novels, as he has done throughout his writing career. He appears here as Nathan Zuckerman while playing hide and seek with the facts of Roth’s own biography as well as-such is the funhouse hall of mirrors identity can become- with the “facts” of Zuckerman’s fictional biography created by Roth in his earlier work. Thus, for example, we’re told Roth/Zuckerman has come to live in semi-isolation (a true fact from Roth’s recent biography) near Athena College in rural western Massachusetts because as a young man  Zuckerman came to visit a great reclusive writer named E.I. Lonhoff who lived in the same area.  (the plot of ‘The Ghost Writer’, Roth’s 1979 novel).

            Some critics have attacked Roth for overplaying these postmodern identity games and it’s true there are some works by this amazingly prolific writer where they are distracting or pressganged into carrying more significance than they can bear. But not here. In the trilogy they’re more like authorial flourishes, familiar tropes that add to our entertainment. The serious issue of identity- and it is a serious issue- is carried in his historical trilogy not by playfully postmodern Phil but by the characters who must create their identities and see them destroyed as they conduct their daily lives in America.

 We need to stop right there and remind ourselves that daily life in America is supposed to be pretty good. A dream, in fact- the American Dream. In the Old World, at least until  recently, if you worked hard and played by the rules what you got in return was enough to pay the rent. But in America, thanks to the extraordinary abundance of the continent that was one of the first things European observers noticed about the New World,  it meant you got on the social escalator and you rose, fast and high and automatically. In America, you didn’t just get to imagine who you wanted to be: you could become that person. Guaranteed.

            That gives a whole other urgency and substance to self-creation, which left the realm of fantasy for the halls of sociology (and acquired a moral overtone along the way. If social progress through hard work is automatic, then it soon becomes obligatory). And at no time in American history did the formula- create yourself, become your own creation- seem to work more smoothly or its implicit guarantee seem more rock solid for the ordinary person, the average joe, than in the immediate postwar years of the late 1940s and early 1950s which are both the starting point and the benchmark for these three novels.

            “To launch yourself undisturbed by the past in America- that’s your choice,” Murray Ringold, Ira’s brother says of Eve Frame. Roth even brings out the specifically political implications of the choice- the way self-creation is a substitute for politics in America. As he writes of Coleman Silk in THS, “Nor was he a radical or a revolutionary…unless it was revolutionary, when you’ve come of age, to refuse to accept automatically the contract drawn up for your signature at birth.”

            Not accepting the contract drawn up for your signature at birth! What a wonderful phrase. They should put it on the dollar bill instead of In God We Trust. Not accepting the contract drawn up for their signature at birth is standard procedure for Americans. It’s why they still think of themselves as a revolutionary people. Silk merely takes the whole process to extremes and by doing so, of course, like all extremists, he exposes its hidden flaws (by the time he gets to THS Roth fully understands the dark side of the dream, “the drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama of upping and leaving-and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands”).

            But what happens if the social fabric fall apart under your feet even as you go sprinting up the self-creation escalator? The supports for the escalator are falling apart. The ground at the foot of the escalator is falling apart. America is falling apart quite literally and physically in these novels, all of which have Newark., New Jersey in their background. Roth himself comes from Newark. Much of his work (there are 23 books listed on the flyleaf of The Human Stain and it would be brave man who claims to have both read and remembered them all) involves Newark. In a sense, Roth has been writing one long historical novel throughout his career whose subject is the history of northern New Jersey, and in particular, the history of Newark from around 1945, when Roth himself grew up there, until 1967 when Newark was one of a number of US cities hit by the first wave of black rioting.

It’s a great subject because it spans the golden age to the decline and fall, not just of Newark but of America as a whole, of the American project. On a geopolitical level, this was the period between the surrender of Japan and the Vietnam War. On a domestic level, the 1950s were Paradise Remembered, as Roth titles the first section of AP, and he recalls them as a time when “the clock of history (was) reset and a whole people’s aims limited no longer by the past.” “Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.”

There were exceptions of course to the “everyone” who was in it together. If you were black If you were radical. If you were a social or sexual nonconformist. Roth’s books deal with those exceptions: the plots of AP, IMC, and THC all turn around a collision or fatal encounter  between an exception or exclusion and the American mainstream: the young anti-Vetnam hippie radicals Merry and Rita Cohen in AP; the Communist actor Ira Ringold in IMC; the sexual and racial transgressive Coleman Silk in THC. In the fourth novel which belongs loosely to the same series and represents an extension or elaboration of its themes, The Plot Against America, Roth goes a step further and imagines himself  and his ethnic group of Jewish-Americans as the exceptional and the excluded in a fascist America.

Throughout all four novels, Roth muses on what part America’s exclusions will play in what happens later, in the darker twists and turns of American history over the last half century, as if the excluded had come back to haunt the country. I say “muses”, because Roth reaches no firm conclusions and it may be that none can be reached in these shadowlands lying at the very limits of historical causation. Better stick to the facts, which are dramatic enough. From a prosperous manufacturing city in 1945, Newark suffered a devastating decline into a burned-out, drug and crime-infested wasteland by the late 1960s/early 1970s. It happened in other urban areas, like the South Bronx in New York, but few cities fell as far and as fast as Newark.. The city has improved somewhat these days but if you want the details of how bad it got, Roth puts several lengthy descriptions in the mouth of the Swede and The Swede’s crusty old father, Lou Levov.

 Newark has a double presence in these novels: it’s a symbol for the postwar American Dream and it’s an example of the American urban nightmare that the Dream becomes. Newark is the product of disorder overwhelming order, as Roth/Zuckerman says outright at various points. But it’s also the result of order that turns into disorder when it can’t reach the goal and recoils back on itself, when the republic’s internal democratic expansion gives way to an external, imperial expansion that is blocked in turn, in Vietnam, setting up a political whipsaw effect, back and forth, an unfolding, escalating violence- violence as the new social escalator- until the world becomes what every postwar American, unlike every postwar European, was taught from earliest infancy to believe that it is not: a trap, a dead end or, in Roth’s term, an “antagonism”.

            If Newark- destroyed, devastated, ruined Newark- stands for the endgame, the last word, then Newark must contain within it the origins of or the clues to the disaster. Each novel in the trilogy includes detailed slices of urban history taken from Newark and environs: Roth/Zuckerman is telling the story of his generation as a howdunnit as well as a who-dunnit and a why-dunnit. Why Newark? Why America? What did America do to deserve this? 

While a different writer might examine specific political events (and Roth/Zuckerman does some of this sort of work too, discussing the Clinton/Lewinsky affair at length in THS, for instance) for the most part he’s looking for the events behind the events. For the causes rather than the symptoms. It’s no accident the first book in the trilogy in order of writing (as opposed to historical order) was American Pastoral because the 1960s are when the break occurred. Roth dramatises it to the hilt- perhaps even over-dramatises. Swede Levov is the perfect father, the perfect husband, the perfect employer. If he’s Mr. American Average, then Mr. Average is a millionaire glove manufacturer with an ex-beauty queen for a wife, and handsome as hell and a great athlete. His daughter Merry’s teenage rebellion, which may have something to do with her stutter but otherwise remains pretty inexplicable, goes far beyond the 60s norm of shutting herself in her room, and playing rock music to annoy her parents. She goes straight from teen angst to homicide, bombing the local general store and post office to protest the Vietnam War and killing a doctor in the process.

A beloved only child who becomes not just a rebel but a bomber, and not just a bomber but a killer (and not just a killer but the killer of a loveable old doctor, a familiar character in a thousand Hollywood movies and US TV shows. The only surprise is that pets aren’t involved). Everything is pushed to the extreme. AP is an extreme dramatisation of the break, the conflict that characterised the Sixties. With the 1960s as his turning point, his anything but still center, Roth/Zuckerman roams backwards and forwards in time, both within AP and in the other novels, looking for clues.

If you’re going to move around like that, you need some benchmarks. Newark is one. Another is Jewishness. Roth is famous for being a “Jewish” writer- it’s probably the one thing many people know about him, largely because of the novel that made him both famous and notorious at once, Portnoy’s Complaint. Portnoy’s Complaint was part of the general Sixties sexual and social liberation. When it was published, it caused a scandal among the Jewish community because it was a novel about a Jewish man’s sexual life when nice Jewish boys were not supposed to know about such things, let alone do them. In his many novels since, Roth has never disguised the fact that he writes from the point of view of an American Jew. He’s been keener than other Jewish-American writers, like Saul Bellow or Joe Heller, to address current Jewish-American concerns into his fiction, for example the tension between facing down WASP anti-Semitism and prejudice while also resisting Zionism, which sometimes criticises Jewish-Americans as a self-hating diaspora who ought to move to Israel.

