Author Philip Roth has been awarded nearly every literary honor a writer could hope for, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "American Pastoral" and the National Book Award — twice. His other well-known novels include "Portnoy's Complaint" and "The Human Stain." But it's the 71-year-old author's latest work, his 26th, that may prove to be his biggest seller yet. It's called the "The Plot Against America" and it imagines a different outcome to the 1940 presidential election — famed aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt and reveals himself as a Nazi sympathizer. In a rare television interview, Roth was invited on the “Today” show to share what inspired him to write the book. Here’s an excerpt:
June 1940–October 1940
Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War
Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.
When the first shock came in June of 1940 — the nomination for the presidency of Charles A. Lindbergh, America’s international aviation hero, by the Republican Convention at Philadelphia — my father was thirty-nine, an insurance agent with a grade-school education, earning a little under fifty dollars a week, enough for the basic bills to be paid on time but for little more. My mother — who’d wanted to go to teachers’ college but couldn’t because of the expense, who’d lived at home working as an office secretary after finishing high school, who’d kept us from feeling poor during the worst of the Depression by budgeting the earnings my father turned over to her each Friday as efficiently as she ran the household — was thirty-six. My brother, Sandy, a seventh-grader with a prodigy’s talent for drawing, was twelve, and I, a third-grader a term ahead of himself — and an embryonic stamp collector inspired like millions of kids by the country’s foremost philatelist, President Roosevelt — was seven.
We lived in the second-floor flat of a small two-and-a-half-family house on a tree-lined street of frame wooden houses with redbrick stoops, each stoop topped with a gable roof and fronted by a tiny yard boxed in with a low-cut hedge. The Weequahic neighborhood had been built on farm lots at the undeveloped southwest edge of Newark just after World War I, some half dozen of the streets named, imperially, for victorious naval commanders in the Spanish-American War and the local movie house called, after FDR’s fifth cousin — and the country’s twenty-sixth president — the Roosevelt. Our street, Summit Avenue, sat at the crest of the neighborhood hill, an elevation as high as any in a port city that rarely rises a hundred feet above the level of the tidal salt marsh to the city’s north and east and the deep bay due east of the airport that bends around the oil tanks of the Bayonne peninsula and merges there with New York Bay to flow past the Statue of Liberty and into the Atlantic. Looking west from our bedroom’s rear window we could sometimes see inland as far as the dark treeline of the Watchungs, a low-lying mountain range fringed by great estates and affluent, sparsely populated suburbs, the extreme edge of the known world — and about eight miles from our house. A block to the south was the working-class town of Hillside, whose population was predominantly Gentile. The boundary with Hillside marked the beginning of Union County, another New Jersey entirely.
We were a happy family in 1940. My parents were outgoing, hospitable people, their friends culled from among my father’s associates at the office and from the women who along with my mother had helped to organize the Parent-Teacher Association at newly built Chancellor Avenue School, where my brother and I were pupils. All were Jews. The neighborhood men either were in business for themselves — the owners of the local candy store, grocery store, jewelry store, dress shop, furniture shop, service station, and delicatessen, or the proprietors of tiny industrial job shops over by the Newark-Irvington line, or self-employed plumbers, electricians, housepainters, and boilermen — or were foot-soldier salesmen like my father, out every day in the city streets and in people’s houses, peddling their wares on commission. The Jewish doctors and lawyers and the successful merchants who owned big stores downtown lived in one-family houses on streets branching off the eastern slope of the Chancellor Avenue hill, closer to grassy, wooded Weequahic Park, a landscaped three-hundred acres whose boating lake, golf course, and harness-racing track separated the Weequahic section from the industrial plants and shipping terminals lining Route 27 and the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct east of that and the burgeoning airport east of that and the very edge of America east of that — the depots and docks of Newark Bay, where they unloaded cargo from around the world. At the western end of the neighborhood, the parkless end where we lived, there resided an occasional schoolteacher or pharmacist but otherwise few professionals were among our immediate neighbors and certainly none of the prosperous entrepreneurial or manufacturing families.
The men worked fifty, sixty, even seventy or more hours a week; the women worked all the time, with little assistance from laborsaving devices, washing laundry, ironing shirts, mending socks, turning collars, sewing on buttons, mothproofing woolens, polishing furniture, sweeping and washing floors, washing windows, cleaning sinks, tubs, toilets, and stoves, vacuuming rugs, nursing the sick, shopping for food, cooking meals, feeding relatives, tidying closets and drawers, overseeing paint jobs and household repairs, arranging for religious observances, paying bills and keeping the family’s books while simultaneously attending to their children’s health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling, nutrition, conduct, birthdays, discipline, and morale. A few women labored alongside their husbands in the family-owned stores on the nearby shopping streets, assisted after school and on Saturdays by their older children, who delivered orders and tended stock and did the cleaning up.
