Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and the Recurring History

Sini Eikonsalo | May 31, 2018

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Philip Roth, a canonical American writer, died recently at the age of 85, leaving behind a vast array of novels, the most popular probably being his Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral (1997). However, it is The Plot Against America (2004) that has been in the public interest for the past couple of years and now with the news of Roth’s death.

Why is this novel, written fourteen years ago, suddenly of interest to the public? As with many current “Why?” questions, the answer to this one is likewise, “Trump”: Roth’s novel has been considered to resonate in a surprising and terrifying manner with the contemporary political climate of the United States. The novel is also currently being made into a television mini-series, and like with The Handmaid’s Tale, the timing is surely no coincidence.

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The Plot Against America, however, is set in the years 1940–1942, and rewrites history through depicting Charles A. Lindbergh, the celebrity pilot and a well-known anti-Semite, as winning the 1940 presidential election against Franklin Roosevelt. Because of Lindbergh’s isolationist views, the United States ends up signing “an understanding” with the Nazi Germany instead of entering World War II, and the country begins its downward slide towards fascism. Different discriminatory laws and orders targeting Jewish people are put in action and soon anti-Semitism takes hold of the public, too. The novel’s protagonist, young Philip Roth, follows the current events in fear as he and his family struggle to survive this new reality.

None of this, of course, explicitly has anything to do with current politics or Trump. Nevertheless, many critics have drawn connections between the characterization of Lindbergh and the characteristics of Trump. Mark P. Bresnan, for example, has suggested that both Lindbergh and Trump used celebrity and wealth to “triumph over a hopelessly fractured Republican party”. He also points out their shared “America First” rhetoric and “isolationist ethos that bleeds into ethno-nationalism” (America First).

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But fickle are the minds of literary critics—when The Plot Against America was published, critics quite unanimously considered it to be an allegory for the political climate of the early twenty-first century, a response to 9/11 attacks and its aftermath. Charles Lewis, for example, interprets Roth’s novel as “a prosthetic screen” for 9/11: “a substitute surface that both registers the traumatic consequence of that event and stands in as the projected realization of it” (248). Lewis, like many other critics, also sees a connection between Roth’s characterization of the fictional President Lindbergh and the real-life President Bush (246, 251).

In his essay, Roth has, however, vehemently denied any connections between the novel and post-9/11 politics:

“Some readers are going to want to take this book as a roman clef to the present moment in America. That would be a mistake. I set out to do exactly what I’ve done: reconstruct the years 1940-42 as they might have been if Lindbergh, instead of Roosevelt, had been elected president in the 1940 election. I am not pretending to be interested in those two years — I am interested in those two years. […] My every imaginative effort was directed toward making the effect of that reality as strong as I could, and not so as to illuminate the present through the past but to illuminate the past through the past” (The Story Behind).

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Of course, Roland Barthes killed the author in 1967, and everyone more or less agrees that we should not interpret literature based on authorial intention. But does that mean that we should completely disregard what the writer is explicitly telling us? If Roth says he wrote the book because he wanted to illuminate the past, maybe we should consider why he decided to do so by imagining a terrifying, yet believable alternative history for the United States.

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It seems as if Roth wanted to show the reader that these events could have easily happened, and since we keep finding similarities between the novel’s alarming imaginary past and our current politics, Roth appears to be correct in his suggestion. We are not finding connections between the novel and current events because the novel is about 9/11—it never was about 9/11 or its aftermath. We keep finding these similarities because we are making the same mistakes over and over again—mistakes which in Roth’s novel are in the imagined past but which we are bringing into life with our terrible choices.


About Sini

I’m a first year English literature PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. My research focuses on the development of American 9/11 novels in relation to the social and political atmosphere and discourse of the time. My research interests include postcolonial studies, the representation of Islam and Muslims, and 21st century literature, popular culture, and politics.

Email: s1787074@sms.ed.ac.uk

Edited by: June Laurenson and Christa Burgin

Works Cited:

Bresnan, Mark P. “America First: Reading ‘The Plot Against America’ in the Age of Trump.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 11 Sep 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/america-first-reading-plot-against-america-age-trump/. Web. 26 May 2018.

Lewis, Charles. “Real Planes and Imaginary Towers: Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America as 9/11 Prosthetic Screen.” Literature after 9/11. Eds. Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn. New York: Routledge-Taylor & Francis, 2008: 246–260. Print.

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. London: Jonathan Cape, 2004. Print.

—. “The Story Behind ‘The Plot Against America’” The New York Times, 19 Sep 2004, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/19/books/review/19ROTHL.html. Web. 14 April 2018.

Pictures:

The Plot Against America: by Sini Eikonsalo

Trump: by Airpix

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The Death of the Author: leiris202

Original: Death found an author writing his life.. Designed & done on stone by E. Hull. Printed by C. Hullmandel.

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Bush: by Eric Draper, White House

Make America Think Again: by Jose Moreno

https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

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