            Both sex and the anti-Semitism feature in AP, IMC and THS, whose central characters are Jewish either for real or by proxy, and who have interesting relations to their Jewish identity- the Swede looking (and in his athletic prowess behaving) more like a goy than a Jew; Coleman Silk a black man who is mistaken for a white Jew, then decides to make the mistake into a lifelong impersonation; and Ira Ringold, a non-practising Jew, whose own political identity as a Communist is grounded in overcoming prejudice but whose fate is deeply bound up with his wife Eve Frame’s denial of her own Jewish roots- and is sealed at the moment when Eve calls his sister-in-law a “hideous, twisted little Jew.” But the main payoff Roth gets out of ethnicity, the fictional use value attached to “Jewish”, is the Jews’ factual place in recent American history, as the last of the great 19th/early 20th century immigrant groups to be assimilated- or even allowed- into wider American society. In the 1940s and 1950s numerous American institutions from universities and colleges to private clubs either had quotas for the numbers of Jews they would admit, or refused them altogether.  Though those barriers started to fall in the postwar era  the process moved slowly: there was still plenty of exclusion around into the 1960s. The history of modern American anti-Semitism has tended to be overlaid by the more dramatic prejudice against blacks, and by the dramas of the Civil Rights Movement, but it was very real at the time.

The Jews become the standard for judging the success- or otherwise- of the American experiment in living up to its own ideals as a multiracial, multiethnic democracy. For a novelist, if your central character is Jewish, you have the priceless advantage of him being at a slight angle to society, being forced to see things slightly from the outside. Given Roth’s basic plot, the innocent man destroyed and dragged down by an “attack of the primitives” as Dean Acheson called the McCarthyite zealots, it also helps that during these years the Jews remain the closest group to the maelstrom. If the maelstrom reaches up to grab someone and drag him down, chances are the nearest guy to hand will be Jewish.

            In THS, Roth links Jews to blacks and calls them jointly “America’s historic undesirables.” While that’s certainly true of Afro-Americans, I’m not sure it’s true of Jewish-Americans[4]. But Roth’s linking Jews and blacks is significant in a different way since it certainly is true that during the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were America’s historic allies. Jews plus blacks were the motor for social change in modern America. An alliance of black preachers and radical, activist Jews created the black Civil Rights Movement, until the Black Power people took it over and didn’t want whites around any more.  Tragically, that alliance broke and worse than broke, turning into bitter mutual recrimination. This isn’t a subject Roth covers but it’s worth bearing in mind when you read the novels. It’s one of the things that was happening off his fictional stage during these decades. Just as the Sixties was the revolution that never quite took place, so the alliance between Jews and blacks was the seed of an American left-wing  party that never came into being. One of the reasons it didn’t was because organised labour wanted nothing to do with it. The white working-class didn’t want any part of any radicals, civil rights, hippies, protesters, jews or blacks.. The split that opened up in those years led directly to the election of Richard Nixon, followed by the rise of the ultra-right in America. It’s the modern version of all the other splits in the majority, which have doomed any progressive movement in the US. The white working and middle-classes moved to the political right to support the Vietnam War, then to defeat school busing in the cities. In the backlash against civil rights, they formed the spearhead of a revived American right. So perhaps the Jews and the blacks were “America’s historic undesirables” after all!




            So far we’ve concentrated on the political themes and implications of Roth’s trilogy. These are historical novels so they have a legitimate political dimension. But they’re still novels, which means that Roth’s main job is to excavate the human dimension rather than the political one. It’s the human soul he’s bringing to light: the politics are derivative. In American Pastoral, everything that happens is unbelievable, both to the characters themselves and to Roth/Zuckerman who tells their story. The reason it’s unbelievable, he explains to us (and to himself), is because we get other people wrong. We don’t understand them. Even when we think we understand them, even if we live side by side with them for years, we’re wrong about them, and they’re wrong about us, time and time again. “He was totally wrong.” “She’s wrong.” “I was wrong.” The sentences recur through AP like the novel’s emotional punctuation. We get people wrong all the time, we don’t understand them, so what happens to them makes no sense to us. Hence the despairing two paragraphs which end the book after 423 pages in which the all-American good life of the Levovs has been systematically torn to shreds:

            “Yes, the breach has been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life.

            And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”

            The most important thing about this question is not that Roth doesn’t answer it but that it could be answered. It’s not merely a rhetorical question. If everything that happened to the Levovs is unbelievable because we get people wrong then, in theory anyway, if we could get people right, we’d understand, we’d know why things happened the way they did.

            On to I Married A Communist. The second novel in the trilogy and Roth’s position has developed. You can actually see him working this stuff out from novel to novel. This time around, as Murray Ringold, Ira’s brother says to Roth/Zuckerman, “about a man, as your fiction tells us, everything is believable.” He might be referring to American Pastoral. He might just have read American Pastoral where everything that happened was unbelievable, but it happened anyway. That’s the realisation Roth has arrived at in IMC, published only a year after American Pastoral in a remarkable burst of creative work. However outlandish, however un-believable, Shit Happens as American cops like to say, so you’d better believe it, and not only believe it but grasp the deep implications it has for any view of human existence. Roth spells them out for us as “the fickleness of all creation.” Or “what the strong are capable of is appalling and what the weak are capable of is appalling. It’s all appalling.” Or- most clearly - “It’s all error.”

            It’s all error. Life is error. Our getting people wrong all the time is not a correctable mistake on our part, it’s the essence of being alive. Everything is senseless, crazy, unfair, erroneous and unbelievable. But everything is senseless, crazy, unfair, erroneous- but also believable precisely because it is all those things.

            Now, whether you choose unbelievable or believable, whether you plump for outrage at the fickleness of creation or acceptance of the fickleness of creation, both are perfectly defensible positions and shown to be so by the quality of the two novels Roth erects on the back of each of them. But he doesn’t leave it there. The third novel in the trilogy, The Human Stain, moves the argument on to another, final stage. This time Roth tries to answer his own  question why? Not why me this time but the why this- why is it like this, why are things the way they are? Especially when the way things are is “all error”? Why are we fated to live with the “terribly provisional nature of everything”? Why is there “really no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies”? Those last two quotes are from The Human Stain, so you can see Roth is still pounding along the same line: he hasn’t given up the quest. Only this time he comes up with the answer that, like most genuinely wise insights, is simple to summarise but takes a lifetime to make your own.

Things are the way they are because of complexity. We get everything wrong and everything is unbelievable (but also only too believable) because everything is so complex, so intertwined, that it defies human categories. Human beings work with pairs of opposites- right from wrong, good from bad, dark from light and so on. We think therefore we distinguish. But life has no interest in our thought process. Life mixes everything up. Nobody is all good or all bad. Everything is both right and wrong. And this intertwining is so complicated, so multilinear and multifarious and multidimensional that while Roth/Zuckerman doesn’t claim it could never be teased apart and understood- for example, by some supreme being or god- it can never be teased apart or rationally understood by us.

            Roth’s symbol for this state of affairs, his quod et demonstrandum, is the old truism about different people giving different accounts of the same event. Take a group of eyewitnesses to a road accident- they saw the same accident but they all saw something different. As eyewitnesses in the ongoing car wreck of our own lives, we behave in exactly the same way as the witnesses to a traffic accident. In any given situation or encounter, each of us will see and remember only the bits he or she can make use of for our own lives, which are different from the bits that other people see and remember. And that’s inevitable. Each of us only has his own life. Every one can only see and remember so much of everything that happens. That, says Roth, is why we’ll never understand each other. Sure, altruism and compassion and love exist and can stretch our range of vision somewhat. But only so far. And only every so often.

            The novelist, the artist, is the one who tries to repair the deficiency, make up for our lack of omniscience by giving us the full picture. He shows us what all his characters think and feel for themselves and about each other. Admittedly, he can only do this by imagining them; he can’t do it in the real world where the variables are close to infinite and where he too is bound by the iron law of seeing and remembering only what is useful to himself. But his novel is as near as we can ever come to the answer to our question.

            AP ends with the question. IMC ends by shifting the answer from this planet, ruled by the general unknowability of everything, to the heavens where alone it can be resolved. Roth/Zuckerman recalls his mother explaining to him as a child that when people die they turn into stars in the sky, so he lies out behind his country home and looks up at the night sky, at that “universe into which error does not obtrude.” But THS ends in the daylight and on earth, as befits the wisdom earned by Roth over the course of writing his three books. Silk is dead. His lover Faunia is dead. Their reputations have been posthumously either trashed or deliberately distorted in the case of Silk, whose family intends to “rehabilitate” his memory for their own purposes. The good guys, or the more- good- than- bad guys, are dead. The bad guys, or the more- bad- than- good guys, have won. Nature, or that particular constellation of nature and civilization we call the New World, has been defiled. What remains is a murderer sitting peacefully ice fishing on a lake “atop an arcadian mountain in America.”




