Blowing the Shofar

|

Stanley Crouch last week got some hubbub going with this Salon article taking the piss out of his "friend" Philip Roth, and Roth's celebrated new book The Plot Against America. Crouch, the columnist who puts the "rasc" in "irrascible," criticizes Roth for his counterfactual novel in which the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election and confirms the USA in its isolationist course. In Crouch's view, this fantasia ignores a GOP-sized elephant in the American living room:

Roth expects us to believe that the very deep hostility that white Southerners had toward black Americans, a hostility that had been supported by white Northerners either after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 or soon thereafter, would suddenly dissolve and transform itself into anti-Semitism because Lucky Lindy defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.

The article has some great flights of jazzy, barely-holding-it-together Crouchiana:

How could this book pass everyone at Roth's publisher without the unmentioned smell of burning flesh filling room after room until someone raised a question about the stench for which the novel had cut off its nose in order to avoid acknowledging?

In the end, Crouch channels his inner Cosby to blame the whole thing on disrespectful gangstas and Bush apparatchiks:

There may be an understandable—however unacceptable!—reason for this that goes far beyond the limitations of "The Plot Against America." Could it be that because Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the bad sportsmanship of too many millionaire black athletes, black street-gang violence, the bullshit scholarship of the worst of black studies, and the decadent, dehumanizing minstrelsy of gangster rap have created such quiet animus in our intellectual community that it is preferable to forget the savage racial history of our nation?

Testify! Crouch, not for the first time, has brought a mini-shitstorm on himself, but the book itself continues to attract heat from all sides (one Amazon reviewer calls the author "a half-dim, bald guy who thinks that he's actually an author"), and continues the reputational renaissance Roth has been enjoying ever since ex-wife Claire Bloom kickstarted his late career.

The Plot fallout has been interesting to watch—more interesting, I'm guessing, than the actual book. I've been unenthusiastic about Roth's '90s-'00s renaissance because I was never a big fan of his naissance: Portnoy's Complaint, generally considered his signature work, has aged about as well as a glass of milk, and as one of the three people who have read the Nixon satire Our Gang, I can say that Roth deserves to do time in a literary jail. Besides, everybody knows that African scientists were crossing the Atlantic in solar airships when Lindbergh's ancestors were still worshipping porcupines.

Here, Slate's David Greenberg gives some historical context for the book's conceit:

Although the quasi-fascist American right—the Coughlinites, the Henry Ford admirers, the Ku Klux Klan, the Liberty Lobby, even elements of the Republican Party's Midwestern, isolationist "Old Guard"—were certainly a minority after being routed by FDR in 1932, his victory also made them more strident, vocal, and fearsome. Spouting conspiracy theories that ascribed great power to FDR's Jewish advisers, such as Bernard Baruch and Henry Morgenthau, these reactionaries saw the New Deal as a step on the road to socialism. When Roosevelt broke precedent to seek a third presidential term in 1940, they grew convinced that it was he who aspired to be a dictator…

The last half-century validated [American Jews'] heady expectations. And if their liberal vision has seemed imperiled of late, The Plot Against America, though dark and unsettling, turns out to be surprisingly reassuring. For it returns us to an era when those seen as America's enemies were not only leftists but also fascists, bigots, and their sympathizers on the right—and in the end, Roth has FDR and his supporters turn back their "plot."

I hate to bash a fellow Rutgers man (that's the last acceptable prejudice), but there's some deep doodoo in Greenberg's analysis. Herbert Hoover was a "quasi-fascist"? Only rightwing loonies found Roosevelt's third term a cause for concern?

The really interesting political context here has more to do with 2004 than 1940. Roth's admirers have been twisting themselves into pretzels to show how the book provides insights into contemporary America (read: shows that George W. Bush is a budding fascist). Somehow, a strongly interventionist President who has gone far beyond any previous U.S. commitments to Israel has become an isolationist anti-Semite from days of yore, all through the magic of fiction. For sheer historical counternarrative, Roth is bested by his own readers, who see The Plot Against America the way they see everything else—as a stick they can use to hit Bush.

Reason's Kerry Howley stood up to Crouch during his Jazz Times controversy last year.

NEXT: Body Swappin'

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hostility towards Jews and Catholics was common in the 1920s and 1930s American South (and such animosity towards Jews was not merely the balliwick of white Southerners, it was common throughout the U.S. during the 1930s). And in 1940, FDR suffered his worst electoral outing to date, against a man not nearly as popular as Charles Lindbergh.

    It appears that my Yankees are going down to defeat. I knew their pitching staff was bound to collapse sooner or later. Oh well, we’ll have to wait until next year for twenty-eight.

