The Plot Against America
Well … you (and I) have been to enough family dinners where Jewish paranoia—or perhaps I should say prudent watchfulness—manifests itself to know that it does not arise from the contemplation of African-American history. Rather, it arises from the deeply felt and understood collective experience of being chased around the world by murderous mobs for centuries. People these days tend to overrate the Holocaust, and to underrate the whole long run of Jewish exile and persecution, as the essential shaper of the Jewish consciousness. This experience does, however, often offer Jews an unusually direct route into imagining their way into the sufferings of others.
Still, I admire how stubbornly Roth stands on his native ground. Pauline Kael once remarked of William Styron, unkindly but not unfairly, that he tried to lend grandeur to his work by importing into it world-historical tragedies that lay outside his own natural artistic ken. With the exception of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain (the creation of whom, as you pointed out in Slate, feels effortful in a way that Roth lead characterizations hardly ever do), Roth does Jews of a certain age and background, and that's about it. One of the surest marks of his greatness as a writer is that, like Faulkner and James, he can get all the richness and sadness and complication of the world out of a tiny sociological micro-climate. (Even a Roth Jewish female protagonist is unimaginable, isn't it?) He's a "write about what you know" writer, and he has been amazingly good at avoiding the false piety that so often results from attempts to write fiction that strays from one's own lifelong preoccupations.
But I was actually trying to open up a different discussion at the end of my last post—about the German Jews, like Roth's Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. Our experience, or anyway the experience of those of us whose American origins are Southern, was remarkably uniform. We mostly came to this country solo, not in family or community groups. We started out as backpack peddlers. We settled in small towns and opened dry-goods stores. That meant that we belonged to tiny and widely separated Jewish communities; it was common for there to be only one or two Jewish families in a Southern town. (Conversely, it was amazingly rare for there to be no Jewish families—every town needs a dry-goods store.) Besides the super-minority status, having a ringside seat on Southern race relations surely also had an effect on the consciousness of those Jews—you're right about that in our case.
Unobtrusiveness was our second religion, but it should be understood as a product of fear, or at least wariness—of a consciousness that obtrusiveness, of the Herman Roth variety, might result in horrifying treatment. Rabbi Bengelsdorf's ostentatious abjuring of Jewish paranoia has in it an unmistakable element of wanting to propitiate the all-powerful majority because he senses that it is fundamentally hostile. As Roth makes clear, the immense pleasure Rabbi Bengelsdorf permits himself to take in having arrived as an American personage, in having transcended tribalism, is the result of pure, almost willed self-delusion. Life—officially in The Plot Against America, Jewish life, but one senses that the lesson is too fundamental to be that limited—simply does not provide us, at least not in any deep or sustained way, with the ease and grace and comfort that Rabbi Bengelsdorf professes to have achieved.
Now, on to your last question—How did I like the book? I share in the general awe at Roth's astonishing run of artistic productivity late in his career, but one aspect of his last few books has been bothering me. There is a running motif that has Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's stand-in, encountering an old, salt-of-the earth Jewish guy, who delivers a long, pungent rant on the (declining) state of the world. Think of Jerry Levov in American Pastoral, or Murray Ringold in I Married a Communist. These rants are the heart of the novels in which they appear. They serve as the vehicle for much of the exposition, for the overall feeling, and for the message. Frankly, I've been getting tired of them. They have the advantage of being delivered in a voice that Roth is incredibly good at, but the disadvantages of being static—Zuckerman just sits and listens while his interlocutor goes on for pages and pages—and emotionally limited: all anger and nostalgia and regret and self-pity. I'd been secretly hoping that Roth would figure out a way to say what he wants to say now without having to use this motif. And in The Plot Against America, he has. That is refreshing and admirable. You're right, though, that using a boy's consciousness rather than a bitter old guy's as the central one in the book leaves us with much less richness of language. It gives us new emotions (innocence, fear), but they aren't as rich and powerful as the ones they've replaced. I suppose I'd be happy to see the relentlessly inventive Roth come up with yet another motif next time, rather than return to the boyish "Philip Roth" as his protagonist.
Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Judith Shulevitz, former culture editor ofSlateand former columnist for the New York Times Book Review, is working on a book about the Sabbath.