I was very grateful to an undegraduate student in my American Judaism class at Syracuse. It took some courage for him to confess before the entire group on the second class meeting that he was well into the fifteenth page or so when he realized that something was terribly awry. FDR did not lose the election to Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 presidential election, and Philip Roth’s Plot Against America is not an autobiography. Roth’s 2004 novel about America going Nazi was item #1 on this year’s American Judaism undergraduate syllabus. Usually I start chronologically with Abraham Cahan and the East European immigrant experience, before marching forward historically into the 1920s and onward.
Given the election of Trump, I wanted to start with Roth’s novel. In class, we emphasized the relation between fact and fiction, reality and appearance in Roth’s work as a larger rubric with which to understand the Jewish experience in America. Class conversation weaved back and forth between the novel, set in the 1940s, and 2016, between the fictional election of Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi sympathizer, and the election Donald Trump, whose campaign consorted with neo-Nazis. In Roth’s novels, the lines between fact and fiction are crossed by confusion, fear, and rage. For older readers more familiar with history, these disorienting lines are more or less clear; for younger readers, the difference between historical fact and fancy is much less apparent.
Near the end of class, I drew attention to the way Roth uses personal names and place names to create a sense of America and American Jewish life. Scattered throughout the novel, these include Alvin, Amelia Earhart, Aunt Evelyn, Bess, Bnai Jeshurun, Brandeis, Bullet Apfelbaum, Coughlin, Edison, Eleanor, Essex County, FDR, Har Zion, Jefferson County, Kentucky, kike, Kurowski, LaGuardia, Leo Frank, Lincoln, Lindbergh, Maplewood, Metropolitan Life, Manhattan, Morgenthau, Mount Vernon, Pearl Buck, PTA. Seldon, Scranton, Summit, Uncle Monty, Weequahic, West Virginia, Winchell, Washington. There is a magical realism evoked, in particular, by the place names. Very real in time and place, they tickle the imagination. Place names, especially those that are local and familiar, take on mythic meanings. As a literary strategy, the evocation of names goes back to at least Walt Whitman, itself another name in that American litany. We see this strategy of place naming alive and well in American folk music and popular music traditions well up through the 1980s.
With fact and fantasy blended together, it was at that I pointed our conversation to the terrible vision of America revealed in the nightmare scene at the end of chapter 2. There we are introduced to another set of iconic names, these less local to the eastern seaboard: Yosemite, Acadia, Mesa Verde, Zion, Grand Canyon, Mount Ranier, Great Smoky Mountains, Glacier. In the nightmare, the portraits of “George Washington” commemorated by the stamps in the young protagonist’s collection are replaced with the “Hitler,” while the folksy iconic scenes drawn from the sublime landscape tradition decorating the young protagonist’s collection of the 1932 commemorative stamps of the American National Parks are disfigured by the imposition by a printed black swastika.
Lost on no one was the connection between those imaginary swastikas in the frightening dreamscape of Roth’s fiction and the ones, very real, now dotting American landscapes, social media, and the discourse at large –also in light of the bomb threat called in just the day before at the local Syracuse JCC outside our window not too many miles away.