Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition

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Scholarly efforts to situate Philip Roth’s fiction within a political or historical framework can prove arduous and difficult. Indeed, his writing is so rich in literary innovation and places such emphasis on the independent functioning of the authorial imagination that any attempt to anchor Roth’s work within a broader context should demand great care and elaborate persuasion. This caveat has been more than heeded by a number of prominent scholars, who have stressed that Roth’s chief loyalty to the purely literary merits of his craft involves a defiant rejection of external biographical and social influences on his writing. Perhaps the most outstanding exponent of this school of critical thought, Ross Posnock has argued that Roth is entirely guided by formalist views about how the literary artist disregards the day-to-day preoccupations of his lived environment, and communes instead with the great tradition of notable writers that have preceded him. According to Posnock, Roth’s body of work preserves the sanctity of this literary ideal by throwing up all kinds of direct challenges to the “antihumanism” (50) of those within the field of criticism whose political and cultural biases mislead them into carrying out a swift “redirection of scholarship from author to context” (51).

In contrast to Posnock’s anti-historicist argument, there has been a surge in the past decade of critical studies that pay attention to how Roth, particularly in his career from the mid-’90s onwards, engages both thematically and formally with larger issues of American national history. This new phase in criticism has opened a number of useful possibilities for re-thinking how Roth might be read within a wider historical perspective. However, as I will discuss in more detail in my discussion of the critical heritage, some of the recent scholarship that has focused on Roth’s treatment of history has tended to casually overlook important issues of narrative experimentation and aesthetic distance that feature so prominently in his fiction. While these arguments are well considered and carefully developed, they quite often shy away from examining the extent to which Roth’s close identification with literary formalism challenges the very premise of a contextual reading of his work.

Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition offers a fresh reading of Roth that draws from the competing perspectives of formalist and historicist schools of criticism. This study looks at the paradoxical ways in which Roth pays observance to certain canons of belief about the abstraction of the literary work from all that is nonessential to its strictly artistic aims, while at the same time breaching such formal boundaries by engaging with the clamoring distractions of the immense world that exists beyond the enclosed structure of the fictional text. The discussion that follows explores the complex tensions that are at play in Roth’s fiction between high-minded ideas about the sovereign domain of the literary artist and the refractory phenomena of a wider public sphere that make uninvited intrusions upon the author’s private imagination, drawing his attention back toward certain biographical and social issues that he has sought to exclude from his writing. In thus outlining Roth’s particular interest in how certain aspects of extra-literary experience encroach upon the freestanding space in which the literary author seeks to operate, this book examines the conflicting manner in which hallowed ideas about the outright separation between the aesthetic and the ‘worldly’ are, at one and the same, both upheld and transgressed in his work. I argue that, as a result of Roth’s deeply ambiguous relationship to principled notions concerning the autonomy of the literary text from extending issues of context, the historical is something that simultaneously recedes from and returns to view in his writing.

The problems facing a contextual reading of Roth derive most pointedly from the fact that much of his work has centered upon largely sympathetic portraits of characters who seek to wrest themselves free from the determining influences that notions of history and social origin place upon their individual lives. Such figures tend to assert a forceful notion of the self as loosened from the external co-ordinates of its biographical context, thereby opening their individual lives to playful and explorative forms of reinvention. Roth’s keen interest in the creative potential involved in such acts of individual self-determination is closely connected in his writing to aesthetic concerns about the independent role of the authorial subject. A number of Roth’s most noted protagonists are themselves authors or artists of one sort or another, whose demands for some type of personal freedom from larger determining forces are expressive of a willful urge to achieve a sense of creative mastery in their work. In this regard, Roth’s fascination with characters that are seeking to transcend the established boundaries of their given environment is sharply attuned to formal questions about the separation of the literary artist and his work from wider considerations of the author’s historically situated time and place.

Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition explores the involuted ways in which Roth problematizes such ideas that abound in his work about the purely isolate existence of the individual subject and the literary text. By looking at how his putatively self-directed protagonists meet with resistance from external social pressures that impede their efforts to achieve a sense of absolute control over their own lives, my argument focuses on how Roth subjects related acts of authorial invention and individual self-authorship in his writing to significant forms of tension and frustration. As I detail throughout this study, the extent to which his characters grapple with overcoming the limits imposed by their wider surroundings opens a space for examining how larger questions of historical life subtly insinuate themselves into the fabric of Roth’s writing.

This book thus illustrates what I would describe as the peculiarly antagonistic intersection of the aesthetic and the historical in Roth’s fiction. However, it does so in a way that is entirely mindful of his professed allegiance to ideas about how the work of the literary imagination takes place at a considerable remove from the world at large. As he explains to us in his meta-autobiographical work, The Facts, Roth’s approach to writing is decidedly influenced by a confident belief that “the independent reality of […] fiction” (4) liberates the author to create in ways that stretch far beyond the purview of his actual surroundings. This dominant aspect to Roth’s modus operandi derives inspiration from the formalist school of New Criticism that so dominated the field of literary studies at the time of his emergence as a writer. The New Critics made strident claims about the singularly artistic motivations that shape the internal workings of the literary text. In doing so, they insisted that solely aesthetic imperatives of the literary artifact find no tangential relation whatsoever to external social and biographical influences that might frame the lived experiences of both the author and his readers. As the argument that develops throughout this book repeatedly illustrates, the shared faith of these scholars in the separation of literature from what they saw as the superfluous phenomena of social values, political beliefs, and personal attachments that constitute the worldly environment inhabited by the author is something that has always engrossed Roth’s attention, playing a central role in both the formal innovations and dramatic content of his work. In order to make a viable claim for reading Roth as a writer who engages with larger issues of history, therefore, it is important to first address the ways in which his fiction tends to discourage such an approach by suggesting that the preoccupations of the personal and public spheres that the living author inhabits are irrelevant to the internalized world of his art.

Although their separate arguments were not always in precise harmony with each other, the New Critics did share a collective appreciation for how well-crafted works of literature challenge readers by estranging them from the commonplace assumptions and normalcy that prevail over their everyday lives. They argued that the literary text diverges from our received notions of reality by refusing to furnish us with some mimetic reproduction of life as it has been actualized in the broader world by popular systems of belief and empirical forms of knowledge. Rather, they claimed that literature radically transfigures our habitual sense of the familiar to such an extent that it involves an original and self-sustaining reality all of its own. Cleanth Brooks defined this concept of the relationship between the literary work and its external environment by describing how the writer produces a “simulacrum of reality” that contains its own peculiar “experience rather than any mere statement about [lived] experience or any mere abstraction from [such] experience” (213). This idea of an enclosed aesthetic “experience,” separated from the humdrum routines and narrow influences of the world outside, is distinguished by a belief that literature renders certain aspects of ordinary life in such extraordinary ways that it opens the reader to a unique understanding of human existence that is “not obtainable, or but rarely, elsewhere” (Richards 219). The New Critics thus claimed that, by seeking to enlarge our awareness of the expanses of possible meaning that exist beyond our familiar sense of what is normal and probable, the literary artifact “should offer us new perceptions, not only of the exterior universe, but of human experience as well; it should add, in other words, to what we have already seen” (Winters 1937b 233).

The New Critics explained how this enlivened state of aesthetic consciousness is ultimately brought into being by the peculiar stylistic considerations that the writer carefully chooses to employ in handling his chosen subject matter. They emphasized the ways in which a finely balanced ordering of literary form “will always show itself as deflected away from a positive, straightforward formulation” (Brooks 211) of signification by holding various types of “paradox,” “irony,” and “ambiguity” (195) in suspended tension. Through this intricate process of crafting, they argued, the author transmutes the basic elements of content that he draws from ‘real-life’ by re-arranging them within a highly sophisticated structure of new and incongruous relations, out of which he produces imaginative ways of re-considering what usually pass for the casual details and accepted verities of existence.

The New Critics’ focus on the power of literary form to affect new types of experience and perception that are unparalleled in life as it is experienced outside of literature was reflected in their ideas about the critical reception of the finished text. They claimed that, by “reject[ing] the world in order to possess the world” (Brooks 213) anew, the literary author forges an exuberantly fresh vision of life that is resistant to the mangled efforts of certain readers to locate in selected ingredients of content a linear connection between the writer’s work and originating forms of extra-literary influence. The New Critics were vocally hostile to the “heresy of paraphrase” (Brooks 201) that is committed by scholarly “diversionists” (Ransom 53), who attempt to extract a truncated message from the greater complex whole of the aesthetic object by finding within it some positivistic relation to the broader social and biographical context of production. Believing that “a paraphrase of the poem is to refer it to something outside of the poem” (Brooks 201), these formalist critics were keen to protect their prized belief in how poetry, and literature in general, functions as a distinct and rare entity all of its own – a singularly heightened experience of life rather than a lowly imitation of life’s already available experiences – by declaiming what they saw as the “propaganda” of readers who sought to reduce all “elements of the poem finally to some role subordinate to the paraphrasable elements” (200).

The New Critics thus sought to carefully disabuse readers of the “Intentional Fallacy” that is popularized by critics whose reflections entail “a confusion between the poem and its [perceived] origins” (Wimsatt and Beardsley 92) in broader aspects of life beyond the text. In seeking to preserve the special value of literature as an unrivalled mode of expression, disassociated from the tugging persuasion of worldly interests, Wimsatt and Beardsley also challenged what they described as the “Affective Fallacy” that is involved in efforts “to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem” (92) on the reader. According to this view, the isolate existence of the literary work is maintained by its purely inward-reaching concerns about form and creativity, which are not in any sense influenced by larger ambitions to affect some notional idea of change in the ways that members of the reading public relate to themselves and the world around them. By exposing these “intentional” and “affective” fallacies, these scholars took direct aim at various “didactic theor[ies]” about how “literature offers us useful precepts and explicit moral instruction” (Winters 1937a 224). John Crowe Ransom, for example, defined the problems created by those who seek to make literature ‘useful’ by describing how the works of “Humanist” and “Leftist” scholars, who “are equally intent on [extracting] ethical values” (53) from the particular text under discussion, serve to eviscerate the literary work of its defining formal attributes in the process of acquiring it as a serviceable tool for their social and moral agendas.

