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What Philip Knew

1.

In 1993, over the name “Philip Roth,” there appeared a book entitled Operation Shylock: A Confession, which besides being a dazzling raid into territory that had seemed to be staked out by John Barth and the metafictionists, was also about Israel and its relations with the Jewish Diaspora.

The book presents itself as the work of an American writer named Philip Roth (within the book, however, there are two such Philip Roths) who admits to a history of assisting the Israeli intelligence services. We may choose to take this confession at face value. On the other hand, the confession may be part of a larger fiction: Operation Shylock—A Confession: A Novel. Which would be the truer reading? A “Note to the Reader” seems to promise an answer. The note begins, “This book is a work of fiction,” and ends, “This confession is false.” We are in the sphere of the Cretan Liar.

If Roth did and did not mean Operation Shylock to be read as a lie, an invention, is his new book—which contains a similar note, commencing with the words “The Plot Against America is a work of fiction”—to be read in the same way, namely with its truth status held in suspension? In a sense, no, obviously not. The Plot Against America cannot be true since many of the events it describes are universally known never to have occurred. For instance, there was no President Charles Lindbergh in the White House in the years 1941–1942, carrying out secret orders from Berlin.

Just as obviously, however, Roth has not concocted this lengthy fantasy of an America in thrall to the Nazis simply as a literary exercise. So what is the relation of his story to the real world? What is his book “about”?

Roth’s President Lindbergh favors an oratorical style based on the clipped declarative sentence. His administration runs sinister programs with reassuring titles like “Just Folks” and “Homestead 42” (compare “Homeland Security,” “Patriot Act”). Behind him lurks an ideologue of a vice-president impatient to get his hands on the levers of power. The similarities between the Lindbergh presidency and the presidency of George W. Bush are hard to brush over. Is Roth’s novel of America under fascist rule then “about” America under Bush?

Roth has taken steps to head off such a reading. “Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman à clef to the present moment in America,” he writes in The New York Times Book Review. “That would be a mistake…. I am not pretending to be interested in [the years 1940–1942]—I am interested in those two years.”

It sounds unambiguous, and it is. Nevertheless, a novelist as seasoned as Roth knows that the stories we write sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once a book is launched into the world it becomes the property of its readers, who, given half a chance, will twist its meaning in accord with their own preconceptions and desires. Again Roth is aware of this: in the same New York Times piece he reminds us that, though Franz Kafka did not write his novels as political allegories, East Europeans under Communist rule read them as such and employed them for political ends.

Finally, we might note that this is not the first time Roth has invited us to think about a slide into fascism led from above. In American Pastoral (1997) the hero’s father, watching the Watergate hearings on television, observes of the circle around Richard Nixon:

These so-called patriots…would take this country and make Nazi Germany out of it. You know the book It Can’t Happen Here? There’s a wonderful book, I forget the author, but the idea couldn’t be more up-to-the-moment. These people have taken us to the edge of something terrible.

The book referred to is the now barely readable It Can’t Happen Here (1935), in which Sinclair Lewis tells of a takeover of the American government by an unstable mix of far-right and populist forces. As a model for his fascist president Lewis uses not Lindbergh but Huey Long.

In any sensible reading, The Plot Against America is “about” the presidency of George W. Bush in only the most peripheral way. It needs a paranoid reader to turn it into a roman à clef for the present. However, one of the things that The Plot Against America is about is, precisely, paranoia. In Roth’s story, the plot from above, which is immediately a plot against America’s Jews but ultimately a plot against the American republic, works so insidiously that at first sensible people cannot see it. Those who talk about a plot are dismissed as crazy.

Roth’s fictional history begins in 1940 when, having campaigned to keep America out of the new European war, the aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the presidency. Plenty of folk are horrified by the election of a known Nazi sympathizer. But in the face of Lindbergh’s success in keeping America peaceful and prosperous, opposition dwindles. Roosevelt retires to lick his wounds. The first laws targeting Jews are passed, and evoke no outcry.

