Philip Roth Roth, Philip (Vol. 119) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (novella and short stories) 1959
Letting Go (novel) 1962
When She Was Good (novel) 1967
Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969
Our Gang (novel) 1971
The Breast (novel) 1972
The Great American Novel (novel) 1973
My Life as a Man (novel) 1974
Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975
The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977
The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979
Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981
The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983
The Counterlife (novel) 1986
The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (autobiography) 1988
Deception (novel) 1990
Patrimony: A True Story (memoir) 1990
Operation Shylock: A Confession (novel) 1993
Sabbath's Theater (novel) 1995
American Pastoral (novel) 1997
I Married a Communist (novel) 1998

∗These works, along with the epilogue "The Prague Orgy," were published as Zuckerman's Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue in 1985.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 15 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Postwar Paradise Shattered From Within," in New York Times, April 15, 1997, pp. Cl1, C14.

[In the following review, Kakutani praises American Pastoral, lauding the books sensitively observed cast of characters and calling it "a fiercely affecting work of art."]

Back in 1960, Philip Roth gave a speech in which he argued that American life was becoming so surreal, so stupefying, so maddening, that it had ceased to be a manageable subject for novelists. He argued that real life, the life out of newspaper headlines, was outdoing the imagination of novelists, and that fiction writers were in fact abandoning the effort to grapple with "the grander social and political phenomena of our times" and were turning instead "to the construction of wholly imaginary worlds, and to a celebration of the self."

These remarks—made even before John F. Kennedy's assassination and the social upheavals of the 60's magnified the surreal quotient of American life—help illuminate what Tom Wolfe identified (with considerable self-serving hyperbole) in the late 80's as a retreat from realism. They also help explain the direction that Mr. Roth's own fiction has taken over the last three and a half decades, his long obsession with alter egos and mirror games and the transactions between life and art.

In his latest novel, American Pastoral, however, Mr. Roth does away with—or nearly does away with—these narcissistic pyrotechnics to tackle the very subjects he once spurned as unmanageable: namely, what happened to America in the decades between World War II and Vietnam, between the complacencies of the 50's and the confusions of the 60's, 70's and 80's. With the story of Seymour (Swede) Levov, Mr. Roth has chronicled the rise and fall of one man's fortunes and in doing so created a resonant parable of American innocence and disillusion.

The resulting book 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, was sour, solipsistic and narrow.

As Mr. Roth has observed himself, his books tend to "zigzag" between the two poles of his imagination: between the willfully decorous (Letting Go, The Ghost Writer) and the willfully outrageous (Portnoy's Complaint, Our Gang), the Jamesian and the Rabelaisian. It's eminently clear that American Pastoral belongs to the first category, and it's also clear that its polite, dutiful hero, Seymour Levov, is the opposite number of such flamboyant egotists as Mickey Sabbath.

At the same time, Mr. Roth has taken these two contradictory impulses in himself, and used them to limn two contradictory impulses in American history: the first, embodied by Seymour Levov, representing that optimistic strain of Emersonian self-reliance, predicated upon a belief in hard work and progress; the second, embodied by the Swede's fanatical daughter, Merry, representing the darker side of American individualism, what Mr. Roth calls "the fury, the violence, and the desperation" of "the indigenous American berserk."


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Michael Wood (review date 20 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Trouble with Swede Levov," in New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1997, p. 8.

[In the following review, Wood berates the slow pace of American Pastoral, but praises its prose and combination of rage and elegy. Noting similarities between Pastoral and John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, Wood comments on both novels' treatments of national history and their "mind-numbing realism."]

Who would have thought Nathan Zuckerman would fall in love with normality, with the all-American life? With the old idea of the melting pot as order and progress, a pacified history in which resentment and misunderstanding fade away across the generations? With Thanksgiving as a form of ethnic truce, where the Jews and the Irish hang out together as if no one had ever crucified anyone? This is, after all, the garrulous, manic hero of five Philip Roth novels, and the subtle fictional critic of Mr. Roth's autobiography, The Facts. His alter id, as you might say, the man whose business is to get out of control and give offense. "I am your permission," Zuckerman tells Mr. Roth in that book, reproving him for lapsing into the tame decencies of the uninvented life, "your indiscretion, the key to disclosure." "The distortion called fidelity is not your metier," Zuckerman insists. And Mr. Roth himself says he is pleased to have escaped the constrictions of the Jamesian tact and elegance he once admired, liberating his talent for what he calls "extremist fiction."

Yet here is Zuckerman attending a class reunion of veterans from Weequahic High in Newark, checking out the prostates and remarriages and high-powered jobs and the dead fathers; having dinner in New York with a former star athlete from the same school, a nice guy called Seymour Levov, alias the Swede, and wondering at the fellow's sheer likable ordinariness. "Swede Levov's life, for all I knew, had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain." The little clause ("for all I knew") gives the game away. Of course Zuckerman is wrong about this—there wouldn't be a novel here if he weren't, let alone a Philip Roth novel. "I was wrong," Zuckerman says handsomely. "Never more mistaken about anyone in my life." But what's interesting about the book is that Zuckerman could have thought, even for an instant, that he was right; and that we can't, in the end, know how right or wrong he is, since he is making everything up, dreaming "a realistic chronicle," as he says, quoting the old Johnny Mercer song ("Dream when the day is through"), and taking off into history as he imagines it. It's true that the imagining is grounded in the most meticulous reconstructions of old times and places—the Levov family glove factory, the spreading acres of west New Jersey, a Miss America competition in Atlantic City, the beat-up neighborhoods of what used to be the city of Newark—and it gets easier and easier to forget that Zuckerman's industry and imagination are providing all this. He gives us plenty of clues, though, before he vanishes for good on page 89, off into fiction, in the middle of a dance with an old schoolmate named Joy Helpern. "You get them wrong before you meet them," Zuckerman says of "people" in general, "while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them;...

