Skip Navigation
October 24, 2014 | 30th Tishrei 5775

The Plot Against America : A Novel

by Philip Roth




A STUDY GUIDE



Study Guide by Steven Steinbock, RJE


About the Novel

Written as a fictionalized autobiography of Philip Roth’s own childhood in Newark, New Jersey, The Plot Against America is an alternative historical account of events between 1940 and 1942. Alternative History is usually categorized as a sub-genre of science fiction in which the author plays “what-if” with actual events. In this case, Roth has aviation hero Charles Lindbergh become U.S. president in 1940, not Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What ensues is frightening, especially if you happened to be an American of the Jewish faith.

In the novel, Lindbergh is elected to the United States’ highest office on an anti-war, isolationist platform. With his rise to power and his dalliance with Nazi Germany, Lindbergh’s administration turns increasingly hostile towards American Jews. Seven-year-old Phil watches his father becomes more and more agitated by Lindbergh and his policies. Meanwhile, Phil’s aunt Evelyn begins dating Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, an apologist for Lindbergh and spokesman for the Office of American Absorption (OAA), an agency ostensibly charged with helping Jews and other minorities integrate more fully into American culture; ultimately many big city Jews are forced to move to more rural, isolated areas. Under the OAA’s “Just Folks” program, Phil’s older brother Sandy volunteers to spend a summer on a Kentucky tobacco farm. Phil’s cousin Alvin goes to Canada in order to join the fight against the Nazis, but comes home a disillusioned amputee.

In his highly rated weekly radio show, Walter Winchell speaks against President Lindbergh and challenges his fascist allegiances. When Winchell declares his own candidacy for president, he is shot. Riots reminiscent of Kristalnacht (the destruction of hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany in November 1938), break out across America. Martial law is declared. Rabbi Bengelsdorf is arrested Former President Roosevelt and New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia are taken into custody. Then, inexplicably, President Lindbergh disappears, his administration is declared illegal and emergency elections bring Roosevelt to power for a third presidential term.

Background

Readers who are not well versed in the historical period leading up to World War II may want to learn about certain events and figures, particularly Charles A Lindbergh, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the America First movement, Walter Winchell, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia. Roth provides excellent material in the postscript of the book. Additional resources are listed at the end of this guide.

Discussion Topics and Questions

  1. In many ways, The Plot Against America represents a major departure from Roth’s previous works. Compare this one to other Roth books that you have read, like Farewell Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral or The Counterlife (a previous Union for Reform Judaism Significant Jewish Book). How do the styles differ? How does the portrayal of childhood, of Jewish community and of sexuality compare? What are some of Roth’s common ideas, elements, and themes?
  2. Phil’s stamp collection plays a subtle but important role in the novel, as demonstrated by the hardcover’s jacket art, which depicts a one cent U.S. postage stamp with a swastika superimposed on it. Why was his stamp collection so important to Phil? Is there a deeper meaning to Phil’s nightmare (pages 42-3) and the collection’s disappearance?
  3. Discuss Phil’s family members: his father, Herman; his mother, Bess; his brother, Sandy; Cousin Alvin and Aunt Evelyn. What sort of Jew is each character? What sort of American? What are their driving motivations and their greatest fears?
  4. Many reviewers have imposed contemporary political meaning onto Roth’s novel. For instance, some have interpreted The Plot Against America as a critique of the Bush administration’s Department of Homeland Security, while paradoxically, others interpret the book as a critique of non-interventionist, anti-war politics. Evaluate both views.
  5. One of the themes running through this novel is the distinction between “fake” Jews (pages 52, 102) and “ghetto” Jews (pages 193, 227). What do Herman and Sandy mean by these terms? To what extent is each of these characterizations fair and unfair? Is it possible for a Jew to live in Kentucky or Montana without being “fake”? Is a Jew living in Newark, New Jersey implicitly a “ghetto” Jew?
  6. What is the stated purpose of Just Folks (page 84), Homestead 42 (pages 204-5, 241) and other programs of the Office of American Absorption? Is it inherently wrong to encourage or even forcibly integrate minorities into the nation’s mainstream? What arguments did Rabbi Bengelsdorf present in defense of the OAA (pages110-111)? Why was Phil’s father Herman not swayed by these arguments?
  7. Herman accuses Rabbi Bengelsdorf of “koshering Lindbergh for the goyim” (page 102). What does he mean by this?
  8. Discuss various Jewish stereotypes in the novel. Why is Herman labeled a “loudmouth Jew”? What is the basis of this stereotype? What “type” of Jew is Mr. Steinheim? Uncle Monty? Rabbi Bengelsdorf? Alvin?
  9. Two of the book’s more poignant moments occur when Phil witnesses his father (page 113) and his mother (pages 339-340) cry. What triggered this? How did they change Phil’s world?
  10. On pages 219-220, Roth provides a portrait of American Jewry reminiscent of his earlier fiction. On page 269, he discusses class divisions among Jews. What is he saying here about Jewish life and Jewish religion in America? How has American Jewish life changed? Compare Roth’s 1940 Jewish American culture and your view of Jewish American life as it exists today.
  11. The Leo Frank incident of 1913-15 is retold at the book’s conclusion (page 361). Why does Roth use this story in such a prominent place? Why did Phil’s father bring it up? How different was America for Jews in 1915 and in 1942?
  12. Re-read and discuss Aunt Evelyn’s account of the Lindbergh conspiracy (page 321-326). How plausible is her explanation? How does it present the Lindbergh kidnapping and Lindbergh’s relationship with Nazi Germany? Does this account change your perception of the historical Charles Lindbergh?

Resources

The following three books provide background to the Lindbergh kidnapping case—the facts as well as various conspiracy theories:

  • Lloyd C. Gardner, The Case That Never Dies: The Lindbergh Kidnapping, (RutgersUniversityPress, 2004).
  • Ludovic Kennedy, Crime of the Century (Penguin, 1996; published in 1985 as The Airman and the Carpenter).
  • Jim Fisher, The Lindbergh Case (Rutgers University Press, 1997).

In addition, the following Web site provides background on the kidnapping: www.charleslindbergh.com/kidnap.

The Court TV channel has an extensive article about the case: www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/famous/lindbergh.

The following resources examine Lindbergh, the America First Committee and accusations of anti-Semitism during this period:

To learn about radio personality Walter Winchell and to hear samples of his Sunday addresses visit

 

Order The Plot Against America from:
Order from Amazon.com

Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.
 
Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2011.  All Rights Reserved