What resistance there is crystallizes around an unlikely center. Week after week the journalist Walter Winchell uses his radio program to lambaste Lindbergh. Outside the Jewish community there is little support for Winchell. The New York Times criticizes him for “questionable taste” and commends the advertisers who have him removed from the airwaves. Winchell responds by denouncing the proprietors of the Times as “ultracivilized Jewish Quislings.” Stripped of access to the media, Winchell announces himself as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 1944. At a rally in the Lindbergh heartland, however, he is assassinated. At the memorial service Fiorello La Guardia delivers a Mark Antony–type oration, full of scorching irony, over the coffin. In response Lindbergh gets into his plane, flies off into the blue, and is never heard from again.

After Lindbergh’s disappearance things get worse. His vice-president and successor, Burton K. Wheeler, is an extremist. Under Wheeler there is a brief reign of terror. Riots break out; Jews and Jewish businesses are targeted. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, of all people, protests, and is promptly taken into protective custody by the FBI. There is talk of a war against Canada, which has been giving shelter to Jews from its mighty southern neighbor.

Then the country pulls itself right. Resistance brings together political figures like La Guardia and Dorothy Thompson, wife of Sinclair Lewis and animating spirit behind It Can’t Happen Here, with decent Americans from all walks of life. In an extraordinary presidential election in November 1942 Roosevelt is returned to office, and Japan promptly bombs Pearl Harbor. Thus exactly one year late, the ship of history—American history, that is—resumes its wonted course.

The 1940s are conveyed to us through the eyes of one Philip Roth, born 1933, a youngster with a stable and happy disposition that comes from being “an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.” As the Lindbergh program unrolls, however, young Philip has to absorb, stage by stage, a lesson that may well be at the heart of his author’s enterprise: that the history we learn from history books is only a domesticated version of the real thing. Real history is the unpredictable, “the relentless unforeseen.” “The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.” To the extent that it chronicles the irruption of the relentless unforeseen into the life of a child, The Plot Against America is a history book, but of a fantastic kind, with its own truth, the sort of truth Aristotle had in mind when he said that poetry is truer than history—truer because of its power to condense and represent the multifarious in the typical.

Philip’s father, Herman Roth—whom Roth has already eulogized in Patrimony (1991)—is a man of sterling qualities with a more intense, or perhaps more romantic, loyalty to the ideals of American democracy than anyone else in the book. Herman does his best to shield his family from the gathering storm; but in order to keep them from relocation from their native Newark to the hinterland (this is what Homestead 42 is all about—isolating Jews) he has to quit his job selling insurance and take night work lugging crates in the produce market; and even there he is not safe from the threats of Agent McCorkle of the FBI.

The spectacle of his father’s powerlessness against the state sets off a psychic breakdown in Philip. This begins with petty delinquency, proceeds through alienation (“She’s somebody else,” he thinks to himself, watching his mother—“everybody is”), and ends with him fleeing home to seek sanctuary in a Catholic orphanage. He is quite clear about the meaning of running away from home. “I wanted nothing to do with history. I wanted to be a boy on the smallest scale possible.”

Philip’s breakdown is treated with a light hand—despite the menace in the air, the tone of the book is comic. His flight expresses panic more than rejection of his family. One of Roth’s alter egos, Nathan Zuckerman, has in the past insinuated that Roth the obedient, dutiful son is an impostor, and—worse—a boring impostor, that the true Roth is the sly, scabrous rebel who first put out his head in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). The Plot Against America in effect speaks back to Zuckerman, offering a pedigree for the more filial, “citizenly” Roth.

Nevertheless, Lindbergh, and what Lindbergh represents—license for everything that is ugliest in the American psyche to emerge and have its day—forces Philip to grow up too fast, lose his childhood illusions too early. Does this abrupt awakening from childhood change Philip for life? In a sense this question is illegitimate. Since Roth’s novel ends in 1942, we do not get to see Philip after nine. But if the author Philip Roth had meant to write about a fictional child whose sole existence is between the pages of a novel, he would not have called that child Philip Roth, born in the same year and of the same parents as himself. In some sense the young Philip Roth about whose childhood we read continues his life in the life of the Philip Roth who six decades later not only narrates the child’s story but writes it too.