Yet despite such warnings against the tendencies of certain critics to read literature in terms of its instructional utility, many New Critics did argue that the literary arts produce an overall moral impression on readers that is categorically distinctive from the narrow doctrines of use-value that preside over the social and ethical values of the workaday world. This idea of a peculiarly literary form of moral affect derived from a belief that serious works of literature “offer a means of enriching one’s awareness of human experience and … rendering greater the possibilities of intelligence” (Winters 1937b 241-42) by bringing together otherwise discordant aspects of existence within an elaborate formal structure. Such a notion of how well-developed literature serves as a vital means of enhancing our understanding of the complexity and fullness of life was reflected in Brooks’ appraisal of the true literary artist as someone who: “triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern” (214). In so much as they were themselves responding to their own sense of time and place, the ‘moral’ impulse shared by certain New Critics was driven by anxieties concerning what they saw as the brutally narrow view of human affairs that was bred by utilitarian values, materialist ideologies, and mass cultural tastes in the first half of the twentieth century. As I will detail further in my discussion of Roth’s I Married a Communist, this formalist sensibility involved a moral concept of how literature operates to redeem some greater appreciation for the deep intensities and nuanced particulars of the human condition from the de-humanizing effects of mass industrialized society. This high-blown view of how literature acts as some kind of moral stay against the chaos and corruptions of modernity involved a type of religiosity of high ‘Culture,’ for which the New Critics saw themselves and the writers that they so cherished as the pious vanguard.[1]

The arguments made by New Critics about the special provenance and captivating influence of the literary ‘experience’ play a decisive role in Roth’s fiction. As his reference to the influence of New Criticism’s “salvationist literary ethos” (Reading Myself and Others 71) on his literary development highlights, Roth closely identifies with high-minded notions, as articulated by people like Brooks and Winters, about literature’s rearguard mission against the crudities and inanities of modern life. Throughout his fiction, Roth repeatedly explores this notion of how literature challenges the readily accepted certainties of a world that is made lackluster by its preponderance for crass reductions and vulgar tastes. However, rather than serving merely as the uncompromising canons of belief that form the unexamined background to his artistic method, such formalist ideas feature expressly in the foreground of Roth’s fictional content. As my argument illustrates, this involves an acutely ironic mode of literary introspection, through which Roth subjects certain stalwart values concerning the pre-eminence of literary form over content matter to a complex formal re-structuring, replete with its own demanding levels of paradox and contradiction. Roth’s treatment of these literary pieties is therefore subject to a number of interesting ironies and complications all of its own, which make his ostensible faith in New Critical principles far less straight forward than might at first appear.

Roth’s interest in thematically exploring ideas about the formal separation of fiction from ‘real’ life finds its most repeated and developed articulation in the series of nine Zuckerman novels, the last four of which form the main focus of this book. Nathan Zuckerman serves as a useful literary surrogate for Roth, through whom he rehearses certain ideas about “the impenetrable line dividing fiction from reality” (Exit Ghost 267). Repeatedly labeling his writing in terms of a creative effort to “sweep away the limits on life” (The Counterlife 235), Zuckerman articulates a deep belief in the affective power that literature holds, for author and reader both, in terms of its ability to disassemble the prosaic details of everyday existence and transform them into something newly imagined. Such vocal commitment to New Critical values involves more than just Zuckerman’s simple mouthing of the artistic sentiments of his creator. Interestingly, by serving as a kind of fictional proxy for the ‘real’ novelist, Zuckerman allows Roth to self-reflexively think about certain issues of artistic principle and process while at the same time upholding a creative distance between his own biographical situation as a writer and the corresponding predicament of his author-protagonist. Roth and/as Zuckerman concertedly avow a loyalty to formalist principles concerning the authorship and reception of literature.

However, as my argument in this book closely explores, Zuckerman’s posturing as the detached literary artist is compromised in various ways by his peculiar obsession with addressing certain public disputes over the exact origins and moral consequences of his writing. As a result of the ways in which he becomes mired in debates that are stirred by readers concerning the relationship between his art and aspects of actual life, Zuckerman somewhat fails to satisfactorily safeguard the special province of his creative output from issues relating to non-literary world of his lived experiences. In so much as the Zuckerman novels thus dramatize a certain collapsing of the distance between the biographical life of the writer and the literary text, they tend to also belie Roth’s willingness to challenge some of the rigors that formalist notions about the purely disinterested author seek to impose on the art of fiction. Zuckerman’s ordeals as a writer ultimately re-direct us back to Roth, who appears to find a playful and richly creative source of stimulation by exploring how certain levels of deception are involved in his literary surrogate’s efforts to deny the extent to which his contextual surroundings inform his writing.

The demiurgic concept that is repeatedly articulated in the Zuckerman novels of the literary author as one who re-creates the world afresh in terms of his singular aesthetic vision is succinctly encapsulated in The Facts by Roth, who informs us of how fiction serves as his creative means “to wield the whip over the facts [in order] to make real life amazing” (7). Roth’s use of the term “facts,” both in the above instance and elsewhere in novels like The Counterlife, serves as helpful shorthand for denoting what he sees as the perfunctory ways in which experience tends to be rendered sensible in the world outside of fiction. More than just a means of referencing the material phenomena that tend to give shape to quotidian life, Roth’s critical allusions to the “facts” also encompass the many symbolic figurations of social value, moral judgment, ideological credo, and identity formation by which people attempt to offer a coherent interpretation of both their own experiences and those of others.

In the Zuckerman novels, particular attention is paid to how fiction serves as a means of contesting the proclaimed truth-value of such sentiments by offering a novel vision of life that stretches far beyond the cramped pale of established and acceptable “facts.” In addition to using fiction as a means of re-imagining the boundaries set in the broader world by certain constraining modes of perception, Zuckerman’s art is consumed by his relentless efforts to tackle readers, particularly those among his own audience, who seek to “paraphrase” the work of literature by relating it back to certain details surrounding the biographical and social context of the author. For Zuckerman, fiction assumes its own creative ownership over the putative “facts” and re-orders them to such a heightened degree that it cannot be subject to the types of reading that locate in the lived experiences of the author an archeology of origins for the completed text. True to his declared formalist beliefs, Zuckerman is swift to dispel any suggestion that his fiction is either influenced by biographical circumstances or accountable to external social demands. Rather, he sees his writing as performing a valorous act of defiance against fixed categories of identity, dogmatic systems of belief, and sanctified forms of “virtue mongering” (The Human Stain 153) in so far as it challenges the ways in such rigid viewpoints attempt to pressure both the individual and the artist to conform to certain preponderant views of social convention and moral decency.

The Zuckerman novels repeatedly dramatize the strained clashes that arise between Zuckerman’s ideas about the free-roaming power of the imagination to reinvent what ordinarily passes for reality and other people’s firm objections that particular “facts” are simply incontrovertible and therefore unavailable to literary revision. At various intervals in the earlier novels, Zuckerman becomes embroiled in heated disputes with numerous readers who angrily condemn what they see as his negligent mistreatment of certain redoubtable “facts” for the whimsical purposes of art. The manner in which Zuckerman finds himself at pains to defend his credibility as a writer against such accusations concerning his reckless disregard for serious matters of real-life consequence is suitably illustrated by a particular passage in The Counterlife, in which he wrangles with his brother, Henry, over certain questions of Jewish historical identity. Through his narrative encasing of their argument, Zuckerman sets his expansive literary perspective in opposition to the contracted worldview involved in his sibling’s newfound commitment to militant Zionism. By way of response, Henry charges Zuckerman with being pathetically near-sighted in failing to open his mind to the bigger issues of race and history that exist beyond the petty concerns that consume the solitary life of the writer. In one particular instance, Henry accuses Nathan of holding a “narcissistic” (104) literary obsession with “non-historical personal problems” (104-5). Henry argues that such narrow self-interest is indicative of the “unspeakably puny” (105) caliber of Zuckerman’s “inner landscape” as a writer, which compares poorly to his own muscular concept of “an outer landscape, a nation, a world!” (140).

Zuckerman, however, is not in any sense swayed by his brother but remains firm in his long-held belief that “[i]f you get out of yourself you can’t be a writer” (The Anatomy Lesson 399). Undeterred by Henry’s suggestion that his fiction involves a callous indifference to issues of major historical import, Zuckerman upholds his belief that the writer must remain entirely committed to the inner reaches of the private imagination by not giving any ground to external appeals to a sense of communal or ideological belonging. For Zuckerman, the vital literary issue of the formal separation of fiction from the “facts” makes the author solely answerable to himself and not any higher seat of historical judgment or moral criticism.

This exchange with Henry in The Counterlife offers just one useful example of the many occasions throughout the first five novels in which Zuckerman is charged with being irresponsibly heedless of greater worldly matters that, according to his various detractors, take precedence over the inward-looking concerns of the literary author. Zuckerman constantly rebuffs such challenges by defending the peculiar genius of the individual artist who writes at a self-disciplined remove from the distractions of wider public issues and events. In such instances, he assumes his rightful sense of belonging to a small coterie of “superior artist[s]” who “are able to loosen and make ambiguous their connection to real life through the imposition of talent” (The Counterlife 210).

