The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
It once seemed as though Philip Roth had come on the American scene too late to have any compelling historical subject with which to engage his literary powers. Born in 1933 to a decent, hard-working Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, he missed out on the formative deprivations of the immigrant experience and the great Depression, as well as on membership in “the greatest generation” that fought in World War II. As a writer, too, he came along after Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and an earlier Roth—the redoubtable Henry—had pioneered an “American Jewish literature” that was richly flavored in the brine of their native Yiddish.
In his fiction, Roth acknowledged his status as a latecomer by casting himself as the perennial son. Still, he found ways of turning his generation’s inexperience into epic adventure. His first book, the collection Goodbye, Columbus (1957), touched a nerve in Jewish readers who recognized (however painfully) their own foibles in its satire, and it also caught the fancy of a broader public that was getting used to the Jewish presence in American fiction. Much like Ozzie Freeman, the boy in one of Roth’s stories who threatens suicide in order to force his rabbi to admit that God could have brought about a virgin birth, the young author had the chutzpah to provoke attention.
About the Author
Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).