Commentary Magazine

Philip Roth and the Roots of American Rage

AP Photo/Douglas Healey

Why won’t the child just listen? Why won’t she come to reason? Where did I do wrong with her?

Parents of difficult children have asked themselves such questions since time immemorial. For all of modern psychology’s advances, today’s parents are no more likely to have good answers than did their forebears a hundred or a thousand years ago. Indeed, modernity itself has compounded the ancient problem, by breaking taboos around honoring mother and father and spawning new reasons for children to rebel against parental order that would have been inconceivable under premodern conditions.

This tangle of themes is at the heart of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, perhaps the darkest and most acrid novel about parenting in all of American letters.

Roth, who died Tuesday at age 85, never had children. Yet he wrote perceptively and with great empathy for Seymour “the Swede” Levov, the novel’s protagonist, whose love for his daughter, Merry, knows no bounds and is utterly unrequited. Handsome, affable, responsible, and wealthy, the Swede does everything right by the standards of the midcentury American bourgeoisie. He manages a successful enterprise, procures a trophy wife, owns a tasteful estate in the Jersey suburbs, and fathers a girl who brings ruin to it all. There is a rage within Merry, which, as she grows older, explodes (quite literally) in political radicalism before she smothers her inner flames under Far-Eastern asceticism.

Why does Merry go wrong? What is the source of her rage? She isn’t as beautiful as her mother, Dawn, for starters. Dawn is vapid and cold, and she holds Merry as a judgment against her husband; their marriage is loveless. Then there is Merry’s severe stuttering, which speech therapy fails to alleviate for many years. The Swede’s love doesn’t suffice to overcome these natural disadvantages. Nor can the father’s love keep away the ferment and collective rage roiling America in the late 1960s: race riots, assassinations, all manner of sexual and cultural degradation. Merry is disordered because disorder is in the American air she breathes.

So it is that, five years after Merry commits a Weather Underground-style terrorist attack in the name of stopping the American war machine in Vietnam, the Swede finds Merry living in an almost animal-like state on the streets of Newark. Merry is now a fanatical Jainist, filthy and wafer-thin. Having committed bloody acts of terror, she has now adopted the opposite extreme–total pacifism, veganism–perhaps as a form of expiation. The father-daughter exchange that follows makes for excruciating reading for anyone who has ever loved a child:

“You’re not my daughter. You’re not Merry.”

“If you wish to believe that I am not, that may be just as well. It may be for the best.”

“Why don’t you ask me about your mother, Meredith? Should I ask you? Where was your mother born? What is her maiden name? What is her father’s name?

“I don’t want to talk about my mother.”

“Because you know nothing about her. Or about me. Or about the person you pretend to be. . . . Tell me why you’re pretending to be my daughter!”

“If I answer the questions, you will suffer even more. I don’t know how much suffering you want.”

Merry goes on to confess to having killed four innocents in multiple acts of terrorism. And she makes her confession, our narrator observes, “as innocently as she might once have told him, ‘I baked tollhouse cookies this afternoon.'”

Though set in the turbulent 1960s, American Pastoral has a striking contemporaneity. We, too, are living through an age of intense intergenerational conflict. Today’s aging Boomers are as mystified by the zeal for abstract justice and romantic politics among the young as Roth’s Swede is by Merry’s Marxist and Jainist turns. True, Millennials aren’t, for the most part, setting off bombs at post offices and police stations.

But they mob their professors, ruthlessly discipline and punish their peers online, and take up all manner of secular substitute religions, from mindfulness to “clean eating” to identity politics. They are hungry for order and solidarity and transcendence. Their parents, who only know how to fight battles of cultural and sexual liberation, are no more capable of nourishing that hunger than the feckless, well-intentioned, all-too-sensible Swede.

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