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The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

The Plot Against America (original 2004; edition 2005)

by Philip Roth

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7,132159773 (3.72)393
Title:The Plot Against America
Authors:Philip Roth
Info:Vintage (2005), Paperback, 391 pages
Collections:Your library

Work details

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (2004)

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In 2004 Philip Roth, having twice won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer among many others, published an alternate historical novel starring none other than himself and his family. Set in Newark, New Jersey as were several of his earlier novels, including American Pastoral, this genre was a departure for the author. It is an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by Charles Lindbergh. The novel follows the fortunes of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency, as antisemitism becomes more accepted in American life and Jewish-American families like the Roths are persecuted on various levels. Roth based his novel on the isolationist ideas espoused by Lindbergh in real life as a spokesman for the America First Committee, and on his own experiences growing up in Newark, New Jersey.

In Roth's story, as the decade of the thirties nears its end, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that, rather than Wendell Wilkie, the Republican Party nominates Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. Surprising many, especially concerning 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.

A nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events centering on the Roth family -- his father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy. They and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by the election 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. They are instead sent to a hotel that will accept Jews. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs.

Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes in the growing danger. 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, presumably promoting their assimilation into the American mainstream. After years of working for an insurance company in Newark, Herman Roth is reassigned to Danville, Kentucky under this plan, but rather than accept the assignment, he resigns and goes to work instead for his brother’s produce business. Sandy Roth, meanwhile, is enticed into a program called “Just Folks,” another attempt to foster Jewish assimilation, and spends the summer on a farm in Kentucky with a typical “American” family. He comes back with a southern accent and views quite opposed to those of his father. A neighbor’s family, the Wishnows, is forced to accept the reassignment and also goes to Danville, Kentucky. Later, Mrs. Wishnow is killed in a violent attack against Jews as she tries to drive home one night.

The novel includes several noted historical characters: Father Coughlin, the extremist Catholic priest who fulminates against Jews; Walter Winchell, the Jewish newspaper reporter and media celebrity whose Sunday night radio broadcasts the Roth family and their friends dutifully listen to each week, and who at one point runs for president against Lindbergh, only to be assassinated for his efforts; the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is honored by a state dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Lindbergh; Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, who is an eloquent spokesperson and a champion of civil rights; and many others. The picture of the United States under the Lindbergh administration is a very grim, even terrifying one. Although Roth insists he intended no allusion to politics in the twenty-first century, his novel clearly posts a warning for what might happen should American civil liberties suffer increased depredations.

Roth even brings into The Plot Against America the notorious kidnapping case of the 1930’s, in which the Lindberghs’ infant son was stolen. In his imagined reconstruction of events, the baby is not killed (as he was in actual fact) but taken by the Nazis and brought up in Germany as a good member of the Hitler Jugend. Events at the end of the novel culminate with the disappearance of Lindbergh himself and subsequent anti-Jewish riots in many cities across the United States in which 122 Jews lose their lives. Lindbergh, however, has not been kidnapped but has fled to Germany, using the Spirit of St. Louis for his escape, and is never seen again. Eventually, law and order are restored (thanks in part to the efforts of Mrs. Lindbergh), the Democrats take over Congress, and Roosevelt wins his unprecedented third term as president.

Using young Philip as narrator and central character in the novel gives it a compelling perspective. The care with which his confusion and terror are rendered makes the novel as much about the mysteries of growing up as about American politics. I thought the narrative presented a realistic portrayal of the fears, both psychological and physical, of the close-knit Jewish community. However the themes of confusion and a fear in the face of the growing evil in Europe heightened by the isolation and change within America are universal as they mirrored similar feelings during our own very real history of Cold War and subsequent events. This is a very good novel from the pen of one of the great literary lions of our lifetime. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 20, 2018 |
There was extensive coverage of the death a few weeks ago of Philip Roth who was widely feted as one of the greatest American novelists of his generation. Nearly twenty years ago I read, and enjoyed, I Married a Communist, but had struggled to finish any of his other books. Since his death I have read books from either end of his lengthy career: Portnoy’s Complaint, his first major success, and now The Plot Against America, one of his last novels.

