The American Left and the Problems of History in Philip Roth’s “American Trilogy”
Note: I wrote this essay in 2004—for an academic conference, if I recall correctly. The plan was to revise and expand it for that dissertation I never managed to finish.
In Radical Chic, his 1970 account of a Black Panthers fundraiser held in the Park Avenue home of Felicia and Leonard Bernstein, Tom Wolfe captures an emblematic moment in the story of America’s left. “Limousine liberals” meet New Left radicals; Otto Preminger, Richard Avedon, and Barbara Walters meet Robert Bay, Leon Quat, and “the Panther women” (7). All goes swimmingly until midway through a fiery speech by Don Cox, the Panthers’ field marshal. Bernstein, citing a recent article in the New York Review of Books, interrupts to voice his concern with the radical movement’s inflammatory rhetoric and to ask if the Panthers’ goal is, in fact, the establishment, by violent means if necessary, of a socialist alternative to capitalism and representative democracy in America. To Cox’s rote reply—“if the white businessman will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community, with the people”—Bernstein, exercising some jargon of his own, asks, “How? I dig it! But how?” (66).
Cox’s waffling and the heated exchange it provokes underscore the sociological, philosophical, and political paradoxes that underlie the tendentious partnering of liberalism and Marxism on the left end of America’s political spectrum. United (very roughly speaking) by common goals—progress, social justice, economic and political equality—but diametrically opposed at their philosophical foundations, liberalism and Marxism have frequently made for unlikely bedfellows at significant crisis points in America’s recent past, most notably during the Cold War years, when America’s ideological struggle against communism was waged in liberal terms, both domestically and globally. The results, in particular McCarthyism and the Vietnam War, were often disastrous. But the left, divided at its core, seldom mustered in response anything more than Cox’s rage and Bernstein’s incessant questioning. One’s call for action, the other’s call for theory, but seldom did the twain meet in praxis.
It is precisely that tension, and a fascination with its lingering historical byproducts, that have fueled much of Philip Roth’s recent work. Beginning with American Pastoral in 1997, and continuing through I Married a Communist (1999) and The Human Stain (2001), Roth has, in his “American Trilogy,” returned to those crisis points in an effort to make sense of the millennial America that was born of unprecedented postwar promise and consensus, then exploded by disillusion and by what the more charitable would call “progress.” Unlike Walter Benjamin, who in his famous description of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” imagines the angel of history propelled irresistibly forward by the storm of progress “while the pile of debris before him grows skyward,” Roth’s conception of history is unmoored by nostalgia and debilitating ambivalence (258). Without the sure theoretical footing that orthodox Marxism provided those of Benjamin’s generation, Roth, like many who would identify themselves with the late-20th century left, has been set adrift amid the wreckage of multinational capital, techno-militarism, and the information and cultural revolutions. In his trilogy, Roth offers a complex and beautifully-rendered document of the final decades of the “American Century,” but it is one that, like its narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, ultimately throws up its hands in despair, surrendering the complexities of life and the possibility of positive change en lieu of aesthetic and ascetic remove.
As has been the case throughout much of Roth’s career, the socio-political touchstone of his American Trilogy is the “patriotic war years” and the consensus culture that blossomed immediately afterward. “Everything was in motion,” Zuckerman says in the opening pages of American Pastoral. “The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together” (40). Confident from its victory over Fascism and emboldened by the subsequent economic boom, America gelled behind what social theorist Jeffrey Alexander has called modernization or romantic liberalism. In Fin de Siecle Social Theory, Alexander argues that modernization theory made postwar society “historical” by allowing American intellectuals to conceptualize their present condition as one marked by radical change in relation to that which preceded it. “This was the basis for constructing the traditional:modern binary code,” he writes, “an experience of bifurcation that demanded an interpretation of present anxieties, and future possibilities, in relation to the imagined past” (15). That imagined past included the old left and its heroic narrative of collective emancipation, which, particularly after the revelations of Stalinist atrocities, no longer seemed compelling. Instead, American ideology turned on the “romantic” belief that the nation had, in effect, already discovered an ideal social order, “that progress would be more or less continuously achieved, that improvement was likely” (16). This confidence was manifest in the universalizing of liberal values, which, as Lynn Boyd Hinds and Theodore Otto Windt, Jr. argue in The Cold War as Rhetoric, was a natural product of America’s self-constructed binary opposition to the Soviet Union, whose “Godless totalitarianism” was the only remaining threat to the global propagation of America’s core values of freedom, tolerance, and diversity.
