Reading Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ in the age of Trump

“But why did you go,” my mother asked him, “when it was bound to upset you like this?”

“I went,” he told her, “because every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country. If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”

While this may sound like someone reacting to another surreal and disturbing moment in the loony Trump presidency, for example the January 6 storming of the Capitol Building in Washington by far right extremists, it is in fact an extract from Philip Roth’s 2004 novel ‘The Plot Against America’.

The people “in charge” are the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his far-right cronies in the Republican party, who in Roth’s re-imagining of American history, have swept to power in 1940 (defeating FDR) on a promise of keeping the country out of the War in Europe (“Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war” is their slogan) and maintaining cordial relations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

Roth tells the story of a Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as they adjust – with increasing fear – to life under the anti-semitic policies of a populist leader amid the darkening perceptions of Jews in mainstream American life.

As with many of his books, Roth used his own family as the model for the fictional one in the novel.

He tells the story from the remembered perspective of his seven-year-old self living in a tidy second-floor flat in the “southwest corner of New Jersey’s largest city” which he shares with his father Herman, a hardworking insurance salesman, his loving mother Bess and his willful 12-year-old brother Stanley.

“Our homeland was America.

Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed,” narrates Philip.

Soon after newly inaugurated President Lindbergh has flown to Iceland to meet Adolf Hitler and sign an agreement of peaceful relations between America and Germany, the Roth family take a long-planned holiday to Washington DC to prove to their children that America is not a fascist country, despite who is in office.

But things soon turns sinister when after returning to their hotel from a day’s sightseeing, the Roth’s find their bags packed and lined up in the hotel foyer, because the room they have booked is no longer available.

“Dear, let’s just go,” she (Philip’s mother)  beseeched my father. “Mr Taylor [the Roth’s tour guide] found us a room nearby.”

No!” my father cried and he threw off the hand with which she tried to snatch his  arm. “This policeman knows why we were evicted. He knows, the manager knows, everybody in this lobby knows.”

Later on in the trip there is an ugly incident in a Washington café involving  another diner, who refers to Walter Winchell, the famed New York columnist and radio journalist – a central character in the novel who uses his public platform to denounce Lindbergh – as a “loudmouth Jew with too much power”

“Loudmouth Jew. And for the second time in less than forty-eight hours,” Roth’s young narrator remarks.

Philip Roth, an American literary giant

Philip Roth says he got the inspiration for the book from a line he read in historian Arthur J Schlesinger’s (no relation) book ‘A Life in the 20th Century’ about the isolationist wing of the Republican Party who wanted to nominate Charles Lindbergh as the 1940 presidential candidate.

“It made me think, ‘What if they had?’ and I wrote the question in the margin. Between writing down that question and the fully evolved book there were three years of work, but that’s how the idea came to me,” Roth said in a September 2004 essay he wrote in the New York Times.

He said in a separate NYT interview in 2004 that Lindbergh’s name was “loaded” because he was a hero to the entire world for his record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic from Long Island to Paris.

“Then in the late 1930s he ceased being a hero in our household because he began to seem like an anti-semite. His diaries….show that he was essentially a white supremecist. Jews were distatestful to him. They were inferior to him,” Roth said.

After the family returns from Washington, Lindbergh’s newly created sinister Office of American Absorption (OAA) creates a program called “Just Folks” designed to get young Jews to work in rural farming areas. The Roth’s elder son Sandy, a gifted artist, signs up and goes to work in Kentucky where he can “live on a farm…draw all the things there. Tractors. Barns. Animals. All kinds of animals”.

To Sandy, who hides a sketch of Charles Lindbergh in his portfolio under his bed, the farm experience is idyllic. But to Herman Roth, Just Folks is merely an anti-Semitic plot to separate Jewish boys from their families.

Herman sees everything the Lindbergh administration does in its true light. This puts him at war with his eldest son and his naive sister-in-law Evelyn, who is engaged to be married to Newark’s conservative Jewish leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.

It is Bengelsdorf, who endorsed Lindbergh at campaign rallies, that helped legitimise the aviator’s anti-war and anti-semitic rhetoric that swept him to power in a landslide. Bengelsdorf is then appointed as executive director of the OAA.

Like Sandy, Evelyn refuses to believe Lindbergh has evil intentions against the Jews because her husband-to-be is part of his administration. She calls her brother-in-law Herman “another Jew afraid of his shadow”.

Telling the story of America’s rapid decline under Lindbegh, Roth brilliantly weaves in reimagined historical events and real political figures of the times into the story including, most chillingly, a state visit to the White House by Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (executed in 1946).

Evelyn attends as the partner of Rabbi Bengelsdorf  where she dances with Von Ribbentrop, appearing in news reel footage that Philip watches when he sneaks into the neighbourhood cinema.

“I found him a very charming gentleman and highly intelligent….” says Evelyn of her Nazi dancing companion.

While reading the novel, amid the November presidential election and all its craziness, I could not help think about Donald Trump, a populist and far right sympathiser who unlike Lindbergh did become US president and whose four years in office were marked by chaos and a rapid disintegration of American democratic values. Many have called Trump a dictator.

It also made think of all my fellow Jews around the world, especially in America, who supported President Trump because he is a so-called friend of Israel (that is the most common explanation I hear). However, they conveniently brush aside or willfully forget that Trump has been a strong supporter of the far right white supremacist movement, which is no friend of the Jews.

Poster for the HBO miniseries.

