Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America

Roth’s novel, written in the years following 9/11, made a splash as critics drew parallels between the plot–Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 election and America begins a process of Nazification, including pogroms–and the Bush administration’s War on Terror.

Postage Stamp: Lindbergh Flies Atlantic

Reviewers like J.M. Coetzee (full article paywalled) and Frank Rich, after ritually warding off such allegorical interpretations, nevertheless use them to frame their own readings.

Another reviewer goes so far as to say that “it’s essential to read this novel as soon as possible to fit it in its proper context.” Its context, though, isn’t quite so narrow as that.

The Plot Against America isn’t a true historical novel, even if we ignore the fact that its history is counterfactual. It makes no real attempt to display the complexities of the American political landscape in the early 1940s. I found myself wondering (as did this reviewer) where are the communists? I thought in particular of the presence of the Frankfurt School on Morningside Heights. Certainly such a group, along with other prominent New York intellectuals (not to mention organized labor and anarchists), would have played a role in a struggle against fascism.

Such historical complications are avoided, though, in order to remain faithful to the perspective of the narrator, who experienced these events as small boy for whom America must indeed have seemed to be a vast and hostile expanse beyond the limits of the New York metropolitan area.

The narrator, also called Philip Roth, recalls a fairly idyllic childhood suddenly invaded by fear as FDR unexpectedly fails to win his bid for a third term. The high-flying and Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh emerges as a charismatic, if laconic, leader and initiates a distinctly American version of the Final Solution.

Image of Lindbergh superimposed on American flag with swastikas instead of stars.

Roth’s prose is consistently understated, almost flat. Rather than relying on rhetorical fireworks or “creative writing,” the author lets the plot do the heavy lifting. The magisterial moments, when they do come, strike the reader with great emotional force, as in the “Where is Lindbergh” speech, in which “the red-faced La Guardia readies the assembled mourners for the climactic appearance of Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Even in the moments when the prose is less muted, it remains rather clipped, tightly wound like the voiceovers of WWII-era newsreels. Page after page, the no-frills narration, meticulous but never florid in its attention to detail, confronts the reader who, lulled into complacency by the story’s rhythm and relentless forward motion, is stunned by the irruption of a figure which crystallizes the accumulated events into a synthetic image:

It’s so heartbreaking, violence, when it’s in a house–like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to see death but not the clothes in the tree.

Clothes in a tree.

Here Roth mobilizes an instance of the unheimlich by shattering the homely image of domesticity. A world, once familiar, is torn asunder, not by external forces, but by the violence it always contained. This is an organic violence, nourished in the bosom of the hearth; it is not the violence of reaction to the other.

This is why readings of The Plot Against America as an allegory of the War on Terror miss the mark. Even if Roth drew inspiration from the vengeful nationalism of the George W. Bush years, the novel exceeds its immediate context. Here’s an important passage:

The trip out had taken just over twenty-four hours, but the one back took three time as long because of the many times they had to stop for Seldon to vomit by the side of the road or to pull down his pants and squat in a ditch, and because, in just a twenty-mile radius of Charleston, West Virginia (where they went round in circles, hopelessly lost, instead of proceeding east and north toward Maryland), 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 building 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 like “a monster” because of the steam and the smoke wreathing the freight yards and the warehouses and the long dark roofs of the soot-blackened factories; and twice on the very outskirts of the state-capital, Charleston. There, around midnight, in order to call a tow truck, my father had to cross a railroad embankment on foot and then descend a hill of junk to a bridge that spanned a river lined with coal barges and dredging barges and tugboats to go looking for a riverfront dive with a pay phone, meanwhile leaving the two boys alone together in the car just across the river road from an endless jumble of a plant–sheds and shanties, sheet-iron buildings and open coal cars, cranes and loading booms and steel-frame towers, electric ovens and roaring forges, squat storage tanks and high cyclone fences–a plant that was, if you believed the sign the size of a billboard, “The World’s Biggest Manufacturer of Axes, Hatchets, and Scythes.”

The passage describes part of a rescue journey into America’s heartland, up to this point depicted as a pastoral landscape, in stark contrast to the urban areas in the Northeast (Newark, New York) where the Jews’ numbers afford them some security. The enumeration of industrial artefacts eliminates the distinction, tearing down the confining, yet protective walls of the ghetto, just as the irruption of violence into the home violates its status as refuge from the world. The passage also has a corrosive effect on all the carefully constructed, subtle comparisons to Old World anti-Semitism that Roth establishes throughout the narrative. These references allow the reader to imagine the ever-present possibility of atavistic, anti-Semitic violence as a kind of universal rural primitivism born of ignorance and superstition, as in blood libel, a reference Roth uses more than once in the novel.

The authentic horror is found in the “factory brimming with sharpened blades” that drives young Seldon mad. The axes, hatchets, and scythes of an incensed peasantry are now mass-produced in an industrial process, just as anti-Semitism has been transformed, in the modern era, into a quasi-automatic reaction rooted in the abstract (and negatively coded) dimensions of capitalist society (see Moishe Postone, “The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century”). Beyond the eerie plausibility of the novel’s plot (the almost-Nazification of America), with its dilemmas of assimilation and identity, clarity and paranoia, lies the terrible union of a barbaric “nature” and technical progress, as hideous as a forest of chimneys or, alternatively, chimneys at the edge of a birch forest.

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