  2. “a half-dim, bald guy who thinks that he’s actually an author”

    …right to free speech…they all have a right to free speech…right to free speech…they all…

    I remember reading a juror for the Booker Prize being quoted as saying that the jury didn’t open up the competition to American authors when they started including the rest of the commonwealth because if they did, the jury would just have to give the prize to Roth every time he published something.

    I remember reading about someone notable being quoted as saying that he didn’t read any living authors, and so he was hoping that something terrible would happen to Mr. Roth.

    I hope he keeps writing.

    “…aged as well as a glass of milk.”

    Okay. Didn’t like Sabbath’s Theater either, huh?

    “…everybody knows that African scientists were crossing the Atlantic in solar airships when Lindbergh’s ancestors were still worshipping porcupines.”

    Ha!

    P.S. I’d ask whether anyone has seen a review of “Enduring Love”, which I understand comes out on film this weekend, but I’ve learned not to trust such things.

  3. “…aged as well as a glass of milk.”

    Altogether fitting for a guy whose greatest character was especially fond of jerking off on the bus.

  4. This is an example of an annoying type of book review that takes the author to task for not writing an entirely different book. Sometimes with non-fiction, such criticism makes sense. With fiction, it usually just seems to be misguided and more about the reviewer than the author or the novel in question.

    (P.S.: If you want alternative history, try some Harry Turtledove.)

  5. Wow. I started reading reviews. Some of them…

    …Lindbergh was an honest man, who understandably became the target of the everlasting communal hatred of Jews everywhere…

    In summary, this novel is an expression of Jewish racism distorting the truth of America’s history, nature, and people – which is why it’s being so pushed and praised from New York’s commanding heights of culture. From porn to anti-goyim fantasy: what a literary genius Roth is. Is Spielberg set to direct yet?

    Proof right there that Roth was wrong. Anti-Semitism? In America? Naah.

    (Gee. I wonder who she‘s going to vote for in November.)

  6. ps – I’m working on my own “alternate history” novel right now. The premise is: What if GWB had won the 2000 election?

    A lot of the plot is contrived. For example, the opening chapter includes a totally outlandishly unbelievable episode in which the Supreme Court chooses GWB as the next president. (Friends who have read it are trying to get me to rewrite the whole chapter. But I think it works – for comic value, if for no other reason.)

    I’m portraying the main character, GWB, as a country bumpkin who is always saying things like “(Our enemies) never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people. And neither do we.” My friends think no Yale-educated man would ever say anything so stupidly revealing. But I think it works.

    My favourite chapter so far is entitled “Compassionate Conservatism”. It’s all about GWB’s childlike delight in capital punishment and about his successful attempt to co-opt the future earnings of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It’s a double-barrelled hoot. (Those friends – and frankly, I don’t think they’re going to deserve that title for much longer – find this part of the book “beyond the pale”. A compassionate American conservative, they affirm, would never violate fundamental human rights. He would never sign a PATRIOT Act. He would never give in to big-government pressures. They don’t understand, though, that I’m writing a satire. I’m trying to be FUNNY! My GWB is a comic bumbling Everyman!)

    As a writer far more qualified than I am once said: Brevity is the soul of wit. So I’m hoping to have the book at the printer’s in January some time. My editors feel, though, that the book is only half-finished. In fact, they’ve suggested I start work immediately on a new chapter – to be entitled “We will not have an all-volunteer army”.

    Writing satyrical alternate history is hard work. I hope Ms. Schiffman will give me a good review. (I’m not Jewish, so…)

    (NB – The working title is Plot against America. I guess I’m going to have to come up with something different.)

  7. Raymond, do you think H&R denizens are ready for DBWIs?

    Kevin

  8. do you think H&R denizens are ready for DBWIs?

    (Oh darn. Once again I’m a clich?.)

    Having read here a vigourous defense or two of unbridled free speech, of the use of “unalienable” to mean “alienable”, and of taxation (among other things)… Probably not.

  9. excellent post, mr. cavanaugh. great links. if you’ve read them, i’d be curious to know what you thought of American Pastoral and The Dying Animal, both of which i thought were very provocative

  10. If I were writing alternative history novels for that period, I’d have Huey Long not get assassinated, then go on to be king of the US.

  11. It’s quite ironic, if Roth is indeed using his book as a club to beat Bush over the head and to associate him with those atavistic, isolationist middle Americans. After all, his views on FDR and the Old Right are shared by most of the people at the Weekly Standard and on the Defense Policy Review Board. Of course, the latter are politic enough to conceal their disdain for Red State America behind a facade of phony populism.

  12. (Herman and Bess) are two of the richest characters Mr Roth has created, hearbreaking and believable, and they make the novel one of his finest. Herman’s incredulity at the nasty turn America is taking is an insight for those who wonder why German Jews, watching Hitler’s rise, did not flee.

    Admittedly, the book’s historical aspects can seem thin and preposterous… Yet this matters much less than the description of how history can encroach upon an ordinary family, and how simple survival becomes an instance of heroism.

