"Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War"
September 28, 2004 10:58 AM   Subscribe

"Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear." He is one of America's great novelists, but you don't expect Philip Roth to be barreling up the best-seller list with a book that hasn't even been published yet. And yet "The Plot Against America" is in the top 3 at amazon.com. It spins a what-if scenario in which the isolationist and anti-Semitic hero Charles Lindbergh runs for president as a Republican in 1940 and defeats F.D.R. "Keep America Out of the Jewish War", reads a button worn by Lindbergh supporters rallying at Madison Square Garden. And so he does: he signs nonaggression pacts with Germany and Japan that will keep America at peace while the rest of the world burns. The Lindbergh administration hatches a nice plan to prod assimilation of the Jews. Innocuously called Just Folks, it's a relocation program for urban Jews, administered by an Office of American Absorption fronted by an obliging and pompous rabbi of radio celebrity. The teenage Roth character is shipped off to a Kentucky tobacco farm, to finally live among Christians. The book is about American Fascism, but while Roth is no fan of President Bush ("a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one"), he points out that he conceived this book (LATimes registration: sparklebottom/sparklebottom) in December 2000, and that it would be "a mistake" to read it "as a roman à clef to the present moment in America." (more inside)
posted by matteo (10 comments total)
Roth has explained in a not-online NYT Book Review piece that the idea for the book came to him while he was reading the proofs of Arthur M Schlesinger's autobiography.
Lindbergh's fictional cabinet includes notorious Jew-haters like "Secretary of the Interior" Henry Ford and "Vice President" Burton K. Wheeler.

An attack dog, Wheeler is turned loose when the defeated but still-revered FDR makes an appearance to criticize Lindbergh’s invitation of Hitler’s foreign minister to a White House dinner. “Roosevelt,” Roth recalls, “was immediately attacked by Vice President Wheeler for ‘playing politics’ with a sitting president’s conduct of foreign affairs.”
posted by matteo at 11:04 AM on September 28, 2004

as the NYMag piece suggests,

What if Charles Lindbergh had given his infamous Des Moines speech, in which he blamed the Jews for pulling the U.S. into the European war, in 1940 instead of 1941? He might have been nominated for the presidency instead of Wendell Willkie. With a folksy campaign consisting of solo flights to all the 48 states, and a platform that repeatedly promised to keep the country out of war, he just might have beaten the stiff, patrician, intellectual FDR.

from the speech itself a "money quote", as AndySully would say:

The second major group I mentioned is the Jewish.
It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race.
No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them. Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.

and then my favorite:

Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength.

posted by matteo at 11:18 AM on September 28, 2004

Thanks for the post, matteo! As usual, great stuff. Roth's my fave author and my copy of PAA should be here tomorrow. Can't wait to crack it.

One of my favorite PR quotes (from Reading Myself and Others) is:

Interviewer: What happens to Philip Roth when he turns into Nathan Zuckerman?

Roth: Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It's all the art of impersonation, isn't it? That's the fundamental novelistic gift. Zuckerman is a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer. I am a writer writing a book impersonating a writer who wants to be a doctor impersonating a pornographer--who then, to compound the impersonation, to barb the edge, pretends he's a well-known literary critic. Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that's it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pass oneself off as what one is not. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade. Think of the ventriloquist. He speaks so that his voice appears to be through someone at a distance from himself. But if he weren't in your line of vision, you'd get no pleasure from his art at all. His art consists of being present and absent; he is most himself by simultaneously being someone else, neither of whom he "is" once the curtain is down. You don't necessarily, as a writer, have to abandon your biography completely to engage in an act of impersonation. It may be more intriguing when you don't. You distort it, caricature it, parody it, you torture and subvert it, you exploit it--all to give the biography that dimension that will excite your verbal life. Millions of people do this all the time, of course, and not with the justification of making literature. They mean it. It's amazing what lies people can sustain behind the mask of their real faces. Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theatre of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill. Great, great performances, conceived with genius down to the smallest particulars, impeccably meticulously naturalistic acting, and all done by rank amateurs. Beautiful people pretending to be "themselves". Make-believe can take the subtlist forms, you know. Why should a novelist, a pretender by profession, be any less deft or more reliable than a stolid, unimaginative suburban accountant cheating on his wife?
posted by dobbs at 11:34 AM on September 28, 2004

Cool post. Is this book a good intro to Roth, or should I start elsewhere?
posted by yerfatma at 2:04 PM on September 28, 2004

you have to start with an older one (IMO), the classic of classics, Portnoy's Complaint. I think you have to do that, because in some ways the publication of that book was the most important thing to happen to Roth, and its influenced his books every since. Also, it's hilarious, profane, and one of the best American novels of the last 50 years.
posted by cell divide at 2:13 PM on September 28, 2004

I'd have to partially disagree with cell divide. I would say that one should avoid Portnoy as a first read for Roth. It's a good book but not nearly as good as some of his later works and so drastically different in content/style that it may turn you off his other books (I know many people this has happened to). Portnoy is definitely one of his easier reads (along with maybe The Breast and Goodbye Columbus) and is truly very funny--just, if you don't like it, don't let it paint all his books with the same brush.

My favorite Roth book is The Dying Animal though it's not for everyone (it's thin, though--you could read it in a few hours!). I also quite like The Professor of Desire.

His major works are The Human Stain (winner of PEN/Faulkner award), American Pastoral (Pulitzer), Sabbath's Theatre (National Book Award), Operation Shylock (PEN/Faulkner), The Counterlife and Patrimony (both won National Book Critics Circle award).
posted by dobbs at 3:02 PM on September 28, 2004

Thanks for the great post! I've been intrigued about this book since I heard Roth on All Things Considered, and since I've never read him before, now might be a good time to start, it seems.
posted by dryad at 4:55 PM on September 28, 2004

I've been wanting to read this too, but i think he held his punches, alt-historywise. I'll reserve judgement til after i read it tho.
posted by amberglow at 5:18 PM on September 28, 2004

Great post. Philip Roth is my favorite living novelist.

dryad, if you want to get into Roth, check out his classic Portnoy's Complaint. I also loved The Ghost Writer.
posted by Ty Webb at 5:19 PM on September 28, 2004

Not forgetting Our Gang, worth a read right now.
posted by emf at 5:53 AM on September 29, 2004

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