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Richard Eder (review date 4 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Raging Roth," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 4, 1997, p. 2.

[In the following review Eder briefly compares John Updike's novel In the Beauty of the Lilies to Roth's American Pastoral.

Those two dray horses of American fiction, one dapple and one bay, one Protestant and one Jewish, are still plodding along in odd and paradoxical tandem: the dappled John Updike a step or two before the darker Philip Roth.

A year ago, Updike brought out his American saga, In the Beauty of the Lilies. It was evocative and somber. Now Roth comes with his counterpart saga, sardonically entitled American Pastoral. It is somber and...

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Todd Gitlin (review date 12 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Weather Girl," in Nation, Vol. 264, No. 18, May 12, 1997, pp. 63-4.

[In the following review, Gitlin faults Roth's flat prose, sluggish excursions, and sideways motions in American Pastoral, but notes that "Inside this long, viscous book, a solid, serious allegory struggles to get out."]

You have to admire Philip Roth for refusing to repeat himself in his twenty-second book. American Pastoral is a family epic about social breakdown and freakout—Thomas Mann goes Jersey. Roth puts on a straightforward disposition. He goes pre-postmodern. His antics and fantasies are minimal, as if Roth the shtickmeister-magician is just keeping his hand in. The...

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Robert Cohen (review date 19 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Indigenous American Berserk," in New Leader, Vol. LXXX, No. 9, May 19, 1997, pp. 18-19.

[In the following review of American Pastoral, Cohen critiques Roth's repetitive use of his character Nathan Zuckerman, but praises the author's narrative energies, claiming that age seems to have "enriched [Roth's] perspective."]

I suspect I am not alone among Philip Roth's many readers in finding the prospect of another installment in the Nathan Zuckerman saga about as appealing as a tax audit. Surely by now, at century's end, few depths remain unplumbed in this person fashioned in the sort-of-but-not-quite-though-pro-vocatively-similar image of the creator...

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Louis Menand (essay date 19 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Irony and the Ecstasy," in New Yorker, Vol. LXXIII, No. 12, May 19, 1997, pp. 88, 90-4.

[In the following essay, Menand analyzes many of the themes in American Pastoral and compares it briefly to several other works by Roth.]

Philip Roth's new book is a historical novel about the period from the Second World War to Watergate. The hero is a high-school sports star and ex-marine who marries the Miss New Jersey of 1949, takes over his father's business, buys a big house in the country, and becomes a prosperous, liberal, post-ethnic mid-century American. He has what he thinks is the perfect life. What do you imagine happens to it? The novel is called...

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Philip Hensher (review date 31 May 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Terrorism, the Perfect Choice," in The Spectator, Vol. 278, No. 8809, May 31, 1997, pp. 36-7.

[In the following review Hensher analyzes Roth's depictions of terrorism and the theme of betrayal in the novel American Pastoral.]

It is surprising, in a way, that more novelists haven't taken to the subject of terrorism. Few people are killed by terrorists; fewer feel sufficient attachment to any cause to take up violence. But the rise of nationalist groups in Western societies and of tiny cells devoted to some abstract political cause has changed the way many of us live our lives. The Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Weathermen in America...

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Donna Rifkind (review date 8 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The End of Innocence," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 23, June 8, 1997, pp. 1. 14.

[In the following review Rifkind asserts that Roth is at his best in American Pastoral. She praises the epic qualities of the book, the depth of characterizations, and the social commentary and critique that make the novel "… possibly the finest work of his career."]

What better place to contemplate the mysteries of identity than a 45th high school reunion? That's where Nathan Zuckerman, humbled by impotence and incontinence after prostate cancer surgery, finds himself at the beginning of Philip Roth's 22nd book, American Pastoral. This is a more...

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Elizabeth Hardwick (review date 12 June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Paradise Lost," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 10, June 12, 1997, pp. 12-14.

[In the following review Hardwick briefly compares American Pastoral to several other works by Roth: Operation Shylock. The Anatomy Lesson, Portnoy's Complaint, and The Professor of Desire. She examinines the evolution of the character Nathan Zuckerman through the course of these novels.]

American Pastoral is Philip Roth's twentieth work of fiction—an accretion of creative energy, a yearly, or almost, place at the starting line of a marathon. But his is a one-man sprint with the signatures, the gestures, the deep breathing, and the...

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Robert Boyers (review date 7 July 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Indigenous Berserk," in New Republic. Vol. 217, No. 4303, July 7, 1997, pp. 36-41.

[In the following review Boyers comments on Roth's examination of moral virtues, decency, and American society in his novel American Pastoral.]

In Philip Roth's new novel, his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, alludes in passing to a once famous writer now largely forgotten, whose "sense of virtue is too narrow" for contemporary readers. The writer, no doubt about it, is Bernard Malamud. And what is it that passes for virtue in Malamud? In The Assistant, a grim and slender novel, the Jewish groceryman is eulogized as "a man that never stopped working … to make a living...

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Sarah J. Fodor (review date 17 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of American Pastoral, in Christian Century, December 17, 1997, pp. 1202-03.

[In the following review, Fodor asserts that Roth's American Pastoral is interesting not only due to its treatment of "earlier, seemingly simpler times in American history, but also because Roth uses his story to examine the failures of American idealism in public life."]

In 1960 Philip Roth wrote, "The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's...

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