It was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far more than religion. Nobody in the neighborhood had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style or wore a skullcap either outdoors or in the houses I routinely floated through with my boyhood friends. The adults were no longer observant in the outward, recognizable ways, if they were seriously observant at all, and aside from older shopkeepers like the tailor and the kosher butcher — and the ailing or decrepit grandparents living of necessity with their adult offspring — hardly anyone in the vicinity spoke with an accent. By 1940 Jewish parents and their children at the Southwestern corner of New Jersey’s largest city talked to one another in an American English that sounded more like the language spoken in Altoona or Binghamton than like the dialects famously spoken across the Hudson by our Jewish counterparts in the five boroughs. Hebrew lettering was stenciled on the butcher shop window and engraved on the lintels of the small neighborhood synagogues, but nowhere else (other than at the cemetery) did one’s eye chance to land on the alphabet of the prayer book rather than on the familiar letters of the native tongue employed all the time by practically everyone for every conceivable purpose, high or low.
At the newsstand out front of the corner candy store, ten times more customers bought the Racing Form than the Yiddish daily, the Forvertz.
Israel didn’t yet exist, six million European Jews hadn’t yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine (under British mandate since the 1918 dissolution by the victorious Allies of the last far-flung provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire) was a mystery to me. When a stranger who did wear a beard and who never once was seen hatless appeared every few months after dark to ask in broken English for a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, I, who wasn’t an ignorant child, didn’t quite know what he was doing on our landing.
My parents would give me or Sandy a couple of coins to drop into his collection box, largess, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who, from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header. Our homeland was America.
Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.
For nearly a decade Lindbergh was as great a hero in our neighborhood as he was everywhere else. The completion of his thirty-three-and-a-half-hour nonstop solo flight from Long Island to Paris in the tiny monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis even happened to coincide with the day in the spring of 1927 that my mother discovered herself to be pregnant with my older brother. As a consequence, the young aviator whose daring had thrilled America and the world and whose achievement bespoke a future of unimaginable aeronautical progress came to occupy a special niche in the gallery of family anecdotes that generate a child’s first cohesive mythology.
The mystery of pregnancy and the heroism of Lindbergh combined to give a distinction bordering on the divine to my very own mother, for whom nothing less than a global annunciation had accompanied the incarnation of her first child. Sandy would later record this moment with a drawing illustrating the juxtaposition of those two splendid events. In the drawing — completed at the age of nine and smacking inadvertently of Soviet poster art — Sandy envisioned her miles from our house, amid a joyous crowd on the corner of Broad and Market. A slender young woman of twenty-three with dark hair and a smile that is all robust delight, she is surprisingly on her own and wearing her floral-patterned kitchen apron at the intersection of the city’s two busiest thoroughfares, one hand spread wide across the front of the apron, where the span of her hips is still deceptively girlish, while with the other she alone in the crowd is pointing skyward to the Spirit of St. Louis, passing visibly above downtown Newark at precisely the moment she comes to realize that, in a feat no less triumphant for a mortal than Lindbergh’s, she has conceived Sanford Roth.
Sandy was four and I, Philip, wasn’t yet born when in March 1932, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s own first child, a boy whose arrival twenty months earlier had been an occasion for national rejoicing, was kidnapped from his family’s secluded new house in rural Hopewell, New Jersey. Some ten weeks later the decomposing body of the baby was discovered by chance in woods a few miles away. The baby had been either murdered or killed accidentally after being snatched from his crib and, in the dark, still in bedclothes, carried out a window of the second-story nursery and down a makeshift ladder to the ground while the nurse and mother were occupied in their ordinary evening activities in another part of the house. By the time the kidnapping and murder trial in Flemington, New Jersey, concluded in February 1935 with the conviction of Bruno Hauptmann — a German ex-con of thirty-five living in the Bronx with his German wife — the boldness of the world’s first transatlantic solo pilot had been permeated with a pathos that transformed him into a martyred titan comparable to Lincoln.
Following the trial, the Lindberghs left America, hoping through a temporary expatriation to protect a new Lindbergh infant from harm and to recover some measure of the privacy they coveted. The family moved to a small village in England, and from there, as a private citizen, Lindbergh began taking the trips to Nazi Germany that would transform him into a villain for most American Jews. In the course of five visits, during which he was able to familiarize himself at first hand with the magnitude of the German war machine, he was ostentatiously entertained by Air Marshal Göring, he was ceremoniously decorated in the name of the Führer, and he expressed quite openly his high regard for Hitler, calling Germany the world’s “most interesting nation” and its leader “a great man.” And all this interest and admiration after Hitler’s 1935 racial laws had denied Germany’s Jews their civil, social, and property rights, nullified their citizenship, and forbidden intermarriage with Aryans.
