Philip Roth and the Great American Nightmare

By Samuel G. Freedman

Jewish fear is only part of the story.

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n 1959, very early in his literary career, Philip Roth wrote a short story entitled “Eli, the Fanatic.” At the outset of the tale, nothing is fanatical about Eli, except his desire to fit in. He has ridden a law degree and the wave of postwar prosperity from working-class Newark into a leafy suburb up the slope of the Watchung Hills—the sort of suburb, the reader understands, that had barred Jews with restrictive covenants on home sales until the revelation of the Holocaust discredited the formal structures of American anti-Semitism. Even so, Eli feels that his station there is vulnerable. So when two survivors, one of them Hasidic, open a yeshiva out of a ramshackle home in what is supposed to be a residential neighborhood, Eli fears that their oddity will undermine his fragile new niche. He instructs the men in the importance of obeying zoning laws, and, when that doesn’t work, gives the Hasid one of his own business suits so that, at the very least, the stranger won’t attract quite so many stares as he walks down Main Street. In a final plot twist, the Hasid leaves a set of his own black garb on Eli’s porch. Eli, inexplicably drawn to it, puts on the clothes, whereupon he is committed to a lunatic asylum.
Nothing in Roth’s vast oeuvre serves as a more appropriate companion volume to his latest novel, The Plot Against America, than does “Eli, the Fanatic.” While his new book functions as tragedy (or at least near-tragedy), and the short story as farce, and while one is grand in its historical sweep and the other narrowly cast, both works of fiction examine the anxiety of the American Jew: The fear that every hard-won advancement, every material and social comfort—indeed, every sign of genuine acceptance in this overwhelmingly Christian nation—can be wiped away with shocking suddenness. As Roth writes in the very first sentence of The Plot Against America, “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.”
That fixation on fear, a fear distinctly at odds with the reality of contemporary America, explains the phenomenon, both cultural and commercial, of Roth’s novel. In a nation largely disinclined to read serious literature except when clothed in Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, The Plot Against America spent sixteen weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Indeed, more than merely penetrating the marketplace, the book informed the public discussion. These reactions have not greeted any of Roth’s novels in the nearly thirty years since Portnoy’s Complaint, his taboo-shattering reverie about liver, masturbation, and Jewish mothers, among other authorial obsessions. Even while the superb trilogy of novels that preceded, and in many ways anticipated, The Plot Against AmericaAmerican Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain—won Roth admiring reviews and major awards, they all garnered relatively modest sales.
Something other than literary excellence, then, has propelled the current juggernaut. Some critics attribute the book’s impact to a concern among Americans, and especially Jews, about the emergence of jihadist terrorism around the world. Others contend that the book serves as a deft and devastating parable of the America led by George W. Bush, who in their view is simultaneously an intolerant boob and a cunning, nascent dictator. While these two arguments have merit, I nonetheless think both miss the essential point. Whether by intent or accident, Roth’s novel speaks to a fundamental part of the American Jewish psyche: Insecurity. That the degree of insecurity in 2005 America bears virtually no relation to the actual degree of threat there does nothing to diminish the emotion’s salience.

Samuel G. Freedman teaches at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. His book Jew Versus Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (Simon & Schuster, 2000) won the National Jewish Book Award.


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