    (The Economist, 9 October)

    So maybe that’s what Roth was trying to do.

    Why waste your talent making a “club to beat Bush over the head” with when you can write a novel with universal themes?

    (Roth can leave the club-making to others. 🙂 )

  13. I hate to bash a fellow Rutgers man (that’s the last acceptable prejudice)

    How can you respect a university with campus buildings named the SAC and the CACC, a Yurcak Field, a Busch campus, and a Titsworth Place?

  14. Hostility towards Jews and Catholics was common in the 1920s and 1930s American South (and such animosity towards Jews was not merely the balliwick of white Southerners, it was common throughout the U.S. during the 1930s). And in 1940, FDR suffered his worst electoral outing to date, against a man not nearly as popular as Charles Lindbergh.

    If you totaled up all the hostility toward Jews and Catholics in the entire country and doubled it, it would be teacupful compared to the ocean of hostility blacks faced at the time. (This also addresses PapaySF’s point: It’s not that he should have written a different book, but that any novel playing on history needs to take a serious account of what the contemporary history actually was.) And yes, FDR didn’t win by as much in 1940-against a candidate who repudiated his own party’s isolationist wing and whose views on most important issues were virtual clones of Roosevelt’s (so maybe there is a similarity to 2004!). Roth clearly believes the GOP would have done better by trying to win over America’s presumably vast Jew-hating population. I say show me a time when the American voting population has failed to shun anti-Semites and I’ll start to take this notion seriously. If Lindbergh had run in 1940 on an anti-Semitic, isolationist platform, he would have been creamed worse than Alf Landon.

  15. Tim Cavanaugh,

    If you totaled up all the hostility toward Jews and Catholics in the entire country and doubled it, it would be teacupful compared to the ocean of hostility blacks faced at the time.

    I am afraid that you’re wrong here. Indeed, regarding the KKK, one of their main planks during the period was their efforts to terrorize both Jews and Catholics, especially in the mid-west and states like Oregon. Indeed, there was a reason why organizations like the ADL started in the pre-war (WWII) years (1913 spefically); it was a reaction to anti-semitism in America that started to grow and the flourish in the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, to drive home a point, there is a reason why so many European Jews who fled Europe worked at “Negro Colleges” – because “white” universities largely wouldn’t hire them. In the 1930s physical attacks on Jews became common. Resorts, clubs and places of employment throught the country imposed restrictions and quotas against Jews. It was only during and in the aftermath of WWII that Jews were able to push back this rising wave of anti-seitism in the U.S.

    I say show me a time when the American voting population has failed to shun anti-Semites and I’ll start to take this notion seriously.

    The National Origins Act (passed in the 1920s) officially sanctioned anti-semitism in the field of immigration and was highly popular.

  16. As evidence of the widespread acceptance of anti-Semitism in America, I would offer for consideration the case of Charles Coughlin. I read that as many as 40 million people listened to his weekly radio broadcast.

    However, his candidate only got 900,000 votes in 1936, but then again, it did get 900,000 votes! Whether or not this represents a time when the American voting population failed to shun an anti-Semite is presumably debatable.

    http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/coughlin.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Coughlin

  17. As Rummy would be the first to admit, it’s not easy to get metrics on hostility.

  18. “…aged as well as a glass of milk.”

    Altogether fitting for a guy whose greatest character was especially fond of jerking off on the bus.

    So Iguana, are we to understand that you don’t like reading about that as much as you used to?

  19. Ken Schultz,

    Tim’s strange revisionism is inexplicable.

  20. What revisionism? I say the black experience in America is not comparable to that of any other ethnic group and you come back with the equivalent of “No Irish Need Apply.” I’m not even making Crouch’s point for him, I just don’t believe the whole country outside California and the Northeast corridor is now or ever has been crawling with Brownshirts in the making. Doesn’t seem like a very controversial point.

  21. Tim Cavanaugh,

    I say the black experience in America is not comparable to that of any other ethnic group…

    That’s patently false on its face. I think the experience of the First Americans is quite comparable, if not worse.

    As to the issue of Brownshirts in the streets, the American Nazi Party was quite popular in the 1930s.

  22. Tim Cavanaugh,

    …you come back with the equivalent of “No Irish Need Apply.”

    That’s not even true. As I stated in my earlier comments, violence direct against Jews rose dramatically in the 1930s. You cannot erase the significant increase in anti-semitism in the 1930s.

  23. Scores of Jews and Catholics weren’t lynched as Blacks were. Also, to state that the injustice imposed on Blacks was worse than that imposed on Catholics and Jews in no way, of course, sanctions the plight of any victims in the latter two groups.

  24. What Rick Barton said. I really can’t take any more of these nitpicky/subject-shifting colloquies with Jean/Gary/Jason.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.