My Take: Roth’s America of 1968 Writ Small is America Writ Large Today
The story begins with Seymour (“Swede”) Levov leading a charmed life in the mid 1940’s at Weequahic High School in Newark, NJ. Improbably, this Jewish kid was 6’3’’, blond, Nordic-looking and athletically gifted in 3 sports, thus called “Swede”. He never sought to lord his excellence over anyone; he was remarkably unassuming about it all and simply accepted, without introspection, that this is how life is supposed to be. Today we might call it normalcy bias. In the book, this concept is unarticulated until the final unfolding of the story i.e. - this unexamined assumption that living decently and working/playing hard automatically results in a good life. The Aristotelian beginning, middle and end of American Pastoral definitively negates this hypothesis.
Like probably every generation since the industrial revolution got underway, Swede’s peers pocketed all prior material advances as givens - took them for granted - and from that starting point, worked to further improve their lot. He did this by going to a local college then beginning from the ground up in his dad’s glove business, for which he also had an inborn knack. At college, he fell in love with an Irish Catholic girl - who became Miss New Jersey in the Miss Maerica Pageant - from Elizabeth NJ (where I grew up), pursued her and - against her parents’ and his father’s wishes - married her. They soon moved to idyllic Morris County, a mythical rural town of Old Rimrock, west of the real Morristown NJ. It was an eastward commute of 30 miles to the Newark factory. All these real places have meaning to me, as they were the settings of my birth, childhood and adolescence. In fact, my grandfather, Abraham, played pinochle with Philip Roth’s father in the ’50 - 60’s’s.
The Weequahic section of Newark was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, home to mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe and their immediate descendants, who were driven to assimilate, to fit in most of all. They wanted to be accepted as fellow Americans. They were also industrious, typified by the Swede’s father, who learned the art of glove making from his father, who immigrated to the US and learned to work leather. He started with nothing, yet created a factory - Newark Maid - in Newark. There he employed more than a hundred local African Americans, taught them the necessary skills and successfully manufactured high quality ladies gloves. The Swede followed in his father’s footsteps, while his younger brother became a well-known cardiac surgeon in Miami.
The Swede’s had an easygoing gentility and made efforts to keep his life, as well as those in contact with him, orderly, predictable and comfortable. He made a point to get along with everyone, but his life begins to unravel as his daughter, Merry, deteriorates in her teens. The Levov’s daughter Merry (Meredith), developed a childhood stutter, which understandably became a central issue in the family’s life. A speech therapist is to no avail. Though always a somewhat willful little girl, her girlhood charm begins to devolve. Things take an especially downward turn in Merry’s mid teens, when she becomes rage-filled as to most everything, in particular the VIetnam war, capitalism, and bourgeois life. Her fury is non-stop with frequent shouting, screaming (she screamed for the entire first year of her life, we later learn). She is typical - if an extreme example - of a segment of the youth of that period. I, myself, was part of it, but limited my efforts to a few marches.
Merry’s parents love her unconditionally and earnestly try to intervene. Discussion and persuasion are to no avail. Eventually, the Swede forbids her to travel to New York city, where she often went, defiantly refusing to respond to questions about what she did there or who she was with. Her father suggested she organize people where they live in Old Rimrock, reminding her that he and many other locals also opposed the war. That suggestion resulted in Merry eventually placing a bomb in the local country store and post office, destroying it and killing a respected local doctor. Her reputation for rage-filled antiwar activism and immediate disappearance led to little doubt she was responsible. It was the end of the Swede’s orderly and proper life as he knew it. He could not begin to understand how this happened. Hadn’t he done everything right?
Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is an artful and erudite book. As with some of his other books, it sensitively portrays the almost unbridled optimism of America following the end of WWII, particularly among first and second generation Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. It is also an exquisitely painful novel, describing the death of a fictional but typical and credible, American family - after becoming become affluent - incomprehensibly, at the hands of their own beloved daughter. The family’s success was the result of several well-told factors: multi-generational industriousness of Jewish immigrants; genetics surprises; character of their athletic/handsome/hardworking/dutiful son who was well-liked by all.
Though the individuals’ physical lives continued, the family was killed by the only daughter, Merry - a 16 year-old stuttering, rabidly angry, obsessed, anti-war activist of the late ’60’s. Her 5 am bomb killed a local doctor in tony, rural north central New Jersey. He was unfortunate enough to be mailing letters at the rural general store which also served as a limited-service window branch of the US post office. It was this minimal nexus of the store with the post office which led to the bombing of this tiny outpost of the US Government. It was there that Merry planted a bomb that she, herself, had built. She immediately went into hiding. Later in the story, we learn she continued making bombs, succeeding in killing three more people.
