Surveying Philip Roth’s Post-War America

Ann Basu discusses how Philip Roth reveals the contradictions at the heart of American identity
Ann Basu, States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth's Post-War America (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Ann Basu, States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-War America (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write States of Trial?

My imagination was lit, in particular, by the historical perspectives of Roth’s American Trilogy: American Pastoral, (1997) I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000) as well as its forerunner, Operation Shylock (1993) and a slightly later novel, The Plot Against America (2004). I became fascinated by how Roth tests narratives about both national and male identity to the point of destruction, uncovering the contradictions within concepts of American identity. Roth displays a powerful sense of conflicting historical forces impacting on personal identity, combining this with portraits of individuals tormented by contradictions in their own lives; contradictions that may both stretch and limit them. I found these major late-career novels compelling and wanted to write about them. The trial, a resonant concept in terms of American history and personal identity with its connotations of testing, suffering and also experimentation, was a good lens, I thought. It was productive for me, anyway.

Could you say something about your title?

States of Trial” is of course a play on “United States” as well as meaning the condition of being on trial: I was trying to capture Roth’s preoccupation with testing national times as well as the personal picture. I explain it in the book introduction by saying, “The word ‘states’ in the title … describes both the ongoing but changeable conditions in which individuals may find themselves and the bounded space of the figuratively embodied nation, the United States, suggesting the tension Roth shows to be inherent in his protagonists’ self-making.” My subtitle, “Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-war America” sharpens the focus to let readers know that I’m concentrating on those of his novels with a dense historical context, as well as emphasising Roth’s preoccupation with masculine identity and how that intertwines with national identity.

What is it that interests you about the work of Philip Roth?

There’s something very compelling about Roth’s American men, all striving to make and remake themselves, testing the limits of prescribed identities and convincing themselves they’re getting away with it until they’re brought to a place of judgement – and being brought down – by circumstance and their own personal failings. I can’t help but be struck by the energy in Roth’s writing which often seems to be fuelled by anger, whether it’s fury generated by social and political events, like the vindictive prurient puritanism of Ex-President Bill Clinton’s impeachers in The Human Stain, or rage apparently boiling up from his own personal life; many critics have connected I Married a Communist’s tone of betrayal with Roth’s broken marriage to Clare Bloom. Roth brilliantly channels that fierce energy into creating works of literature; and he’s a master of words, so attentive to their import. The Newark, New Jersey Jewishness of Roth’s novels gives such a strong sense of an American culture, as well; it really grounds his work. When all that’s combined with his humour and powerful dialogue not many writers can top him.

“[Roth] shows a deep awareness of his American literary heritage as represented by the nineteenth-century greats such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James.”

Where do you situate Roth within the canon of American Literature?

As I say in States of Trial, Roth seems to have always seen himself as fundamentally an American writer rather than a hyphenated American-Jewish or Jewish-American writer, and he shows a deep awareness of his American literary heritage as represented by the nineteenth-century greats such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James. Roth’s novels very much engage with and own their debt to these predecessors. Hawthorne, for example, is a strong presence in The Human Stain where Roth is critiquing the puritanical strain in American culture. At the same time, The Human Stain openly acknowledges the influence of a work by a very different writer who is contemporaneous, though senior, to Roth: Ralph Ellison whose Invisible Man resonates within Roth’s novel. And Roth’s work is also part of a stream of twentieth century writing by American Jews such as Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow which has changed the grain of the traditional American canon; Roth has testified to the influence upon him of Bellow in particular as a somewhat older contemporary whose work he greatly respects and who perhaps helped to show him the way in the literary field. Roth has been incorporating and negotiating these variegated strands of his inheritance his whole career, acknowledging while critiquing them, very consciously forming his own legacy all the while. Since the death of Bellow in particular Roth appears to have been asserting, or at least accepting from the many admirers of his work, the status of greatest living American writer. Of course, not everyone will agree with that, but the fact that Roth is one of only a very few American writers whose work has been incorporated into the Library of America during his lifetime, and his winning so many top literary awards at home and abroad (apart from the Nobel prize), has placed him deep within the 21st century American literary canon.