Yet, as I will detail in the next chapter (and, indeed, throughout this book), Zuckerman’s constant battles with others over his perceived disregard for certain unimpeachable “facts” demonstrate his profound sensitivity to such external judgments. Zuckerman does not accede at any point to the demands made by people like Henry that he should show greater deference in his fiction to what they confidently assume to be the important and consequential stuff of real life. However, by continually engaging with such criticisms and taking argumentative positions in his writing in defense of his art’s relationship to actual life, Zuckerman demonstrates a fixation (an almost pathological symptom, as I will argue) with dwelling upon the conflicted moments of interaction between the authorial imagination and the larger world beyond fiction. In this sense, his writing is delicately attuned and sharply responsive to the various outside voices that, by claiming to hold absolute possession over the “facts,” challenge him as a writer.

Zuckerman’s febrile alertness to the harsh denunciations and unexpected forms of misapprehension that his fiction produces among his readership is underscored by the manner in which he makes such issues, along with his ardent responses in defense of his authorial role, the very subject of his writing. In this meta-fictional way, Zuckerman internalizes within his writing some of the accusatory, anti-literary sentiments that he is in fact trying to dispel as entirely irrelevant to the literary merits of his work. As I emphasize in a variety of ways throughout my argument, Zuckerman’s particular concentration on the battle lines that are drawn between his aesthetic view of life as it is re-imagined in literature and the other people’s strenuous claims about the purportedly ‘unimagined’ aspects of existence amounts to a paradoxical sense of being somewhat attached to those restrictive forms of belief and authority that he sets out to dismantle as a writer. Although he is positioned in contrariety to such viewpoints, Zuckerman is also somewhat beholden to them in so far as his fiction is itself engendered by a desire to subject the concrete certainties by which others conceptualize the world around them to the looser plane of the imagination. The harried sense of engagement with the “facts” that characterizes Zuckerman’s art, as I demonstrate, serves to partly frustrate his efforts to disengage as a writer from nagging questions regarding the biographical and social origins of his work. At the same time, however, the artistic struggle to break free of such constraints remains an impulse in Zuckerman’s writing that is strongly re-invigorated by the very forms of resistance that it meets. In so much as he greedily feeds on the “facts” for the purpose of transforming them into fiction, therefore, Zuckerman also appetites on the angered objections that are made by certain readers in so far as such rampant hostility creates various points of tension that serve, in their turn, to add further vitality to his sense of purpose as a writer who opposes the censorious criticisms and intractable certainties posited by others.

The continual re-direction of Zuckerman’s literary focus back toward the exterior realm of “facts” from which he seeks imaginative release is accompanied by a countervailing experience of fiction writing as a painful form of solipsistic isolation from the larger world. By interiorizing the inflamed divisions that exist between his belief in the personal sovereignty of the authorial imagination and the voiced concerns of others about the social and moral import of his work, Zuckerman’s fiction takes a decidedly self-referential turn inward. In an ironic fashion that is at once playful and tortured, Zuckerman’s efforts to carve out a private and autonomous space for his literary endeavors is thwarted, to a large degree, by the manner in which he becomes consumed by his compulsion to mull over the difficulties that arise from his predicament as a publically renowned and highly scrutinized writer.

In the third volume of the series, The Anatomy Lesson, Zuckerman comes to realize that his obsession with using his writing as a textual space for ruminating inward upon his contentious role as an artist, vis-à-vis the “facts,” has left him trapped within an unending maze of personal and professional conflicts. As a result of this anxious form of literary introspection, he is unable to write about little more than the internal struggles of the self as author. Despite his virulent defense of the writer’s right to remain unaffiliated and detached in his private judgment, Zuckerman has had to struggle with the painful realization that “if you hang onto the personal ingredient any longer you’ll disappear right up your asshole” (The Anatomy Lesson, 399). Fearful of being “[c]hained to my dwarf drama till I die” (399), Zuckerman desperately exclaims at the end of The Anatomy Lesson that he wants to be released from the prison house that has erected out of his experiences as an author whose private imagination is in perpetual conflict with the broader world: “I want an active connection to life and I want it now. I want an active connection to myself. I’m sick of channeling everything into writing” (442).

The problems that Zuckerman painfully endures in The Anatomy Lesson are ones that gradually develop and intensify over the first five novels. In the texts published after The Counterlife, by contrast, Zuckerman appears to finally leave his “narcissistic” obsessions behind by re-directing his literary attention away from himself and towards the lives of certain protagonists who have been caught up in the sweep of larger developments and transformations in American history. The separate works that constitute what has been described as the “American trilogy” – American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain – could be said to mark Zuckerman’s belated response to Henry’s challenging suggestion in The Counterlife that he should seek to explore an “outer landscape” of history and nationhood in his fiction. However, the public dramas that each of these texts unfold are still decidedly personal in trajectory and scope. The quite loose sense of historically embedded characterization that we get in the American trilogy is wholly attenuated by the ways in way each of Zuckerman’s protagonists undertake a titanic effort to impose his own individual will upon the world in which he lives. These characters see themselves not so much as the products of wider forces but as self-directing subjects who, in classic Roth fashion, seek to shape their lives according to a sense of the “individual as real apart and beyond the social determinants defining him” (The Human Stain 333). As such, they share with famed Roth characters like Zuckerman and Alexander Portnoy a desire to overcome the nightmares of the past by living in a way that exceeds the limits set by their social facticity. Yet in so much as Zuckerman’s literary efforts to imaginatively stretch the boundaries of his inherited environment is dogged by forms of external resistance and internal self-division, the heroic quests for self-determination that are undertaken by each of his protagonists in the American trilogy are equally brought to heel by experiences of social limitation and personal crisis.

As this study makes clear, the ordeals that Zuckerman has endured as a result of being a writer who is at odds with the surrounding “facts” are not entirely absented from these later novels, despite the semblance that he creates of having retired into the background of each text. Rather, the record of Zuckerman’s life of professional and personal travails is deeply enmeshed, and thereby partially concealed, within the stories that he reconstructs about each of his protagonists and the fateful collision that they make with important moments of American history. Zuckerman’s narrative attention is purposely drawn in these novels to individuals whose lives are, like his, somewhat shaped by the frustrations that beset their efforts to break free from the influence of imposed notions of origin and identity. The parallels that are drawn in the American trilogy between Zuckerman’s personal history and the lives of his protagonists thus serve to highlight the ways in which his very much private tribulations as an author are also connected to the broader historical currents that situate the biographical narratives that he constructs for each of his main characters.

Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition seeks to offer a fresh understanding of how Roth treats certain aspects of American history in the American trilogy by exploring how these novels closely re-examine issues of literary technique and authorial subjectivity that have dominated his entire body of writing. My broader claim in this book is that Roth’s career-long fascination with formalist ideas about literature as an activity that is autonomous from biographical and social contexts of authorship finds an acute antagonism in the manner by which his later period of work has shown a vitalized interest in the fate of American history. As such, this book sets out to combine our existing understanding of Philip Roth as a significant literary stylist with evidence of his additional role as a novelist who is deeply interested in larger public issues within American life over the past eighty or so years. My argument moves further beyond its main focus on the American trilogy by illustrating how the peculiar interaction of the personal with the historical in these works finds added significance in Exit Ghost, the final installment in the Zuckerman collection of novels. I also discuss how Roth explores the relationships that exist between particular matters of narrative style, ethnic identity, and broader national history in The Plot against America. Although lacking the interesting narrative persona of Zuckerman, this novel rests interestingly alongside the American trilogy and Exit Ghost in so much as it adds to the overlapping historical and aesthetic issues that those texts examine. By reading this parsed selection of novels from his broader collection of work in such a fashion, I demonstrate how the later phase of Roth’s career enables us to understand in much greater detail his relationship to the American cultural scene from which he emerged and developed as a writer.

By way of a historicist reading, I look at how the novels under consideration examine certain upheavals that have taken place within the American political and cultural landscape since the New Deal, and how such changes have brought into doubt important concepts of cultural commonality and inclusive citizenry that had once glued the Rooseveltian liberal ideal together. The later Zuckerman books and The Plot against America invoke various quasi-mythical images of the mid-century apotheosis of American liberalism, only to reveal how the promising sense of social progress that once defined this form of political idealism proved ultimately incapable of protecting each of Roth’s main characters from the vicissitudes of various “unforeseen” (The Plot against America 113) calamities. Each chapter in this study provides a contextual framework for reading these texts through the lens of the numerous conflicts and transformations that have redefined American liberalism over the decades, leaving it progressively weakened as a convincing form of popular civic discourse. My discussion illustrates how the later Zuckerman books and The Plot against America concern themselves with questions of class, ethnicity, race, gender, and literary culture, all of which have been key components in the changing intellectual and political makeup of American liberal ideology since the 1930s. As a result of their sharp focus on such historical issues, the novels that I have chosen to discuss help to outline, in ways that are more pointed and clear than in his earlier fiction, Roth’s abiding interest in how the material, cultural, and gendered contexts in which the actual author lives and works serve as influences upon the writing of the literary text.

Before elaborating further upon this broader historical context, I wish to emphasize how my approach to reading Roth is equally mindful of his keen interest in concepts of literary aestheticism. What this book offers is an in-depth and novel discussion of the relationship between Roth’s idiosyncratic, “redface”[2] style of literary realism and the complex American milieu that is closely examined in the later Zuckerman texts and The Plot against America. By charting the historical evisceration of American liberal notions of an integrated social body, Roth’s later work re-explores issues that have been addressed throughout his entire literary corpus concerning the fiction writer’s difficult attempts to engage meaningfully with a national scene that appears discordant and “unreal seeming” (Reading Myself and Others 123), and which therefore operates on a level that is beyond the formal capabilities of a traditional realist model of representation. Such an historical situation has helped to foster what Roth, in a comment made at the very beginning of his career, laments as a type of “literary onanism,” brought about by “the writer’s loss of the community – of what is outside himself – as subject” (120). Such an expression of alienation may well appear to adequately serve the formalist ideas prevalent in Roth’s writing about the distant removal of the artist and his work from any “muscular” concept of an exterior social landscape, as had been defined by Zuckerman’s brother, Henry in The Counterlife.

