Philip Roth says his new novel, The Plot Against America, gives history ”a little turn.” The author of Portnoy’s Complaint and The Human Stain reaches back to imagine a world in which Franklin D. Roosevelt lost the presidency in 1940 to a man who was then America’s greatest celebrity: the dashing, daring aviator Charles Lindbergh.
The tale is told by a present-day Philip Roth ”remembering” what occurred when he was nine, a stamp-collecting kid in Newark living with his staunch-Democrat, lower-middle-class family. They’re appalled and frightened, because Lindbergh is also a Nazi sympathizer – and in The Plot Against America, Lucky Lindy makes diplomatic pacts with Hitler and Japan, and institutes domestic policies that modify the Homestead Act, relocating Jewish families to Kentucky under a deceptively friendly youth-camp program called Just Folks.
At 71, Roth is working with a vigor and productivity rare for a writer beginning his eighth decade. His trilogy, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000) – the latter made into a 2003 movie starring Anthony Hopkins – has brought him fresh critical acclaim, a raft of prizes, and the attention of new fans, such as Bruce Springsteen. Roth spoke from his writer’s bunker – a comfortably secluded home in upstate Connecticut.
EW You lay out this quite plausible alternate history of America and how such a scenario could lead to awful consequences.
ROTH The Just Folks business, sending kids out to work camps in the summertime, it’s not too malevolent. Then transferring people from their jobs, yes, there is a harshness that’s felt personally, but their numbers are small at that point. It’s ambiguous – I wanted it to be that way. It’s an adult telling you what happened to his family when he was nine. What I wanted was the fear instilled in them by the Lindbergh presidency, but when I tried to think what might happen, those kinds of things might [not seem] gigantic, because Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism is also, according to the rabbi in the novel, debatable, even defensible. So what interested me was the response of this very ordinary lower-middle-class family to a threat whose scope is not known at the time. AndI do have a range of responses in the book. Sandy [Roth’s brother], as I think any kid of his age would have, says, ”Hey, it’s fun! I get to go to Kentucky! [Roth laughs] This fascism is fun!” But then little [Philip] Roth is in the middle of all these things, and he wants to escape it.
EW How did you choose to have a young Philip Roth tell this story?
ROTH Once I was going to give American history a little turn and have Lindbergh run and win in 1940, then I decided everything else should be as it was, [with] only one change. It’s a false memoir that takes the form of a real memoir. That seemed the best way I could make this as real as possible so that people might forget that this hadn’t happened. [I have a French friend who] called me quite alarmed from Paris and said, ”You know, I never heard about this!” [Laughs] He’d begun reading it as though it was a genuine memoir.