- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

From the lost suburban paradise mourned in “American Pastoral” to hollow halls of a degraded academe in “The Human Stain,” Philip Roth’s recent novels have pondered the trajectory of mid-20th-century American history. Although some critics have contrived to find in these two impressive books and the much weaker one published between them, “I Married a Communist,” a grand epic trilogy, it detracts nothing from Mr. Roth’s achievement to note that the novels in question are not cut from the same cloth and differ from one another in ambition, quality, style, and scope.

Mr. Roth’s new novel, “The Plot Against America,” is neither as momentous as “American Pastoral” nor as richly inventive as “The Human Stain.” Mr. Roth’s aim here is more limited: He has set himself a task, an elaborate game of what-if, played out in the parallel universe of “alter-histoire.” What if the wildly popular aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, an outspoken isolationist decorated by the Nazis, had been elected U.S. president in 1940?

It’s certainly a provocative idea, and Mr. Roth has succeeded most brilliantly, not only in extrapolating a plausible sequence of historical events from his hypothetical premise, but also in creating a realistic portrait of how this turn of events might have affected an ordinary, lower-middle-class Newark, N.J. Jewish family: his own.

Reading here of Lindbergh’s successful campaign against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one can only feel retrospectively grateful that the real-life Lone Eagle turned down the opportunity to run. As Mr. Roth shows, Lindbergh’s iconic status as a national hero, his laconic, unassuming style, and his simplistic outlook make him well-nigh irresistible to the majority of his fellow countrymen.

“My intention in running for the presidency,” he tells cheering crowds, “is to preserve American democracy by preventing America from taking part in another world war. Your choice is simple. It’s not between Charles A. Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s between Lindbergh and war.” (One can’t help recalling Winston Churchill’s bitter judgment on his countrymen at the time of the Munich Agreement in 1938: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”)

Almost everyone seems to love the new president, who flies everywhere in his own little plane, unaccompanied by Secret Service men. Nor do most folks seem perturbed by the fact that their new president signs peace accords giving the green light to Adolf Hitler and Emperor Hirohito. The only people who don’t seem to share in the general euphoria are the Jews — and not even all of them. Some, like the character Philip’s vivacious Aunt Evelyn and her fiance, the pompous, glibly ingratiating Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, are proud to count themselves Lindbergh supporters.

“I have encountered considerable hostility from members of the Jewish community for allying myself in the 1940 election with the Lindbergh campaign,” Bengelsdorf remarks. “But I have been sustained by my abhorrence of war.” Not so Philip’s father, Herman, a hard-working insurance salesman, who is so galvanized by his “sense of an impending disaster” as to forget his usual awe of Bengelsdorf’s superior erudition and give the rabbi a piece of his mind:

“Hitler is not business as usual, Rabbi! This madman is not making a war from a thousand years ago. He is making a war such as no one has ever seen on this planet. He has conquered Europe. He is at war with Russia. Every night he bombs London into rubble and kills hundreds of innocent British citizens. He is the worst anti-Semite in history.

“And yet his great friend our president takes him at his word when Hitler tells him they have an ‘understanding.’ Hitler had an understanding with the Russians. Did he keep it? He had an understanding with Chamberlain. Did he keep it? Hitler’s goal is to conquer the world, and that includes the United States of America.”

Unlike Bengelsdorf, who becomes a “personal friend” of the Lindberghs and (a nice touch) even has discussions about ethics with first lady Anne, the fictional Roths and their neighbors feel as if their world has been turned upside down. They don’t know what to expect next. Anxiously, they keep seeking to reassure themselves that this is still the America they know and love.

After all, there is still a free press, where columnists like Dorothy Thompson and Walter Winchell speak out against Hitler and the new administration’s chummy relationship with him. The feisty former Broadway vaudevillian Winchell, a living, breathing embodiment of the anti-Semitic stereotype of the vulgar, “loud-mouthed” Jew, becomes a major player in the novel, serving as a contrast and counterweight to the decorous, platitudinous, pure-as-Ivory-soap Lindbergh.

America may not be Germany, as the Roths and their neighbors keep reminding themselves, but they can’t help feeling singled out and increasingly vulnerable. The administration inaugurates a program, winsomely entitled “Just Folks,” that gives urban Jewish youngsters the opportunity to spend a summer with farming families in America’s heartland. (Participation, while not required, is strongly encouraged.) Philip’s older brother, Sandy, is interested.

His father is appalled, “maintaining that Just Folks was just the first step in a Lindbergh plan to separate Jewish children from their parents, to erode the solidarity of the Jewish family.” Certainly, the Roth family is being torn apart, with Aunt Evelyn dining at the White House with Joachim von Ribbentrop, Cousin Alvin going to Canada to join the armed forces in the fight against Hitler, and Sandy off to Kentucky, where he seems to be having the time of his life milking cows, weeding corn, and enjoying farm-raised pork chops.

It would be a pity to divulge any more of the novel’s ingenious, surprising, yet surprisingly convincing plot, so suffice it to say that things — for the Roth family and for America — grow a great deal darker before light finally appears at the end of the tunnel.

What’s not surprising is that — despite Mr. Roth’s avowal that he did not intend his novel to be read as an allegory of the current political scene — readers seem inclined to do just that, finding parallels between the Lindbergh administration and the one now in office. And it is just as possible, from another perspective, to see Lindbergh and his fellow isolationists as epitomes of the anti-war movement.

Although inventing a history that never happened is the kind of project generally classified as a wild idea, if one were looking for a single word to characterize Mr. Roth’s enterprise here, that word, strangely enough, would be responsibility. It is evident, first of all, in his treatment of the historical figures — not, of course, in terms of what he has happen to them (FDR was not defeated in 1940, Walter Winchell never ran for political office), but in terms of their attitudes and personalities.

The actions they take under these fictional circumstances are in keeping with their real-life characters; better than that, the actions and fates Mr. Roth has invented for them often seem the apotheosis of their real-life characters. A case in point is the sinister role Mr. Roth invents for Lindbergh’s vice president, Burton K. Wheeler, a one-time Democrat and isolationist from Montana, who in real life turned against the principles he originally fought for.

Wheeler, Winchell, the Lindberghs, Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, Fiorello La Guardia: In a 25-page postscript, Mr. Roth — responsibly — enables readers to distinguish history from fiction by giving us accurate accounts of the historical personages and events that figure in his novel, along with a transcript of a speech delivered by Lindbergh in 1941.

Indeed, responsibility is the defining quality of the characters whom this novel presents as the most admirable, notably Roth’s parents, and most particularly, his mother, Bess. The real horror and anguish of times such as these is that even someone as resourceful and caring as she can end up blaming herself for making wrong choices, when, in fact, there were no clear indications of how or what to choose.

“One could do nothing right without also doing something wrong, so wrong, in fact, that especially where chaos reigned and everything was at stake, one might be better off to wait and do nothing — except that to do nothing was also to do something … in such circumstances to do nothing was to do quite a lot — and that even for the mother who performed each day in methodical opposition to life’s unruly flux, there was no system for managing so sinister a mess.”

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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