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American Pastoral by Philip Roth – what’s left of the American dream?

American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) French title: Pastorale américaine.

Three generations. All of them growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.

American Pastoral is the first volume of Philip Roth’s American trilogy, featuring Nathan Zuckerman as Roth’s doppelganger. I read them backward, starting with The Human Stain, then reading I Married a Communist and finishing with this one.

American Pastoral dissects the life of Seymour Levov, nicknamed the Swede because he was a tall blond teenager. He was the star of Weequahic High, the high school that Zuckerman attended in Newark. He excelled in sports and Zuckerman was friend with Jerry, the Swede’s younger brother.

With American Pastoral, Roth digs into a mine that has three lodes. The closest to the surface is the Swede’s life and personal tragedy, from Weequahic High star athlete to father of a terrorist. Just underneath is the rise and fall of Newark as a city, from a big industrial center to a poor city gangrened by violence. And the deepest vein is America’s history and the end of the American dream that, according to Roth, died with the Vietnam war and the Watergate.

The Swede is the personification of the American pastoral, the story the country sells to itself and to its newcomers. He’s the son of a Jew who had a small glove business. He was jock and his high school’s star. He enrolled in the Marines during WWII. He married Dawn, a Catholic girl who was elected Miss New Jersey. He grew his glove business into a multinational and became rich. He moved to Old Rimrock, right in Republican county. He did everything he could to be all-American, a WASP.

As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest high flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.

Somewhere along the way, the narrative went wrong. As Jerry bluntly sums it up to Zuckerman:

You should have seen them. Knockout couple. The two of them all smiles on their outward trip into the USA. She’s post-Catholic, he’s post-Jewish, together they’re going to go out there to Old Rimrock to raise little post-toasties. Instead they get that fucking kid.

That fucking kid is Merry, the Swede and Dawn’s daughter who put a bomb into Old Rimrock general store and killed one person to protest against the Vietnam war. She went underground and left a hole in their parents’ lives. Dawn collapsed and the Swede held on, with questions gnawing at him under the surface. Where was she? Where did it go wrong? How did his little girl become this monster? Could they have prevented it? What did they miss? Were they instrumental to her rage? All questions with no real answers.

Merry is the personification of the end of the American dream.

The daughter who 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.

The Swede rehashes Merry’s formative years until this fateful year of 1968 when she bombed the store and when Newark experienced the worst riots of its history. The Swede saved his business but the city never recovered from this destruction. He didn’t save his daughter from self-destruction.

With the Swede’s story, we also witness the change in the American (and Western) economies: it’s more profitable to make gloves or other goods abroad and the deindustrialization of Newark begins. The city’s economy collapses and poverty and violence take hold of its streets.

And last, beneath the surface of the Swede’s tragedy, Roth tells us that the Vietnam war and the Nixon debacle put an end to the American dream. The years after that were about keeping up appearances.

I thought that the construction of the book was puzzling. We start in 1995 with a journey into the past. First, Zuckerman has lunch with the Swede, who wants him to write about his father’s life. Like the boy he was, Zuckerman is in awe to meet with his childhood hero.

Then we’re at the 50 years anniversary of Weequahic High 1945 class. That’s Zuckerman’s year. When I was reading this part, I was thinking of Time Regained and then Roth mentioned Proust’s madeleine himself. Roth borrows a lot to Proust in American Pastoral. A dinner at the Swede’s, with their parents and their friends takes several chapters and looks like a party at the Duchesse de Guermantes. Roth describes the discussions and goes behind the scenes to disclose what is behind appearances.

Then we dive into the Swede’s tragic life and never come back to the present. The book seems like it’s standing on the edge of an abyss and we’re left there, scrambling to remember the beginning and what Zuckerman learnt about the Swede’s life to fill the dots and come back to present times. It felt strange.

My brain can see that it’s a deep and fascinating book. It raises questions about America and offers a line of analysis. But I can’t say I had a lot of pleasure reading it. Some passages were boring and I struggled to stay interested in the Swede’s inner turmoil, Merry’s stuttering or Dawn’s conflicting feelings about her beauty. There were too many details about glove making, which had a purpose, mainly to show how industry turned from a semi-artisanal business to mass production in low cost countries.

It’s not my favorite Roth, maybe because I missed his humor. It’s barely present in American Pastoral as soon as the high school reunion is over. And I love Roth’s sense of humor.

I’d still recommend it because Roth develops a vision of America that is worth reading about.

  1. January 4, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    Ingannmic just mentioned Seymour Levov as one of the heroes of her past decade of reading, and now you write about this book. How can I resist the temptation?

    Like

    • January 4, 2020 at 4:41 pm

      Whenever you feel guilty about book temptation, remember that if you were passionate about cycling, your top equipment would cost around 3500 euros. With an average of 9 euros per book for a paperback, it’s the equivalent of 289 books. See, you feel better now. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • January 5, 2020 at 9:02 pm

        You sound as if you’ve been practicing those arguments on yourself quite a lot. But money is not the answer for me, because I buy so few books and borrow so many on my library subscription (approx. 10EUR a year…) I’m more concerned about the fact that I can’t read all the books I’d like to borrow from the library. Thanks for trying to make me feel guilty about giving in to temptation though!

        Like

        • January 7, 2020 at 11:10 pm

          I don’t feel guilty about my book budget.
          But I still think that, between libraries and paperback, it’s not an expensive hobby compared to some others.