However, the novels that I have chosen to study illustrate how Roth’s fiction continues to engage with a broader concept of American public life in so much as his writing demonstrates a frustrated separation from and troubled antagonism with an historical reality that appears dizzyingly chaotic and thus incommensurable to common means of understanding. As I will discuss in more detail shortly, Roth’s fiction illustrates how certain historical events in the 20th century have helped to give shape to an American social environment that is governed by a swirling mass of unstable and indeterminate “facts.” While this sense of a disharmonious world that is set in perpetual motion by immeasurable forms of contingency and volatility is ripe for fictional modes of conceptualization, it also serves in Roth’s work as something of a challenge to the writer’s efforts to achieve a sense of mastery over the material that he writes about. In the texts under examination in this book, such a confusing experience of a nation that is out of joint is clearly related to “the writers loss of the [liberal] community” of shared public interests that had once defined the youthful experiences of life in America for Zuckerman and The Plot against America’s narrator-protagonist, “Philip Roth.” By thus relating experiences of liberal disillusionment and issues of the alienated literary artist in these works, I argue that the sense of a broken American promise in the later novels that I discuss finds its correlate in Roth’s equally sundered aesthetic mode: a form of writing in which the political and cultural relevance of authorial context to literary invention is, paradoxically, both denied and yet simultaneously acknowledged.

Each of the five novels that this book examines focuses upon a different historical episode in American history, spanning a total period of about seventy years from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s to the presidential re-election of George W. Bush in 2004. These texts explore various moments of crisis that have challenged the liberal brand of American political idealism that emerged to prominence under Roosevelt, and which came to dominate national life during the Depression, World War Two, and throughout the early post-war period prior to the late sixties. This particularly modern form of liberal politics derived its influence from certain progressive beliefs that had been gaining prominence in America in the early part of the twentieth century, and which helped to distinguish it in many areas from laissez-faire ideas about the capitalist market and competitive individualism that had motivated nineteenth century liberalism. As opposed to the notion of “society as a collection of atomized individuals freely pursuing their self-interest” (Thompson, 12-13) that influenced classic liberal concepts of political economy, the progressive mindset advanced ideas about the corporatist structure of an American polity in which individual members “were intersubjectively related to the public around them” (14). According to such thinking, the wide collection of groups and individuals that constituted the American citizenry could no longer be plausibly conceived of as exclusively independent social agents whose lives were largely separate from each other. Instead, by considering how individual fortunes were far more inter-dependent than had been previously assumed, progressives argued that the material plight and social standing of all citizens were bound to the broader fate of the nation as a whole.

The tenets of progressive belief that emerged powerfully into the center of American political discourse in the early twentieth century emphasized a need to re-think the fundamental bases of democratic capitalism so as to give greater recognition to the intricate historical relations that shape the lives of citizens and connect the many constituent parts of society into a wider community of shared interests. John Dewey, for example, articulated new ways of understanding how the private life of the individual in America was heavily circumstanced by its structural position within a society marked by rapidly growing market forces and increasingly uneven distributions of power. He argued in 1930 that “the United States has steadily moved from an earlier pioneer individualism to a condition of dominant corporateness” (Individualism Old and New 18). By focusing intently on how the individual is greatly conditioned by external factors, particularly in terms of his life as an economic subject, Dewey contributed significantly to a broader discussion among political intellectuals and activists of the period about the need to re-think classic ideas that related freedom and equality in American democracy to transcendent notions of the self as wholly independent of greater social forces. For Dewey, this involved an outmoded and redundant view of liberty that placed the individual as neither beholden nor responsible in any strict manner to the ambitions and needs of his fellow citizens. He stressed the fact that the “[r]elease from oppressions and repressions” that might had heretofore enshrined notions of civil liberty in American life was no longer solely adequate as the means to “produce and maintain free institutions” (Freedom and Culture 14).

Herbert Croly joined Dewey in outlining the anachronistic value of applying 19th century ideals of unfettered individualism to the socio-economic environment of the early twentieth century. Croly argued that, in an age marked by hurried capital expansion and the growth of huge industrial monopolies, “the chaotic individualism of our political and economic organization” had led, by the turn of the century, to the “concentration of wealth and financial power in the hands of a few irresponsible men” (Croly 23). In order to redress the sclerotic growth of magnate wealth and gross economic inequalities within America, people like Croly and Dewey argued for a need to temper free-market individualism in order to improve the collective welfare of the nation. It was only by partially “subordinating the satisfaction of individual desires to the fulfillment of a national purpose” (Croly 22), such progressive theorists believed, that a favorable level of emancipation from economic hardship and dependence could be realized for the wider mass of the American people. This could be achieved, according to Dewey, by fostering “a new era of integration” and “an individuality of a new type” (Individualism Old and New 24), which would serve to create a much better “balance of the individual and the social” (25) than the “rugged individualism” (18) of old.

In contrast to the Marxist critique of bourgeois individualism, leading progressive intellectuals did not call for an outright supplanting of individual liberty in the name of the greater common good.[3] Rather, they sought to define the changing contours of individual life within a heavily industrialized and corporatized age so as to offer new models for re-structuring American society. By doing so, they in fact hoped to rescue democracy, along with all of the values that it placed on notions of civic freedom and individual self-determination, from the growing perils of an antediluvian concept of the American people as “beings whose only relations to one another are those entered into in behalf of exclusive private advantage” (Freedom and Culture 25). In light of their new understanding about the greater connectivity that exists between the lives of individuals within the highly complex fabric of modern capitalist society, progressives argued that “[c]ooperation … is as much a part of the democratic ideal as is personal initiative” (24).

As such, Dewey and others sought to establish ways in which to forge a greater sense of partnership among interlocking civic ties in order to balance the many interest groups that competed for influence and power in the nation. They claimed that an increased amount of centralized state regulation of social and economic relations would ensure a greater amount of democratic fairness and parity among America’s ever-swelling body of citizens. Writing in 1914, Walter Lipmann described this political mindset as one that: “looks to the infusion of scientific method, the careful application of administrative technique, the organization and education of the consumer for control, [and] the discipline of labor for an increasing share of the management” (87). [L]ured by a future which we think is possible” (87), Lipmann and others called for a loose form of public “mastery” over the socio-economic forces that govern people’s lives as a means of restoring the American democratic promise, and thus preventing the nation from falling further afoul to the endless “drift” toward excess power, economic inequality, and social conflict fostered by unchecked capitalism.[4]

Richard Pells suggests that the ultimate achievement of the progressive movement of the early twentieth century was in the manner in which it came to later influence the New Deal blueprint for a “cooperative commonwealth of government, labor, and business” (21). Drawing from the progressive belief “that in a modern society individuals had only a partial control over their fate” (Cooney 1995 50), the New Deal set out, amid the catastrophe of the Great Depression, to use the levers of government to harness and organize what was increasingly being viewed as a rogue and unforgiving capitalist economy. The new style of liberalism that came to the fore in America during the New Deal would ultimately face numerous crises of legitimacy as a result of its many growing critics on both the Left and the Right, particularly from the late 1960s onward. Yet despite its beleaguering trials and waning influence over recent decades, the progressive liberal politics that emerged in the Roosevelt years, with its welcoming appeal to notions of fairness and tolerance, did hold powerful sway over mainstream national life for a significant portion of the twentieth century. The New Deal and its later incarnations within American liberalism found particular impetus by giving vocal expression to decidedly egalitarian ideas of a nation that was widening the parameters of collective co-operation and shared prosperity among its citizens. More than just a series of policies and institutional re-alignments, American liberalism at midcentury promoted a rhetorical vision of inclusive nationalism, according to which the country’s many diverse regions, economic sectors, and ethnic groups were seen to be merging closer together by the democratic pursuit of mutually beneficial opportunities for self-advancement.

Wendy Wall explores the widespread appeal to popular sentiments made by this liberal vision of a community of national togetherness. She outlines how the New Deal’s framing of a compassionate ideal of citizenship witnessed the birth of a new democratic nationalism, which was driven forward by what she describes as the powerful symbols of a unifying “American Way.” Wall explains that, although this vision of national cohesion was not always matched by material realities – the continuation of racial and gender exclusion, as well as serious forms of poverty served as obvious examples of the shortcomings of such progressive idealism – it did find a particularly pointed definition in the New Deal’s celebrated images of an American society united by a belief in “the ability of diverse individuals to live together harmoniously” (7). Even as it fell short of its hopeful promises in many respects, the progressive liberal agenda that prevailed during the period stretching from the Depression to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s was couched in terms of a forward-looking belief in a common and openly assimilationist national culture. Despite the flagrant discrepancies that may have continued to exist between this ideal of nationhood and actual social conditions, liberals tended to optimistically believe that the visionary frameworks that they were setting forth would serve, ultimately, as the best means of fulfilling America’s democratic potential over the advancing years.

The underlining belief of modern liberalism in the possibility of successfully steering economic, social, and cultural forces toward reasonably sought after ends was thus predicated upon certain assumptions about the common aspirations and values that existed among the American masses. This idea of universally shared aims was linked to Enlightenment values about mankind’s ability to shape its own environment and direct historical forces along rationally controlled lines. Pells, for instance, has mentioned how the progressive era saw the rise of a new sensibility in American political thought, which moved away from a laissez-faire faith in the ‘natural’ progress guaranteed by the invisible hand of the market and toward the knowledge that “men had to rely increasingly on planning, efficiency, and expertise in controlling the rate and direction of change” (9). As I have indicated, this progressive tradition in American politics has always been distinctly anti-utopian in both content and sentiment, and has thus set itself in sharp contrast to the revolutionary fervor of many on the Left. As a leading exponent of progressive ideas in the early part of the twentieth century, Lipmann underlined this decidedly temperate approach to changing social and economic conditions when he stated that: “We make our vision, and hold it ready for any amendment that experience suggests. It is not … a row of shiny ideals which we can exhibit to mankind, and say: Achieve these or be damned” (18). From its inception, therefore, the liberal progressive ethos in American politics was defined by a pragmatic commitment to re-organizing socio-economic affairs, distancing itself clearly from revolutionary socialism’s “fixed picture” (Lipmann 18) view of how historical necessity.

