It’s time to reconsider Philip Roth

In a new book about the celebrated American novelist, Matthew Shipe explores Roth’s half-century struggle with the question of what it means to be American.

Matthew Shipe

Though his later novels were often read as contemporary allegories at the time of publication, Philip Roth took a longer view of history. In a new book, Matthew Shipe, lecturer in English and president of the Philip Roth Society, provides the first career-spanning assessment of Roth’s work following his death in 2018. Understanding Philip Roth (University of South Carolina Press) details Roth’s decades-long exploration of American history and how he continues to speak to our current moment.

Roth first gained notoriety on the literary scene with the publication of his 1959 novella Goodbye, Colombus, which won the National Book Award. Over the next 60 years, he would publish another 26 books.

Throughout his career, Roth felt the impact of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Witnessing the ongoing assault on the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the United States, he focused on how the unpredictable nature of history, what he called in The Plot Against America “the relentless unforeseen,” could unravel the promises of American democracy.

“He liked to observe that we assume that history will always sort of progress in a certain way,” Shipe said. “Novels like 2004’s The Plot Against America explore just how quickly things can dissolve and remind us of how contingent our freedom and indeed the American experiment itself actually are.”

The Plot Against America describes an alternate history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the 1940 presidential election by Charles Lindbergh, who in real life espoused anti-Semitic views and advocated for isolationism leading up to World War II. The fictional account provides a vision of post-war America where Jewish Americans are increasingly persecuted at all levels of government.

“Roth was fascinated by how fragile the nature of our democracy was throughout its history.”

When it was published in 2004, many critics interpreted Roth’s novel as an allegory for George W. Bush’s presidency and his justifications for the invasion of Iraq. Shipe says that this interpretation is limiting and argues that the novel has taken on new resonances with the rise in anti-Semitism and discrimination against other minority groups during the Trump presidency.

“Roth was fascinated by how fragile the nature of our democracy was throughout its history,” Shipe explained. “Growing up in the 30s and 40s, he was inundated by the often racist propaganda of the Second World War and deeply aware of what could have happened to him if he had been born in Europe. I think Roth would have suggested the lesson of The Plot Against America is the things that we take for granted can easily be overwhelmed.”

For readers new to Roth, Shipe recommends starting with American Pastoral. In the 1997 novel, Roth grapples with the legacies of post-war American patriotism and experiments with literary form.

American Pastoral provides the best example of Roth the writer in terms of his formal invention but also his very tactile sense of the world,” Shipe said. “It addresses how we understand the legacy of the 1960s and the idea of American identity in a way that I think very few novels do.”