What interests you about Roth’s approach to manhood and masculinity?

In these later major novels I was very much struck by how inventively Roth conceives intense dramas of self-making that inevitably end in a loss of self, commentaries not only on individual Americans but also America. Roth finds multiple ways of aligning male identity with national identity while exploring and challenging the boundaries of these concepts, so that both masculine and national ‘wholesomeness’ begin to disintegrate. His all-American Jewish men become the means of prying apart fixed identities as Roth uses the historically fluid nature of Jewish identity to interrogate Americanness in a variety of ways. Roth treats his central characters as perpetual defendents, always on trial and having to prove themselves as men and as Americans. He tests a range of narratives about American male identity, undermining their cohesion, always forcing a rethink on the part of readers as to what an American man might be. In Operation Shylock, for example, he plays with the idea of the doppelganger, going as far as to make use of his own persona: he has two ‘Philip Roths’ chasing each other around, seeking but repudiating the other, both convinced that they are the genuine article! The passion, struggle and suffering unleashed by the unending processes of trial makes his best novels – which I see as being the American trilogy, The Plot Against America and Operation Shylock – unforgettable experiences.

“Roth treats his central characters as perpetual defendents, always on trial and having to prove themselves as men and as Americans.”

How would you characterise his writing style?

One of his most-praised features, which I’d also consider to be one of his best, is his feel for everyday speech and an appreciation of the power of colloquial speech; especially, but by no means only, as spoken by American Jews. It’s there in all his novels, although his earliest ones like Letting Go (1962), and When She Was Good (1967) were more subdued in that respect. By the time of his first batch of Zuckerman novels in the late 1970s and 80s those American voices are fully coming through: punchy, sharp and funny. There’s also something about the way Roth paces novels that very much relies on speech dynamics to engage readers: for example at certain points when his lead characters are tormented he’ll rev up the pace and the force of his prose and let fly with a rant against the tormentors that’s on the edge of sounding demented. Of course these tirades are very controlled and they’re usually highly effective; although for me they do occasionally tip over the edge and risk becoming tedious. He’s extremely good at the late reveal, as well: one of the best examples has to be in The Human Stain where the lead character Coleman Silk’s actual race is disclosed, more than 80 pages in. As with all the best writers, Roth’s readers would probably quickly recognise a couple of pages from one of his novels even without knowing he was the author.

What does Roth have to say about race in America?

Roth’s most direct engagement with questions of race in America is in The Human Stain where his character Coleman Silk is a black man ‘passing’ as Jewish and white; but I would say that he’s not dealing with the lived experience of being black but what ‘whiteness’ or ‘not-whiteness’ means culturally in a society like America where whiteness is privileged, using Jewishness as an ambiguous, not-quite-white identity. He’s also addressing the political connotations of race in an age of identity politics, the 1990s. And he’s finding another way of exploring how men challenge boundaries while trying to create their preferred identities, and how their endeavour unravels under pressure. Coleman, a college Dean, never reveals that he’s black, but is trapped in a state of whiteness that becomes highly negative when he’s accused of being a white racist by a black student; he finds himself boxed into an unwanted identity after all his struggles to escape another one. I think this shows that for Roth race isn’t a fixed category: he certainly doesn’t seem to view Jewishness as a racial category since his novels very much assert Jewish identities as being culturally constructed rather than given.

Why do you think his work is so difficult to adapt for the screen?

I haven’t seen any of the screen adaptations of Roth novels apart from Goodbye Columbus back in the 1970s when I’d barely heard of Philip Roth and didn’t know or care that the film was actually based on one of his short stories! I’ve avoided seeing them in more recent times because I haven’t wanted to be disappointed – and most reviews of the various adaptations have made me feel glad to have done so. Novels and films are very different creations and I suppose one medium shouldn’t be judged by the other, but having appreciated the power and complexity of a Roth novel it’s exceptionally hard to see how that could be rendered successfully on film. The impact of his stories is in the heart of the contradictions he sets up and that requires a great number of layers; almost impossible to do in two hours or so, I would think.