Why does that phrase ring a bell? Because one of America’s self-descriptions is a “ city on a hill”[5].  The phrase was a favourite of the neoconservatives in the 1990s and of the George W. Bush regime. So what does it say about America that the man on top of the mountain, the king of the hill, the representative American, is a more than half-mad Vietnam Vet and double murderer? That’s a stunning statement.  Roth has been working towards his conclusion for 1100 plus pages. He started with the Swede Levov who is like the official American poster boy, the all-American ideal, and after he probed and analysed and turned him this way and that, 1100 pages later he ends up with Les Farley.

            It’s not a simple, linear progression. Roth gets from Swede Levov to Les Farley by making a double movement, a reculer pour mieux sauter,  from American Pastoral’s 1960s to the anti-communism of the 1950s in IMC  that will lead in the future to Vietnam, which in turn will warp that “man of the people”, happy- go- lucky Les Farley, first into his government’s “trained killer”, then into a brute, and finally into a killer on his own account at the end of THS. Right at the mid-point of this history is The Swede, crushed between the two sides of his all-American character- since his daughter is an aspect of his own self- both of which have gone sour, given birth to monsters. The imperial patriotic American side produces the Vietnam War and the revolutionary, democratic side turns into pointless domestic terrorism and random murder. The Swede himself is the centre but the centre cannot hold. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the next (and last) conventional, successful middle-class American in Roth’s series will be, despite some fine human qualities, a fake at his very core, a black man pretending to be white.

            If there is a common thread running through these various lives, it’s control. Control- control over their lives rather than self-control- is the thing all Roth’s main characters seek. At the height of his success, Ira Ringold had “pulled off a great big act of control over the story that was his life” according to his brother Murray. It’s not the money or the fame: it’s the control, the security, the mastery over the “fickleness of creation” in a country whose seminal experience was mastering the fickleness of physical creation, the wilderness. Because that physical mastery was achieved, the illusion arose that every other kind of mastery would follow.  The magic of being born in America in the 20th (now 21st) century is that life becomes controllable. Follow the dream, obey the rules, do your work, avoid obvious pitfalls like illegal drugs and teenage pregnancy, and you will triumph. You will get to control your own life and be safe and nothing bad will ever happen to you again. Only of course it doesn’t work like that. The safety and security Americas offer are false, and were always false, and this was true long before a bunch of half-crazed terrorists flew 747s into the World Trade Center.

This is the lesson The Swede must learn, and learn most bitterly and harshly, in American Pastoral. The action in AP takes place in the most dramatic postwar decade for America, the decade when the war came home. The war that had never ended, merely segued from World War Two into the Cold War now came home, only not in the form of GIs coming home from Europe to build their peacetime lives but this time around in the form of their children out to tear those same lives down. A tremendous irony that men and women who thought they’d fought the Second World War for freedom abroad and opportunity at home now find themselves accused by their own children of  repression, conformity, imperialism, “fascism” of all things. Fascist pigs! was the worst Sixties taunt of all, taunting the generation that had fought fascism with being fascists themselves. But we also need to remember that there were two revolts in the American Sixties, not one. The Sixties were the decade of youth revolt, true, but they also saw a quasi-revolution by American blacks. Many more people died and far greater damage was done in the black riots that swept American cities than from all the fringe bombings by youthful revolutionary splinter groups like the Weathermen.[6]

            Newark, Roth’s old home town, was one city devastated by the black riots. Although American Pastoral’s political focus is Vietnam and anti--war movement, its subsidiary focus is the black riots. The riots are right there at the opening of the novel, which involves a re-encounter between the Swede and Roth/Zuckerman, leading to their first dinner together in fifty years. During this dinner, the Swede gives Roth/Zuckerman a lengthy, graphic description of the 1967 Newark riots and the “fall” of their old town. 

            So the novel announces its theme up front: it’s going to be about decline and fall. But then, instead of carrying on with the plot, as it were, the novel pauses. In fact it stops dead and starts all over again with a second opening. This time, we’re with Roth/Zuckerman at his high school reunion, where he discovers that the Swede has died from cancer earlier in the same week. The  reunion scene is a comic reprise of the famous party scene that ends Proust’s Recherche du Temps Perdu. Roth/Zuckerman even inserts a reference to Proust to show us he’s aware of the parallel. But- and here’s the critical point- Proust’s great work is all about remembering, all about what its narrator, Marcel Proust, learns, the insights he gains into life, which come together at the great party when he sees the ravages that time has caused and hears Baron Charlus enumerate, one by one, all the famous names who are now dead- “the Duc de Berry- dead! Mademoisielle Rosellin- dead!”

 At Roth/Zuckerman’s high school reunion, too, everyone is keeping an anxious score of mortality. So far 26 out of a graduating class of 176 are living in Florida, the archetypal retirement state, and this is a “good sign, it meant we still had more people in Florida (six more) than we had who were dead”. Not only are the survivors, rather than the dead, the focus of the scene, but also Roth/Zukerman’s experience is the opposite of Marcel Proust’s. Instead of receiving a revelation about the nature of his existence, and life in general, the realisation Roth/Zuckerman comes to is how much he doesn’t know. How wrong he is and has been about everyone. How little is truly knowable about human beings and human situations. As he has already mused while having dinner with the Swede- and now finds confirmed on this wider stage of the reunion- “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then on careful consideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

We now have two themes for AP- decline and fall; and the general unknowability of everything-and the novel still hasn’t begun- or rather, it’s begun twice over and is about to begin again for a third time. In a lesser writer, that would be a sign of having three different openings and not being able to decide between them. In Roth’s case, it looks more like prescience. Rather than the theme for one novel, the first two openings announce themes that will run through the whole trilogy plus one. Whether or not Roth knew in advance he was going to write a quartet is beside the point. When a writer is at the top of his game, as Roth is here, subconscious and conscious are working in harmony so there’s no saying what he “knew” or didn’t know.

Let’s look at the themes again. We need to be clear about them because they’re going to be with us all through the ensuing 1100 pages.

The first theme, the theme associated with Newark, is decline and fall. Not just a gentle or natural decline and fall but a dramatic one. In these books, Newark after the riots is like Rome sacked and burned. It’s an apocalyptic event, the end of a civilisation.

            The second theme, announced by the scene at the reunion, is: we don’t know anything. We get things wrong, we get each other wrong, we act blindly at cross-purposes and this misrepresentation is the basis of the human tragedy. It’s the equivalent for the individual of the tragedy of history, the latter tragedy being that every step forward in human progress has come only at the cost of untold numbers of human beings sacrificed to destruction and death.

            After these two “false” starts American Pastoral begins again, for the third time, by introducing the novel’s plot, its central conflict between the Swede and his daughter Merry, who becomes an anti-Vietnam war radical responsible for bombings that kill four people. This plot announces a third theme that runs through these novels, which is a kind of “state of the nation” report on the US in recent decades.

            One of the advantages Roth gains from his three starts is to make The Swede’s life more significant, more important-sounding than it otherwise might be. Because that’s the basic problem facing any author who chooses an Everyman, a Mr. Average, as his central character. He or she runs the risk that Mr. Average is also Mr Bland. The Swede is the regular guy everybody likes and nobody really knows, but our suspicion has to be that people don’t know him because there really isn’t a hell of a lot to know. The interesting character in the Levov family is not The Swede but his brother, Jerry. Jerry Levov, cardiac surgeon, hospital tyrant and serial husband and adulterer (he marries the nurses in his office one by one) is aggressive, smart, emotional, hyperarticulate, always running off at the mouth, given to the comic tirades that Roth does so brilliantly that they’ve become his trademark as a writer. Jerry Levov is the typical “Roth hero” in AP, an extrovert, angry version of Woody Allen’s wisecracking neurotic. In the other two novels in the trilogy, IMC and THS, Roth reverts to variations on this type for his central characters of Ira Ringold and Coleman Silk. But in AP, he’s after different game. Not only is the Swede a Jew who looks like an all-American Aryan, he’s also a Jew who has taken on, in the same, seemingly effortless way he excels at sports, the WASP traits that ethnic immigrant groups aspire to including a certain reserve, together with an apparent superficiality and absence of introspection. We’re told about the Swede’s “opacity”, about his “being one of these regular guys who go about more or less incognito.”