I found Portnoy’s Complaint utterly unappealing, and frankly embarrassing: one of the most distasteful and disappointing books I have read. The Plot Against America is cut from entirely different cloth – an assured and imaginative novel from an established writer still completely in command of his powers. It also has a particularly strong poignancy just now.

The novel offers an alternative history in which in 1940, having experienced the extremes of the huge success of his first solo flight across the Atlantic, and then the tragedy of the kidnap and then death of his infant son, celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh enters domestic politics. Having already raised eyebrows by his apparent praise for Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, he makes a series of injudicious comments that are increasingly anti-Semitic in nature. As the Republican Party struggles to find a candidate who could feasibly stand against the incumbent, President Roosevelt, Lindbergh enters the fray, and romps away with the nomination. While the electorate looks on in disbelief, his campaign on an American isolationist platform at a time when Roosevelt was clearly veering towards entering the war in Europe starts to gain traction. Come November, in a devastating turnaround, he wins the Presidency.

This is all recounted through the eyes of Roth himself, who was seven years old in 1940 and living in a Jewish community in New Jersey. As Lindbergh reveals his own anti-Semitism, and then advances in the opinion polls, the community grows increasingly alarmed, yet still can’t believe that he could possibly win. Roth captures the growing disbelief and paranoia very acutely.

Of course, there are strong parallels between the rise of Lindbergh, an ‘amateur’ politician with no experience in government, offering divisive and isolationist policies, and ‘stealing’ an election against what appeared to be a better experienced ‘insider’ from the establishment, and the election of Donald Trump. It also reminded me closely of Sinclair Lewis’s equally prescient 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

Its resonances were not, however, restricted to America. The British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been riven over the last few months by constant allegations of anti-Semitism, and counter claims that these are backed by pro-Zionist factions within the party. Of course, there is a certain irony that in Roth’s book, anti-Semitism is seen as the province of the Right, while in Britain at the moment it is so much of an issue with the Left.

But back to Roth’s book ...

While I found it interesting and clever, I just couldn’t make myself like it. It was certainly better than Portnoy’s Complaint (well, for one thing I didn’t feel I needed to take a cleansing shower after reading it), but somehow it just didn’t quite appeal to me. ( )
  Eyejaybee | Aug 26, 2018 |
This book should be as high on your TBR as [1984], [Animal Farm], [Snowball's Chance], and [Christian Nation] are already. I hope they are, anyway.

2018 UPDATE The book is going to be a miniseries! Huzzah. Now go read the article, because Philip Roth does a 45 takedown that made me guffaw in agony. {I posted the good bit below after all.}

Rating: 4* of five

In my quest for article-fodder, I reread this book. I'd forgotten how much I dislike Roth's use of "Philip Roth" as a character, it still feels like a cutesy-poo arched eyebrow and crooked little finger at a tea party given by That Cousin *pursed lips and tiny warning shakes of the head* of Your Father's.

But the election of President Lindbergh didn't so much as raise a hair in my truth-sensitive eyebrows. The slow descent into thuggish public behavior as the new norm, the collective "meh, so what" from those not affected, the disbelieving helplessness of the affected...Roth nailed it. Look around you.

Another 2018 Update: Philip Roth's *epic* takedown of 45 is below:
“However prescient ‘The Plot Against America’ might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero 13 years before I have him winning the presidency,” the author explained. “Lindbergh, historically, was the courageous young pilot who in 1927, for the first time, flew nonstop across the Atlantic, from Long Island to Paris. He did it in 33.5 hours in a single-seat, single-engine monoplane, thus making him a kind of 20th-century Leif Ericson, an aeronautical Magellan, one of the earliest beacons of the age of aviation. Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” ( )
1 vote richardderus | Jan 19, 2018 |
Philip Roth makes only small changes to history to allow anti-Semitic aviation legend Charles A. Lindbergh to displace Franklin Delano Roosevelt from the Presidency in 1940 by running an isolationist ticket against the two-term incumbent. FDR is dumped and President Lindbergh signs neutrality treaties with the Axis powers. This story is about the cascading effects of that change on American society and in particular on one particular Jewish family from Newark, and one small boy (young 'Philip Roth') in that family.

