Jewish, American, Jewish-American Philip Roth, as one of America's most lucid and prolific authors, has for decades both defined and defied the status of the hyphenated American, using his vantage from the cultural borderlands of the melting pot to examine the various tensions pulling at the cultural seams of the country: the generational contest between Old World and Americanized values in immigrant communities; the dialectic of lofty ideals and gutter thoughts; the jagged fault lines of the Red Scare and McCarthysim; the division between Jews and goyim.
At a time, now, when the theme of a Divided America of Red and Blue states is suddenly news, Roth's most recent novel, The Plot Against America, serves both as a potent reminder of past divisions, as well as presenting a powerful (if sometimes ambiguous) commentary on contemporary politics.
The Plot Against America is a counterfactually historical novel, set in a 1940s America wherein the Republican Party has successfully nominated for the presidency the famous aviation superhero and notorious Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh. With an arms embargo against Britain and France, President Lindbergh appoints auto-magnate and famed Jew-hater Henry Ford to the cabinet, cozies up to Hitler in a series of summits and diplomatic manoeuvres, and hosts a White House dinner welcoming the Nazi Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop.
The Lindbergh administration establishes the Office of American Absorption, a government program which breaks up Jewish families and communities by sending North-Eastern urban children to work as summer farmhands in the South, and by relocating entire Jewish families to the Heartland.
This grotesque history unfolds around the Newark, New Jersey-based life of the young Philip Roth, his New Deal Democratic parents, his artistic older brother Sandy, his quisling Aunt Evelyn, and his street urchin-cum-communist-cum-gangster cousin, Alvin, who is painfully damaged in the battlefield after sneaking across the border to Montreal in order to join the Canadian army in the fight against Hitler.
Young Philip's family and community increasingly torn apart by the breakdown of solidarity, though occasionally emboldened by shows of empathy from other Jews, Italians and even WASPs looks in impotent desperation to salvation from the likes of progressive New Dealers such as the Jewish-Italian Republican mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, and now-former Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Jewish families on Philip's block also draw solace from the indomitable spirit of the famed Jewish gossip columnist and anti-fascist, Walter Winchell (a.k.a. Weinschel, page 20), whose own symbolic, quixotic campaign for the presidency against Lindbergh after the defeated FDR's retirement brings America's violent potential to the forefront.
As a very welcome and fascinating bonus, Roth provides an historical postscript intended as a reference for readers interested in tracking where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins. (page 364) The appendices include true-to-fact biographies of the historical personages in the book, a bibliography including Henry Ford's The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem (volume 3), and the text of an anti-Semitic speech delivered by the real-life Charles Lindbergh.
The book's greatest ambiguity lies in the wealth of possible allegorical interpretations regarding contemporary politics. Many have suggested that progressives and so-called paleoconservatives alike have used latent (or even overt) anti-Semitism in their criticism of, and calls for abstention from, the neo-conservative War on Terror. Roth's story conflates anti-war and anti-Semitic notions dangerously.
On the other hand, Lindbergh's shallow politicking and lacklustre oratory are enormously reminiscent of George W. Bush; Lindbergh even campaigns in his flight-suit, an obvious allusion to Bush's Mission Accomplished speech aboard the aircraft carrier from which he announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
Regardless of what he intends to say about America today, Roth provides an invaluable service in reminding us all of high-brow, corporate America's poisonous history of the most toxic kinds of pro-Nazi Jew hatred. The same goyische ruling class that today presents itself as the most stalwart friend of the Jewish people, as epitomized (and legitimized) through the State of Israel, has, in fact, a very dark history that includes abetting Hitler's racist project. One tragic omission in Roth's story is the specific role played by Prescott Bush, whose business relationship with the Third Reich helped establish the family fortune that has bought senatorial, gubernatorial and presidential offices for one of America's most dangerous, consistently war-profiteering families.
Roth's expert prose, his weaving in of coming-of-age sexuality, and his attention to personal, social and historical detail are all present in this latest work. Missing, if anything, is the sublime and brilliant sense of humour so evident in Roth works such as the (in)famous Portnoy's Complaint. The Plot Against America is an unrelenting story, a raw and painful exposition of just one of the bitterly polarized eras in the history of a country that, bizarrely, seems only just now to be discovering its deep wounds and divisions.
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