            Well, maybe. Whatever the reason, Roth has some trouble getting the Swede to come alive on the page.  AP is both the most schematic of Roth’s history novels- the decline and fall of the all-American Everyman- and also the longest at over 400 pages. You get the feeling that what Roth says of a radio dramatist in IMC  “he laboured to force it, at least imaginatively, to come true.”  is true of Roth himself in AP. In a self-denying ordinance, our author has given his best stuff to a secondary character, Jerry Levov. The result is Roth can’t turn his usual trick of having his hero provide a comic running commentary on the action. Instead, the narrator, Roth/Zuckerman, has to take on that role.

 There’s an awful lot of commentary in American Pastoral, much of it scathing denunciations of youth revolutionary politics in the Sixties, as well as of the black riots and black revolutionary politics. Now while it’s true that the anti-war bombings were terrible, as well as politically obtuse, the violent fringe of the Sixties anti-war Movement was exactly what it says, a violent fringe. The hammer of Roth’s invective is being wielded here to crack a rather small and unrepresentative nut.

AP is a novel of dichotomies and antimonies, as you’d expect from a book set in the Sixties, the point at which the dichotomies inherent in postwar American history separated out and confronted each other head on. These dichotomies included: parents versus children; Jews versus Gentiles; order versus disorder; republic versus empire; pro-America versus anti-America; “the longed-for American pastoral” versus “the indigenous American berserk”. But in American Pastoral, the novel, the dualities aren’t quite posed correctly. They’re all present, but they’re like opposing armies drawn up but not perfectly aligned opposite each other. Even Roth’s basic premise that the US good life in the 1950s was destroyed by 60s craziness isn’t really true.  Reading AP, you sense the author has his thumb in the scale. The Swede is an Everyman, but he’s a very high-class version of an Everyman. Physically, financially and morally, the man doesn’t have a flaw. While Merry, his daughter/antagonist, is a caricature, she’s hardly typical of Sixties rebellious youth.

As a result, there are cracks or gaps in the book which Roth has to paper over by writing too much, by piling on the commentary, pushing home to us the significance of events in the hope we won’t notice what’s unlikely about them. For example, after Merry goes “underground” and disappears for five years, The Swede is distraught, he’s desperate to see his daughter, yet he makes no real effort to find her. This is not a man without resources. He’s a highly intelligent man, with plenty of money and, one would assume, contacts and friends he can call on, but he does nothing. Maybe he has to take a passive role to begin with, he doesn’t want to lead the FBI or the police to Merry, but later we learn that FBI surveillance is withdrawn so there’s no reason he can’t start to search on his own. And what about Merry herself? Why does she do what she does?  Roth makes an elaborate attempt to link her extremism to her disability- she stutters- but it doesn’t really work. Roth himself gets tired of this argument and ends up claiming Merry is another mystery, another example of the incomprehensibility of human affairs- which is either a profound point about life or an author throwing up his hands and saying “beats me!”.

            Practically too, we’re never told how Merry got hold of the dynamite, or how she made the bomb (if she made the bomb) or how she managed to plant it at the post office. Every plot has its improbabilities and missing connections, but in a successful fiction they’re kept to the minimum. In AP, you can see the author working to achieve his effects. Compare, for example, the character of the revolutionary girl Rita Cohen- who really only exists as a plot point and a thematic point, a malevolent deus ex machina- with Les Farley, the homicidal Vietnam Vet in THS. Roth seems to realise how thin and programmatic a character “Rita Cohen” is and tries to cover himself by making it an issue in the plot whether or not she even exists. When the Swede finally tracks down his daughter, Merry denies ever knowing a person named “Rita Cohen”. If Merry is a mystery of human character, “Rita Cohen”, who is a duplicate Merry, who is Merry’s extremism carried to still greater heights, is an existential mystery, and this elongation of mystery into obscurity is the sign of an author not fully in command of his material. An author who thinks if he keeps on writing, piling on the words, he will nail his subject in the end. On the other hand, Les Farley, who occupies a similar position in The Human Stain to“Rita Cohen” in American Pastoral, and has a similar profile as a person warped by politics and history, is totally authentic and believable in his angry madness.

            The American Sixties were political to their fingertips. They were a period where people thought and felt and expressed themselves in political terms. But Roth doesn’t have any political analysis to deal with them. AP appeared in 1997. 20 years earlier, which is to say much closer to the turbulent Sixties themselves, Joan Didion wrote ‘A Book of Common Prayer’[7]. A Book of Common Prayer is set in California not New Jersey and the leading character is a woman, Charlotte Douglas, with a background like Joan Didion’s rather than a man, The Swede,  with a background like Philip Roth’s. Otherwise, the plot of A Book of Common Prayer is essentially the same as the plot of AP. In A Book of Common Prayer, as in AP, a beloved only daughter, this time named Marin (another ‘M’) turns Sixties revolutionary, plants a bomb and vanishes into the radical underground. The daughter’s action destroys the life of her principal parent- her mother rather than her father- and the novel is the story of that destruction.

            From this same basic material, Didion and Roth derive different human and political significance. (It’s important to realise we’re talking about the significance of the novels and not of the bombings. Both writers treat what would nowadays be called the “acts of terrorism” that drive their plots in the same way ie they condemn them). Joan Didion is no more sympathetic to Marian than Philip Roth is to Merry. Although Didion makes Marian’s actions less consequential than Merry’s- nobody is killed as a result of Marin’s bombing or a subsequent plane hijack – her self-proclaimed “revolutionary violence” is still seen as a futile, self-indulgent (and self-important) gesture by a callow, and callous, zealot.

            But what about the differences? In Philip Roth’s account, the Sixties were a time when the great, democratic American Dream was trashed and all but destroyed by a “vanguard party” of  anti-Vietnam war revolutionaries together with rioting black sans culottes, and this political debacle is represented in AP by the tragic history of The Swede and his daughter Merry. In Joan Didion’s version, however, the American Dream is exactly what it says- a dream, an illusion, or rather a delusion. The bomb that goes off in Book of Common Prayer is a wakeup call. It shatters the illusion. It puts people face to face with an American reality the Dream has covered up, a reality of rapacity, greed, exploitation and unearned privilege.

            Now it’s true that A Book of Common Prayer and AP deal with two separate and on the face of it antagonistic versions of the American Dream. Joan Didion’s novel deals with the original, WASP Dream, the pioneers’ version taught in faux genteel “old families”, the Dream as recounted by the owners and their inheritors who built the land with their own hard work and who love it (or claim to, though Didion unmasks them as ruthless exploiters in her later work). The second version of the Dream is the hardscrabble urban immigrant version represented by Roth’s Newark Jews. Patricians versus plebs, insiders versus outsiders, natives versus newcomers- the two versions have often been at odds in modern American history and the tensions between them, and in particular between establishment WASPS and immigrant Jews, are one of Roth’s major themes. But it is Joan Didion’s great achievement in A Book of Common Prayer- and later in her memoir Where I Come From- to penetrate below the surface and to reveal that, at bottom, both versions are the same- and both are fakes.

            To Philip Roth, growing up in New Jersey with the Jewish immigrant version of the Dream, Newark was Paradise Lost. Joan Didion, growing up in northern California around the same time but with the original, WASP version of the Dream (Western Division), is taught by her family that California is Paradise Lost. The forces that destroy California’s sylvan Paradise aren’t Sixties insurgency or a rioting underclass (though both these things take place there too) but economic forces,  a  huge population increase encouraged by unplanned and unrestricted “development”, that sacred word in California’s sociopolitical lexicon. In the end that’s what gives Didion her key: she realises that California’s “paradise” wasn’t “lost” to historic upheavals or betrayals of American ideals, such as “the Sixties” still represent for conservatives, but through the mainstream workings of American life. Business. Enterprise. Money-making. Meditating on those workings finally leads Didion to her radical conclusion- that California (and by extension Newark or Anywhere USA) was never a paradise in the first place.

            “Were not ‘changes’ and ‘boom years’ what the California experience has been about since the first American settlement? Were we still not willing to traffic our own history to get what the railroad could bring us?” Didion writes in Where I Come From.

The Californian Dream is merely a more extreme version of the American Dream in general with its three main props: complete personal freedom; success through hard work; an abiding love for and commitment to the land. By her own account, it took Didion another 30 years after writing A Book of Common Prayer to discover that all three are shams.

