Farewell, Philip Roth

Book Discussed:  The Plot Against America – Philip Roth, Houghton Mifflin, 2004

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Philip Roth died on May 23. No, he was not a writer for children.  But in his 2004 counterfactual novel about American isolationism, xenophobia, and sympathy with fascism in the 1930s and 40s, he assumed the voice of his childhood self. In fact, I consider the novel is appropriate as a young adult selection.

Sometimes childhood is a frightening and threatened place:

“Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.  Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.”

Roth’s novel assumes that isolationist and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh has been elected president in 1940. Lindbergh, a hero to most Americans because of his transatlantic flight and his supposed embodiment of the American values of independence and courage, had long been a vocal opponent of aid to the Allies and had openly praised the Nazi party. In his infamous Des Moines speech of September, 1941, he accused Jews of promoting intervention in Europe, and accused American Jews of having undue and pernicious influence in our country.

It is interesting that Lindbergh is still presented in some children’s books as an unvarnished American hero, or at worst, as a complex and flawed figure (for example here and here.) Even James Cross Giblin’s supposedly evenhanded Charles A. Lindbergh: a Human Hero, characterizes the views expressed in his speech as “controversial,” and attempts to explain them partly as a psychological response to the kidnapping and murder of his son.  Young adults reading this book should learn that after the massive violence against Jews on Kristallnacht, 1938, Lindbergh refused to return the medal he had accepted from Hermann Göring, claiming it had been a “gesture of friendship.”

The young Philip of the novel is an enthusiastic stamp collector, and proud of the fact that he shares this obsession with Franklin Roosevelt. In a devastating and yet poetic passage of the destruction of childhood innocence, he has a nightmare in which his prized collection of 1934 stamps commemorating America’s national parks is transformed into a hideous tribute to Nazism:

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“I fell out of the bed and woke up on the floor, this time screaming.  Yosemite in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Mesa Verde in Colorado, Crater Lake in Oregon, Acadia in Maine, Mount Ranier in Washington, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Zion in Utah, Glacier in Montana, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee —and across the face of each, across the cliffs, the woods, the rivers, the peaks, the geyser, the gorges, the granite coastline, across the deep blue water and the high waterfalls, across everything in America that was the bluest and the greenest and the whitest and to be preserved forever in these pristine reservations, was printed a black swastika.”

In remembering Roth, it is fitting to note that The Plot Against America details all the dimensions of totalitarianism, including the way in which it disfigures childhood.

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