American Pastoral Essay - Critical Evaluation

Philip Roth

Critical Evaluation

Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, American Pastoral is the first novel in Philip Roth’s American trilogy, and, like the other works—I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000)—it examines a significant post-World War II decade in American history. In Reading Myself and Others (1975), which presents Roth’s philosophy of writing, he states that whereas World War II weakened social and class constraints, the Vietnam War demythologized America. In American Pastoral, Roth presents a disastrous meeting between the benign national myth that every American can achieve joyful plentitude and the inexorable, insidious reality of that era.

The 1960’s were a particularly turbulent time that rapidly dispensed with President John F. Kennedy’s vision of America as Camelot. They culminated in radical racial and antiwar demonstrations and ended in tragic disillusionment. The story line of American Pastoral traces that trajectory and its social consequences, thereby establishing the significance of the novel. The American immigrant’s dream—if one excels, works hard, and is honorable, one will achieve success along with all one’s dreams—is the myth that Roth debunks.

Critics have either hailed or assailed Roth for what they see as the politically conservative viewpoint of his novel, but he has been critical of the backlash of conservatism that the violent 1960’s stimulated, and some critics argue that Roth’s sympathies do not lie only with Swede. In fact, American Pastoral has inspired many interpretations. Questions arise as to why Roth wrote about the 1960’s in the 1990’s, but he actually began a different version of the novel in the early 1970’s.

Throughout his American trilogy, Philip Roth uses a fictional narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, to reconstruct meditatively the stories being told. Zuckerman is Roth’s mechanism for both distancing himself as author and sabotaging truth. In American Pastoral, Roth extends this technique by having Zuckerman imagine Seymour (Swede) Levov awakening to self-reflection, while Zuckerman remains in the background. Swede’s ponderings are disjointed as he searches his memories for a transgression that he can blame for the tragedy his life has become. The postmodern...

(The entire section is 958 words.)