Perhaps they would identify with Roth’s brilliant creation Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who in his pursuit of power, stoops so low as to dine with Lindbergh’s Nazi friends.

In an interview with the New York Times in January 2018 – a few months before he passed away aged 85 – Roth said that while Charles Lindbergh may have been a genuine racist and anti-semite, he was also because of his flying feats a “genuine American hero”

“Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac, “ says Roth.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Plot Against America is a riveting historical novel that will surely resonate with readers in the post-Trump age as we ponder who might be the next popular figure to make a claim for the White House on a platform of lies and disinformation.

Philip Roth said in the same 2004 NYT essay that because the events he depicted in his novel did not happen in America despite many seeds for them occurring being present (other virulent and influential anti-semites at the time of Lindbergh included carmaker Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose Jew-hating radio show was broadcast to tens of millions), it shows how “how lucky we Americans are”.

While Joe Biden has promised to restore America’s democratic values, that luck may have run out.

(Footnote: The Plot Against America has been made into an HBO miniseries by David Simon, the creator of The Wire (one of the best TV shows of all time).

It stars among others Winona Ryder as Evelyn Finkel and the great John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – I am eager to see it.)

Inside a mental breakdown: Re-reading ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

the-bell-jarThe Bell Jar is the only novel written by the late, great American poet, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide aged 30 in 1963, a month after it was published.

I had read the book, which chronicles a young woman’s mental breakdown,  a long time ago, whilst living in London. Battling my own mental health issues at the time, I found it a balm against my own inner torments.

Then, recently, whilst browsing a pile of books offered for free at the local library, I came across a copy of The Bell Jar. Curious to see what kind of effect it had on me 15 years later, in a much better frame of mind, I snapped it up and re-read it – twice.

Set in the summer of 1953, it tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an attractive young writer and aspiring poet (the fictional version of Sylvia Plath) from the quiet suburbs of Boston who finds herself – for the first time – in the Big Apple. Esther is there because she, along with a host of other bright, young girls, has won a writing competition to spend a month working for New York fashion magazine,  Ladies Day.

Written in the first person, in the confessional style of a diarist, Esther begins:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York

Esther knows something is wrong, because instead of having the “time of her life’ amid the glamorous lifestyle of lavish lunches, movie premiers and photo shoots with her new, excitable friends, she’s thinking about  Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple accused of spying for the Soviet Union and who were executed for treason in June 1953.

Esther’s already fragile state of mind grows increasingly more cynical and gloomier during her stay in Manhattan as she encounters situations and people that frighten, disappoint and disorientate her: a wild night out with her rebellious friend Doreen ends up with Esther feeling like the “only extra person in the room”, a lunch where she deliberately over indulges on caviar ends with Esther suffering an awful bout of food poisoning while her plan to seduce the kindly United Nations simultaneous interpreter Constantin, ends in failure.  Then, on her last night in the city, she is viciously attacked at a country club by her date and narrowly avoids being raped.

Staring out the window of her hotel room at the “weird, green, Martian Honeycomb” shaped United Nations building on her last night, Esther muses:

The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

She goes on to say…

The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not been there at all, for all the good it did me.

Esther’s poetic narration reminded me of Holden Caufield, the rebellious anti-hero of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, who wandered around Manhattan calling out all the ‘phoneys’ in the world. Esther, like Holden Caufield, can spot a phoney a mile away and she finds nothing inspiring in the glitz and glamour of Manhattan life.

The day after Esther is nearly raped at the country club, she takes the train home, her face covered in claw marks. This marks the start of second part of the book: Esther’s return to the outer suburbs of Boston and her mother’s house.

Here the ‘Bell Jar’ starts to descend over her after she hears she has not been accepted into a summer creative writing program.

I sank back in the grey, plush seat and closed my eyes. The air of the bell jar wadded around me and I couldn’t stir.

The Bell Jar – a vessel used in scientific laboratories to form and contain a vacuum – is the way Esther visualizes her suffocating depression as a physical barrier that traps and holds her swirling, darkening cloud of suicidal thought, with no means of escape.

The shape of the Bell Jar is also mirrored in Esther’s aborted suicide attempt, when she tries to sink under the ocean whilst swimming to a rock far out to sea ,and then later  when she hides herself in an alcove underneath her mother’s house and takes an overdose of slipping pills.

Miraculously Esther survives, but ends up in successive psychiatric hospitals,where she undergoes electroshock therapy, a treatment she describes in all its clinical detail, evoking through her poetic imagery, the horror of the experience:

There was a brief silence, like an indrawn breath.

Then something bent down and took hold of me and shook me like the end of the world. Whe-ee-ee-ee-ee, it shrilled through an air crackling with blue light, and with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.

I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done.

While this may seem like a demoralising book to wade through from start to finish, it has the strange, reverse effect of being life- affirming.

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Sylvia Plath

This I put down to the brilliance of Plath’s writing, which is full of the powerful imagery that made her poetry so magnetic and Plath’s ability to draw deeply from the well of her own personal experiences of dealing with severe depression to bring Esther’s mental state so vividly to life.

Few writers have given us such access to the inner workings of the young, intellectual mind, brilliant and yet so vulnerable to collapse as through the character of Esther Greenwood.

The truth is that just about everyone is susceptible to losing their mental footing, to slipping into despair, to doubting their own cognitive faculties.

It is of course a profound tragedy though that writing the book did not provide enough of a cathartic experience for Sylvia Plath to sustain her own will to live.