American Pastoral Essay - Critical Essays

Philip Roth

Critical Context

American Pastoral surprised some critics with what they interpreted as a turn to the right in Roth’s thinking. Not only did it affirm traditional American values, it did so by means of an admiring history of a successful Jewish family. Although Lou Levov features in some wickedly funny comic scenes, Roth here shuns the satirical treatment of American Jews that started with Goodbye, Columbus and Five Stories (1959), instead depicting middle-class Jews in a generally benign spirit. Moreover, the counterculture with which he had sympathized in earlier works here appears nihilistic, a negative force working against the best in American life as epitomized in the spirit of The Kid from Tompkinsville.

Roth has usually been praised for the care with which he constructs his novels, but American Pastoral has been criticized for its repetitiousness and lack of formal symmetry. Zuckerman disappears after part 1, which ends with disclosure of the Swede’s death and functions as a long prologue to the story of the Swede’s life. Yet despite the shaggy structure, Roth’s ability to write dialogue and create scenes stands out everywhere. The verbal brawls between the stuttering Merry and the Swede completely convince, and the glimpses given in Merry and Rita Cohen of the antiwar underground of the 1960’s should be familiar to anyone who lived through the period. In many ways, American Pastoral is a valuable supplement to the historical documents of both the antiwar years and the earlier decades when men like Lou Levov were leaving their impress on American life.