Each of the novels in Roth’s trilogy begins, in essence, at that point—when men like Swede Levov, Ira Ringold, and Coleman Silk returned from service to participate in the utopian pastoral that their sacrifices had helped to make possible. Although Roth’s heroes vary slightly—Levov, for instance, comes from a somewhat more privileged background and is five or ten years younger than Ringold and Silk—they share a demanding physical presence and, more significantly, the formative experiences of the Great Depression and World War II. The young, impossibly handsome and athletic Swede, in particular, is the personification of modernization theory: “I don’t imagine I’m the only grown man who was a Jewish kid aspiring to be an all-American kid during the patriotic war years,” Zuckerman remembers, “when our entire neighborhood’s wartime hope seemed to converge in the marvelous body of the Swede” (19). The imposing stature and inspiring voice of Ira Ringold—commanding the stage and the rapt attention of audiences as Abe Lincoln—and the finely-tuned physique of Coleman Silk, a boxer who out-fought and out-thought all opponents, likewise embody the potent promise of postwar America. These sons returned home in order to embark on a new mission: fulfilling their fathers’ grandest ambitions by perfecting their nation. And even in the case of Ira Ringold, the uneducated, unloved brute, there seemed little to stand in their way.
By focusing his gaze on three men of that particular generation—the “greatest generation” as Tom Brokaw and so much of our popular culture have pronounced it—Roth has fixed a point in America’s past, dividing history (and his cast of characters) into that which came before and that which came after; that which worked and struggled to achieve the dream of modernization and that which destroyed it. To his credit, Roth goes some way in interrogating what Alexander calls the “imagined past” that precipitated modernization theory. Lou Levov and Mr. Silk, for instance, stand in stark contrast to the drunken, violent father who Ira Ringold barely knew. The elders Levov and Silk, in fact, are the most sympathetically-drawn of Roth’s characters. Both embody the Puritan work ethic that Roth, through his frequent allusions to New England’s storied past, points to as the source of America’s greatest triumphs—universal education, economic improvement, and those old standbys, rugged individualism and the “American Dream”—and its greatest anxieties: “the ecstasy of sanctimony,” as he writes in The Human Stain (2). Levov and Silk are New Deal Democrats who carry on FDR’s legacy, instilling in their sons those most sacred of liberal values: individual integrity, hard work, learning, and tolerance.
But as embodiments of New Deal liberalism, Lou Levov and Mr. Silk also represent a yin to the old left’s yang. Roth’s disdain for the American Communist Party at times surpasses even his contempt for the reactionaries who hunted down its members during the McCarthy era. For Roth, the old left’s unpardonable sin was its blind obedience—its thoughtless, delusional obedience to an ideology that demanded the suppression of, in Murray Ringold’s words, “Cri-ti-cal thinking” (2). Ira is the more richly-textured example, but Roth’s most vivid portrait of the old left is reserved for Iris Gittelman’s parents in The Human Stain. “Her father had no real ideas about what he thought of as ideas,” Roth writes:
all that ran deep was desperate ignorance and the bitter hopelessness of dispossession, the impotent revolutionary hatred. . . . her parents were simple people in the grips of a pipe dream that they could not begin to articulate or rationally defend but for which they were zealously willing to sacrifice friends, relatives, business, the good will of neighbors, even their own sanity, even their children’s sanity. . . . Society as it was constituted—its forces all in constant motion, the intricate underwebbing of interests stretched to its limit, the battle for advantage that is ongoing, the subjugation that is ongoing, the factional collisions and collusions, the shrewd jargon of morality, the benign despot that is convention, the unstable illusion of stability—society as it was made, always has been and must be made, was as foreign to them as was King Arthur’s court to the Connecticut Yankee. (128)
The fundamental problem of history for those on the far left is, of course, its failure to unravel as Marx had predicted it would. The Great Depression did not incite proletarian revolution; the Soviet experiment did not result in a model of Socialist Utopia; America’s social, political, and economic structures did not collapse under the weight of late capitalism. Far from it, in fact. With six decades of hindsight, then, contemporary glances back to the days of the Popular Front must inevitably come to terms with its waning energies, its contradictions, and, ultimately, its failures. However, in chastising the old left for its gross oversimplification of the machinations of American society, Roth has set a standard that his novels fail to meet. “My brother abased himself intellectually the same way they all did,” Murray tells Zuckerman in I Married a Communist. “Politically gullible. Morally gullible. Wouldn’t face it. Shut their minds, the Iras, to the source of what they were selling and celebrating” (181). By reducing American communism to little more than the thoughtless ravings of ideologues and the dispossessed, Roth perpetrates the same crime of which communism stands accused: the elimination of nuance and disregard for historical rigor. And in doing so Roth systematically contributes to the formation of that “imagined past” necessary for modernization’s stability.
