The Plot Against America
Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, sounds like this:
Aunt Evelyn was triumphant but my father was stymied, said almost nothing, and at the dinner table that evening looked especially glum when Sandy got around to reporting on what a paragon Mr. Mawhinney was. First off Mr. Mawhinney had graduated from the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky, while my father, like most other Newark slum children before the World War, hadn’t been educated beyond the eighth grade. Mr. Mawhinney owned not just one farm but three – the lesser two rented to tenants – land that had been in his family going back nearly to the days of Daniel Boone, and my father owned nothing more impressive than a six-year-old car. Mr. Mawhinney could saddle a horse, drive a tractor, operate a thresher, ride a fertilizer drill, work a field as easily with a team of mules as with a team of oxen; he could rotate crops and manage hired men, both white and negro; he could repair tools, sharpen plow points and mowers, put up fences, string barbed wire, raise chickens, dip sheep, dehorn cattle, slaughter pigs, smoke bacon, sugar-cure ham – and he raised watermelons that were the sweetest and juiciest Sandy had ever eaten. By cultivating tobacco, corn, and potatoes, Mr. Mawhinney was able to make a living right out of the earth and then, at Sunday dinner (where the six-foot-three-inch, two-hundred-and-thirty-pound farmer consumed more fried chicken with cream gravy than everyone else at the table combined), eat only food that he himself had raised, and all my father could do was sell insurance. It went without saying that Mr. Mawhinney was a Christian, a long-standing member of the great overpowering majority that fought the revolution and founded the nation and conquered the wilderness and subjugated the Indian and enslaved the negro and emancipated the negro and segregated the negro, one of the good, clean, hard-working Christian millions who settled the frontier, tilled the farms, built the cities, governed the states, sat in Congress, occupied the White House, amassed the wealth, possessed the land, owned the steel mills and the ball clubs and the railroads and the banks, even owned and oversaw the language, one of those unassailable Nordic and Anglo-Saxon Protestants who ran America and would always run it – generals, dignitaries, magnates, tycoons, the men who laid down the law and called the shots and read the riot act when they chose to – while my father, of course, was only a Jew.
Roth’s political novel is a fable of an alternative universe in which America has gone fascist. Roth imagines that Charles A.Lindbergh, a friend and admirer of Hitler, aviation pioneer and popular hero, defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election.
The Plot Against America was first published in 2004. At once mesmerizing and unsettling, it views Lindbergh’s presidency through the knowing eyes of a six-year-old Jewish boy in Newark. A child who is seriously scarred by the developments to which he is a first-hand witness: ‘Our incomparable American childhood was ended . . . never would I be able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents.’
The novel is about disenchantment and is the work of a novelist entering the final period of his career. It is also unrepentantly nostalgic for both writer and reader. Roth enters history and fiction and takes us by the hand. It is a wonderful excursion, passing landmarks which we may have imagined but which may also have been real. It is a journey into terror and into the unimaginable, and although we enter a recognizable period of history, we are always close to our own time. And the historic events, the fictions we visit, have their counterparts in our own contemporary history and fictions and facts.