By the time I began school in 1938, Lindbergh’s was a name that provoked the same sort of indignation in our house as did the weekly Sunday radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin, the Detroit-area priest who edited a right-wing weekly called Social Justice and whose anti-Semitic virulence aroused the passions of a sizable audience during the country’s hard times. It was in November 1938 — the darkest, most ominous year for the Jews of Europe in eighteen centuries — that the worst pogrom in modern history, Kristallnacht, was instigated by the Nazis all across Germany: synagogues incinerated, the residences and businesses of Jews destroyed, and, throughout a night presaging the monstrous future, Jews by the thousands forcibly taken from their homes and transported to concentration camps. When it was suggested to Lindbergh that in response to this unprecedented savagery, perpetrated by a state on its own native-born, he might consider returning the gold cross decorated with four swastikas bestowed on him in behalf of the Führer by Air Marshal Göring, he declined on the grounds that for him to publicly surrender the Service Cross of the German Eagle would constitute “an unnecessary insult” to the Nazi leadership.
Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate — just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love — and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.
The only comparable threat had come some thirteen months earlier when, on the basis of consistently high sales through the worst of the Depression as an agent with the Newark office of Metropolitan Life, my father had been offered a promotion to assistant manager in charge of agents at the company’s office six miles west of our house in Union, a town whose only distinction I knew of was a drive-in theater where movies were shown even when it rained, and where the company expected my father and his family to live if he took the job. As an assistant manager, my father could soon be making seventy-five dollars a week and over the coming years as much as a hundred a week, a fortune in 1939 to people with our expectations. And since there were one-family houses selling in Union for a Depression low of a few thousand dollars, he would be able to realize an ambition he had nurtured growing up penniless in a Newark tenement flat: to become an American homeowner.
“Pride of ownership” was a favorite phrase of my father’s, embodying an idea real as bread to a man of his background, one having to do not with social competitiveness or conspicuous consumption but with his standing as a manly provider.
The single drawback was that because Union, like Hillside, was a Gentile working-class town, my father would most likely be the only Jew in an office of some thirty-five people, my mother the only Jewish woman on our street, and Sandy and I the only Jewish kids in our school.
On the Saturday after my father was offered the promotion — a promotion that, above all, would answer a Depression family’s yearning for a tiny margin of financial security — the four of us headed off after lunch to look around Union. But once we were there and driving up and down the residential streets peering out at the two-story houses — not quite identical but each, nonetheless, with a screened front porch and a mown lawn and a piece of shrubbery and a cinder drive leading to a one-car garage, very modest houses but still roomier than our two-bedroom flat and looking a lot like the little white houses in the movies about small town salt-of-the-earth America — once we were there our innocent buoyancy about the family ascent into the home-owning class was supplanted, predictably enough, by our anxieties about the scope of Christian charity. My ordinarily energetic mother responded to my father’s “What do you think, Bess?” with enthusiasm that even a child understood to be feigned. And young as I was, I was able to surmise why: because she was thinking, “Ours will be the house ‘where the Jews live.’ It’ll be Elizabeth all over again.”
Elizabeth, New Jersey, when my mother was being raised there in a flat over her father’s grocery store, was an industrial port a quarter the size of Newark, dominated by the Irish working class and their politicians and the tightly knit parish life that revolved around the town’s many churches, and though I never heard her complain of having been pointedly ill-treated in Elizabeth as a girl, it was not until she married and moved to Newark’s new Jewish neighborhood that she discovered the confidence that led her to become first a PTA “grade mother,” then a PTA vice president in charge of establishing a Kindergarten Mothers’ Club, and finally the PTA president, who, after attending a conference in Trenton on infantile paralysis, proposed an annual March of Dimes dance on January 30 — President Roosevelt’s birthday — that was accepted by most Newark schools. In the spring of 1939 she was in her second successful year as a leader with progressive ideas — already supporting a young social studies teacher keen on bringing “visual education” into Chancellor’s classrooms — and now she couldn’t help but envision herself bereft of all that had been achieved by her becoming a wife and a mother on Summit Avenue. Should we have the good fortune to buy and move into a house on any of the Union streets we were seeing at their springtime best, not only would her status slip back to what it had been when she was growing up the daughter of a Jewish immigrant grocer in Irish Catholic Elizabeth, but, worse than that, Sandy and I would be obliged to relive her own circumscribed youth as a neighborhood outsider.