Only Johnny O’Day, Ira’s grizzled, self-made mentor, offers an alternative face of old left radicalism in the American Trilogy, but his brand of political conviction is as easily dismissed by Roth as the Gittelmans’. Unlike Ira, whose naive idealism is fundamentally at odds with his base, human desires—“The Communist wants everything that is at the heart of bourgeois,” Murray says—O’Day is, in many ways, another Rothian hero, a throwback to E. I. Lonoff and his ascetic obsession with sentences in The Ghost Writer. That single-minded devotion seduces the young Zuckerman, who hears in O’Day’s pitch “a quarrel about life that mattered” (234).
the words themselves seemingly shot through with will, nothing inflated, no waste of energy, but instead, in every utterance, a wily shrewdness and, however utopian the goal, a deep practicality, a sense that he had the mission as much in his hands as in his head; a sense, unlike that communicated by Ira, that it was intelligence and not a lack of intelligence that was availing itself of—and wielding—his ideas. The tang of what I thought of as ‘the real’ permeated his talk. (231)
Zuckerman shadows O’Day for a few days as he had earlier shadowed Ira, trailing him through “the grime, . . . the smells, . . . the crisscrossing rail lines” of working-class America, experiencing “the real” that lies behind all of that Marxist talk, but the seduction is short-lived (225). O’Day, like Leo Glucksman, the University of Chicago aesthete who is O’Day’s funhouse reflection, has sacrificed too much for the cause. In a moment of clarity, Zuckerman recognizes just how great a sacrifice, noting in O’Day’s and Glucksman’s asceticism a tragic escape from life that is represented most effectively by the spartan apartments in which each man lives. “You can risk anything if at the end you know you can tolerate the punishment, and this room was a part of the punishment,” he says (227).
For Zuckerman (and, as usual, the blending of Roth’s and Zuckerman’s voices here becomes something of a narratalogical Ouroboros), the allure of both O’Day and Glucksman can be traced not to their particular politics or passions but to their intellects and linguistic charms—to their words. The sacredness of language is one of the few subjects about which Roth is decidedly unambivalent. O’Day carries with him at all times a dictionary and thesaurus, and he trains his disciples to do the same. When Glucksman takes his pupil to task, he does so because Zuckerman’s novice radio play is “crude, primitive, simple-minded, propagandist crap. It blurs the world with words” (219). And Mr. Silk likewise proudly teaches his children “the power of naming precisely” (93). That, more than the reactionary politics that fueled their witch-hunt, seems to be what Roth finds most distasteful about McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee—not their dogmatic silencing of dissent, but their gross politicizing, sensationalizing, and degradation of public discourse. In fact, for a novel that takes as its subject McCarthyism and the rise and fall of a leftist icon, Communist, in particular, is strangely apolitical. Iron Rinn, as Ira becomes known to scores of radio listeners, is destroyed not by his proletarian zeal but by that timeless enemy, betrayal, “the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit” (264). With their frequent allusions to Iago, Abelard and Heloise, and classical drama, Roth’s plots are masked by a fundamentally conservative denial of ideology. They metaphorize the particular crises of these particular men into transcendent markers of the human condition and, in doing so, once again reinforce the “romance” of modernization.
That each of his novels reveals the tragic fate of its hero in the opening pages—thus propelling each narrative toward unavoidable disaster—suggests that, from his vantage point in 21st century America, Roth continues to mourn both the inevitability of “progress” and the impossibility of recovering history’s lost promise. In American Pastoral, he describes the trajectory of the Levov family as if it were representative of a quintessentially American experience: “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” (237). As Alexander so glibly puts it, at various moments between President Kennedy’s assassination and the summer of love, “serious ‘reality problems’ began to intrude on modernization theory in a major way” (19). When Merry Levov, the Swede’s teenaged daughter, blows up the post office in Old Rimrock, she becomes a personification of those changes, exploding the Swede’s imagined utopia and thrusting him, along with the rest of America, “into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk” (86).
