How do we make sense of these times? In one moment we’re inspired by the spirit of cooperation and sacrifice that we’re witnessing across the country. In the next we watch in stunned disbelief as an elected official suggests “lots of grandparents” have lived long enough and ought to step aside for the sake of the economy. “There are more important things than living.” What’s at work beneath the surface that could explain how a country could be so disconnected, even in the face of a pandemic that’s on track to kill more people than we’ve lost in our five wars since WWII. Who are we?
I’ve been returning to the novels of Philip Roth for understanding the underlying currents in American life that become more apparent whenever external forces, like a depression, a polarizing presidency or a pandemic, threaten our fragile affiliation. Throughout his career, Roth dove deeply into the fissures which have threatened us since our founding – race, economic and social class, immigration and “the other”, disillusionment and the loss of innocence, the failure of our national myths.
HBO recently presented a 5-part series based on Roth’s “The Plot Against America”. It was an extraordinary TV event. How far away, Roth asks, are we from electing a fascist president intent on “purifying” the culture by transforming “the other” (in this case, Jews) into “real Americans”. He imagines the defeat of Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and the presidency of Charles Lindbergh, elected amidst a fog of fear promising “America First” to the masses desperate to blame someone for their failure to fulfill the dreams to which they felt entitled. The series couldn’t be timelier.
“American Pastoral” might be our long sought “Great American Novel”. Roth’s 1940’s hero, “Swede” Levov, New Jersey’s greatest high school athlete, marries Miss New Jersey, expands a prosperous factory his father built in Newark, and ultimately moves his family to an idyllic home in the Revolutionary War-rich countryside of Morris County. He is strong, virtuous, honest, an ideal parent and husband, the very essence of Emersonian self-reliance – the triumph of capitalism and white privilege – until the 1967 Newark riots threaten his family’s legacy and his teenage daughter, protesting the Vietnam War, detonates a bomb in the local post office, killing the postmaster. The underlying tensions of race and economic / political division which had not previously affected the Swede’s life explode into his consciousness and destroy him. An American innocent brought down by … what?
In “The Human Stain” Roth explores the curse of racism on the individual, a revered college professor, and the chaos that arises when his woke administration fires him for innocently using a term during a lecture that his unlettered students took to be a racial slur. This is a situation that any number of serious writers might explore, but only a writer with the perception and audacity of Philip Roth would probe deeper into the human and national psyche. Coleman Silk, ignominiously dismissed as a racist professor, in reality is a light-skinned black man who has lived his life repressing his racial self-loathing by passing as white since his own college days.
Finally, if metaphor is not your style and you’d prefer something more concrete and topical, I suggest “Nemesis”. It chronicles the summer of 1944 in “the stifling heat of equatorial Newark” as the scourge of polio marches through the city Sherman-like, indiscriminately maiming, paralyzing, and killing its children. We were no more prepared in 1944 than we are in 2020.
It’s difficult to take the measure of an historical moment as we’re living it. We must look beneath the events and the players to find the ideas, beliefs and myths that are driving history. Great artists like Philip Roth can be our guides. We need them in times like these.