Roth revisits the past.

All about fiction.
Oct. 12 2004 7:37 AM

The Facts

Philip Roth revisits an era when America's pluralist future was far from certain.

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With that sense of belonging, Jews ceased to inhabit the fringes of American culture and came to include some of its boldest cultural pioneers—Philip Roth, for one. The Jewish characters created by novelists a half-generation older than Roth, such as Saul Bellow, may have been flawed, but they didn't exhibit notably Jewish flaws. Roth, in contrast, served up unvarnished portraits of American Jews in all their mishegoss, dismaying the panjandrums of Establishment Jewry who feared that his candor would undermine their hard-won progress toward social acceptance. It's significant that Bellow came of age just before Roosevelt's presidency and Roth just after it: Growing up, Jews of Roth's cohort imbibed America's postwar ethos of inclusion as Bellow's had not. "Let's remember the energy," Roth wrote of those years in American Pastoral. "Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany and Japan. ... The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together." Jews of Roth's age were more apt than their elders to believe that America was equally theirs and were far less worried about offending their Christian compatriots.

The last half-century validated their heady expectations. And if their liberal vision has seemed imperiled of late, The Plot Against America, though dark and unsettling,turns out to be surprisingly reassuring. For it returns us to an era when those seen as America's enemies were not only leftists but also fascists, bigots, and their sympathizers on the right—and in the end, Roth has FDR and his supporters turn back their "plot." The Plot reminds us that, however fitfully, we've progressed as a nation to a point where a Jew can talk with confidence and legitimacy about taking back America.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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