College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2
Reviews The Plot Against America
Philip Roth
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

To be honest, I am not much of a reader of fiction. I have some favourite authors, of course, and have been known to cruise through detective novels and spy stories with all the enthusiasm that can be generated on a lazy summer afternoon. Most “contemporary literature,” however, is less engaging to me than an original tome or good collection of essays on almost any subject. The world as it is, or at least it seems to be from the perspective of scientists and cultural analysts is quite exciting enough; I do not crave fantasy for the events and processes of the knowable universe are entirely enough for me.

For this reason, I put aside Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America, for a very long time. Apart from my general bias against fiction, this one had two additional problems. One was the author, who is richly acclaimed and widely enjoyed as a tale-teller, but whom I have regarded as compulsively self-absorbed and occasionally a little paranoid. The other is the genre: for those unfamiliar with the plot of the book, it concerns one of the many hypothetical questions that cause professional historians to roll their eyes so far back in their sockets that the results are physically painful.

“What if,” Roth asks, “events had flowed differently, and World War II had taken a different course?”

The scenario that Roth describes has Charles Lindburgh, aviator extraordinaire and ordinary anti-Semite, win the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1940 and, unlike the real victor, Al Smith, proceed on to win the presidency, defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s quest for an unprecedented third term.

It is a tremendous stretch of imagination and requires an almost complete suspension of good judgment, but Roth makes the possibility seem almost plausible. He certainly has good material, not least of which are bits and pieces of Lindburgh’s own “America First” rhetoric which includes the warning that the greatest danger to the United States is that small, crafty and amoral crowd who run Hollywood, the financial markets and the government itself—the Jews.

Upon election, Lindburgh embarks upon a number of initiatives which include massive tax breaks for the rich, massive doses of fear for ordinary citizens and massive intrusions upon the constitutional rights and civil liberties of Americans. The analogies to the present are transparent and presumably meant to be so. The exposure of long-standing flaws in the political culture of America is also clear, and meant to be so.

So, why mention it? Everything about which Roth speculates or implies is common knowledge in this, the second term of the George W. Bush presidency. It is also better articulated and certainly more realistically grounded in revisionist histories for those mainly concerned with an earlier time and with sensational revelations about the current abuse of power for those primarily concerned with today … and tomorrow.

The reason is that not everyone is like me (for which the world may be justly thankful), and not everyone prefers the open spaces of public discourse to the narrow retreats of private life. As Gloria Steinem famously quipped, “the personal is political,” and what Philip Roth does in this novel is to make the political personal.

Enormous and distressing events are not the focus of the book. They are the cause of trouble, of course, but it is trouble visited on a single family, the imagined and remembered family of a young boy named Philip Roth. The heroes and villains do not reside far away nor do they betray their faults and validate their virtues in globe-altering events. The Roth family is very much the world as far as a young boy is concerned, and the drama of the novel comes from the imposition of the political universe on to the home, hearth and deeply personal relationships. Families are broken by events over which they have no effective control, but to which they must react.

Collaborators, sycophants and assorted fools are revealed, as are the quiet qualities of decency and courage. There is plenty here to attract readers who are drawn to stories that are intimate, domestic and driven by personality. It is a tale well told, but my own motive for recommending it is its emotional immediacy—something not easily found in political diatribes and screeds, but something that could start even reluctant readers of what passes for non-fiction on their own journey toward a connection with world events today. There have been few times in recent memory that have required an attentive and informed citizenry more.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at <howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca>.

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology