Volume VIII, Number 2, Fall 2012

"Review of Reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email:

Reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral
Ivanova, Velichka D., ed.
Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2011.
290 pages
ISBN-10: 2810701601
ISBN-13: 978-2810701605


Philip Roth’s American Pastoral was published in 1997 as the author’s 22nd book, his third novel on the pastoral theme after Counterlife in 1986 and Sabbath’s Theater in 1995. Critics have accused Roth of repeating himself because he is constantly revisiting the same themes and material. The volume takes issue with this view “by reconsidering Roth’s writing method as a career-long exploration of situations he regards as foundational for capturing and shaping American reality” (10). One of these recurring situations is the dream of success, unity, and happiness in America, the theme the volume calls “the issue of pastoral longing” (10). The dream for a rewarding and peaceful life of accomplishment is shown to be illusory in Roth’s pastoral sequence, in which American Pastoral (AP) focuses on the time of the Vietnam War. This is the time when the pastoral longing of the post World War II generation faces the intrusion of history that is impossible to contain. Seymour “the Swede” Levov’s prosperous uneventful life of assimilation is shattered by the bomb his daughter Merry drops on the local post office that accidentally kills the community’s doctor. The resulting chaos and search for a new order only leads to the disintegration of the family and their lifestyle. The twenty essays of the volume discuss AP clustered around four general topics: history and self, voices of dissent, narration, and intertextuality, testifying for a multiplicity of readings and approaches.

Part one, titled “History, Place, Self,” opens the discussion by situating the novel in the context of its relation to history, historically significant places, and resulting forms of self-belonging. Hana Wirth-Nesher interprets the narrator Zuckerman’s nostalgia for World War II and the era of J. F. Kennedy’s presidency as forms of escape from the present and parts of the past. Zuckermann’s nostalgia is blind to the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, too, and represents a flight from history and responsibility. Aimee L. Pozorski addresses possible relations to history in the novel through the character of Merry Levov. Merry’s anti-war activism draws attention to the fallen democratic ideals of the American Revolution. Although the Newark Jewish community idolizes the War of Independence, in fact it has forgotten about its ideals, a mistake Merry’s actions attempt to correct. Derek Parker Royal investigates how Roth’s protagonists reimagine their realities and establish a space to renegotiate their subjectivity, especially their ethnic identity. In AP, it is the figure of Roth’s alter-ego, the narrator Zuckermann, who foregrounds the process of fictionalization. Zuckermann presents the Swede as the symbol for successful assimilation, and his story as a process of understanding one’s ethnic self. Judith Johnsey discusses Levov’s assimilation by scrutinizing the social spaces he inhabits and the social forces that produce these spaces. The idyllic rural landscape the Swede choses to live in is in sharp contrast to the fictional Jews’ usual aversion to Nature. In fact, he has reached a liminal zone between Jewishness and Gentility and has also lost his connection to history. Merry reacts to his father’s liminal position with her actions, ending up in her own extra-juridical position: her squalid room of hiding to be reached through an underpass. Ann Basu interprets AP as a trial of post-war American masculinity, discussing the limits of who is American. The novel “tests and finally dismisses a mythology of origins perpetuating an ideology of the nation as a unified, well-founded, ordered entity into which the (male) individual is fully integrated” (76). The movement from order to disorder is facilitated by women: Merry’s actions expose the failure of an American ideology based on a myth of unified masculinity.

The second section of the book explores various social discourses of the real represented in AP through essays focusing mainly on the character of Merry, the dissenter. Philip Abbott considers AP as a reading of democratic theory, an account of American populism that will be explored further in the next two volumes of Roth’s American trilogy, I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). Abbott argues that Roth’s representation of the emotional side of populism in the daughter characters, who struggle to express themselves, more precisely their anger, may help acknowledge the role of populism and emotions in political protest. Linda S. Watts examines the novel’s manner of portraying principled dissent, the act of standing up and speaking out for a point of view. Merry Levov’s involvement in clandestine operations falls into this category, her actions, although not historically verifiable, resembling those of the Weather Underground. Also, there is a reflexive side to the narration: “If history is the contest for meaning among competing truth claims, what part does historical fiction play in this process?”(112). Watts claims that Roth’s representation of Merry’s actions offers no easy answer to this question as the political-discursive positions Merry takes often seem just as blind historically, due to their populism, as their elders’. Matthew McBride goes on the analyze the character’s dissent as the creation of a hysterical subject who looks behind the law only to see a void while her father remains subject to ideology. Erica D. Galioto focuses on identifying the role of Merry’s stutter with the help of psychoanalytic theory in order to analyze how the speech and actions of the dissenter play a role in the formation of the Swede’s self-awareness. Identifying her speech as anamorphotic (Lacan) stutter, Galioto traces the steps through which her words, actions, and bodily presence make Seymour Levov recognize his own emptiness.

