From the cover of "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth
From the cover of "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth

Reading ‘The Plot Against America’ across the Bay

The surprising success of Donald Trump’s candidacy in 2016 brought a number of literary works out of the woodwork, but none so much as Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”

Roth’s work of counterfactual historical fiction (sometimes known as the “What if?” genre) explores the imagined impact of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s defeat of incumbent Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, as reflected in the lives of a working class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey.

The 2004 novel has become the subject of a flurry of articles in the past couple of years, and now David Simon, the creator of the popular HBO series “The Wire,” is adapting it for a six-part miniseries.

In addition, the annual One Bay One Book program has chosen it as its book of the year for 2018-19. Each year, about 1,000 people in the Greater Bay Area participate in the S.F.-based Jewish LearningWorks program, which connects readers and promotes conversations about important subjects illuminated by literature.

Running from September through June, the 7-year-old program consists of local discussion groups affiliated with synagogues or other Jewish groups; a facilitated, drop-in “book club” at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on Dec. 2; and various other programming, such as an Oct. 11 film about Roth and a Nov. 15 discussion of his controversial legacy. Most of the discussion groups won’t start until a few months into 2019, as we want people to be able to read (or re-read, as the case may be) the book first.

We selected “The Plot Against America” not for Roth’s powers of prediction, but for his ability to draw meaning from the circumstances he invented. This is a novel that asks us to consider what it means to live in the United States of America, and what protects this nation from falling into authoritarianism or mass violence.

In the book’s imagined election, Roosevelt is defeated not by the candidate put forth by the Republican establishment, but by a celebrity with no political experience. This upstart candidate has great populist appeal, and his campaign gains its strength from makeshift rallies throughout the U.S. at which he addresses the people directly. And central to his platform are the slogan “America First” and the call to the nation to direct its priorities and resources inward and protect itself from foreign elements.

Sound familiar?

The setting for the book is not the White House briefing room, but the narrator’s Newark apartment. This is the unfolding of history as it is experienced by everyday people — people who are confused by what is happening around them and are questioning how to respond to it. It is these conflicted characters’ humanity that makes it a great novel, and something far from a polemic.

Philip Roth (Photo/Flickr-Wolf Gang CC BY-SA 2.0)
Philip Roth (Photo/Flickr-Wolf Gang CC BY-SA 2.0)

Part of the book’s particular interest to the Jewish reader is the centrality of anti-Semitism, which is an intractable part of Lindbergh’s appeal. Roth is drawing here from actual history. The late 1930s were a banner time for explicit anti-Jewish rhetoric in the United States, from Father Charles Coughlin’s popular national radio broadcasts scapegoating Jews for the nation’s ills to the German American Bund’s pro-Nazi rallies, which drew thousands of supporters from San Francisco’s California Hall to New York’s Madison Square Garden.

This feels particularly relevant in our present moment, as we observe a blooming of anti-Semitism on both the extreme right and extreme left. The progressively institutionalized anti-Jewish sentiment of the novel can only take root because it resonates with a significant portion of Americans. Do we American Jews tend to take the security of our status for granted? And how do we respond when it is groups other than Jews that are being scapegoated?

There is another reason we chose the book. Roth’s death in May 2018 drew a great amount of attention, and rightly so. He was a giant in his field. In 2006, the New York Times asked several hundred prominent writers and critics to name their favorite work of American literature of the previous 25 years. Of the 25 books that received the most nominations, six were by Philip Roth.

But it’s more complicated than that.

While celebrations of Roth’s work proliferated after his death, a different narrative, one that had simmered over many decades, also was amplified: the dissatisfaction with how Roth portrayed women in his books. Many readers see Roth’s fiction as beset with stereotyped Jewish mothers or women presented as the sexual obsessions of lustful Jewish men. Some have viewed his writing as misogynistic, while others have felt that his controversial depictions of men’s interior lives portray honestly what society tends to hide or wish away.

Although these issues are not present in “The Plot Against America” — whose primary female character is heroic — we think that it’s important to include them in the dialogue.

The purpose, and the success, of the One Bay One Book program is not so much to get us to read books as it is to get us talking to one another about them. That certainly happened last year, when “The Septembers of Shiraz” by Dalia Sofer was the chosen book. Previous books were, in order, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” by Nathan Englander, “A Guide for the Perplexed” by Dara Horn, “The Betrayers” by David Bezmozgis, “The Periodic Table” by Primo Levi and “Moonglow” by Berkeley resident Michael Chabon.

Now, as we begin turning pages in “The Plot Against America,” I’m looking forward to a year of meaningful conversations across a wide spectrum of thought and opinion, at a time when such conversations have added import.

One Bay One Book wants organizations to become community partners; email onebayonebook@jewishlearningworks.org or call (415) 567-3327 ext. 703. For program details and events, visit jewishlearningworks.org.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.