In the 1940 of Philip Roth’s reimagined history, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that the Republican Party nominates not Wendell Wilkie but Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. To the great consternation of American Jews, Lindbergh wins the election. Jews are concerned because Lindbergh not only has admired the German Luftwaffe but also has accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of his pro-German sympathies.
As nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events, the Roth family—including Philip’s father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy—and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by this turn of events and fear the worst. They suspect that the kinds of anti-Semitism that Hitler has propounded and is rapidly carrying out in Germany and in the parts of Europe that he has conquered will, under Lindbergh’s administration, begin to happen in the United States. The first experience that they have of this intolerance comes during a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are expelled from their hotel despite their confirmed reservations. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs. Worse events are still to follow.
Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes. A rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, supports the new administration and soon becomes head of the Office of American Absorption. This new office is established to promote Lindbergh’s plan to disperse Jews from enclaves, such as the one in which the Roths live in Newark, to other parts of the country, thereby promoting their...
(The entire section is 718 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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...
(The entire section is 1691 words.)