In some sense, then, we are reading not just the story of a representative Jewish-American child of the generation that came to awareness in the 1940s—albeit here in a perverted version of the 1940s—but also the story of the real, historical Philip Roth. Puzzling out in what sense the real Philip Roth can be said to bear the marks of the child Philip’s ravaged childhood may help us to answer the question, What is this book, this work of fiction, really about?

Whatever marks are borne by Philip seem all the stranger as one examines them. Oskar Matzerath, in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, bears in or on himself more obviously than Philip the proof that he wanted nothing to do with history. Oskar asserts his right to childhood not by hiding from history, which cannot be done, not even in an orphanage, but by ceasing to grow, which—in a sense—can be done. But the history with which Oskar collides, the history of the Third Reich, is not some abstract “unforeseen”: it really happened, as attested in common memory and recorded in thousands of books and millions of photographs. The history that scars Philip, on the other hand, happened only in Philip Roth’s head and is recorded only in The Plot Against America. Making sense of The Plot and its imaginary world is therefore nowhere near as straightforward as making sense of The Tin Drum.

Just how imaginary, however, is the world recorded in Roth’s book? A Lindbergh presidency may be imaginary, but the anti-Semitism of the real Lindbergh was not. And Lindbergh was not alone. He gave voice to a native anti-Semitism with a long prehistory in Catholic and Protestant Christianity, fostered in numbers of European immigrant communities, and drawing strength from the anti-black bigotry with which it was, by the irrational logic of racism, entwined (of all the “historic undesirables” in America, says Roth, the blacks and the Jews could not be more unalike). A volatile and fickle voting public captivated by surface rather than substance—Tocqueville foresaw the danger long ago—might in 1940 as easily have gone for the aviator hero with the simple message as for the incumbent with the proven record. In this sense, the fantasy of a Lindbergh presidency is only a concretization, a realization for poetic ends, of a certain potential in American political life.

With this reading of Lindbergh in mind, we may return to the question of the scar carried into the future by the child of the 1940s. And here, rather than searching in the life and character of the real Philip Roth, a questionable enterprise under any circumstances, it may help to turn to the other Roth boy, Philip’s elder brother Sandy, the one who did not run away from history (and did not write a book about his childhood). Philip, passionately patriotic, collects icons (postage stamps) of exemplary Americans. Sandy, artistically gifted, prefers to draw his heroes. Both own treasured images of Lindbergh the aviator; both face a crisis when Lindbergh reveals his true political colors. Philip does not want to give up his Lindbergh stamps; Sandy hides his Lindbergh portraits under his bed.

Under the influence of a collaborationist rabbi to whom their mother’s sister is married, but against his parents’ wishes, Sandy enrolls in the Just Folks program, which takes Jewish children away from the cities for the summer and quarters them with typical (i.e., Lindbergh-inclined) non-Jewish families in rural areas. He spends a summer on a farm in Kentucky and comes back husky and tanned, unable to understand why his parents, whom he sneers at as “ghetto Jews” suffering from a “persecution complex,” get excited about Hitler. It takes Sandy another year to appreciate that what he calls a persecution complex may be a survival mechanism.

By any objective standard, Sandy emerges from the Lindbergh years as scarred as his younger brother, perhaps more so, since he has to live like an alien in a disapproving parental household. If those years had really occurred, the historical Philip Roth’s elder brother—who is just as real as Philip, and lived through the same history—would bear the marks too. But there were no Lindbergh years, and therefore there are no Lindbergh marks as such. What then is the nature of the scar that both brothers, the writer and the non-writer, bear, as a result of a history that is poetically (in Aristotle’s sense) called the Lindbergh presidency; or is it only the writer brother who bears the scar; or is there in fact no scar at all?

