Philip Roth’s American Pastoral

Philip Roth passed away late last month, some six years after officially retiring from fiction writing, and the deluge of tributes and commentary, reflections and reminiscences, give some indication of what his life meant for American letters. America in the latter half of the 20th century belonged to Roth as surely as the first half belonged to Steinbeck or Faulkner: he was simultaneously its chronicler and its critic. My own, modest tribute to one of my favourite writers involved dropping everything else I was reading to work my way through American Pastoral, one of his most acclaimed novels, published at the close of the 20th century but encompassing both the post-war optimism of the 1950s and the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s. The premise is an interesting one, involving an imaginative feat: Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s alter ego, attends the 45th reunion of his New Jersey high school, where he learns that his school’s most famous athlete, five years his senior, Seymour “Swede” Levov, has recently passed away. Seymour’s younger brother, a classmate of Nathan’s, shares the family secret: the man all of New Jersey regarded as blessed by the gods themselves – good looks; an accomplished athlete in football, basketball and baseball; married to Miss New Jersey – was also the father of a teenage revolutionary, a daughter who blew up her local post office, accidentally killing the town doctor, in a Weather Underground-style protest against the Vietnam War. Intrigued, Zuckerman sets about recreating Seymour’s life, trying to discover how someone so enviably successful, the poster child for the American dream, could produce a child who would rebel so violently against the “American pastoral,” the peculiarly American brand of affluence and ease into which she is born.

Though he will recede into the background, Nathan Zuckerman is this story’s narrator, and the diligent reader should keep that in mind, for the protagonist, Seymour Levov, is a man Zuckerman only really knew in high school, and through two brief subsequent meetings. They do, however, share a great deal in common, beginning with their Jewish upbringing in Newark, New Jersey during the War years.

Despite the undercurrent of anxiety – a sense communicated daily that hardship was a persistent menace that only persistent diligence could hope to keep at bay; despite a generalized mistrust of the Gentile world; despite the fear of being battered that clung to many families because of the Depression – ours was not a neighborhood steeped in darkness. The place was bright with industriousness. There was a big belief in life and we were steered relentlessly in the direction of success: a better existence was going to be ours. The goal was to have goals, the aim to have aims. This edict came entangled often in hysteria, the embattled hysteria of those whom experience had taught how little antagonism it takes to wreck a life beyond repair. Yet it was this edict – emotionally overloaded as it was by the uncertainty in our elders, by their awareness of all that was in league against them – that made the neighborhood a cohesive place. A whole community perpetually imploring us not to immoderate and screw up, imploring us to grasp opportunity, exploit our advantages, remember what matters.

Behind vague word and phrases like “hardship” and “mistrust” and “the fear of being battered” are historical realities Roth can invoke without naming: the persistent anti-semitism of America and Europe; the pogroms that many of these families immigrated to America to escape; the economic oblivion experienced by so many during the Great Depression. Of course a neighborhood of people shaped by these experiences would push its children to succeed, and Seymour Levov embraced these ideals with uncritical enthusiasm. Again and again, Zuckerman will refer to Seymour as “obedient,” the dutiful son acting out a life script handed down to him from his family and community. “How could he, with all his carefully calibrated goodness, have known that the stakes of living obediently were so high? Obedience is embraced to lower the stakes.” Zuckerman describes Seymour’s life as “the tragedy of a man not set up for tragedy.” When his own daughter becomes, simultaneously, a young revolutionary and a murderer, she shatters forever the easygoing air of confidence and self-assurance with which he had lived his life; she “transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.”

There is an obvious allegory here, screaming at us from the pages: that just as Merry, Seymour Levov’s daughter, shatters his innocence by violently protesting the Vietnam war, that same war – broadcast, for the first time, on television sets across the country – shattered America’s innocence, its often maddening conviction in its own moral rectitude. Images of body bags and coffins draped with flags, of Vietnamese villagers slaughtered, and whole forests burned, reports of young men damaged, physically and mentally, beyond repair – how could these fail to shock a country that had not seen conflict on its own territory since the Civil War? And yet Roth also cuts across this reading, giving indication that Merry’s activism is shallow and self-centred – more an expression of her own anger than any real righteous conviction or rational assessment of how to achieve change. Her rage against the American machine will claim three more lives, before she converts to Jainism, an Eastern religion of such extreme non-violence that its adherents sift everything they drink, so as not to harm any small insects. Jainism, it seems, offers another opportunity for moral superiority, but Seymour has grown wise to her game, and after she delivers her rote description of her newfound faith, we get this marvelous synopsis of the captive mind:

The monotonous chant of the indoctrinated, ideologically armoured from head to foot – the monotonous, spellbound chant of those whose turbulence can be caged only within the suffocating straitjacket of the most supercoherent of dreams. What was missing from her words was not the sanctity of life – missing was the sound of life.

So how does the American pastoral produce the American berserk? How does the obedient husband and father produce a murdering revolutionary? If this is the novel’s central preoccupation, Roth gives us much more to consider: the gradual degradation of Newark, from a prosperous immigrant community, invested in its own development, into a slum of crime and neglect; the collapse of a marriage in response to a family tragedy; and, that most Rothian of themes, the difficulties of being Jewish in America.

Roth is no longer with us, an irreplaceable loss by any metric, but we will go on reading him all the same, in the never-ending quest to make sense of ourselves. And what better praise could we give him?