In a sense, every novel is alternative history, an attempt to imagine how things might have been. A specific genre of popular fiction proceeds from the premise that a familiar public event occurred differently—for example, the South won the Civil War, Napoleon never met his Waterloo, the Spanish Armada conquered England—and extrapolates from there to depict the likely consequences of one dramatic change. In more than twenty books of fiction published since his first collection of short stories, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, Philip Roth has been more interested in examining the inner lives of fictional figures than in speculating about large historical contingencies. In The Counterlife(1986), Roth offers contradictory histories not of the Normandy Invasion but of his recurring character Nathan Zuckerman. When, in The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman encounters an Anne Frank who managed to survive the Holocaust, Roth is more intent on examining Zuckerman's personality than in pondering how different the world would have been if the Nazi genocide had been less thorough. Operation Shylock (1993) imagines alternative personal identities, two antagonistic characters each named Philip Roth.
However, though the plot of The Plot Against America is refracted through the eyes of a boy named Philip Roth, this novel has its sights on broad historical developments. It asks the reader to accept the premise that Charles A. Lindbergh, the aviator who became a national hero by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. Lindbergh is an isolationist and a Nazi sympathizer, and once he moves into the White House, the United States pursues cordial relations with Germany and does not enter World War II. American Jews, including Roth and his family, find themselves in an increasingly precarious position.
A postscript to the novel reprints a speech that Lindbergh actually gave on September 11, 1941. Addressing a rally of the America First Committee in Des Moines, Iowa, Lindbergh—who had visited Adolf Hitler and expressed admiration for him—noted that Jews wielded inordinate influence over the media and the government of the United States. He criticized them for pursuing parochial self-interest and pushing the country into war with Germany. By including Lindbergh's speech, along with verifiable information about public figures, including Lindbergh, Roosevelt, Walter Winchell, and Henry Ford, Roth encourages the reader to examine how he fictionalized history and to ponder the plausibility of his inventions. That it could indeed happen here is the implication of Roth's mingling of fabrication with verifiable facts.
The Plot Against America is Philip Roth's fictional memoir of a man named Philip Roth who recalls a crucial, fearful time in his childhood and in the history of his country. He evokes a generally happy household comprising his parents, his older brother, Sandy, and his orphaned cousin, Alvin, in Weequahic, a Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. When Metropolitan Life, the company that employs his father, Herman, offers to make him manager of a branch office in nearby Union, he declines rather than move the family to an area in which Jews are vastly outnumbered and profoundly disliked. During an outing to Washington, D.C., the Roths encounter blatant bigotry. Revulsion at the horrors of the Holocaust would, a decade later, drive most anti-Jewish sentiment in the United States underground, but within the context of a society in which anti-Semitism is already widespread and widely accepted, the young Philip experiences persecution and pogroms as consequences of official policy.
At seven, Philip is more concerned about his stamp collection than national politics. He becomes aware of Lindbergh's isolationist campaign and his electoral victory over the incumbent Roosevelt chiefly while listening with his family to the radio and while overhearing anxious conversations among adults. For an American Jew growing up in a largely secular household, the growing threat of ethnic intolerance is brought home by...