Roth’s style of writing includes many thoughtful and philosophical monologues. These occur either via a character’s internal dialogues or in the third person. They includes many wise observations as to human nature and how it weaves into formation of society. Especially pertinent to me is the fact that his so-very-credible and deeply-portrayed characters are so culturally and historically recognizable to me, personally. I don’t know to what extent this is accessible to those of other cultures who did not grow up in New Jersey at the times described. The wisdom as to human nature and society, though, I believe generalizes quite well. This 1997 book left me wondering what Roth - who died in 2018 - would think about the current state of American “democracy”. Interestingly, aside from the usual snide remarks about Nixon (typical of Jewish intellectuals), he has little to say about politics.
I am thus not sure whether Roth meant it to be so, but this fictitious account of one family coming to ruin in 1968 seems an apt microcosm (a mere two and a half generations later) - a description of perhaps millions of families today. Today, many families host wild-eyed, know-it-all, egomaniacs with no self-esteem (like Merry), each of whom despises their affluent parents’ world. You know, the very one which gave these know-nothings everything and yet they presume to know just how to save the planet by destroying the very families and enterprises in which they were raised and which produced all the goodies so essential to their comfortable, effortless lives of virtuous posturing. Merry-like escaped bombers of the 60’s and their many acolytes and supporters of that generation have gone on (unpunished) to succeed in the long march through the institutions to a such a degree that dynamite is no longer necessary to destroy them; the institutions were so unsure of their values, they surrendered willingly.
Society’s structural stability is so compromised and the institutions so far tilted left, that their collapse is no longer even required! They now lead the nihilist charge! With the government and non-government institutions lined up, it suffices to deploy rhetorical and political bombs to literally tear the rest of civilization apart and complete the journey to the promised utopia. We are being crushed by a new variant of fascism, a new kind of revolution. How else could we have arrived at a point where the Ten Commandments are banned in public schools, while, at the same time, biological sex is denied, drag-queen shows and anal sex education are required - in grammar school; where children may opt for cosmetic sex change - against their parents’ wishes. Never mentioned is the fact that this new sacrament of changing sex results NOT in a functional individual of the opposite sex, but a mere illusion of being opposite sexually. Somehow, this particular triumph of illusion over reality is emblematic of the entire enterprise of fakery and nihilism in which we are about to all drown. Take heart! We will do so net-zero carbon with the correct commanded pronouns.
Much of Roth’s philosophizing later in the book, after the main events have all transpired and we are left to consider them, revolve around notions of normalcy, ordinariness and predictability of life; around how we may conduct our lives in an attempt to keep them that way. There is discussion of the emergence and mainstreaming of pornography - in the form of the movie Deep Throat. There was some discussion whether and how children might be shielded from such deviancy and whether society could control its children any longer at all.
The normalization of deviancy and the deviation of normalcy troubles the mix of people at Seymour and Dawn’s barbecue, whose guests included his parents, and three couples; a local WASP and his alcoholic wife; a Jewish childhood friend and his intellectual, ineffectual nay-saying wife; Merry’s former speech therapist and her physician husband. Sub-rosa during this friendly get-together, we learn of a prior (one and only) four month affair between the Swede and the speech therapist, which happened just following the bombing while Dawn was de-compensating psychologically, prior to several psychiatric hospitalizations. We also learn - at the same time as the Swede - that Dawn is involved with the WASP, a poseur artist and architect, who is designing a new modern house for Seymour and Dawn. There are thus deviancies even among those whose lives - on the surface - appear quite normal and ordinary.
Part of Roth’s genius is his ability to weave much of the ordinariness of life into poignant revelations of truth. Though he does not write directly about politics, at least in his books I have read, he does indicate belief that there exists an immutable human nature. That belief, in itself nowadays, constitutes a dividing line politically. The novel goes to some lengths to account for the human need for at least the appearance of some degree of control and predictability over one’s life and that this can require much denial and deception of others and, more importantly, of self.
The tension between this human need for security and its ultimate un-attainability is a major, if subtle, theme of this book. Also treated at some length is the skewed and variable co-existence of mere appearance and actual reality - another topic with great relevance to today, especially among those whose learned-in-puclic-school hubris requires them to “change the world”. Such elevated, obsessive, compulsive undertakings license them - so they believe - to ignore mundane stuff like acquiring knowledge or skills - even those basic skills necessary for survival. Even the assertion that there exists an objective reality (as opposed to “my truth) is to place one on one extreme of the political spectrum.
Much of the philosophy and character apologia mentioned above are, today, already irrelevant - having been completely, shockingly overtaken by history. To the extent such issues still exist, they are mere rear-guard skirmishes. The war is over; the forces of good have been decimated. I believe American Pastoral is an accurate microcosm, a deconstruction or reductionist showing of offshore swells of the 60’s which crested and swamped the shoreline as a tidal wave after the millennium - sweeping away all structure, no matter how carefully constructed or at what cost in blood and treasure.
Roth, himself, sums it up - the absurdity of the collapse of what were once decent American family lives which summed up or integrated, if you will, into a decent, self-critical, ever-improving society. That was before we were subjected to the concerted, cynical, intentionally-divisive, reductionist deconstruction which has succeeded at dis-integration of the promise of what was once, indeed, a pastoral America. In Roth’s words:
“Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without condemning and rejecting their life!
And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”