 The cult of freedom leads to an insane individualism represented by Didion’s own, gloriously dotty mother who considered it was perfectly reasonable for Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot President Kennedy and then for Jack Ruby to shoot Oswald. The only culpable party in the whole affair, she felt, was the Dallas Police Department who failed to play their part by shooting Ruby.

            Success through hard work turns out to be a smokescreen for what Didion calls the “subsidised monopolisation” of California by a few rapacious robber barons using public (Federal) money to “develop” the state in various ways, from building the railroads through the massive irrigation projects that make California agribusiness possible to the post-war defence and aerospace industries.

As for their much-ballyhooed love of the land, those same robber barons and their fellow shysters who built up the great Western “ranches” have no real attachment to it whatsoever. They don’t live on it. They’ve never worked it as farmers. They are businessmen-gamblers who see it as a resource to be exploited by a feudalised agribusiness, or used as gambling chips in the great game of real estate “development”.

            And what is true for California is true for America as a whole. The American Dream turns out to be false from the top- where it denies the realities of modern American capitalism- to the bottom, where it obscures the brutal, bloodstained destruction of Native Americans behind a narrative of hardy pioneers settling an untamed wilderness. Didion’s modest, elliptical, mildly poetic prose is the obverse of Roth’s splendidly operatic bombast making it easy to overlook how radical her analysis is- or rather, how radical it became. As she writes, it’s has taken her many years to see through the narrative she was brought up with, and that depth distinguishes her criticism from the formulaic and emotion-filled rejections of “Amerika” spouted by the Marians and the Merrys.

            Didion’s protagonist in Book of Common Prayer, Charlotte Douglas, is in the same position as Roth’s Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov in AP. Both characters are supposed to be representative, an American Everyman and Everywoman. Charlotte Douglas, we are told, is “a not atypical norteamericana”, “a child of the western United States” armoured (or indoctrinated) with all the fantasies that comprise the Californian version of the Dream, “with faith in the value of certain frontiers on which her family had lived, in the virtues of cleared and irrigated land, of high-yield crops, of thrift, industry and the judicial system, of progress and education, and in the generally upward spiral of history. She was a norteamericana.” Seymour Levov might put it a little differently. He comes from the immigrant version of the same Dream, where “the neighbourhood”, its stoops, its alleys and its apartments, stands in for “cleared and irrigated land” and baseball players, radio heroes and the Great Presidents are the flesh and blood personifications of Didion’s abstract American virtues. But it’s the same point at bottom.[8]

Embodying the Dream, being a Mr. America, makes Seymour Levov more real, more substantial, and more vital. It gives him physical prowess, effortless good looks, turns him into a golden boy who becomes a golden man: it even makes him, as a Jew, look like a WASP.  Being permeated or saturated by the Dream has the opposite effect on Charlotte Douglas. She tends towards disappearing, vanishing into her own unconscious. Rather than revelling in the American Dream, she’s drugged by it. Grace, the novel’s narrator, says of her “I think I have never known anyone who led quite such an unexamined life” and describes Charlotte as living her life “entirely underwater” i.e. unconsciously. The other characters constantly tell Charlotte to “come out of your trance”

Charlotte “dreams her life”. Feverishly typing at night in her hotel room during her first few weeks in Boca Grande she turns out literally to be recording her dreams. We learn that Charlotte has been in this dreamlike or trancelike state for a long time, probably her entire life: it is not just the result of the bombing and of losing her only daughter (like Seymour Levov and Merry, Charlotte and her daughter have an unusually close relationship: “Marian and I are inseparable” Charlotte says, after they have been separated forever). Marian’s actions plunge Charlotte still deeper into her unconscious state rather than waking her from her dreaming- another example of Didion’s rigorous realism. For most of the time period covered by the novel, Charlotte is not merely dreaming, she’s “in shock”. “Charlotte didn’t even remember much of what had happened in the six months between leaving California with Warren and taking the baby to Merida.” Finally, she sleepwalks into a self-invited, if not self-inflicted, death in a Central American banana republic where being “a not atypical norteamericana” makes you a Yanqui gringo, the object of envy, resentment and murderous hatred.

            Both novels end in the same way with the death of their leading characters. Both Charlotte and The Swede prove unable to survive or to understand what their children have done. Both die in ways that we readers understand are the delayed-action results of those bombings. The difference between the two books is that Didion views the Sixties, as we’ve seen, as a wake-up call for the American Dream rather than in Philip Roth’s account where the Dream is wantonly trashed. But Charlotte herself doesn’t wake up in A Book of Common Prayer: it is the novel as a whole that shows her in relief, lit up as it were by the flash from the explosion, shaken loose from her roots and the Dream that obfuscates them. That’s is why ABCP is a better work than AP, where the author’s message appears inside the novel, repeatedly expressed by the characters and finally by the narrator in his plaintive last lines:  “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”



            If this is true then how are we to explain the Levovs lives being so comprehensively destroyed? Since the Levovs are the American Everyfamily, another way to put the same question would be- how do we explain America reneging on its promise? The promise of the American Dream. The promise that if you work hard and play by the rules and avoid certain obvious moral pitfalls, your life will be happy and successful period. Guaranteed.

            Roth’s answer to this question as he elaborates it through the remaining three volumes of his historical quartet is an interesting one.  To Roth, man is an animal, body-bound, driven- hounded in fact- by his desires down all his days from the instant of his birth until the gates of death open before him. Such a view is the direct antithesis of, and holds a dark mirror up to, America’s ruling ideology, derived from the Enlightenment, which sees human beings as thinking individuals obedient to a benign nexus of moral imperatives (or “values”) and economic rationality. Roth calls America on its promise, and find it to be an empty one. You can play with identities all you like, you can create yourself as many times as you are able, but you can’t escape the general human fate, you can’t escape being human, and in so far as America encourages you to believe- and act- otherwise, then it’s a fraud and a dangerous deception.

(interestingly, Saul Bellow takes the opposite position to Roth. Bellow is a critic of America too and like Roth a loving critic, passionately attached to what he criticises. But Belllow’s criticism of America is that it doesn’t allow any space for the soul, the spiritual side of man).

            Roth’s worldview makes him an effective critic of America but not a political one. On the one hand, his vision denies America’s utopian leanings and gives him a sharp insight into the historical perversions of American ideology, of the way the American Dream could turn into a nightmare in the hands of a Joseph McCarthy, or of Sixties pseudo-revolutionaries, or of the pseudo-religious moralising Roth calls “propriety”. He can demonstrate the need for the American Dream to come down to earth, to find roots in flesh and blood, in corporeality, in the quotidian. On the other hand, he has no standpoint from which to analyse America’s social and political structure and its collective distortions by money and power. Roth is like an anti-Melville. From Moby Dick to My Dick, he flings a Rabelasian bodiliness in the face of the American ideal.

When it was published in the 1960s, Roth’s breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint was greeted as an outrage, as debauchery, as a deliberate and obscene insult to everything that respectable America in general, and respectable Jewish immigrant America in particular, stood for in those days. The controversy over Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth famous. But that was fourty-plus years ago. In these historical novels, Roth turns from individuals’ private, sexual lives to their lives in society but immediately he runs into a problem. According to Roth, social life- other people- is too complex for men to grasp as a whole, so they restrict and falsify it, concentrating on those elements that are directly useful to the ego (the “I”). Having no access to reality as a whole, they treat others as mere appendages of themselves, either enemies or instruments. They cannot understand what they do to others or what is done to them, and therefore can never change things.

 Like ignorant armies clashing by night, society is a group of desire-driven egos whose interaction is bound to lead to tragedy. This later position, like Roth’s earlier one from his ‘Portnoy’period, is basically apolitical. The main difference is that the earlier position is comic and the later one tragic. But although neither position is political as such, both have political implications. Roth’s earlier position involves a liberating overturning of the conformities and proprieties while his later position goes deeper, indicting America for its constitutional optimism, its insistence that all conflicts can be solved or don’t exist for “real” Americans. When such optimism proves unfounded, over and over again, it leads to brutal conformity and a search for scapegoats and enemies within.

            Roth’s evolving account of the human condition helps resolve the paradox in his work: how and why did Philip Roth become the great defender, recorder and prose poet of 1950s/1960s Jewish America, when he began his career by trashing and outraging this very same society with Portnoy’s Complaint? Roth is too intelligent to fit the cliché of the young radical turned elderly reactionary. Nor is he alone in his love for 1950s America, which was one of the two most complete expressions of bourgeois civilization ever achieved (the other being Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The details and the texture of that life, its concreteness, are what mediate the two sides of man in Roth’s work. Newark is Roth’s perfect Republic precisely because it’s nothing like Plato’s: instead of philosopher kings, it’s a society of little people, of everyday hard work and domestic routine, knitted together by tradition and by a vibrant, democratic popular culture, one part baseball and radio serials, one part the rhetoric of heroes like Lincoln and FDR. Planning his speech to his ex-high school classmates in AP, Roth/Zuckerman thinks of telling them: “Nonetheless, fifty years later, I ask you: has the immersion ever again been so complete as it was in those streets, where every block, every backyard, every house, every floor of every house- the walls, ceilings, doors and windows of every last friend’s family apartment- came to be so absolutely individualized?”.