The 2016 US election witnessed a resurgence of interest in Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. What insights do you think Roth’s work has into the rise of populism in contemporary politics?

The Plot Against America was written and published during the administration of George W. Bush when there was deep concern about American society becoming more divided and about some groups of Americans, especially Muslims, being scapegoated and demonised. Many felt that their national political culture was being debased: that knee-jerk political responses were becoming the norm with little serious debate informing the administration’s political decisions and disinformation being spread. These fears grew particularly strong after the attacks of September 2001 and during the period of the Iraq War. Roth clearly sees profound flaws in America’s culture, such as tendencies towards paranoia and conspiratorialism, that favour populism. He shows that populism thrives in times of political crisis, creating an alternative history of the period between 1940 and 1942 in which the celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh becomes President after running on a far-right nationalistic, isolationist and anti-semitic ticket; President Lindbergh signs a neutrality pact with Hitler. America’s democratic constitution is gravely put at risk by the authoritarian-leaning Lindbergh administration in a country where paranoia and narcissism increasingly dominate. The Jewish family in the book is crushed by feeling that they are considered to be un-American by many of their fellow-citizens.

“Roth never directly refers to events contemporary to the publication of The Plot Against America in 2004, but most critics quickly drew the political and social parallels. I think many current readers would feel that potentially the parallels are even greater now, with the fledgling Trump presidency.”

Roth never directly refers to events contemporary to the publication of The Plot Against America in 2004, but most critics quickly drew the political and social parallels. I think many current readers would feel that potentially the parallels are even greater now, with the fledgling Trump presidency. I don’t think that Roth sufficiently factored in economic causes but otherwise his insights into the causes and expressions of populism are startlingly acute. Roth’s own take on the issue (voiced in an email exchange with the New Yorker as reported in the Guardian on 27th January 2017) is that The Plot Against America did not directly foreshadow Trump. Roth makes the point that the novel’s President Lindbergh, based on someone whom he calls a “genuine hero” as well as an incipient fascist, was widely different from someone like Trump, who is, in Roth’s words, “ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English”. Roth might well feel that the Trump phenomenon is yet another example of reality outdoing the writer’s imagination: a view he’s expressed several times during his career. But I’m still not at all surprised that the novel is earning another lease of life due to current events.

For newcomers to Philip Roth, can you recommend a place to start?

The novel that really turned me on to Philip Roth back when I was doing my (very belated!) MA about fifteen years ago is The Human Stain. This is the third book of Roth’s so-called American Trilogy, and it might seem strange to suggest starting with the final book of three. But The Human Stain can easily stand alone and I found Roth’s handling of its central premise – a black lead character who ‘passes’ as white – to be so gripping when set in the context of post-war American race relations from the 1940s to the Clinton era that for me the novel is Roth at his best. The other books of the trilogy cover much of the same conceptual ground but I believe that The Human Stain is the most successful rendition of that ground in terms of the effects of post-war American historical developments on ideas of male personal identity.

What’s next for you?

Something pretty different: a social history of Fitzrovia in central London, a very personal project in some respects. My mother’s family of Jewish tailors settled there early in the 1900s, before the idea of ‘Fitzrovia’ was invented, and lived there until 1938 when they were moved out by the council because their slum house was being demolished. The BT tower was later built on that site. The area is usually associated with artists and writers and most books about the place focus on its Bohemian atmosphere, but I’m much more interested in how its ordinary working population, many of them immigrants, lived their daily lives. At the moment I’m working on a chapter about hotel and restaurant chefs and waiters, and sellers of food in general; Fitzrovia was crammed with German bakers and had some of the first delicatessens to open in London, mainly serving the immigrant communities. I’m thoroughly immersed in research and more in love with the area than ever.

States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-War America is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

Ann Basu received her PhD on Philip Roth from Birkbeck College, University of London, UK, after retiring from a career as a librarian, most recently at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, UK.


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