The progressive outlook that prefigured and came to shape modern American liberalism thus stressed a general belief in the ability of human beings to manage their own affairs according to nominally laid plans and goals, while maintaining a soberly realistic outlook in its emphasis on goals and expectations. At the same time, however, liberal experiments in social change from the New Deal onwards were accompanied by surcharges of idealism and emotional excitement in so much as they became placed within a larger framework of American providential design. The liberal dominance of the midcentury decades was characterized by a level of national optimism, as engendered by a faith that American history, particularly as it has been won over by progressive principles, contains the germ of a brighter future that is increasingly unfolding over time.

Lipmann helped to conjure such a view of history as a heralded advance to a better state of existence by describing the goal of progressivism as the search for “a future that can in a measure be foreseen and bent somewhat nearer to our hopes” (18). Elsewhere, Herbert Croly made specific appeal to the relationship between the progressive movement and older notions of American national destiny by explaining how re-thinking values about individualism and collective responsibilities was a necessary step in the effort to ensure that “the anticipated realization of our national Promise … the better American future” (20) is not abandoned for the selfish interests of a powerful few. This grandiose vision of an ideal historical blueprint – latent within the foundations of American democracy and made slowly manifest by the liberal progressive search for an improvement of social conditions – was, as I have already stressed, counterbalanced by important notions of pragmatism and compromise that undergirded the values of New Deal liberalism and its later adaptations.

As such, the founding tenets of modern liberalism expressed the need for a healthy balance between an overweening vision of social justice, on the one hand, and a determination to maintain a vital sense of individual freedom and democratic heterogeneity on the other by avoiding the dogma of deterministic notions of progress, particularly as espoused by hardened leftists. As the succeeding chapters to this book discuss at further length, this idea of a balanced synthesis between vision and praxis – what Lipmann referred to as the interrogation of possibilities for political action that exist somewhere between the wayward “drift” of modern life and the search for a progressive method of “mastery” over the seemingly unwieldy forces of history – contained many sources of tension and contradiction that, while once valorized as the bases of political adaptability and strength by liberals, would often prove cripplingly divisive in the subsequent history of American liberalism. My argument focuses particularly on how the broadening sense of kinship that modern liberalism attempted to develop among America’s diverse groups and classes was put under considerable strain from the late sixties onwards by such divisive forces as the New Left, minority rights movements, neo-conservatism, and neo-liberalism. The emergence of these powerful strands of cultural politics and economic thought since the sixties have considerably tested the boundaries of the liberal social contract that arose to prominence during the New Deal by exposing the weaknesses of the Rooseveltian vision of a mass community of diverse, yet relatively balanced interests.

The novels selected for the present study tend to look back on the mid-century decades as forming a celebratory era of nationhood, during which the collective aspirations of the American people were ignited by what seemed like a rapid expansion of democratic possibilities for improving the well-being of ordinary citizens. As Zuckerman notes in American Pastoral, for example, the period immediately following World War Two provided a unique moment of exhilaration and hope among the American masses, during which the weight of history as past was being offloaded by a new vision of history as a forward advance toward an ever-increasingly benign vision of the future: “The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together … the clock of history reset and a whole people’s aims limited no longer by the past” (40-41). For Zuckerman and The Plot against America’s Philip, the decades spanning the New Deal and the post war era of liberal consensus remain particularly wondrous because of their association with personal experiences of origin that continue, from the distant perspective of old age, to be wrapped up in cozy memories of childhood.

As a result, the novels that I have chosen to discuss – particularly in the cases of I Married a Communist, American Pastoral, and The Plot against America – tend to offer affectionate backward glances toward what seems like a golden epoch, during which experiences of youthful simplicity in the life of the narrator was intensified by a powerful sense of the nation as brimming with expectation and self-confidence. However, in so far as Roth’s fiction is engendered by a determination to radically re-imagine coherent notions of self and origin, these texts provide considerably more than a longing to recuperate a lost age of innocence. By contrast, Roth re-visits the presumptive “facts” underwriting the American liberal project at mid-century so as to critically re-explore its vaunted notions of history and citizenship. While the now aged and world-weary characters of Zuckerman and Philip are still somewhat attracted to the ordered notions of progress that once seemed to bound the America of their respective childhoods together, they are acutely aware that such a structured vision of life was decidedly fanciful and ultimately untenable in light of the greater contingencies of existence. For both narrator-protagonists, significantly, the de-idealization of their early sense of excitement over the anticipated promises of life in America is tied up with a personal history of departure away from the protected life-worlds of their respective childhoods, marking, in turn, a movement towards the painful, yet necessary acquirement of knowledge and loss that defines their adult lives. The complicated relationship of these and various other leading figures in Roth’s later fiction to the American scene of their youth is intensified by how such characters experience a bifurcation in their dual heritage as both Jewish and American subjects.

Roth explores this postlapsarian leitmotif in the later novels by outlining how a once dominant vision of the nation as steadily advancing towards a greater state of overall improvement and mass democratic inclusion has given way to a more fractious and disorderly experience of life in America. In a self-interview that he conducted following the publication of The Great American Novel, Roth provides us with an early insight into how this disintegrating experience has informed his writing. He discusses in this piece how certain events that shaped the “demythologizing decade” (Reading Myself and Others, 81) of the sixties gave rise to a situation in which much of “what was imagined to be indestructible, impermeable, in the very nature of American things, yielded and collapsed overnight” (81). What emerged powerfully for Roth from the sixties was “a counter-history, or counter-mythology” (82) that split the post-war American experience in two, creating what he describes as a: “struggle between the benign national myth of itself that a great power prefers to perpetuate, and the relentlessly insidious, very nearly demonic reality (like the kind we had known in the sixties) that will not give an inch in behalf of that idealized mythology” (82-83).

As the main chapters to this book discuss, Roth’s later fiction examines some of the political, social, and cultural divisions of the recent past that have served to chip away at once prevailing ideas about the internal strength of the nation and the positive direction of American history. Roth explores such larger issues of public discord through the private lives of fictional characters whose close sense of identification with “the benign national myth” of America begins to unravel amidst the chaotic experience of a newly emerging, “demonic reality.” The progressive faith in what Lipmann called “a future that can in a measure be foreseen” is countered in these texts by the paralyzing sense in which the once measured lives of Roth’s central characters are suddenly overtaken by the forceful impact of certain “unforeseen” (The Plot against America 114)[5] experiences. History, on the personal and public scale, is thus presented in these novels as something that cannot be comfortably prefigured but is rather plagued by “the terrifyingly provisional nature of everything” (The Human Stain 336), which renders dissolute attempts made by both the individual and the nation to forge a clear and meaningful path through life.

In so far as its “unforeseen” dimensions cannot be delineated in any organized fashion, history is not so much a fully fleshed-out landscape for Roth but rather a place of great uncertainty in which causality and meaning are highly difficult to determine. Grandiose ideas of history as linear progress give way in his fiction to a more disorganized sense of how life, both past and present, is set in endless motion by “the history that isn’t yet history, the history that the clock is now ticking off, the history proliferating as I write, accruing a minute at a time” (The Human Stain 335). In this manner, Roth explores beneath consensual notions of history as fully consolidated past and optimistically forecasted future by re-discovering within historical experience the same level of unpredictability that hallmarks contemporaneous life. This turbid concept of history as something that is subject to rapid moments of flux and instability – an ever-evolving past that is open to endless modes of dispute and untold variations of representation – is closely related to Roth’s view of how fiction makes life strange by bringing into crisis static notions of the world as fully formed and clearly defined.

Indeed, the later novels that I am discussing make pointed references to how the quixotic task of providing some shapely understanding to the maelstrom of historical life is best undertaken by literary figures like Zuckerman, whose roaming imagination does not tend towards simple forms of convergence and unity. Such a view of how fiction can act as a supplement to our otherwise weakened understanding of historical complexities recalls formalist arguments about the literary artist’s unique talent for placing in balanced tension a variety of discordant experiences and contradictory impulses. Roth seems to indicate in these texts how the literary author’s special ability for holding multiple contrarieties in place at once serves as an effective means of illustrating the rampageous elements of historical life by artistically arranging them within some type of intelligible narrative framework. In this fashion, there is a degree to which the disorderliness of “unforeseen” history is given some redeeming aesthetic shape, albeit a highly provisional one, by Roth and his author surrogates. This idea of the novel as a peculiar mode of historical consciousness would appear to reflect Cleanth Brooks’ view of how the literary artist re-orders the “apparently contradictory and conflicting experiences” of life “into a new pattern” of existence.

In the novels that I am discussing, the notion of history as a misshapen mess that cannot be brought to heel by simple methods of observation and planning is presented as a somewhat vertiginous experience for Roth’s fictional subjects. At the same time, Roth illustrates how the novelistic imagination revels in the uncertainty produced by such a tumultuous sense of historical reality, in which all that were once considered as established “facts” are now up for grabs and nothing is clearly settled or easily “foreseen.” However, it is decidedly important to highlight, as I do throughout this book, that Roth has always been concerned with exploring the limits, frustrations, and anxieties that accompany the fiction writer’s ambition to transform the unruly elements of extra-literary existence into a meaningful work of fiction. In so far as Roth is interested in examining the difficulties that the literary author faces in his efforts to impose his creative vision onto real life, his view of how fiction helps to bring the “unforeseen” of history to light does not extend so far as to claim that literature can wholly supplant historiography by achieving some panoptic narrative overview of the erratic fluctuations and shifting dimensions of lived experience. By contrast, the novels under study in this book openly admit to the fact that, like the individual subject whose quest to author his own future is radically undercut by the chaos of historical events, the novelist has to contend with the ways in which the disorderliness of history outstrips our traditional modes of understanding and thus makes pale our efforts to shape it into some cohesive pattern.