Such a society offers the best hope of reconciling man to himself (and reconciling men to one another) even if, as the Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint knew, it still leaves too much out. But “nearly fifty years later” this is the society that has been all but destroyed in its Ground Zero,  Newark, along with its local beneficiaries and standard bearers, the Levovs.

The question about why that happened is a political question. Since he’s not a political writer, Roth can’t really answer it: instead, he returns to the scene of the crime over and over again, circling around it, looking at it from different angles, trying to find the culprit. Was it McCarthyism and Cold War Anti-Communism that ruined Newark? Was it 1960s pseudo-Revolution and the Vietnam War? Or how about the so-called “identity politics” of the 1980s and 1990s? The next term in the sequence ought to be the New Right and the Bush regime. But at this point- following THS- Roth changes direction, historically speaking. Rather than using Bush, 9/11 and America at the turn of the 21st century as his setting, his fourth and final historical novel, The Plot Against America, reaches back half a century or more to imagine  America taken over by the fascists in the early 1940s.




TPAA is an odd book. It has clear connections with the historical trilogy that preceded it but TPAA isn’t simply the fourth book in the series. The difference gets announced right off- unlike the preceding trilogy, the narrator of TPAA time is “Phillip Roth” so it’s a Roth Book and not a Zuckerman book. Unlike the trilogy, too, the very historical circumstances in TPAA are imaginary, even if that imagination is grounded in research and carefully stitched in to the actual historical record.

In interviews, Roth has explained his motive for writing TPAA. He said his aim was to write about his parents in their prime, as they were in the 1930s and 1940s when Roth was a child and the family lived in the Jewish section of Newark. In other words, he’s describing ur-Newark , the source for all the later Newarks in Roth’s fiction. Then, to make a novel out of a portrait, Roth said he picked up an historical tidbit from his reading: the Republican Party once thought of making Lindbergh their candidate to counter the appeal of FDR.

 In TPAA, Lindbergh runs for the Presidency, defeats Franklin Roosevelt, becomes President of the United States and governs as a fascist puppet, launching an anti-semitic programme of discrimination and “ethnic cleansing” along Nazi lines.

DH Lawrence had a famous dictum: never trust the artist, trust the tale. Noting TPAA’s “resonance with ongoing events”, the critic Frank Rich typically judged that the novel “despite all (Roth’s) denials of any such intention, remains the best early take on the forty third president (George W. Bush)”[9].

While TPAA does provide a rich portrait of the Roth family life, just as its author promised, at the same time it tells a political cautionary tale that has obvious parallels with contemporary America. The title itself, The Plot Against America, suggests a reference to 9/11- the exact same phrase appeared in countless newspapers, TV news shows, and books until it became shorthand for those terrible events. Then the novel’s first line “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear” captures both the genuine fear people felt on 9/11 itself and the later, political manipulation of fear by the Bush regime. A right-wing coup or cabal taking over the Presidency and ruling in an authoritarian way is how some people saw Bush and the neoconservatives who surrounded him. Even the ethnic element in the plot has its modern parallel, except that the immigrant group targeted in post-9/11 America has been (ironically) American Muslims rather than American Jews.

But the parallels, though tantalising, remain incomplete. Rather than illuminate one other they pass one another by: anti-Semitism in the novel versus contemporary xenophobia (including but not limited to Muslims); Lindbergh isolationism versus Bush’s appetite for foreign wars; fascism (Nazism) versus whatever more complex political mutation the Bush regime represents (something like a combination of Gilded Age corruption and bullying Theodore Roosevelt style imperialism held together by a paranoid ideology inherited from the Cold War). The novel’s political incoherence ends up undermining its structure. TPAA is a great idea that has nowhere to go. The novel implodes in its last third when the individual half of the plot culminates in an improbable, ultra-violent brawl between Roth senior and his nephew Alvin. Meanwhile, the political fantasy half, like the tightly-wound plots of detective stories, can only be unwound at the cost of mounting implausibilities- in this case, a convoluted and conspiratorial resolution to the “Lindbergh Presidency” which is necessary in order to match the historical fantasy with the historical facts, FDR, Pearl Harbour (moved on a year to 1942) and America’s entry into the Second World War.

Rather than the satire of the Bush regime that it always seems to be on the verge of becoming, TPAA works best as a paean to the authentic sources of American pride and patriotism. That is to say, it works best as a memorial to a lost America, lost in the historical process Roth has tracked through AP, IMC and THS. Roth’s writing about his childhood and the vanished world of 1950s Newark and the first American-born Jewish immigrant generation has achieved a marvellous fluency by this stage in his career. He’s covered the same material so often, he owns it so thoroughly, it’s almost as if his fictional voice has replaced his real one and he has only to open his mouth- or rather pick up his pen- and out pours a perfectly pitched and detailed reminiscence- all the more vivid for being fictional- of Jewish lower-middle-class life in post-war New Jersey. Here are the terrible fathers crucified on their own altars of self-repression and fierce paternal love; the strong but also stifling mothers; the rich urban networks of life caught at the moment of transition from ghetto to suburb, lives that were industrious, temperate, frugal, but consoled and enriched by America’s democratic culture of radio, baseball, deli sandwiches, comic books, family cars, Saturday morning movie serials. And underpinning it all  what  Cucuzza the Italian immigrant says about her adopted country: “Best country anyplace. No Mussolini here.”

This is TPAA’s clearest message. Cucuzza’s belief would seem to be Roth’s own belief, a belief whose substance has been established and justified early on in the great chapter where the Roths take their children on the obligatory family holiday to Washington DC driving “three hundred miles…to visit the historic sites and the famous government buildings.” American families were still taking their children on those same trips when I first visited America in the early 1960s, visiting the wellsprings of democracy, liberty and equality and the monuments to the great men who fought for those principles- the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson’s home at Mount Vernon, the Civil War battlefields.

When the Roths take their trip, fascist Lindbergh has been President for six months. The family soon encounter anti-Semitism. They’re thrown out of their hotel.  People talk about “loudmouth Jews” in their hearing. Herman Roth does his best to stand up for his rights. Visiting the holy places of the United States, it’s the Roths, the Jews, who stand up for the principles these monuments represent. The despised immigrants are therefore the “real” Americans, helped only by a couple of goyim inspired, or shamed, by their example. TPAA’s central irony is that it’s the Jewish immigrants- and by extension other despised immigrant groups- who truly understand and embody America as a place where all men are created equal and treated equally. Europe has failed in this respect but America is the haven. America is the life raft on which all the different immigrant groups have made their escape from Old Europe, a human and historical Noah’s Ark, and the descendants of the immigrants look back and thank god for their good fortune.

Roth is describing a real and still enduring syndrome. However hard their lives may be in the US, for many immigrants it’s the Promised Land. Only by understanding that reaction can we understand the ability of masses of Americans to overlook all the injustices and brutalities of the American system- as well as understanding their readiness to treat anyone who falls by the wayside in America, whether morally or criminally or even economically, harshly, not to care about their fate. Both dissent and failure in America are kinds of treason, betrayals of the collective chance for utopia. That reaction also helps account for the ease with which Americans can be persuaded by opportunist politicians to see groups of their fellow citizens as traitors or enemies within.

 TPAA performs two important tasks. Firstly, it establishes the legitimate basis for American patriotism, the case for America as it were, which is a very different thing from Bush-style speeches about “the greatest country on earth” or the crude nationalist chants of “America is No. 1” that resounded after 9/11. Secondly, the novel articulates the main fault line in American life, which it sees as running between an Aryan native exclusiveness and America’s instinctively democratic immigrants. There’s no question this (or something like it) has been an important factor in modern American history. The same tensions that Europeans discuss in terms of class Americans have tended to express in terms of ethnicity. Just as America’s greatest achievement has been to create a genuine multiethnic mass democracy so the country’s greatest fear has been that the ethnic groups will split apart and turn on one another in a war of all against all.