Though young Philip will of course grow up to become a famous writer, The Plot is not a book about the incubation of the writer’s soul. Nowhere does Roth invoke the trope of the artist as a wounded being whose wound becomes the source of his art. The only answer that seems to make sense of the Lindbergh scar is that the scar is Jewishness itself, but Jewishness of a particular etiology: Jewishness as an outsider’s idea—and a hostile outsider’s at that—of what it is to be a Jew, forced upon the growing child too early, and by means that, while they might not be extreme in themselves, might easily—the 1940s, the quintessential time of the unforeseen, provide proof aplenty—become extreme.

What the plot against America does to young Philip between the ages of seven and nine is terrible. It forces upon him—though less, it must be noted, at first hand than through the medium of newsreels and radio programs and from eavesdropping on his parents’ worried conversations—a vision of a world based on hatred and suspicion, a world of them and us. It turns him from a Jewish American into an American Jew, or in the eyes of his enemies just a Jew in America. In waking him up to “reality” too early, it strips him of his childhood. Or rather, the Zionists would say, it strips him of his illusions. A Jew, in their view, can expect no home on earth but in the Jewish homeland.

2.

What is it to be a Jew in America? Does a Jew belong in America? Can America be his or her true home? Herman and Bess Roth, Philip’s parents, were born in the United States in the early twentieth century, into immigrant families. They love their native country and work hard to make their way in it. Philip offers a tribute to their generation that is not without overtones of elegy:

It was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far more than religion. Nobody…had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style or wore a skullcap…. The adults were no longer observant in the outward, recognizable ways…. [The one] stranger who did wear a beard and…appeared every few months after dark to ask in broken English for a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine… seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations….

These were Jews who needed no large terms of reference, no profession of faith or doctrinal creed, in order to be Jews, and they certainly needed no other language—they had one, their native tongue, whose vernacular expressiveness they wielded effortlessly…. What they were was what they couldn’t get rid of—what they couldn’t even begin to want to get rid of. Their being Jews issued from their being themselves, as did their being American.

The account Roth gives here of the Judaism of his parents is wholly affirmative. There is no hint of what he suggests elsewhere: that a religion reduced to an ethical code plus some social practices may prove too barren for some, who to give their lives meaning may plunge hysterically into cults (Mickey Sabbath’s wife in Sabbath’s Theater) or revolutionary violence (Meredith Levov in American Pastoral).

The Jewishness of Herman Roth and his kind may be devoid of a metaphysical dimension but it does embody a chemistry that neither the Zionists nor the architects of Homestead 42 are able to grasp. Jewish-Americanness is a compound, not a simple mixture. One cannot simply subtract one element (“Jewishness,” “Americanness”) and be left with the other. To be American—to speak the American language, participate in the American way of life, be absorbed in American culture—does not require that one cease being a Jew or entail a loss of Jewishness; conversely, being relocated by fiat from a Jewish to an “American” (i.e., gentile) community will not make one more of an American. The same holds or held for the Jews of Europe. Roth quotes with approval Aharon Appelfeld’s mordant observation: “I have always loved assimilated Jews, because that was where the Jewish character, and also, perhaps, Jewish fate, was concentrated with greatest force.”

After the election of Lindbergh, Herman takes his family on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he hopes contact with the enduring monuments of American democracy will wash away the bad taste. Instead they are given a taste of what public life in the wider America is becoming. They are turned out of their hotel room on a pretext and subjected to anti-Semitic menaces by fellow tourists. Lindbergh’s triumph has clearly been read by middle Americans as a signal that the hunting season can commence. A strange man attaches himself to them. He claims to be a professional guide and will not be shaken off. Who is he really? In their new, paranoid state, the Roth parents suspect he is an FBI agent, and test him out. He passes every test. The simple truth is that he is a tour guide, and a good one too. But in the new America, nothing is any longer simple. A trip that had been intended to reassure the boys about their common heritage turns into a lesson in exclusion. Philip: “A patriotic paradise, the American Garden of Eden spread before us, and we stood huddled together there, the family expelled.”