Roth uses historical figures in this fiction; they speak and act in character, but the book is not about them. It is about growing up in fear of persecution, and how it stresses and strains people with that fear, even if that fear might not be justified by external events. There is a great pot of menace, comedy, colourful characters, politics and family fighting in this book. An excellent read if you are interested in depresssion-era or wartime USA or alternative history. It also has a really fascinating postscript which describes the actual history of the characters. Truth is stranger than fiction! ( )
1 vote questbird | Mar 22, 2017 |
An impressive novel in many ways, most of all in my opinion for the author taking himself as the main protagonist ... at the age of 9 years. You really get the feeling of that 9 year old boy looking at the adults world, beginning to understand what the "adult" troubles are but sometimes looking at them with a totally different focus.
The US get a drastic turnover when Roosevelt is not elected president in 1940 but Lindbergh is. This could have happened history is the other protagonist in the book. Father, mother and brother Roth all look differently at the political and societal evolutions, troubling the 9 year old Philip more and more.
The downside of the book is the length of it. Multiple events are first told about in a kind of stream of events, and then repeated with the 9 year old Philip wondering what just happened or reviving them from within his perspective.
This one was a tip of LT member .Monkey., it's a good read but not as powerful as [Verontwaardiging]. ( )
  Lunarreader | Feb 19, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 138 (next | show all)
Philip Roth has written a terrific political novel, though in a style his readers might never have predicted — a fable of an alternative universe, in which America has gone fascist and ordinary life has been flattened under a steamroller of national politics and mass hatreds.
added by danielx | editNew York Times, Paul Berman (Dec 29, 2014)

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Roth, Philipprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kooman, KoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Línek, JosefTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mantovani, VincenzoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zwart, JannekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0618509283, Hardcover)

"What if" scenarios are often suspect. They are sometimes thinly veiled tales of the gospel according to the author, taking on the claustrophobic air of a personal fantasia that can't be shared. Such is not the case with Philip Roth's tour de force, The Plot Against America. It is a credible, fully-realized picture of what could happen anywhere, at any time, if the right people and circumstances come together.

The Plot Against America explores a wholly imagined thesis and sees it through to the end: Charles A. Lindbergh defeats FDR for the Presidency in 1940. Lindbergh, the "Lone Eagle," captured the country's imagination by his solo Atlantic crossing in 1927 in the monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis, then had the country's sympathy upon the kidnapping and murder of his young son. He was a true American hero: brave, modest, handsome, a patriot. According to some reliable sources, he was also a rabid isolationist, Nazi sympathizer, and a crypto-fascist. It is these latter attributes of Lindbergh that inform the novel.

The story is framed in Roth's own family history: the family flat in Weequahic, the neighbors, his parents, Bess and Herman, his brother, Sandy and seven-year-old Philip. Jewishness is always the scrim through which Roth examines American contemporary culture. His detractors say that he sees persecution everywhere, that he is vigilant in "Keeping faith with the certainty of Jewish travail"; his less severe critics might cavil about his portrayal of Jewish mothers and his sexual obsession, but generally give him good marks, and his fans read every word he writes and heap honors upon him. This novel will engage and satisfy every camp.

"Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course, no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews." This is the opening paragraph of the book, which sets the stage and tone for all that follows. Fear is palpable throughout; fear of things both real and imagined. A central event of the novel is the relocation effort made through the Office of American Absorption, a government program whereby Jews would be placed, family by family, across the nation, thereby breaking up their neighborhoods--ghettos--and removing them from each other and from any kind of ethnic solidarity. The impact this edict has on Philip and all around him is horrific and life-changing. Throughout the novel, Roth interweaves historical names such as Walter Winchell, who tries to run against Lindbergh. The twist at the end is more than surprising--it is positively ingenious.

Roth has written a magnificent novel, arguably his best work in a long time. It is tempting to equate his scenario with current events, but resist, resist. Of course it is a cautionary tale, but, beyond that, it is a contribution to American letters by a man working at the top of his powers. --Valerie Ryan

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:38 -0400)

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In a novel of alternative history, aviation hero Charles A. Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, negotiating an accord with Adolf Hitler and accepting his conquest of Europe and anti-Semitic policies.

(summary from another edition)

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