Roth’s view of the ways in which fiction helps to enlarge our understanding of the fluctuations and variegations of history does not involve a postmodernist concept of the past as entirely plastic and thus open to all types of imaginative, textual re-ordering. Historical experience is indeed somewhat indeterminate – and thus undetermined – for Roth in so far as it serves to disassemble our inherited frameworks of knowledge and entrenched systems of belief. According to this view of things, the individual self and its historical context are open to exciting forms of imaginative re-interpretation that outstrip pre-fixed notions of social identity. However, the sense of history as an ungainly mass of ever-shifting “facts” that is explored in Roth’s fiction serves in addition as an obdurate force that is heedless of the attempts of individuals and societies to impose a coherent shape onto existence. In this manner, history does have a determining influence of sorts in Roth’s fiction in so much as it acts as an overburdening pressure on the putatively self-directed lives of his characters. As Michael Kimmage so eloquently explains, Roth pointedly contests the ways in which “Americans … pretend that history is theirs to manipulate, since it is powerless to manipulate them” (7). According to Kimmage, the American trilogy explodes this foundational conceit of American exceptionalism by reminding readers that “[w]e are less the authors of history than history – in its Tolstoyan waves of chaos – is the author of our fate, the capricious master of our destiny, able to destroy and scatter and disperse” (6).

Roth draws upon mid-century progressive ideas about national history as a marshaled advance into a brighter future as suitable discursive vehicles for presenting characters that seek to shape their own destinies by escaping from restrictive notions of the past as the overcrowded site of personal and social origins. Characters like Seymour “the Swede” Levov, Ira Ringold, Coleman Silk and The Plot against America’s “Philip Roth” are all empowered by a clearly defined sense of American historical possibility, through which each of them fashion a heroic idealization of his own life as a subject who is emancipated from the hardships that had so troublesomely shaped the lives of previous generations of American citizens, most particularly their ethnically and racially defined forebears. However, these characters’ attempts to “reset” the “clock of history” (American Pastoral 41) and spring free from the inherited nightmares of the past are ultimately brought to heel by the unmitigated arrival onto the scene of “unforeseen” experiences in both their public worlds and personal lives. The powerful idea of history in these novels as a riotous force that side-swipes people’s efforts to achieve a sense of self-control over their lives thus clearly collides with progressive myths about how the injuries and obstacles of the past can be brushed aside in the name of individual and collective fantasies of history as a clear march forward into a promising future.

Significantly, Roth examines in these texts how certain difficult experiences of the shared past that appear to have been rendered irrelevant to the immediate lives of his protagonists return in unexpected ways to interrupt such characters’ efforts to determine their own fates. Complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender and class intrude into the drama of these novels in the form of an unexpected return of repressed historical experiences that have been all too easily forgotten by characters who have sought to re-imagine the limits of their lives by escaping their freighted sense of familial and social origins. This experience of history as an inescapable burden that continues to overshadow the life of the individual has added significance in terms of questions of authorial autonomy in the later Roth works. As I argue throughout this book, Zuckerman’s self-image in the American trilogy and Exit Ghost as the depersonalized author who has simply walked away from the personal and professional difficulties that had for so long beset him is placed in sharp tension with his veiled awareness of how his existence as a writing subject continues, in ways that are similar to the characters that he writes about, to be shaped by his conflicted relationship to irrepressible experiences of history and origin.

In ways that develop on from the keen interest that he has shown in the effects of unconscious memories and desires in the lives of his characters since the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, Roth’s later fiction looks closely at how deeply buried aspects of personal and public history manifest their influence upon the present in terms of an uncanny return of the repressed. Supposedly forgotten miseries of the past operate in Roth’s historically focused novels as delayed experiences of trauma that continue to be felt as personal pathology and public malady, long after their conscious traces seem to have disappeared from sight. It is important to consider this question of trauma in so far as it relates to thematic and narratological issues in Roth’s writing, particularly with regards to his treatment of history in the American trilogy, Exit Ghost, and The Plot against America. Various scholars have discussed trauma as a psychological experience of shock in response to an event of colossal misfortune, the magnitude of which exceeds the survivor’s capacity to fully comprehend what has occurred.

For example, Cathy Caruth defines trauma as “the confrontation with an event that, in its unexpectedness or horror, cannot be placed within the schemes of prior knowledge” (1995 153). She explains that, as a result of the “inaccessibility of its occurrence” (8), the moment of trauma is constantly re-visited by and repeated for the victim, in an effort to make its difficult “reality” fully known to consciousness: “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature – the way that it was precisely not known in the first instance – returns to haunt the survivor later on” (1996 4). Although the trauma belatedly enters into the life of the traumatized subject through a long series of unbidden and surprising instances of recall, the full horror of the original event can never be absorbed within the limits of consciousness. Trauma, therefore, takes the paradoxical form of a past event that is never fully experienced or made real to its victim, yet which, in its overwhelming insistence to become known, is subject to endless instances of belated return that come to haunt the life of the individual. As another leading scholar in trauma theory, Dori Laub explains: “[w]hile the trauma uncannily returns in actual life, its reality continues to elude the subject who lives in its grip and unwittingly undergoes its ceaseless repetitions and re-enactments” (Felman and Laub 68-9).

This paradoxical sense of the past as conditioned by a trauma that is yet to be made clearly known to those that it still affects plays a significant role in Roth’s treatment of the temporal disjunctions of history and the ways in which they discomfit simple ideas about how events progress from the past, through the present, and into the future. In the novels that I have chosen to read, experiences of sudden reversal in the lives of Roth’s protagonists are dramatized as moments of inconceivable or “unforeseen” trauma that have left these characters stranded within a world that has become radically estranged and incomprehensible to them. Felman and Caruth’s separate discussions on how trauma narratives take all kinds of experimental forms of expression further illuminate upon Roth’s interest in the role that the fiction writer plays as a chronicler of this decidedly uneven experience of history. According to Felman, trauma finds articulation in testimonial recollections that convey the sense of an event that “has no ending, attained no closure, and therefore, as far as its survivors are concerned, continues into the present and is current in every respect” (69). The acts of testimony by which traumatic memories are explored, therefore, make known the poverty of their own narrative efforts to possess the overbearingly horrific event. Strangely, it is the very aporias, omissions, chronological disjunctions, and missed connections in the narrating of a trauma that help bring the “unassimilated” experience into some provisional mode of existence. As Caruth explains, it is through the “paradoxical … transmission of a gap” (1995 156) that trauma narratives open “the space for a testimony that can speak beyond what is already understood” (155).

This concept of trauma as an experience that eludes any simple type of representation and yet whose very ungraspable quality inspires untold forms of narrative improvisation is evidenced by Roth’s examination of the relationship between fictional experimentation and historical trauma. Indeed, for Zuckerman, history itself could be described as the scene of a traumatic collision that continues to haunt his ostensibly apolitical, formalist literary practices. Most interestingly, Zuckerman’s ‘personal’ relationship in the American trilogy to the characters that he writes about in his supposedly ‘impersonal’ fictions demonstrates the extent to which he is desirous to locate an understanding of the traumas that have plagued his own life as a writer. As my next chapter more fully explains, Zuckerman’s close sense of identification with his various protagonists in the American trilogy and Exit Ghost can be understood in terms of the role of trauma witness, as defined by people like Caruth, Laub, and Felman.

My argument draws upon two other narrative theories that help to further illuminate how, throughout Roth’s fiction, formalist notions of the ‘sacral’ body of the text are interpenetrated with and sullied by certain ‘profane’ elements of the mutable life of the embodied author. I will make a few passing remarks to my application of these conceptual frameworks here, while saving a fuller discussion of such issues for the chapter that follows. The dialogic theories of V. N. Volosinov and Mikhail Bakhtin provide a powerful resource in helping to understand how Roth’s later work dramatizes the acute relationship between formal experimentation, on the one hand, and various issues of historical content on the other. As opposed to those who might use the concept of dialogism in order to understand particular aspects of narrative technique in terms of mere play or performance, I draw attention back towards how Volosinov and Bakhtin’s shared understanding of the novelistic uses of indirect discourse can help us to examine the ways in which actual social conflicts are enacted through the framing of speech and point of view in fiction. The various dialogical structures in the Zuckerman novels that I have chosen to study serve to illustrate the ways in which the narrative utterances of certain characters in these texts exist in rivalrous interaction with Roth’s author-surrogate.

By analyzing the formal dynamics of these dialogical relationships, this book examines in close detail the extent to which Zuckerman, as the supposedly withdrawn and aloof ‘author’ of these stories, is in fact personally invested in the various portraits that he provides of his characters and their historical predicaments. In addition, I draw pointedly on Bakhtin’s contrast between epic and novelistic discourses in order to read the relationship between historical trauma and dialogical narrative style in The Plot against America. My study of Roth also borrows from Peter Brooks’ ideas about the relationship between story telling and desire. Brooks’ clever insights provide a useful framework for probing the ways in which Zuckerman’s formalist self-image of living a “posthumous existence” (Exit Ghost 120) as a wholly disinterested writer is compromised by the corporeal presence that he holds within his own narratives. By examining the relationship between sexual longing and creative intention that is refracted in various ways throughout all of the nine Zuckerman texts, my discussions of the American trilogy and Exit Ghost pay attention to how Zuckerman’s frustrated efforts to separate his writing from his actual life as a biographical subject are dramatized in terms of mutable experiences of death and desire. I argue that, as a result of such an interlocking of the embodied authorial self with the body of the text, Zuckerman fails to achieve his expressed wish in the later novels to escape from the autobiographical conflicts that had so plagued him in earlier works.