          Like

  2. January 4, 2020 at 7:36 pm

    I read this trilogy long ago, and remember finding this one poignant- and oddly enough I liked all the details about glove making

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    • January 5, 2020 at 7:50 pm

      As a parent, I felt a lot of empathy for the Swede. Recently, there was a trial in France, a young woman who had attempted to bomb a car near Notre Dame a few years ago. The parents explained all the things they did to get her out of her extremist funk and they failed.
      When I heard them, I thought it must be an awful thing to live with.
      And Roth dissected it twenty years before.

      I found the glove making explanations a little boring for my taste, but maybe I’m less forgiving for detail about some trade after all the details about fly-fishing in Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing.
      That said it is useful to illustrate the change in production processes, from half-handmade to fully industrial.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. January 4, 2020 at 9:31 pm

    I’ve only ever read one Roth, which I did like – though tbh I don’t know that I feel like taking on the American Dream right now!

    Like

    • January 5, 2020 at 7:52 pm

      Sadly, Roth’s theories and analyses are always spot on. I wish he had written a book about the Trump years.
      I wonder who has replaced Philip Roth and Toni Morrison in the roles they had about assessing their country.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. January 4, 2020 at 9:34 pm

    I’ve given up on Roth. He’s not my taste.

    Like

    • January 5, 2020 at 7:54 pm

      I know you’re not a fan.
      I think my next will be Goodbye, Columbus.

      Like

      • January 6, 2020 at 12:17 am

        There’s a film of that, isn’t there?

        Like

        • January 7, 2020 at 11:09 pm

          I’m not sure.

          Like

  5. January 5, 2020 at 2:40 am

    I really like Roth, and I think I’ve read more of him than any other American author other than Steinbeck, but I’ve never read this one.
    Your review is excellent: it makes me want to drop everything and read the book.
    Do you think it made any difference reading the trilogy ‘the wrong way round’?

    Like

    • January 5, 2020 at 7:58 pm

      Thanks, Lisa. I’d be interested in reading your thoughts about this one.

      It’s a difficult read for me, because of the language and because I don’t have all the keys to understand everything, since I’m not American.

      I don’t think it’s make any difference to read the trilogy in a different order: each book has separate characters and each one tackles one sensitive subject for the American psyche: the American dream & the promise made to migrants in this one, the problematic relationship with communism in the second one and racism and political correctness in the last one.

      Like

      • January 6, 2020 at 2:00 am

        I think you’d know more about America than me, since I’ve never been there. It was always on my radar, but Europe came first, and now my heart specialist advises against it. I can’t get travel insurance for a pre-existing condition and the cost of medical treatment there if anything went wrong, could bankrupt us. So it’s off my bucket list!

        Like

        • January 7, 2020 at 11:07 pm

          Sorry to hear about your health condition.

          Like

          • January 8, 2020 at 6:22 am

            Thanks, Emma, but it’s not a problem at all, except when it comes to getting travel insurance!

            Like

  6. January 7, 2020 at 2:02 am

    You make me feel guilty too, that I’ve never read Roth (or Proust), and I know I should. I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to make sense of those years from Nixon and Vietnam to Trump. It certainly makes more sense than saying from McMahon to Morrison (they were/are both nonentities, but also Prime Ministers, forget that I mentioned them). I feel, with the majority probably, that the turning point was Thatcher/Regan – but that was the turning point for the collapse of the post-Vietnam War liberal dream. I will have to think more now about the collapse of the 1950s American Dream, and I’m sure Roth thought more and better than I ever will.

    Like

    • January 7, 2020 at 11:08 pm

      I’m surprised you’ve never read Roth, he seems to be a writer you’d like.
      Roth’s point of view is interesting. I don’t know if it’s true but he has strong arguments.

      Like

  7. January 9, 2020 at 9:43 pm

    I did not love this book, but it’s one of the few later Roths I’ve read. Most memorable to me is the detailed explanation of the glove-making craft, a relic of a by-gone world. I was also stunned that this book did not get more attention during the first campaign of Barack Obama, when the right was trying to tar him with his connection to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. I mean, this novel is the story of the Weather Underground, pretty thinly veiled, and a portrait of national complicity. The “pastoral” of the title is pretty ironic – even given all those cows.

    Oh, and thank you for your spirited defense of book purchasing in the comments up above. It is a relatively inexpensive pursuit!

    Like

    • January 10, 2020 at 10:04 pm

      I’d never heard of the Weather Underground before reading Russell Banks. I should research this a little more.

      Yes the glove making was the symbol of a lost world, when factories became companies and the first generation of European immigrants disappeared.

      Tough description of Newark too. I heard that they do Roth tours now.

      Like

  8. Vishy
    January 11, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! It is interesting that you read the books out-of-sequence. I didn’t know that there were three books in this series. Nice to know that Philip Roth’s humour is wonderful. I haven’t read a Philip Roth book yet. I think I’ve read one of his short stories in anthology. Which of Roth’s books would you recommend for a newbie?

    Like

    • January 12, 2020 at 5:02 pm

      I didn’t know it was a series when I read The Humain Stain.
      I love Roth’s sense of humor.

      I’d recommend to start with The Plot Against America. I loved Exit Ghost too. The Human Stain is outstanding.
      Don’t start with Portnoy’s Complex, I would give you a wrong idea of the rest of his work.

      Like

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