The third section of the collection explores the narrative construction of AP with special emphasis on the role of Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator. Ben Railton compares Zuckerman to Díaz’s narrator in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in order to explore the level of their involvement with what they represent. Railton argues that both narrators are engaged with their characters and criticize them as well, whilst trying to present a realistic chronicle about their lives. Yet fictionalization is at work for Zuckerman and Yunior the same way as it is present for other narrators of the American Dream, namely for Jim in Cather’s My Ántonia and Nick in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Gary Johnson examines how a life acquires a meaning in and through narrative, and who is in position to interpret that meaning in the later Rothian oeuvre in general and in AP in particular. (153) Johnson argues that Roth adopts allegory — as defined by Frye in his Anatomy (1957) and Gay Clifford in his The Transformations of Allegory (1974) — both as a mode of composition and as an interpretive act to explore what role memory and narrative play in salvaging meaning from a life. Debra Shostak shows how AP exemplifies the drama of identity construction that is inscribed through the trope of the fall, the postwar fall from atemporality into the awareness of historicity. Pia Masiero addresses the narratological issues at stake in the novel: why does Zuckerman cease to be the narrating consciousness on the level of pronouns after the first section? Masiero claims that although Zuckerman changes to third person narration in the second and third sections, and everything there is focalized (Dorrit Cohn) through the Swede, Zuckerman’s mediating voice narrates the Swede’s consciousness through psycho-narration, quoted monologue, and narrated discourse alike to implicate the reader in the Swede’s predicament.

The fourth section of the volume considers the intricate intertextual network the novel is situated in as a key to its treatment of the pastoral theme. Firstly, David Brauner compares AP to The Human Stain on the basis of their uses of the pastoral and the anti-pastoral realms. According to Brauner, both protagonists, Levov and Coleman Silk, experience a tragic fall when they denounce rational existence in favor of the confusion of ‘lived reality’ (203). Gustavo Sánchez-Canales identifies classic motifs in Roth’s novel (like hamartia – something unavoidable, and moira – a tragic flaw), that represent a deterministic view of life. Both David Rampton and Velichka D. Ivanova consider the role of Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” in the making of the novel. Rampton starts out with Roth’s early reference to Tolstoy’s famous sentence on simple life, when Levov’s life is said to have “been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (231). Rampton maintains that Zuckerman brings up and questions this statement, as such certainties are impossible to produce today. Ivanova argues that Roth’s novel represents not only a thematic but also, and more importantly, a dialogic response to Tolstoy. The initial reference is extended into an open question at the end of the novel, opening up a dialogic dystopian space (Bakhtin). Matthew McKenzie Davis analyzes the similar ways in which AP and Proust’s Swann create a narrative that relies on memory to handle the emotional effect of past experience. Roth in fact reimagines a literary predecessor, as he did with Joyce’s Portrait in The Ghost Writer. Zuckerman’s nostalgic reminiscences are assaulted by Roth’s intrusions (257) that problematize Zuckerman’s idolization of the Levovs’ life. Till Kinzel reads Roth’s American trilogy as novels of cultural memory to argue that AP functions as a reminder of America’s paradoxical relation to the pastoral, as “the anti-pastoral America again and again risks to become results from the very desire to establish a utopia of purity” (272).

The collection negotiates the pervasive and challenging theme of the pastoral in Roth’s work from multiple perspectives. The multiplicity of approaches enable the presence of both contextually and formally oriented chapters in the volume (politics/self, social discourses vs. narrator postions, intertextual space). Also, the actual articles can vary in scope and depth to a high degree (from Philip Abbott’s extremely well-researched treatise on democratic theory and Roth’s trilogy to Gary Johnson’s underdefined reading of allegory). An additional merit of the collection is that, through its discussion of the pastoral theme, it not only rectifies Roth’s critical profile but also indirectly problematizes the issue of American Jews’ place on the country’s multicultural map.