In the starkest terms, that is what the plot of Roth’s title is meant to achieve and, at the level of the imaginary, does achieve: to expel Jews from America. Juden raus. That is what Philip cannot forget.

To put all talk of metaphorical scarring in perspective, finally, we ought not to forget the third boy in the Roth household: Alvin, their twenty-one-year-old ward, an orphan in the true sense of the word, who runs off to join the Canadian army and fight the Nazis, loses a leg ingloriously, and returns to Newark in a wheelchair with a medal and a seething rage against all and sundry. With grim purposefulness Alvin descends into a life of crime, his anti-fascist past dismissed as a foolish escapade. Scarred more deeply than either of the brothers, Alvin is in the book to give a sobering reminder of what real history can achieve in the way of destroying lives.

Although the mind through which the events of 1940–1942 are mediated is that of a child, the account we get is not a faux-naif one. The voice speaking to us is that of the child grown up, yet subjecting himself to the vision of his younger self, and in return lending to the younger self a concentrated self-awareness that no child possesses.

There are no particular signs that the grown-up voice reaches us from the first decade of the twenty-first century. There is hardly any forward perspective beyond 1945. (If there had been—if a poignant gap had been allowed to open up between a boy who thinks that being relocated to Kentucky is the worst that can happen and a man looking over his shoulder who knows all the time that the plot against world Jewry extends to gassing them and incinerating their remains—then Roth would have had a different book on his hands.) Nonetheless, given the autobiographical traces, we may take the narrating voice as belonging to the historical Philip Roth or his fictional alter ego “Philip Roth,” from whose repertoire the wisdom of hindsight has been deliberately excluded, and who passes over every opportunity to be smart at the expense of the child. If one may speak of the affection of a grown man for his childhood self, then the affection and respect of the writer for young Philip is one of the most appealing aspects of the book.

The modulation between youthful freshness of vision and adult insight is brought off with such skill that we lose awareness of who is speaking in our ear at any given moment, child or man. Only rarely does Roth’s hand fail, as for example when the child Philip sees his aunt Evelyn for who she is: “Her pretty face, with its large features and thickly applied makeup, suddenly looked to me preposterous—the carnal face of [a] ravenous mania.”

Subjecting himself to a child’s worldview means that Roth has to eschew a range of stylistic resources, in particular the harsher reaches of irony and the wails and tirades of desperate eloquence that distinguish such works as Sabbath’s Theater (1995) and The Dying Animal (2001), an eloquence sparked by the brute resistance of the world to the human will or by the prospect of approaching extinction. On the other hand, it does place Roth outside the range of William Faulkner, whose heady prose has sometimes overwhelmed him of late, particularly in The Human Stain (2000).

Roth has grown in stature as a writer as he has grown older. At his best he is now a novelist of authentically tragic scope; at his very best he reaches Shakespearean heights. By the standard set by Sabbath’s Theater, The Plot Against America is not a major work. What it offers in place of tragedy is pathos of a heart-wrenching kind saved from sentimentality by a sharp humor, a risky, knife-edge performance that Roth brings off without a slip. The subject of the keenest pathos is not young Philip—though, clutching his stamp album, heading off into the night, determined to be just a boy again, Philip is pathetic enough—but Philip’s neighbor and shadow self, Seldon Wishnow. Like Philip, Seldon is a clever, impressionable, obedient little boy. He is also fatally unlucky, a born victim, and Philip wants nothing to do with him (Seldon of course adores Philip).

In his efforts to shake off the curse of Seldon, Philip suggests to Aunt Evelyn, who works in the relocation bureau, that the Wishnows, widow and son, be packed off to Kentucky. To his dismay she acts on his suggestion. Within months of arriving in the town of Danville, Seldon’s mother has been set upon and murdered by anti-Semitic vigilantes, and Seldon has to be brought back to Newark an orphan. Philip thus has to bear not only the guilt of sending Mrs. Wishnow to her death but the punishment of having Seldon quartered upon him.