The first rifts in the postwar consensus became apparent as early as the late-1950s, when the burgeoning Civil Rights movement began to question publicly the hypocrisy of America’s liberal ideology by pressuring Washington to address racial inequality at home or risk sacrificing its self-appointed “moral authority” on the global stage. Likewise, the voices of popular culture—rock and roll, television, and films like Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—openly resisted such tenets as mass consumerism, the exponential growing of a military industrial complex, and the absurd Cold War logic of George Kennan’s containment policies. The end result, according to Alexander, is that modernization moved from “the sacred to the profane side of historical time”:
Rather than democracy and individualization, the contemporary modern period was represented as bureaucratic and repressive. Rather than a free market or contractual society, modern America became ‘capitalist,’ no longer rational, interdependent, modern, and liberating, but backward, greedy, anarchic, and impoverishing. (21)
In reaction against romantic liberalism, antimodernization theory offered a renewed enthusiasm for the potential of heroic radicalism. “The present was reconceived, not as the denouement of a long struggle but as a pathway to a different, much better world,” writes Alexander. “In this heroic myth, actors and groups in present society were conceived as being ‘in struggle’ to build the future” (22). That struggle was manifest in various modes of political response: revolution and counterrevolution, class history and consciousness, opposition to exploitation and inequality, and state-centered policies such as Johnson’s Great Society programs. All of these struggles united and were put on public display in the movements formed to protest the Vietnam War. In The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism, Anthony Arblaster argues that Vietnam was, in fact, the inevitable result of America’s romantic liberalism, the natural byproduct of President Truman’s announcement in 1947 that “The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.” “In practice,” Arblaster writes, this “had meant the propping up of each and every anti-communist regime, however unfree it might be” (312).
What Alexander describes as modernization’s move from the sacred to the profane side of historical time is enacted with tragic pathos throughout American Pastoral. When, in the closing sentence of the novel, Zuckerman asks, “What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” his question laments the destructions of both a family and the American dreams they had appeared to personify (423). As the embodiment of modernization’s promise, Swede Levov is transformed through the gaze of antimodernization from a hard-working, well-intentioned hero into a “shitty little capitalist,” as Rita Cohen calls him (133). Dawn Levov is likewise metamorphosed from Miss America into a “frivolous, trivial beauty-queen” (136). In the face of the New Left’s fiery rhetoric and revolutionary behavior, the Swede’s tolerant liberalism makes him an anachronism—as naive and impotent as the Gittelmans had once appeared in the glow of postwar consensus. Roth’s description of the Swede seems to echo the opening paragraphs of “Benito Cereno,” in which Melville famously calls Amasa Delano “a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature” (162). “How to penetrate to the interior of people was some skill or capacity he did not possess,” Zuckerman says.
He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he had failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress—probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed? (409-10)
Like Delano, the Swede is undone by his inability to recognize the “malign evil in man,” particularly the failings of his own daughter, whose outrage and anger—like that displayed by Don Cox in Leonard Bernstein’s well-heeled duplex—he greets with apologies and sympathy and (mis)understanding.
But, as the course of American Pastoral makes clear, antimodernization is as problematic a moment in the story of the American left as the romantic liberalism that preceded it. By the end of the novel, Merry, like her father, is dead, as are the radically divergent dreams of America’s future that each held dear. Merry’s stated objective echoes the Marxist goals of the Weathermen (who she joins), the Panthers, and the other revolutionary arms of the New Left: “To change the system and give power to the 90 percent of the people who have no economic or political control now” (151). Instead of helping to usher in a new era of political, economic, and social equality, however, Merry’s passion seems only to have ended three innocent lives, destroyed her family, and led her toward a life of Jainism, making her the most self-sacrificial of Roth’s many ascetics. (In Roth’s nostalgic past, the practical influence of the New Left—the impact of the anti-war movement on Johnson’s downfall, for instance—is as easily dismissed as was the old left’s voice in the New Deal and postwar industrialization.) The Swede’s final encounters with Merry mirror the young Zuckerman’s with O’Day and Glucksman, though they are all the more tragic for being filtered through a father’s loving desire for his daughter. Reduced to a life of isolation amid a decrepit apartment in which her only possession is the stained pallet on which she sleeps, Merry, the precious daughter of All-American Swede Levov, is “disgusting. His daughter is a human mess stinking of human waste. Her smell is the smell of everything organic breaking down. It is the smell of no coherence. It is the smell of all she’s become” (265).