Certain leading scholars refuse to see Roth’s use of a broader historical canvas in the later Zuckerman texts and The Plot against America as an invitation to read his work in a historicist or political light. Such critics tend to view the historical contexts of these works as ‘objective correlatives,’ through which Roth continues to explore well-worn themes of authorship and the individual self. For instance, in Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: the Art of Immaturity, Ross Posnock reads the American trilogy as Roth’s tour de force in defense of formalist principles about the autonomy of the literary text from the grubby influences of social context. He cites what he sees as Roth’s open attacks on agitprop literature in I Married a Communist and cultural politics in The Human Stain as evidence for his claim that “Roth embraces a modernism of Promethean heroism,” in which the primacy of the “individual author” (50) prevails over the deterministic bent of literary historicism and fixed notions of social identity. Similarly, Mark Shechner has argued that the post-war history upon which the American trilogy draws is “merely backstory” (2007 143) or a “prop” (145). Insisting that “[t]he Roth canvas is vertical, in portrait mode, not horizontal, in [historical] landscape” (146), Shechner claims that Roth uses history in these novels as a mise en scene that serves to bolster his fundamental concern with examining stylistic issues of characterization and narrative technique.

David Brauner’s Philip Roth outlines how Roth pits notions of individual autonomy and aesthetic independence against the clunky notions of ‘History’ that are aggressively asserted throughout the American trilogy by various character incarnations of the forceful ideologue, such as Ira Ringold (I Married a Communist), Merry Levov (American Pastoral), and Delphine Roux (The Human Stain). According to Brauner, Roth’s critique of the perfectionist illusions of all kinds of utopian thinking in these novels establishes an “ideological conflict between pastoral Utopianism … and anti-pastoral humanism” (2007 157). Brauner places Roth amongst the literary formalists that preceded him by suggesting that his fiction carries a moral argument about how sophisticated formal technique allows the author to examine deeper complexities and profundities within human existence, the illumination of which challenges narrow ideological conceptions of the world: “his work is, at the stylistic level, full of oxymorons, incongruities and reversals that reflect and enact an intellectual and ideological restlessness, a relentless determination to confront the ambiguities and inconsistencies of life and fiction” (19). As such, Brauner concludes that Roth’s “books … are acts of self-liberation and also of definitive rupture with a larger community” (18).

Bracketed within this circle of interesting formalist readings of Roth’s later work is Mia Pasiero’s Philip Roth and the Zuckerman Books: the Making of a Storyworld. Pasiero focuses on “[h]ow the Zuckerman books work from a narratological perspective and how form, in its panoply of aspects, creates the Zuckerman world and activates reader response” (10). Although she suggests that the American trilogy “shows Roth (via Zuckerman) as a social novelist caring about history’s cultural minutiae who sets his characters’ individual biographies against crucial national junctures” (14), Masiero’s reading of these texts does not fuse any worthwhile historicist analysis with the clever understanding of style and form that is demonstrated throughout her study.

Claudia Bruhwiler’s Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth covers an interesting array of issues in Roth, such as cultural identity, political terrorism, childhood, aging, and authorship. Yet despite her intelligent understanding of how Roth examines “[t]he initiation story” (17) as both an “anthropological concept and literary motif” (16), Bruhwiler ultimately falls back on the well-established argument that Roth’s work is not so concerned with the social or “anthropological” as it is with upholding ideas about the hallowed role of “literature as [existing] outside of the political sphere and thus immune to political charges” (50). Bruhwiler and others are correct in asserting that Roth is not a polemicist or political partisan of any sort. However, as I argue, Roth’s insistence that literature should avoid all forms of party allegiances and ideological dogma finds an added dimension in the ways that his fiction also tends to bring into question the narrow scope of classic values of literary formalism. In their separate ways, these scholars have provided excellent and convincing arguments about Roth’s chief concerns with the formal dynamics of fiction writing. However, as my earlier comments already suggest, I seek to add to such scholarship by illustrating how Roth’s keen interest in values about the independence of the individual artist and the literary work does not necessarily exclude a historical reading of his later work.

In contrast to the formalist bias shared by Posnock, Brauner, Masiero, and others, those few scholars who have set out to address the major historical content of Roth’s later novels have tended to do so at the expense of those apparently ‘minor’ issues of literary style and the plight of the authorial self that dominated his writing prior to American Pastoral. Aimee Pozorski’s Roth and Trauma, for example, admittedly “turn[s] away from self-reflective questions of the author and toward a more considered study of the role of traumatic history in Roth’s work” (10). A valuable contribution to the critical field, Pozorski’s examination of history and trauma intersects with some of my own interrogations of how Roth treats related issues of social identity and liberal despair. However, Pozorski’s concentration on Roth’s treatment of founding national myths involves the use of trauma as a framework for historical analysis that is somewhat different to my own.[6] Furthermore, while Pozorski’s “study takes up trauma in Roth in terms of both content and form” (23), her analysis does not broach how, as I argue, “self-reflective questions of the author” in Roth’s work, particularly in the later Zuckerman novels, are themselves related to issues of history and/as trauma.

In Writing the Republic, Anthony Hutchinson provides an interesting historical analysis of the American trilogy that overlaps, in many ways, with my own angle of approach. Hutchinson contends that Roth is unequivocally loyal to the “‘majoritarian’ liberalism of the midcentury ‘proud decades’ of American life,” where the “emphasis” was upon “the relationship of the individual to the republic or broader national collective rather than any ethnic subgroup” (167). However, I take particular opposition to Hutchinson’s view that Roth is somehow faithful to a notion of origins that he describes under the rubric of “paleoloiberalism” (167), and which he locates in the perspectives of certain authoritative paternal figures within the American trilogy. My argument insists that such issues of paternity and origin find a greater degree of sundering and ambivalence throughout Roth’s body of work than Hutchinson allows. As I explain, this problem of fatherhood and heritage is linked inextricably to questions of the subjectivity and the writing self for Roth. Such a key issue in his work is negligibly sidelined by Hutchinson, who fails to adequately treat the aesthetic and personal predicaments of Roth’s surrogate author, Nathan Zuckerman, to the broader themes of liberal politics within the American trilogy.

Of course, the notion that a clear fault-line exists in Roth criticism between Schechner’s view that history is solely a “prop” in his later work and Hutchinson’s focus on the political content of the American trilogy does not hold up against the scholarly evidence. Many critics have honed in on Roth’s late attention to issues of national history in order to further examine questions of literary form and subjectivity that have dominated his work from the onset. Indeed, Brauner’s claim that “history is incorporated into a realist, anti-pastoral discourse in the ‘American Trilogy’,” by which Roth “(re)engages with the confusion, irrationality, incoherence and mess of ‘lived reality’,” (179) provides a useful example of how scholars have attempted to combine an analysis of Roth’s formal stylistics with a greater understanding that the role of broader national events play in his later work. As with Brauner’s argument, however, many of the major studies of Roth in recent years have tended to view the role of history in his writing as a kind of formal abstraction that is without any particular elements of historical content other than by making obligatory passing references to American exceptionalism and other such broad-based concepts of national identity. While scholars have done much to emphasize the burdens that history qua history place upon concepts of the self-determining individual and creative style in some of Roth’s later novels, they do so in ways that evade any concentrated effort to explore in depth the issues of political content that are addressed in these texts.

In her book, Philip Roth – Countertexts, Counterlives, Debra Shostak cleverly reads the American trilogy as a new shift away from the “will to self-invention” evident in earlier Roth novels, and “toward an unprecedentedly deterministic conception of history as the context for American subjectivity” (234). As a scholar who has produced an excellent reading of how Roth’s dialogic experimentations evade neat critical evaluations, Shostak goes further than people like Posnock by acknowledging how American Pastoral marked a shift in attention towards the historical placement of the self in the author’s work. However, Shostak’s reading of the American trilogy is chiefly concerned with Roth’s interest in history as more of an overwhelming force of external pressure that has to be reckoned with by the individual subject and the literary author than a particular setting with definable coordinates. Whereas Shostak provides a keen insight into the narrative dynamics and aesthetic implications of the struggle between “determinism” and “autonomy” (230) in the American trilogy, her assessment of the particular post-war contexts through which this conflict is dramatized in the novels is markedly scant.[7]

David Gooblar’s The Major Phases of Philip Roth argues that, throughout his body of work, “Roth’s desire to define himself as a writer, to retain the freedom to write however he wants, is countered by a societal desire to brand the individual, to pin him down, to restrict his freedom of self-determination” (139). Gooblar suggests that this literary struggle finds a source of historical origin in Roth’s early affiliation with the “new liberalism” that was shaped by the New York intellectuals during the early post war period, for which the “twin preoccupations with individual freedom and a complex, measured view of the world found a compatible aesthetic in modernism” (25). By aligning Roth with a modernist view of “artistic individualism,” in which “the individual resists the collective desires of community or mass society” (22), Gooblar echoes the anti-historicist arguments of Posnock and Brauner. That said, Gooblar does a lot more than these scholars in so much as he probes how Roth’s resistance to strict social and historical definitions of his role as artist is itself a by-product of political shifts in American liberalism after World War Two. Indeed, the political and literary debates that circulated among the New York Intellectuals in this period form a considerable basis for my own study, particularly with respect to I Married a Communist. Yet I would stress that, although Gooblar is keen to outline how the American trilogy charts a greater sense of restriction placed upon the historically situated individual than earlier novels, my own work goes much further by examining the ways in which the faith that the New York intellectuals shared in individualism and modernist aesthetics is somewhat challenged by Roth’s complex form of realism, both in I Married a Communist and other novels.