Exploitation and class appear in TPAA but as undigested and indigestible material- the Moloch in the margins. At one point, TPAA mentions the “ordeal of a Jewish tenement kid on Runyon Street before WW1 when the Irish, armed with sticks and rocks and iron pipes, regularly came streaming up through the underpasses of the ironbound section seeking vengeance against the Christ killers of the Third World.” The atavistic forces that surround the Jews are blue-collar Christian mobs in TPAA, but behind them, unanalysed by Roth, is the America that produces this kind of mob behaviour, an America of exploitation and violent repression by big business and by the police and private agents who are its goons.

Roth is too acute an artist not to register this wider social and political context, not to see what’s lurking in the background, but he doesn’t engage with it directly. There’s a kind of infernal region situated just beyond the edges of TPAA, at the limits of the novel’s peripheral vision- a region which represents the total negation of Newark’s life of modest, upward striving, a maw or pit that acts as America’s “melting pot” in the negative sense, melting everything down in its “moronic inferno”. This is the America of strikes and strikebreaking, man-killing labour, industrial plants spilling out every kind of filth and pollution, slum housing, an infernal nether region governed by thug police, gun law, and private armies like the hated Pilkingtons who were employed to smash any attempt at unionisation or working-class revolt. This is grassroots, or rather iron-roots, America from which Newark’s Jews, for all their hard-working lives (“The men worked fifty, sixty, even seventy or more hours a week; the women worked all the time, with little assistance from labor-saving devices..”) have already, albeit narrowly, escaped. It’s the blasted industrial landscapes, the Dante-esque wastelands, that lie behind America’s industrial might and prosperity and whose contemporary equivalents are those Texas terrains, ruined by the petrochemical industry, in which poor whites and Hispanics scrabble for survival amid the toxic wastes and over which the likes of the Bushes and Cheyneys exercise their seignorial power.

Towards the end of TPAA, Roth’s father undertakes an heroic journey, driving from the (relative) safety of Newark down into the American South- redneck goyim country, the heart of darkness for blacks and jews alike- to rescue a young boy whose mother has been killed in the anti-Semitic violence. Narrator Roth presents this trip as his father’s version of fighting in the coming war. “It was… his Guadalcanal, I suppose, his Battle of the Bulge. At 41, he was too old to be drafted”. But the description of the trip and the landscapes that Roth senior, accompanied by Philip’s older brother Sandy, pass through, evokes a more mythical comparison with the journeys classical heroes made into the underworld.

“The car broke down on six separate occasions in little over a day: once in the midst of the railroad tracks, power lines and massive conveyors of Alloy, a town of two hundred where enormous mounds of ore and silica surrounded the factory buildings of the Electro-Metallurgical Company plant; once in the nearby little town of Boomer, where flames from the coke ovens reached so high my father, standing after sundown in the middle of the unlighted street, could read (or misread) the road map by the incandescence; once in Belle, yet another of those tiny, hellish industrial hamlets, where the fumes from the Du Pont ammonia plant almost knocked them flat when they got out of the car to lift the hood and try to figure out what was wrong; again in South Charleston, the city that looked to Seldon” (the rescued orphan) “like ‘a monster’ because of the steam and the smoke wreathing the freight yards and warehouses and the long dark roofs of the soot-blackened factories.” And so on until they reach a gargantuan plant “The World’s Biggest Manufacturer of Axes, Hatchets and Scythes” and “that factory brimming with sharpened blades dealt the final blow to the little that was left of Seldon’s equilibrium- by morning he was screaming that he was going to be scalped by Indians.”

Roth here explicitly connects the idea of settlers confronting Indians in early America with the Roths and Seldon as Jews confronting “upright American Christians” in 1940s America. Yet the passage has deeper implications. Here is an anti-landscape, the ruined antithesis of that majestic wilderness whose image, endlessly reproduced, was “a key to the solidification and spread of American identity from the mid (19th) century onwards”.[10] When you look on these works, your first reaction might well be to scream, but once you stop screaming you might start to think about what you’re looking at. This is a landscape with a lesson to tell. But the Roths don’t want to see it. They refuse any solidarity with its inhabitants, viewing them only as the Christian enemy. In the same way, they have nothing to do with (and indeed know nothing about) the sufferings of Midwestern farmers, which gave rise to the Populist Movement; or of the western states caught in the political stranglehold of the mining companies; or the redneck sharecropping Deep South- let alone the suffering of America’s deprived of the deprived, the Negroes and the Indians.

            Some of their children will know about these things, and out of that knowledge will come the remarkable alliance of Jews and blacks that was the Civil Rights Movement- an historical moment Roth hasn’t really dealt with in his work. By positing an America split between Semites and anti-Semites, Roth simply repeats the problem, even if “the Jews” are conceived as standing in for other ethnic groups (but they’re not are they? And isn’t this Roth’s point?). It’s the difference between being a radical and being a victim, relying on an abstract “America” to fulfil its promise, to come good and save you, much as the forefathers of Roth’s Newark Jews relied on various abstract Europes to live up to the Enlightenment and save them. And lost their bet.

            TPAA ends with a lengthy postscript setting out the real history Roth used as the basis for his fantasy or “alternative history”. But there are some factors that don’t appear in Roth’s list:

1.     By the 1940s, FDR liberals had abandoned New Deal liberalism, ceding power and control in US society back to modern corporate capitalism- a process American entry into the Second World War would complete.

2.     The tradition of left-wing populism in the West that gave birth to the Populist Movement had long since soured into isolationism, beginning its long turn to the political right (except in a few areas).

3.     While it is true that, as Roth says, patterns of discrimination in US life were set against the Jews (via all sorts of formal and informal quotas and barriers, both social and institutional), they were even more set against American blacks (while discrimination wasn’t even an issue yet in the case of other so-called “minorities” like women or homosexuals). All this would be swept away in the post-war era, especially after the 1960s, but the attempt to enlarge and empower democracy in America would fail in the end against an alliance of corporate power and white backlash even as the scapegoats in the process moved on from the Jews to the black underclass to new immigrants (mostly Hispanic) and to Muslims.


            Of course, TPAA is a novel and Roth can make up anything he likes, but what he’s chosen to make up, the way he’s chosen to deploy the historical record, means that TPAA is awkward and wrong-headed as a parable or satire, despite the quality of the writing. Modern America isn’t fascist, nor does anti-Semitism play any serious part in American political life. The history of political anti-Semitism in America is very different from the one Roth imagines in TPAA and that difference is crucial because it means America’s form of reactionary right-wing politics is different from European fascism. The contemporary political situation made a fiction like TPAA necessary and urgent, but TPAA missed that political situation by a mile. Reading it you get a sense of disconnection and disappointment, as if you dimly grasp what Roth is getting at, but then he fails to hit the mark. Roth’s fantasy America and the real America are like ships that pass in the night instead of mirror images of one another, and this remains true despite all the work and talent Roth has lavished on the job.



There’s a scene in AP in which the Swede’s father, Lou Levov, tries to persuade his granddaughter Merry that he understands her rage, her opposition to the Vietnam War, her problem with America.

            “Merry, we all feel the way you do,” he grandfather told her. “Do you understand that? Believe me, I know what it is to read the newspaper and start to go nuts. Father Coughlin, that son of a bitch. The hero Charles Lindbergh-pro-Nazi, pro-Hitler, and a so-called national hero in this country. Mr. Gerald K. Smith. The great Senator Bilbo. Sure, we have bastards in this country-home grown and plenty of ‘em. Nobody denies that. Mr. Rankin. Mr. Dies. Mr Dies and his committee. Mr. J. Parnell Thomas from New Jersey. Isolationist, bigoted, know-nothing fascists right there in the US Congress, crooks like J. Parnell Thomas, crooks who wound up in jail and their salaries were paid for by the US taxpayer. Awful people. The worst. Mr McCarran. Mr. Jenner. Mr. Mundt. The Goebbels from Wisconsin, the Honorable Mr. McCarthy, may he burn in hell. His sidekick Mr. Cohn. A disgrace. A Jew and a disgrace! There have always been sons of bitches here just like there are in every country, and they have been voted into office by all those geniuses out there who have the right to vote. And what about the newspapers? Mr. Hearst. Mr McCormick. Mr. Westbrook Pegler. Real fascists, reactionary dogs. And I have hated their guts. Ask your father. Haven’t I, Seymour- hated them?”