Despite my mother’s mood, my father did everything he could to keep up our spirits, remarking on how clean and well-kept everything looked, reminding Sandy and me that living in one of these houses the two of us would no longer have to share a small bedroom and a single closet, and explaining the benefits to be derived from paying off a mortgage rather than paying rent, a lesson in elementary economics that abruptly ended when it was necessary for him to stop the car at a red light beside a park-like drinking establishment dominating one corner of the intersection.
There were green picnic tables set out beneath the shade trees full with foliage, and on this sunny weekend afternoon there were waiters in braided white coats moving swiftly about, balancing trays laden with bottles and pitchers and plates, and men of every age gathered at each of the tables, smoking cigarettes and pipes and cigars and drinking deeply from tall beakers and earthenware mugs.
There was music, too — an accordion being played by a stout little man in short pants and high socks who wore a hat ornamented with a long feather.
“Sons of bitches!” my father said. “Fascist bastards!” and then the light changed and we drove on in silence to look at the office building where he was about to get his chance to earn more than fifty dollars a week.
It was my brother who, when we went to bed that night, explained why my father had lost control and cursed aloud in front of his children: the homey acre of open-air merriment smack in the middle of town was called a beer garden, the beer garden had something to do with the German-American Bund, the German-American Bund had something to do with Hitler, and Hitler, as I hadn’t to be told, had everything to do with persecuting Jews. The intoxicant of anti-Semitism. That’s what I came to imagine them all so cheerfully drinking in their beer garden that day — like all the Nazis everywhere, downing pint after pint of anti-Semitism as though imbibing the universal remedy.
My father had to take off a morning of work to go over to the home office in New York — to the tall building whose uppermost tower was crowned with the beacon his company proudly designated “The Light That Never Fails” — and inform the superintendent of agencies that he couldn’t accept the promotion he longed for. “It’s my fault,” announced my mother as soon as he began to recount at the dinner table what had transpired there on the eighteenth floor of 1 Madison Avenue. “It’s nobody’s fault,” my father said. “I explained before I left what I was going to tell him, and I went over and I told him, and that’s it. We’re not moving to Union, boys. We’re staying right here.”
“What did he do?” my mother asked.
“He heard me out.”
“And then?” she asked.
“He stood up and he shook my hand.”
“He didn’t say anything?”
“He said, ‘Good luck, Roth.’”
“He was angry with you.”
“Hatcher is a gentleman of the old school. Big six-foot goy. Looks like a movie star. Sixty years old and fit as a fiddle. These are the people who run things, Bess — they don’t waste their time getting angry at someone like me.”
“So now what?” she asked, implying that whatever happened as a result of his meeting with Hatcher was not going to be good and could be dire. And I thought I understood why. Apply yourself and you can do it — that was the axiom in which we had been schooled by both parents. At the dinner table, my father would reiterate to his young sons time and again, “If anybody asks ‘Can you do this job? Can you handle it?’ you tell ’em ‘Absolutely.’ By the time they find out that you can’t, you’ll already have learned, and the job’ll be yours. And who knows, it just might turn out to be the opportunity of a lifetime.” Yet over in New York he had done nothing like that.
“What did the Boss say?” she asked him. The Boss was how the four of us referred to the manager of my father’s Newark office, Sam Peterfreund. In those days of unadvertised quotas to keep Jewish admissions to a minimum in colleges and professional schools and of unchallenged discrimination that denied Jews significant promotions in the big corporations and of rigid restrictions against Jewish membership in thousands of social organizations and communal institutions, Peterfreund was one of the first of the small handful of Jews ever to achieve a managerial position with Metropolitan Life. “He’s the one who put you up for it,” my mother said. “How must he feel?”
“Know what he said to me when I got back? Know what he told me about the Union office? It’s full of drunks. Famous for drunks. Beforehand he didn’t want to influence my decision. He didn’t want to stand in my way if this was what I wanted. Famous for agents who work two hours in the morning and spend the rest of their time in the tavern or worse. And I was supposed to go in there, the new Jew, the big new sheeny boss the goyim are all dying to work for, and I was supposed to go in there and pick ’em up off the barroom floor. I was supposed to go in there and remind them of their obligation to their wives and their children. Oh, how they would have loved me, boys, for doing them the favor. You can imagine what they would have called me behind my back. No, I’m better off where I am. We’re all better off.”
Excerpted from “The Plot Against America: A Novel” by Philip Roth. Copyright © 2004 by Philip Roth. Published by Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without the permission of the publisher.
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