- Roth and Trauma: The Problem of History in the Later Works (1995-2010)
"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history."—Abraham Lincoln
In 1989, after being based in London for more than a decade, Philip Roth moved back to the United States. As Roth explained to Philip Dodd in a 2008 interview broadcast on the BBC, he had been feeling increasingly detached and remote from his native land. Rejuvenated by his homecoming, Roth became enthralled with a "new subject," that was also an "old subject," America, both the life of the country and its recent history. In essence, as Roth himself put it, he had "discovered America again," and this revival of interest seemed to fuel the surge of new work that has characterized his later career.
In Roth and Trauma, Aimee Pozorski surveys these later works, beginning with Sabbath's Theater (1995) and ending with Nemesis (2010), though arguably the heart of the book concerns Roth's American Trilogy (American Pastoral , I Married a Communist , The Human Stain ), The Plot Against America (2004) and Exit Ghost (2007). Heavily influenced by trauma theory, particularly the work of Cathy Caruth, Pozorski reads Roth's historical turn as an extended exploration of the deep psychic and political wounds that fester away under the surface of American national mythmaking. Roth's fiction, Pozorski argues, sets a "sense of history as a traumatic force" against sentimental and idealized versions of the American experience that traffic in naïve fantasies like the American dream and simplified appeals to American exceptionalism. Indeed, for Pozorski, American history is traumatic to its very roots; and Roth's propensity, in his later fiction, to reference central figures in the foundational narrative of the United States—such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln—despite what appears to be a thematic focus on the post-World War II era indicates a sustained effort to illustrate this "fundamental truth about America" (2).
The presence of such figures, Pozorski argues, reflects Roth's "fascination with America's 'traumatic beginnings'"(10). Pozorski draws a parallel between the manner in which these historical reminders of the Founders constantly surface in Roth's later work and the way a trauma survivor or witness will compulsively return to and relive a catastrophic event. The effect, for Pozorski, is a sense of "skewed temporality" in Roth's work, that opens up the possibility of reading his recent fictional treatments of significant historical moments in postwar American life—Vietnam, McCarthyism, the Culture [End Page 209] Wars, the Korean War, and 9/11—as indicative of both Roth's literary need to wrestle with the particular traumatic national events that shaped his generation, and of an ongoing encounter with the original traumatic event in American history, the American Revolution, which remains, in Caruth's terms, an "unclaimed experience" that the nation seems compelled to revisit, retell and repeat as it struggles to come to terms with the legacy of its violent founding.
This relationship between trauma and history is dramatized, for Pozorski, in the way the lives of unsuspecting individuals in so many of Roth's later novels are shattered by the cultural, political and social shockwaves created by the disruptive national events he revisits in his fiction. The unexpected and contingent nature of history, the way history has of "blind-siding," to use the Rothian term Pozorski prefers, acts as a central narrative force, not just in Roth's fiction, but in the larger story of American democracy. In many ways this perspective chimes with the Lukácsian view of the historical novel as a form that depicts the often dramatic shaping influence of great social and political events on the arch of individual lives.
Where it diverges from the classical historical novel, however, is in its repudiation of any narrative of national progress; there is no comforting sense of historical necessity in Roth's fiction. The distinguished historian Perry Anderson, in a recent essay in The London Review of Books on the postmodern revival of...