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A look back at what Philip Roth said about ‘The Plot Against America,’ now an HBO series

A new HBO series based on Philip Roth's novel “The Plot Against America" reimagines another period of national trauma, but with a fictive twist. In his world, Roth has national hero and aviator Charles Lindbergh winning the 1940 presidential election amidst anti-Semitic activity. Jeffrey Brown spoke with Roth when the book was published in 2004, and we share an excerpt.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, a look back to another period of national trauma through the imagination of one of our greatest writers.

    A new HBO series, "The Plot Against America," dramatizes an alternative American history, in which Charles Lindbergh, the famed aviator, defeated Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

    The real Lindbergh was an isolationist and had made anti-Semitic speeches. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, the celebrated writer who died in 201, who imagined the impact of this other history on his own Jewish family in New Jersey.

    Roth talked to Jeffrey Brown when the book first came out in 2004 and said the idea came when he read that Republicans had come close to nominating Lindbergh.

    Here's a short excerpt.

    It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Philip Roth:

    Immediately, you have to — you have to answer that question. And the answer to that question is dense.

    It's not one line. It's not one line. What if they had?

    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:

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

  • Philip Roth:

    Well, yes. It's — well, it's a false memoir, isn't it?

    So it's an act of — 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.

    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:

    On the one hand, you've written a book, as you say, 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?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Philip Roth:

    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.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    See what you can bring back years later?

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