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Philip Roth Discusses Latest Novel The Plot Against America

Jeffrey Brown talks with author Philip Roth about his latest novel, "The Plot Against America," in part one of a two-part interview.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's 1940, and flying hero Charles Lindbergh has galvanized public opinion against intervention in World War II, and pulled off a stunning defeat of incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. President Lindbergh signs a non- aggression pact with Hitler, the Germans roll through Europe, and in Newark, New Jersey, the Jews on Summit Avenue fear an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence. It's fiction, of course, a novel called "The Plot Against America."

    But it's fiction that feels real and frightening in the hands of Philip Roth, for almost 50 years now one of the nation's leading writers. Roth himself grew up in Newark, and in this novel, he's carefully depicted his own family in the 1940s: Father; mother; brother; and himself as a young boy. Now 71, the very private Roth invited us for a rare visit on a glorious fall day at his home in Cornwall, Connecticut.

    He said the idea for his novel came from a single line in a book by historian Arthur Schlesinger, stating that some Republicans in 1940 had considered nominating Lindbergh for president.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    My eye landed on the sentence, and in the margin I wrote, "what if they had?"

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "What if they had," that was it?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    What if they had nominated Lindbergh? And that just started my wheels spinning. And you can see how, because immediately you have to… you have to answer that question. And the answer to that question is dense, it's not one line. "What if they had?"

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What was it about that "what if," though, that grabbed you and made you realize that you had a book there?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Mm. I can't say that I knew in the beginning. I think I had a spontaneous reaction to the possibility. I didn't know what the possibilities were, however. I should say, however, of course, Lindbergh's name was a loaded name for me.

    I knew Lindbergh's history and I knew about Lindbergh's isolationism. And the first thing I wanted to imagine was what would it have been like if an isolationist had been elected president– it needn't have been Lindbergh, by the way– and we hadn't gone to war.

    So that was the first, "what if?" But Lindbergh carried another possibility in that I knew he was famous for anti-Semitic remarks he'd made during his times as spokesman for America First. And I realized that he would be a threat or a menace to American Jews as a candidate.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, one of the things you're doing here is you've got big history, you've got one big change to history, but most of your story unfolds with one family. So, how did you decide that you could look at history through the lens of this one small family?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Oh, I think it's the novelist's way, you know? I think that decision was made for me when I became a writer; that is, to see history through the lives of ordinary people has always interested me. You're correct to say that there was just one change. I was very conscious of that. Just change the outcome of the 1940 election and make everything else as close to reality as you possibly can, which is why I chose my family as the family to whom all this happens. And that excited me because it opened up a question which is: How would we have behaved in these circumstances?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And did you go back, in your mind at least, and recreate your actual life at the time?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    I think so. I remembered.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's a work of fiction, but it's a work of memory?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Well, yes, it's a false memoir, isn't it? So it's an act… it appears to be an act of memory, but it's a false memoir. I had a little slogan I would use with myself when I was writing this book, and from– if you want more falsification– I said to myself whenever I got stuck, which was frequently, "Don't invent, just remember."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Don't invent, just remember."

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Remember what happened. But, of course, as you know the history didn't happen. So I had to pretend to myself that it did happen, and say, "When Lindbergh was elected, what did we do that night?"

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What did we listen to on the radio? What did we have for dinner?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Exactly. Rather than having to invent it, which is what you're normally doing in a book.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One of the things that struck me is the relationship of the young boy– you– to his parents, particularly his father, because he sees his father's flaws for the first time. So it's very sort of personal and raw, in a sense.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    I think the subject of the book that interested me was, to put what I said earlier another way, how much pressure can you bring to bear on this family, and what will happen when you bring maximum pressure to bear on them? They're all trying to cope with this menace, the menace of Lindbergh, and the pressures are enormous. And they're all trying to cope with the humiliation, too, even the little tiny boy, the humiliation of being… of the Jews somehow being separated out, of appearing to be not welcome.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There's a passage, maybe you could read for us, in which the son does see his father breaking down.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Yeah, he says, "a new life began for me. I'd watched my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood. The mother at home was now away all day working for Hanes, the brother on call was now off after school working for Lindbergh, and the father who'd defiantly serenaded all those callow cafeteria anti-Semites in Washington was crying aloud with his mouth wide open, crying like both a baby abandoned and a man being tortured, because he was powerless to stop the unforeseen.

    And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made it clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way around, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as history, harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, in fact, we don't want to give away what happens in the plot in your book, but in the end, I think we can say, that history resumes.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The history that we all are familiar with.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So while on the one hand you've written a book of menace– and it's quite scary– on the other hand, it didn't happen.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    In a manner of speaking, my book gets it all wrong.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Fortunately.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Luckily. Yes, indeed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So is it a book of fear or of hope?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    Well, in a manner of speaking, it's an optimistic book. It imagines something that did not happen, and as you had said, could it have happened? And the answer is, sure, it could have happened, but it didn't happen, which tells you a lot about the country, this country.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Was it comforting to you as a writer, as a human being, that history resumed?

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    (Laughs) Yes, now that you… now that you ask that question. Yes, to know that this came to an end, that this nightmare came to an end. Yes, it was a comfort.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, Philip Roth, thanks for letting us visit.

  • PHILIP ROTH:

    You're quite welcome.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In part two of our conversation, Philip Roth talks about his almost 50 years as a writer of fiction.