Written as a fictionalized
autobiography of Philip Roths own childhood in Newark, New Jersey, The Plot
Against Americais 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, Lindberghs
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, Phils 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 OAAs Just Folks
program, Phils older brother Sandy volunteers to spend a summer on a Kentucky
tobacco farm. Phils 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.
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
In many ways, The Plot Against
America represents a major departure from Roths previous works. Compare
this one to other Roth books that you have read, like Farewell Columbus,
Portnoys 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 Roths common ideas, elements, and themes?
Phils stamp collection plays a
subtle but important role in the novel, as demonstrated by the hardcovers
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 Phils nightmare (pages 42-3) and the collections
Discuss Phils 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?
Many reviewers have imposed
contemporary political meaning onto Roths novel. For instance, some have
interpreted The PlotAgainst Americaas a critique of the
Bush administrations Department of Homeland Security, while paradoxically,
others interpret the book as a critique of non-interventionist, anti-war
politics. Evaluate both views.
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?
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 nations mainstream? What arguments did
Rabbi Bengelsdorf present in defense of the OAA (pages110-111)? Why was Phils
father Herman not swayed by these arguments?
Herman accuses Rabbi Bengelsdorf
of koshering Lindbergh for the goyim (page 102). What does he mean by this?
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?
Two of the books 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 Phils world?
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
Roths 1940 Jewish American culture and your view of Jewish American life as it
The Leo Frank incident of 1913-15
is retold at the books conclusion (page 361). Why does Roth use this story in
such a prominent place? Why did Phils father bring it up? How different was
America for Jews in 1915 and in 1942?
Re-read and discuss Aunt Evelyns
account of the Lindbergh conspiracy (page 321-326). How plausible is her
explanation? How does it present the Lindbergh kidnapping and Lindberghs
relationship with Nazi Germany? Does this account change your perception of the
historical Charles Lindbergh?
The following three books provide
background to the Lindbergh kidnapping casethe facts as well as various
Lloyd C. Gardner, The Case
That Never Dies: The Lindbergh Kidnapping, (RutgersUniversityPress,
Ludovic Kennedy, Crime of the
Century (Penguin, 1996;published in 1985 as The Airman and the
Jim Fisher, The Lindbergh Case
(Rutgers University Press, 1997).