The dustcover of Michael Kimmage’s In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy claims that it is “the first critical study … to scrutinize a subject that Roth was accused of avoiding as a younger writer – history.” For Kimmage, the American trilogy offers a “tapestry of twentieth-century US history, in which the Great Depression, the Second World War, McCarthyism, 1960s radicalism, and the late twentieth-century pageant are threaded into the smaller stories of fictional characters” (24). Yet despite this reference to some of the major moments that define Roth’s historical “tapestry,” Kimmage is not so concerned with the particulars of actual historical experiences and how they are played out in the American trilogy. Rather, like Shostak, Kimmage explores, quite cleverly, how Roth sees history as a protean force that humbles the individual’s desire to carve out his own destiny in life. My work differs considerably from Kimmage’s not only in its closer treatment of twentieth century American history, but also in so much as he tends to sideline Zuckerman from his discussions of the American trilogy. In History’s Grip does make some very salient points about how Roth’s trilogy celebrates the ability of the fiction writer to map out “the unruly specificities [of history] in ways that the historian … cannot” (10). My own work, however, seeks to add to Kimmage’s brilliant insights by probing deeper into the ways in which the sources of narrative authority (Zuckerman and Philip) within the novels that I have chosen to study are themselves subject to – thus making the stories they tell something of a product of – the troubled experience of history as “unforeseen.”

Most recently, Ann Basu has offered an excellent study of the aesthetic, national historical, gendered, and racial implications of Roth’s investigation of the multivalent trope of manhood under trial. Concentrating also on a chosen selection of his later texts, Basu argues that “Roth taps the trial’s cultural roots in America’s foundational mythology of regenerative and purifying mission, journey and redemption, to explore its workings in post-war American culture and its place in determining who is or is not ‘American’” (2). She claims that the novels of the American trilogy and The Plot against America offer interesting examples of masculinity undergoing ordeal and suffering anxiety that finds a larger historical scope through how Roth’s novels configure the male body in crisis with a questioning of boundaries of national identity: “[the] novels with which I am concerned match that post-war narrative of rebirth and the associated hardening of American identity with counternarratives about the loosening of these boundaries or corporal decay, where Jewish manhood, even at it most closely replicates the American national body, works to dissolve a sense of well-integrated American manhood and a unified national identity” (8). Basu’s discussion of how the “liminal status” (7) of the Jewish male in Roth’s writing tests the narrow parameters of a mythic concept of American masculine identity, purportedly extended to Jews in the post war age, is strengthened by her further considerations of gender and race: “[Roth] portrays the symbolic American body always liable to attack by those deemed to be outside it: an attack figured as the dissolution of its boundaries either by (sexual or racial) contamination or penetration” (6). She extends her insightful social and political explorations of trial states to an examination of how literary tradition and form function in Roth’s work. Basu provides the reader with myriad examples of how Roth reflects upon the act of narration as a process under trial and constantly subject to formal breaches through the ways that “the narrator’s desire to know and explain the protagonist [and events]” in his work is “set against the inevitability of getting [the]m wrong” (12).

Basu goes even further in her discussion of “trial as rhetorical space” (11) by looking at how intertextuality in Roth’s fiction permeates and stretches the boundaries of the textual body by “allowing other important voices to speak through his work” and thus “engag[ing] in competitive and appropriative acts of recognizing … literary predecessors” (3). As this short outline suggests, Basu has arguably achieved more than any other scholar in fusing historical and literary perspectives on Roth’s writing. My argument adds in new ways to Basu’s intelligent understanding of the problems that issues of ethnicity, race, and gender bring to concepts national identity in Roth’s later fiction.

My discussion diverges slightly from Basu’s in so far as her claim that Roth’s tendency “to offer a more sympathetic hearing for the male voices” in certain novels outweighs the somewhat negative attention that he focuses on the role of his “treacherous women” (73) runs contrary to what I outline as the unrepentant manner in which the novelist renders his male characters as flayed and impotent subjects. In addition, my study gives greater flesh to the historical context(s) that have defined concepts of an integrated national body since the post war period, and which plays such an important feature in Basu’s discussion of how masculinity functions (or dysfunctions) as Americanness in Roth’s work. Basu does touch upon some interesting aspects of how broader narratives of national unity and disunity operate in works like American Pastoral and The Human Stain. However, there is not a great amount of substance offered in terms of the social and ideological forces that served to define the national scene in which such novels are set. As such, my own argument will hopefully add to Basu’s groundbreaking work by providing a deeper awareness of the historical developments and transitions that have situated questions of manhood, Jewishness, race, and gender, not to mention class, in the lengthy period since World War Two so occupies Roth’s historical fiction.

By reading the problematic intersection of text and context in the manner that I have outlined, Philip Roth and American Liberalism questions the ready acceptance made by certain prominent critics of Roth’s ostensible dedication to the intractable formalist idea that serious works of literature are entirely emptied of the social and autobiographical elements of the author’s actual existence. Conversely, this study markedly improves upon the work of the few existing historicist critics of Roth’s later work, whose particular angles of approach have tended to overlook significant aspects of his unique style of formal experimentation. The aim of the present study is to provide a more complex understanding of how Roth’s fiction has been shaped by the various competing strains in his dual roles as a disinterested formalist aesthete, on the one hand, and as a politically engaged author on the other. In this regard, I am reading the later Zuckerman novels and The Plot against America as examples of what Edward Said calls “literature [that is] connected both to its specific historical and cultural situations as well as to a whole other world of literatures and formal articulations” (185).



[1] This idea of literature as somehow a substitute for or equivalent to religion in a world shorn of moral standards is discussed by many commentators. Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, for instance, offers a useful survey of such thought in relation to New Criticism (see Chapter 1, “The Rise of English”). In the collection of essays by Southern agrarians, I’ll Take My Stand, to which New Critics like John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren each contributed, the introductory remarks contain the following commentary upon the religio-moral function of art and literature in the modern industrialized age: “Art depends, in general, like religion, on a right attitude to nature; and in particular on a free and disinterested observation of nature that occurs only in leisure. Neither the creation nor the understanding of works of art is possible in an industrial age except by some local and unlikely suspension of the industrial drive” (xlvii).

[2] Roth introduces and defines this term in a self-interview that he conducted and published following the release of The Great American Novel (1974). My discussion of I Married a Communist in chapter 3 provides a full discussion of this term and discusses in detail its relevance in terms of Roth’s fictional style.

[3] Michael McGerr has suggested that, although they “[m]ore influenced by socialism than they like to admit, progressives nevertheless shied away from a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist economy. They generally declined numerous opportunities to rethink the virtue of private property” (Preface xv). Indeed, McGerr’s central argument stresses what he sees as the conservative strains of progressive values in the early twentieth century, which, he claims, were focused by as much by a desire to ‘civilize’ the working classes and immigrant poor as they were by efforts to reign in the excesses of the extraordinarily rich: “Progressives wanted not only to use the state to regulate the economy; they intended nothing less than to transform other Americans, to remake the nation’s feuding, polyglot population in their own middle-class image” (Preface xiv).

[4] Lipmann’s book, Drift and Mastery spells out the pragmatic philosophy that he shared with people like Dewey and Croly. He establishes in this work a progressive argument in the favor of the need to achieve some level of political mastery over the unruliness of modern economic and social life, which at the same time warns against the drive for absolutist statist dominance of human interactions that is expressed by utopian schemes for improving conditions. He elaborates upon this flexible and non-dogmatic approach to giving some shape to the otherwise wayward drift of economic and social affairs in the following terms: “All we can do is search the world as we find it, extricate the forces that seem to move it, and surround them with criticism and suggestion. Such a vision will inevitably reveal the bias of its author; that is to say it will be a human hypothesis, not an oracular revelation. But if the hypothesis is honest and alive it should cast a little light upon our chaos. It should help us to cease revolving in the mere routine of the present or floating in a private utopia. For a vision of latent hope would be woven of vigorous strands; it would be concentrated on the crucial points of contemporary life, on that living zone where the present is passing into the future. It is the region where thought and action count … in the unfolding present, man can be creative if his vision is gathered from the promise of actual things” (18).

[5] This term, “unforeseen,” pops up repeatedly in the novels of the American trilogy and is a key reference term in Roth’s view of the disorderly shape of historical experience, particularly as it pertains to 20th Century America.

[6] I would indeed take a lot from Pozorski’s study of how Roth re-evaluates America’s national origins in so far as the liberal myths that he re-examines in the later works are couched in terms of classic ideals of national progress and American exceptionalism. However, my argument diverges from hers by stressing the historical particularity of the 20th century form of liberal nationalism that concerns Roth, which not only separates his mythic portraits of midcentury America from earlier visions of nationhood but also from more recent ideologies of neoconservatism and neo-liberalism.

[7] Interestingly, Shostak’s failure to offer a more particular view of the historical contexts that the American trilogy deals with rests in tension with her clever understanding of the dialogic in Roth’s work. As a concept that derives from a reading of how novelistic form dramatizes socio-material conflicts, dialogism would seem to beg a closer inspection of how narrative style is attached to particular historical experiences. My own work strives to do just this by understanding how Roth’s dialogic experiments are shaped by and reflective of certain historical experiences that help shape the lives of his characters.


Our review of the book is available here. Also available is the introduction to A Political Companion to Philip Roth with the following chapters: “Serving His Tour as an “Exasperated Liberal and Indignant Citizen”: Philip Roth, a Public Intellectual?”; “The Politics and Literature of Unknowingness: Philip Roth’s Our Gang and The Plot Against America”; and “Four Pathologies and a State of Sanity: Political Philosophy and Philip Roth on the Individual in Society”; and Lee Trepanier’s essays, “The Paradoxes of the Body in Everyman, Nemesis, and The Humbling” and “What Can Philip Roth Tell Us About Politics Today.”

This was originally published with the same title in Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition (Lexington Books, 2017).

Andy Connolly

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Andy Connolly is the author of Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition (Lexington Books, 2017), in addition to several scholarly articles and book chapters on Roth's fiction. Andy is an officer with The Philip Roth Society and currently serves as the society's newsletter editor. He hails from Ireland and teaches at Hostos College, CUNY in New York City.