Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

29 July 2011

(Novel) American Pastoral by: Philip Roth

(Reaction) Truth, Justice and the American Way by: Antonio Conejos

Americans are often times portrayed (by non-Americans) as brash and loud, supremely confident in their abilities and of their country's superiority. Ironically though alongside this American bravado is a long tradition of insecure introspection; of needing to assert time and time again what it truly means to be an American.

This hardworking, confident can-do nature of Americans runs headfirst into the solipsistic, insecure hand-wringing of cherished American ideals in American Pastoral.

The embodiment of the virtuous American is the Swede, born out of America's virtuous victory in WW II. And it all began - this heroically idealistic maneuver, this strange spiritural desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation - because of the war, because of all the terrible uncertainties bred by the war, because of how strongly an emotional community whose beloved sons were far away facing death had been drawn to a lean and muscular , austere boy whose talent it was to be able to catch anything anybody threw anywhere near him.

It is the Swede's athletic ability which generates his mystique; much of his life is tied up in one way or another in righteous action. Even his name is bestowed in recognition of his physical ability. Simple as that, an old American nickname, proclaimed by a gym teacher, bequeathed in a gym, a name that made him mythic in a way that Seymour would never have done, mythic not only during his school years but to his schoolmates, in memory, for the rest of their days.

In the Swede then is the purity and innocence of righteous action, an all star athlete with a humble winning attitude who later went on to eagerly become a marine to serve his country. For the Swede, all his actions were pure, unadulterated and above all the right thing to do. He himself identifies with the thought that he, and America's actions, are innately decent and upright. Thus he sees himself in Johnny Appleseed (a known figure in American folklore), All physical joy. Had a big stride and a bag of seeds and a huge, spontaneous affection for the landscape... What a story that was... The Swede had loved that story all his life.

Moreover, this belief in the honorable, upstanding quality of America's actions is further emphasized in that the Swede is a product of WWII. If one war in (relatively recent) history serves as an example of the courage and right of American action, it is the second World War. Just like the Swede, America in the post-war period thought it could do no wrong. Yet suddenly, the correctness of American action breaks down. Suddenly there are protesters in the streets and the war being fought on someone else's soil, against someone else's values, against someone else's nation, isn't so decent and just. Suddenly war is hell and American action is sullied.

This new, ugly war is the Vietnam war. America's national confusion in this stage of its history is mirrored in the Swede's own anguish. From a man who always knew what to do, who trusted in the good nature of everyone, the Swede is reduced to immobility. Doubts plague the former paragon of and he finds himself doubting everyone, most especially himself. As the Swede doubts, America doubts and both individual and nation flounder in the morass which is Vietnam.

In a generation American soldiers had morphed from liberators to oppressors. Scenes of jubilant crowds cheering on Americans were replaced with images of carnage and monks setting themselves ablaze. And the Swede, a man without an ounce of violence in his blood, produces a daughter who delights in planting bombs and blowing away fellow Americans. The reader's tortured question is the novel's as well: How did things get to be this way?

There are some intimations that the previous generation, that hardworking exemplar of the America's upward mobility was to blame somehow for the dreadful turn the nation has taken. It is the fathers, hardworking and decent though they may be, who are to blame. Thus the Swede constantly searches for the cause of Merry's turn into violence and radicalism. He looks to himself for this cause, later he wondered if this strange parental misstep was not the lapse from responsibility for which he paid for the rest of his life.

Just as Merry had problems with her father, so too did the Swede view his own father (Lou Levov) with a mixture of respect as well wariness. In many ways Lou was a difficult man and over the years the Swede learned how to deal with his cantankerous father.

Yet both the Swede and Lou provided the best for their children. They undeniably loved them and cared for them. The natural assumption was that this solid foundation would propel the new generation to even greater heights, the anticipated American future that was simply to have unrolled out of the solid American past.

In the end though evil rises out of nowhere, despite all the good intentions and efforts to help. This is graphically illustrated in American Pastoral's final scene. Lou has taken under his wing Jessie Orcutt, an alcoholic neighbor of the Swede's. He tries to sway her away from the bottle and the thanks he receives for his pains is a vicious attack from Jessie which almost takes out his eye.

This final scene encapsulates the novel's question of how actions so pure, with the best of intentions, could led to such disastrous consequences. While the novel hints that the fault lies with the fathers, the novel ultimately rejects this as an unsatisfactory answer. The question then is left hanging. Perhaps there is no answer then to the American Pastoral, of how a country can produce such greatness and despair in equal measure.


Interesting premise but some parts of the novel feel overwrought, as if Roth wants to make his point through (eloquent) repetition rather than a more active plot and varied motifs. As it is, American Pastoral manages to both be long winded and hard edged, sorrowful and at the same time defiant. It is by and large an entertaining read except for those portions where the narrator gets bogged down in swamps of page long paragraphs saying the same thing as the previous 3 page paragraphs that came before.

American Pastoral won Roth the Pulitzer Prize. The novel deals with a uniquely American concern and it is readily apparent why it won. Personally though if you only had to read one Pulitzer Prize winning novel which deals with American identity (Jewish as well as American identity in general), I whole heartedly recommend Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay over American Pastoral.

The reaction above barely scratches the depth of the novel. One could also write about, among others: a) the significance of Merry's lisp, b) how the Swede has become an incognito, c) how the Swede and Merry are opposites (he is effortlessly spontaneous while she has to practice her spontaneity), d) how the Swede and Jerry are opposites (the former suppresses any violent thought while the latter is nakedly aggressive), e) how the novel is an exoneration of a childhood hero, f) the theme of being wrong (this ties in to the character of Jerry/the writer/and the Swede), g) America's melting pot (a term which has gone out of vogue but which describes the Swede's achievement nicely - he doesn't simply integrate into America, he is America).

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