Philip Roth American Pastoral
Awards: Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral
(Full name Philip Milton Roth) Born in 1933, Roth is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, autobiographer, and memoirist.
For further information on Roth's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 31, 47, 66, and 86.
American Pastoral (1997) recounts the life story of Seymour "Swede" Levov, as remembered by Roth's alter ego and frequent protagonist, novelist Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman learns more about the life of his schoolmate Seymour Levov, a Jewish, blond-haired, blue-eyed, high school sports hero at their 46th reunion, through Levov's brother, Jerry. Seymour has passed away, a startling revelation to Zuckerman. Levov was a Newark, New Jersey neigborhood idol, blessed with good looks and popularity. He inherited his father's glove manufacturing business, became very successful, married an Irish Catholic girl—Miss New Jersey of 1949—and purchased a stone manor in the country. His idyllic and tranquil world is shattered when his daughter, Merry, in conjunction with a radical group, the Weathermen, sets off a bomb that kills a doctor in the neighborhood post office. Merry becomes a fugitive, is raped, destitute, and eventually involved in three other bombing deaths. She becomes a member of the Jain, a fanatical Hindu sect with extremist ideas. She does not bathe, in efforts to protect the water, and rarely eats, in order to preserve plant and animal life. When Seymour finds his daughter five years after her disappearance, he is shocked and outraged; later, at his reunion, he learns that she is dead. Divided into three sections entitled "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall," and "Paradise Lost," American Pastoral examines many themes. Philip Hensher writes: "Like many of [Roth's] books, it examines love, and the rejection of love; in taking on a terrorist who rejects the love of her family, and the love of the country which nurtured her, he has found an ideal, satisfying subject for his recurrent obsession."
The novel initially received mixed reviews. Commentators panned long, drawn out passages in the book, such as the extensive detailing of glove manufacturing processes. Other critics raved, among them Donna Rifkind, who asserted that American Pastoral is "… possibly the finest work of [Roth's] career." Lauded for its satirical commentary on American society, the book was also revered for its sensitively drawn characters, its epic qualities, and its examination of "the failures of American idealism in public life," according to Sarah J. Fodor. Many critics noted similarities between American Pastoral and the biblical story of Job. Reviewers concurred that Roth is a master of providing descriptive, detailed prose, but felt that his nostalgic chronicle of American history from the 1940s to the 1970s was strained and occasionally heavy-handed. Despite these shortcomings, critics noted Roth's skill at capturing detail and his depth of characterization. Michiko Kakutani observed "[American Pastoral] is one of Mr. Roth's most powerful novels ever, a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design, a book that is as moving, generous and ambitious as his last novel, Sabbath's Theater (1995), was sour, solipsistic and narrow…. Roth uses his sharp, reportorial eye not to satirize his characters but to flesh them out from within."