            As befits his age, Lou Levov’s roll call of national infamy, his catalogue of America’s own political Public Enemies, concentrates on examples taken from the 1930s to the 1950s but you could easily update it (Mr. Richard ‘Prince of Darkness’ Perle. Mr. Dick Cheyney. The Rev. Pat Robertson, that son of a bitch. Mr. Rush Limbaugh…etc.etc). Here, at the beginning of his history novels  (as we’ve seen, AP was the first in order of composition) Roth declares himself as a critic of America. America is not the city on the hill, the great exception among nations, a real-world utopia as super-patriots might claim. Instead, it’s a country like any other, with villains as well as heroes, and the villains account for the dark chapters in America’s past. This is a legitimate form of historical explanation- the Bad Men theory of history- although it’s not a very helpful one because it’s too shallow, too thin, it doesn’t explain enough.

            Nevertheless, in the next three novels Roth proceeds to deepen his approach by examining what makes a good man, or rather what makes the difference between a good man and a bad man? In AP, The Swede is all good. No matter what tirades Roth can imagine and direct against him via Merry and Rita Cohen, The Swede remains decent, well-meaning, upright, benevolent. He has his flaws but they are not major flaws. The only murderer in AP is Merry.

            By the time we get to IMC, the murderer has become the hero, and vice versa. Ira Ringold is not all good- he murdered a man in his youth. Everything Roth tells us about the Iron Man shows him starting out as primitive, savage, ignorant, a denizen of the “moronic inferno”. Physically, we’re encouraged to see him as a sort of Caliban, a musclebound labourer, a “beast” of burdens with his own temper and brutality foremost among those burdens. But Ira grows, he changes, the novel is the story of an Ira released and redeemed by his own efforts and struggling to release and redeem his surroundings (America) in turn- until both America and his own past turn on him and destroy him. Still, Ira is a kind of hero. Roth makes it clear to us he’s destroyed by his good, struggling side rather than his dark side, by the operations of his best instincts rather than his worst. Ira may begin as a murderer in a brief moment of youthful savagery and loss of control but he spends his whole life trying to expunge that part of himself, although it emerges from time to time in volcanic rages and a grandstanding grandiloquence (one of these episodes that triggers his downfall comes about when he publicly insults and humiliates a poisonous right-wing couple who have the power to destroy him). Ira’s moral triumph, and it’s a bitterly ironic triumph, is that he starts as a killer but ends as a victim.

            On to THS and its hero “Silky” Silk (the nicknames Roth gives his leading men are telling). Coleman “Silky” Silk is slippery, silky- smooth, there’s something a little too smooth about him- no flies on Silky. He’s the successful American male, a white male, of course, and the legitimate successor to The Swede. Only when you look more closely he’s a fake. “Silky” Silk is a combination of Swede Levov and Ira Ringold, which is to say good and bad are fully integrated in him, he’s both at the same time. He doesn’t have Ira Ringold’s volcanic outbursts but neither is he the benevolent authority figure like the Swede who cares for the employees of his glove factory like the most concerned of fathers. On the contrary, we’re told “Silky” Silk can be, and has been, ruthless when it came to reforming moribund Athena College by clearing out the faculty’s dead wood. He can be cold and arrogant, a real hatchet man, an effective wielder of power over the heads of other men, if not of Ira Ringold’s shovel over their heads. As for murder, Coleman may not have killed anyone but he has “murdered” his own past by passing for a white man, and in so doing breaking his mother’s heart, which is a sort of soul-murder.

            There is a physical murder in THS, too, as there is in all four of Roth’s historical novels. One of the pleasures of reading the whole quartet is to watch Roth ring the changes on the same basic elements of plot and character from book to book. In THS, it’s the hero himself, Coleman Silk, who is murdered along with Faunia Farley. It’s a double murder. It’s also the murder of a man who successfully re-invented himself, which is the promise America holds out to its citizens  in place of political action. You don’t need all that European socialist stuff, the class warfare, the long march through the institutions, the dreary trade union committee meetings. America is so rich a country in every sense, metaphysical and moral as well as material and economic, that if you come here you can do and be anything you want, re-invent yourself, start over, become whoever you choose to be. That’s the American project Roth indicts with the murder of Coleman Silk. And just in case we fail to get the point, it’s a mixture of the hero’s own past and America’s own history that reaches out to destroy our hero in each of these books. In AP, it’s The Sixties; in IMC it’s McCarthyism; here in THC it’s the legacy of racial division and of Vietnam and the disturbed Vietnam Vet, Les Farley.

            By the time he gets to Coleman Silk, Roth has come to believe there are no good men. Humanity is “The Human Stain”. The very essence of what it means to be human is “weakness”, or to put it more robustly “original sin”. Though Roth tries to strip it of its theological superstructure, his “stain” is very like the Christian concept, not least in its rooting in the body and in sex. “Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen- there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption…the stain that is there before its mark…the stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding.” Remember this is Phillip Roth, once vilified as a hopeless libertine and satyr with Portnoy’s Complaint.

Then comes scapegoating, trying to eradicate your stain by tarring others with the very impurity you want to cast out. There’s the basis of that vindictive “propriety” Roth identifies as a leading fact in American experience. It’s also a basis for history. There’s a point in The Human Stain where Roth explicitly links the scapegoating that targets Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley in the 1990s to the McCarthyism in the 1950s, thus closing the circle of post-war US history, and of his own novel sequence. “First a racist and now a misogynist. It is too late in the century to call him a Communist though that is how it used to be done.”

            An America whose promise is blemished, stained, by a few bad men has become an America in which all men carry The Human Stain. As a result, the American Dream of self-invention or self-re-invention is seen as an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. The American project is impossible because the American view of human beings carried in American optimism and idealism is wrong- false. This is a much more profound analysis than the one Roth began with, but it’s also a rather bleak and paralysing one. Politically, it suggests the oldest of Old World politics, the reactionary politics of authority and mystery that the New World defined itself against. Which is why, when Roth tries to take his analysis on a stage further with A Plot Against America, he produces a novel that, for all its brilliant passages, is incoherent, whose strengths lie in its nostalgic elements.

            Paradoxically, Roth’s historical novels lack a sense of history, the level at which The Human Stain and scapegoating together produce, and are produced by, societies with hierarchies, classes, repression and exploitation, where only a few count and preserve their hegemony by manipulating every possible division among the many (while emphasising one possible common denominator, the solidarity of patriotism and conformity honed against enemies, external and internal). Not the imaginary America of Roth, for whom such a politics appears as a Plot Against America, but the real America of George W Bush and the Republican party who made them into the American mainstream and the policies of the President of the United States. Not the idea of America as the New World and the city on the hill but the reality of a domineering modern American-ism. Faced with real politics, one critic noted, Roth reverts to being an old-fashioned upper-West-Side liberal (it’s no accident that TPAA, the last novel in the series, is the only one that ends happily, with the defeat of Lindbergh and the return of FDR). After 1100 pages depicting the destruction of golden age America, Roth remains too beholden to its memory and too circumspect about the dangers of the America that replaced it.



[1] Alfred Kazin, ‘An American Procession’ (New York: Vintage Books, 1985) p. xiv-xv; 27.

[2] Among the reasons for the 50-year time-lag were: mass immigration providing new streams of candidates for embourgeoisification; American abundance steering those masses towards becoming bourgeois rather than, say, joining in a proletarian politics like socialism; and America essentially escaping the destructive impact of the two World Wars.

[3] Christopher Hitchens, ‘The Road To West Egg’. Vanity Fair, May 2000.

[4] You could argue the prejudice was just as fierce against earlier immigrant groups, against the Poles in the Midwest, against the Chinese on the West Coast, or against the Irish in the big cities. In recent years, Hispanics have had to struggle to win acceptance while since 9/11 American Muslims have found themselves under particular attack.

[5] John Winthrop used the phrase, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, when preaching to the Massachusetts colonists during the Atlantic crossing about their future home.

[6] By the same token, the 1960s youth revolt in America was more violent than is commonly remembered. “Between September 1969 and May 1970 there were at least 250 bombings linked to white-dominated radical groups in the United States. This was an average of almost one per day (The government placed the numbers at six times as high).” (James T. Patterson, ‘Grand Expectations, The United States 1945-1974’. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. p. 716). It’s true that most bombings were minor and only damaged property. It’s also true that only a small minority of Sixties radicals (themselves a minority of their generation) were ever involved in violent acts..

[7] Joan Didion, ‘A Book of Common Prayer’ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977).

[8] The list of immigrant attachments is from The Plot Against America where it’s recited by the novel’s narrator, the young Phillip Roth. Seymour Levov would recite essentially the same list, as other immigrant characters from the same period do in other novels by Roth and his contemporaries like Saul Bellow etc...

[9] Frank Rich ‘The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America’ (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) p. 143; 208.

[10] John Updike, ‘The Artist As Prospector’ in New York Review of Books vol. L111 No. 13 August 10th 2006. p. 34. All contents © mike bygrave 2014