Postmodernism and Neo-Modernization Theory
With the energies of the radical social movements waning by the end of the 1970s, so went the optimism and enthusiasm of many American intellectuals. “Parallels with the 1950s were evident,” Alexander argues. “The collective and heroic narrative of socialism once again had died, and the end of ideology seemed once again to be at hand” (23). Instead of engaging in struggle toward a better world, social theorists were forced to confront the possibility of historical retrogression, which would, of course, signal the final defeat of the Enlightenment project and undermine the very foundations of contemporary intellectual life. Postmodern theorists responded by welcoming this defeat as “an immanent one, a necessity of historical development itself. The heroic ‘grand narratives’ of the left had been made irrelevant by history; they were not actually defeated. Myth could still function. Meaning was preserved” (24). This problematic relationship between history, meaning, and power has dominated much of postmodern discourse, particularly since Jean Lyotard’s proclamation of the “end of meta-narratives” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Another problem of history for the American left, then, is that, like all grand makers of meaning (Christianity, Marxism, and empiricism, to name but a few), history is reduced by postmodernization to a multiplicity of texts, each equally incapable of accurately documenting the whole truth.
Like antimodernization theory, postmodernism takes as its binary opposition “the modern,” though in slightly different terms. Instead of emphasizing the moral and political consequences of modern capitalism, as had the radical social movements before it, postmodernization offers “privacy, diminished expectations, subjectivism, individuality, particularity, and localism” as alternatives to the modern’s stability and universalism. Alexander writes: “While postmodernism, then, is indeed a deflationary narrative vis-a-vis heroic radicalism, the specificity of its historical position means that it must place both heroic (radical) and romantic (liberal) versions of the modern onto the same negative side” (26). The end result is a near debilitating fatalism regarding the impossibility of totalizing change. Alexander characterizes the condition as “comically agnostic,” an apt description, I think, of much of Roth’s later work (27). With all of history suddenly exposed as fictional constructs, artists were freed to interrogate it with impunity, making it the stuff of parodic play. In their freedom, however, they also sacrificed recourse to effective political means, making parody easy (and fun), but change difficult.
Unlike Our Gang, Roth’s scathing 1971 satire of the Nixon administration, or the first trilogy of Zuckerman novels, Zuckerman Bound (1987), the American Trilogy is not really postmodern, in Alexander’s sense of the word. While each novel employs the self-reflexive narrative voice that has become a trademark of Roth’s style and much postmodern fiction, the American Trilogy might more accurately be described by Alexander’s concept, neo-modernization, or reconvergence theory. Neo-modernism is, in a sense, Ronald Reagan, that “Great Communicator” and icon of image politics. In a 1984 paid political advertisement—over images of white, middle-class workers raising American flags—a voice asks, “It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?” The implied message—that the preceding decades of social turmoil were unfortunate but avoidable hiccups in America’s unassailable narrative of perfection—resonated most strongly with those seeking refuge from the dystopic contemporary world left in the wake of anti- and postmodernization. Alexander refers to the actors in this final stage as the “neo-liberal right,” for their position was founded once again on the tropes of liberalism and its ideological war with communism. Those tropes, in fact, have become so thoroughly universalized within neo-modernization theory that liberalism has been reduced to what John Stuart Mill called a “dead dogma.” “The vague unspoken consensus in the West as to the virtues of liberalism has induced complacency,” writes Arblaster. “Liberal principles, apparently, do not have to be fought for” (10). This second liberal consensus was manifest most clearly in the popular support of President Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s determined efforts to overthrow communism, largely by capitalist means. It was a conflict in which America would inevitably rise victorious, or so its neo-modern ideology demanded. The radical historical changes that occurred in the late-1980s and early-1990s, from Moscow to Johannesburg, are ample evidence of their success.
