washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Jonathan Yardley
Page 2 of 2  < Back  

Homeland Insecurity

A stereotype, to be sure, but Mawhinney, it turns out, doesn't quite fit the stereotype. Sandy positively adores him -- a source of deep bitterness between him and his suspicious, fretful, chip-on-the-shoulder father -- and in time he does the Roth family an act of surpassing generosity. Later still, singular heroism is committed by the person closer to the president than anyone else, his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, an act given expression by her in words of genuine nobility. Sometimes stereotypes contain truths about people, but people -- Jews, gentiles, whatever -- aren't stereotypes. If Lindbergh and his followers can't see beyond them, neither can Philip's loving, protective, energetic, irascible father. Nobody is immune to bias and misunderstanding.

One of the things the haters can't see is that Herman Roth and his friends in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark are Americans every bit as much as they are Jews, and that it's just as American to be a Jew as it is to be a Christian or a Muslim or an atheist or anything else. The point is made in a moving passage that deserves to be quoted at length, because it is the core of the novel:

_____Online Extra: Chapter 1_____
This feature allows you to read the first chapter of a new book. This week's selection is "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth.

_____Arts & Living_____
The Books section has reviews as well as area literary events.
The Washington Post Book Club gives access to discounts, discussions and special events.

"They raised their families, budgeted their money, attended to their elderly parents, and cared for their modest homes alike, on most every public issue thought alike, in political elections voted alike. . . . 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 and, whether at the card table or while making a sales pitch, with the easygoing command of the indigenous population. Neither was their being Jews a mishap or a misfortune or an achievement to be 'proud' of. 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. It was as it was, in the nature of things, as fundamental as having arteries and veins, and they never manifested the slightest desire to change it or deny it, regardless of the consequences."

When Philip's mother, Bess, urges Herman to take the family to Canada, he shouts: "I am not running away! . . . This is our country!" She sadly replies, "No, not anymore. It's Lindbergh's. It's the goyim's." But the whole brunt of the novel is that he is right and she is wrong, however difficult and dispiriting may be the task of sustaining it. The "malicious indignities of Lindbergh's America" are very real and cannot be glossed over -- in a country with a nativist streak as wide and deep as our own, it really can happen here -- but after bringing the country to the edge of the abyss, Roth mercifully and properly allows it to step back.

That Roth has written The Plot Against America in some respects as a parable for our times seems to me inescapably and rather regrettably true. When the fictional Lindbergh flies around the country "to meet with the American people face-to-face and reassure them that every decision he made was designed solely to increase their security and guarantee their well-being," the post-9/11 rhetoric of George W. Bush is immediately called to mind, as is the image of Bush aboard the aircraft carrier when Roth describes the "young president in his famous aviator's windbreaker."

The ephemera of politics have never struck me as fit raw material for the art of literature, and nothing in this novel changes my mind on that count, but there's so much of greater value and importance in it that dwelling on Roth's attitudinizing is pointless. His politics are as reflexive and tiresome as those of most other artists, literary or otherwise, and the best thing to do is to shrug them off.

As to his treatment of Lindbergh, it is an imaginative leap that I find hard to make, but it isn't rooted completely in imagination. Lindbergh did make public statements that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, and he was indeed chummy with some very high-ranking Nazis. It is curious, though, and not much credit to Roth, that his supplemental list of suggested reading for people "interested in tracking where historical fact ends and historical imagining begins" does not include Reeve Lindbergh's memoir of her parents, Under a Wing (1998), in which, after describing her own horror at reading the 1941 speech for the first time when she was in college in the 1960s, she reflects upon her father's stubbornness and insensitivity and finds him more innocent than guilty. I am inclined to think that she is right, and that Roth should have put a fictitious crypto-fascist in the White House rather than offering a somewhat cartoonish riff upon a famous but naive and excessively self-assured man who didn't always connect words and consequences. Choosing pure fiction over "historical imagining" would of course have been considerably less sensational than putting the revered Lindbergh in the driver's seat, and the possibility that Roth had shock value in mind cannot be dismissed. What he has done is, after all, in-your-face to the max.

Still, it's Roth's book and thus Roth's choice. Besides, in the end he softens the blow with an interesting rewrite of history that casts Lindbergh in a less unfavorable, more vulnerable light. Still, the real story in The Plot Against America is that of the Roth family, which the author gives to us as a genuinely American story, about a family that undergoes absolutely wrenching internal warfare and external perils, and that comes out in the end like one of those plug-ugly New Jersey boxers who occasionally make cameo appearances in Roth's work: battered and bruised, but still on two feet, still fighting. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

< Back  1 2

© 2004 The Washington Post Company