The night of his mother’s disappearance, Seldon telephones Newark (he knows no one in Kentucky), and Mrs. Roth, calling on all her resources of motherly firmness, confronts no less a task than keeping the excitable child sane. Their long-distance conversation contains some of the most heart-rending (we know Seldon’s mother is dead but Seldon and Mrs. Roth do not, though she suspects the worst) yet funniest dialogue Roth has written.

A historical novel is, by definition, set in a real historical past. The past in which The Plot Against America is set is not real. The Plot is thus, generically speaking, not a historical but a dystopian novel, though an unusual one, since the dystopian novel is usually set in the future, a future toward which the present seems to be tending. George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic dystopian novel. It looks forward to 1984 from the perspective of a 1948 in which the threat of total control seems ominously strong.

In the typical dystopian novel there is a convenient gap between present and future—convenient because it frees the author from having to demonstrate step by step how present turns into future. Roth’s task is more difficult. He needs to provide two lines of suturing: the imaginary Lindbergh years have to be sutured at one end to the real history from which they diverge in mid-1940, and at the other end to the real history that they rejoin in late 1942.

By strict standards, the surgery fails and has to fail. Even under a resolutely isolationist administration, American history cannot proceed independently of world history. The absence of America from the international stage for two years would inevitably have affected the course of the war and thereby changed the world.

If, by its nature, Roth’s alternative history cannot pass the test of the real, can it pass the lesser test of the plausible? Is it plausible, for example, that Congress should not have been disquieted by the spectacle of Japanese forces sweeping through Indonesia, India, and Australia, thereby laying the foundations for a vast Co-Prosperity Sphere run from Tokyo? Is it plausible that what the US armed forces achieved in four years of real history (1942–1945) could be achieved in three years of revised history (1943–1945)?

Questions like these would be less relevant if Roth were indulging in a fable of the “what if?” kind. But the challenge he has set himself is more rigorous. Roth is writing a realistic novel about imagined events. From the premise of the election of a fascist to the White House all else ought to follow by a logic of the plausible. That is why, in order to explain American inaction, Roth has to create a network of secret agreements between Nazi Germany and imperial Japan on the one hand, and their puppet in the White House on the other. That is why he has to revise the chronology of the war. But by the standard of plausibility to which he subjects himself, this historical framework is more than a little rickety.

In real life, Charles Lindbergh responded to Pearl Harbor by joining the war effort and flying bombing runs against the Japanese. He died in 1974. What happens to the fictional Lindbergh after October 1942, when he takes off, flying solo, and is never seen again?

We get no solid answer, only rumors. According to one rumor Lindbergh was forced down on Canadian soil by British planes. According to the Germans he has been kidnapped by the international Jewish conspiracy. The British say that he ditched his plane in the Atlantic and was taken by U-boat to Germany. Anne Morrow Lindbergh puts out a story that the Lindbergh child was not murdered in 1932 but spirited away to Germany, where he has been held as a hostage to ensure that his parents carry out the will of their German masters; and that Charles Lindbergh himself was shot out of the skies by German agents because he was no longer deemed trustworthy. In the face of these competing versions, all that we as readers of this fictional history can say is that we do not know what happened to Lindbergh, and, more seriously, that we do not know why the Lindbergh presidency or plot had to end when it did, given that resistance had not got beyond the point of speechmaking.

The spirit that reigns rather distantly over the last, hurried-sounding pages of The Plot Against America is that of Jorge Luis Borges. But Borges would have made better use of the layer of solid historical research on which Roth has built his book. As Lindbergh himself disappears into thin air, leaving nothing behind, so his presidency disappears, leaving its trace only on the mind of the boy who will grow into Philip Roth the writer. Save for the book we hold in our hands, there is no Lindbergh legacy. The two ghostly, parallel years in the American story—and, since the world is indivisible, in the story of the world—might as well not have occurred.

What Borges knew is that the ways of history are more complex and more mysterious than that. If there had been a President Lindbergh, our lives would be different today and probably worse, though exactly how we cannot be sure.

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