The triumph of neo-modernization in the early-1980s redefined the left, making it once again a hushed voice of opposition in the face of popular ideology. With its narratives of romantic liberalism and heroic radicalism erased by the market-driven influences of late capitalism and globalization, the neutered left mobilized behind specific issues in hopes of deliberately frustrating neo-modernization’s “vision of absolute social harmony, of an entire reconciliation of all oppositions of class, race, and gender, the repair of all families, the achievement of utopia” (Berger, 154). In After the End: Representations of the Post-Apocalypse, James Berger argues that Reagan’s vision, as disseminated through public policy, advertisements, and stump speeches, demanded the erasure of dissonant history from our collective memory. He writes: “The problem Reaganism faced was how to confront—indeed, how to account for—social and historical trauma when according to its post-apocalyptic definition of America, none should exist” (143). Since the days of Reagan’s first victories, the American left’s greatest energies have emerged from those movements that have mobilized to deliberately unearth that trauma. ACT UP’s confrontational struggle for gay rights and increased funding of AIDS research; NOW’s on-going politicization of feminist issues, reproductive rights chief among them; anti-globalization and environmentalism; multiculturalism and socialized medicine—all are issues that threaten to shatter the illusion of America as a neo-modern utopia.
Roth, however, seems to find little use for any of these movements or for much of late-20th century American politics, in general. When, in the trilogy, his plots intersect with the contemporary left, he summarily dismisses liberals and radicals alike as so many mouthpieces of political correctness—as damning proof of America’s unconscionable degradation of language and its pitiful collapse into self-righteous finger-pointing. A conversation that Coleman Silk overhears between two young faculty members is telling. Discussing the Clinton sex scandal and treating Lewinski as representative of her generation’s vacuousness, one man says to the other: “Their whole language is a summation of the stupidity of the last forty years. . . . They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and end—every experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious, must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman cliche” (147). Three generations removed from the Gittelmans, but for Roth the situation remains unchanged. Now, instead of old left outrage, there is only slavish obedience to PC sanctimony. Roth’s contempt for contemporary politics is exercised most savagely on Delphine Roux, a classicist scholar, who he reduces to a degrading stereotype—the outspoken feminist whose politics are motivated, we finally learn, by deep insecurities and by a suppressed desire to be dominated by some virile man. The delight with which Roth belittles and humiliates Roux is the low point of the trilogy.
Roth’s desire, ultimately, is the same as Reagan’s: an impossible return to the promised land of modernization. Despite Jerry Levov’s warning—“It’s nostalgia. It’s bullshit”—the author’s sympathies once again lie with Jerry’s and the Swede’s father, whose furious rant, directed toward the Watergate hearings, encapsulates Roth’s neo-modern daydream: “If we can just tar and feather Nixon, America will be America again, without everything loathsome and lawless that’s crept in, without all this violence and malice and madness and hate. Put him in a cage, cage the crook, and we’ll have the country back the way it was!” (299-300). (Not by coincidence, the final chapter of The Human Stain is titled, “The Purifying Ritual.”) In the closing pages of American Pastoral, the Swede is left adrift, floating through the “horror of self-reflection” (95). His is, in effect, an existential crisis that echoes with both religious and political implications. “The old system that made order doesn’t work anymore. All that was left was his fear and astonishment, but now concealed by nothing” (422). Roth, it seems, finds himself in a similar predicament: appalled by the disasters of progress but incapable of positing anything resembling a workable alternative. While his greatest ire is reserved for the right—McCarthy, Nixon, and the sanctimonious protectors of Reagan America’s “core values”—he finds little use, as well, for the unthinking radical left or for impotent liberalism. The only glimpse of hope to be found in the American Trilogy is Zuckerman’s emergence, at the end of The Human Stain, from his self-imposed exile, but by then the gesture rings hollow. All of his heroes are gone—Swede Levov, Iron Rinn, Murray Ringold, and Coleman Silk—and with them, Roth implies, goes the wisdom and promise of America’s pastoral past.
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Arblaster, Anthony. The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.
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Melville, Herman. "Benito Cereno." Billy Budd and Other Stories. New York, Penguin. 1986.
Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. New York: Vintage, 1997.
– – -. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage, 2001.
– – -. I Married a Communist. New York: Vintage, 1999.
Wolfe, Tom. Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. New York: the Noonday P, 1970.