- “Those Two Years”: Alternate History and Autobiography in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America
Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America received mixed reviews when it was first published in 2004. As a counterfactual history, a genre that is associated most often with popular writing rather than literary merit, the novel was seen by many as less serious than Roth’s other work.1 Set in the 1940s, the novel imagines a fascist takeover of the United States in which, instead of President Roosevelt winning a third term in office, Charles Lindbergh is elected the thirty-third president of the United States. Lindbergh, whose anti-Semitic views and Nazi sympathies were widely known, negotiates a nonaggression pact with Hitler, causing many Jewish Americans, among them the writer’s own fictionalized family, to fear the implementation of anti-Semitic Nazi policies. Though the goals of the Lindbergh administration with regard to the Jewish population in the United States are never entirely revealed, anti-Semitic riots across the country result in a state of fear that eventually affects Roth’s alter ego, Philip, and his family. However, as swiftly as Lindbergh’s presidency begins, it comes to an end when the pilot, setting off in his own plane, simply vanishes. It is at this point, in 1942, that Roosevelt resumes his presidency and Roth’s novel concludes by setting history back on its familiar course.
For many early reviewers, The Plot Against America serves as a critical reflection on contemporary U.S. politics. “In portraying the United States becoming a fascist-like state under the administration of an ill-qualified, naïve, and incompetent president,” Gavriel Rosenfeld argues, for instance, “Roth offers a not-so-thinly veiled critique of the United States under the administration of President George W. Bush.”2 In an essay on the writing [End Page 271] of the novel, Philip Roth himself has denied that the novel was intended as a roman à clef. However, Roth’s characterization of George Bush in the same essay as “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one” has confirmed for many critics the legitimacy of this reading. Roth himself has insisted that rather than an allegory of the Bush presidency, The Plot is, in fact, an engagement with the years 1940–’42: “I am not pretending to be interested in those two years—I am interested in those two years.”3 Taking seriously Roth’s claims about the centrality of “those two years,” another group of critics has focused their analyses on how the possibility of a fascist takeover in the United States in the 1940s reveals the precarious nature of American liberal values. For them, Roth’s novel shows “just how easily we too can lose our liberties” and serves as a warning that the United States, too, has had the potential to be complicit in an “American Holocaust.”4 Against these readings, I will suggest that it is not the possibility of an American Holocaust, but instead the presentist assumption about such a possibility that Roth explores in The Plot. Specifically, I argue that the novel reveals the way that American trauma rhetoric has intersected with U.S. liberalism since the 1970s to obscure, rather than illuminate, the causal and temporal relationships relevant to understanding the post-Holocaust present. I begin by considering Roth’s unconventional use of the genre of the “alternate history,” which challenges the models of sympathetic identification that underlie many contemporary American engagements with the Holocaust past. The essay will then turn to a close reading of the text of the novel, illustrating, by way of a comparison between The Plot Against America and The Diary of Anne Frank, the way in which the American production of Holocaust memory has been disproportionately shaped by the values of American liberalism.
Because of its counterfactuality, alternate history has been dismissed in the past as a narrative mode that is unable to offer any valuable insight into the actual workings of history. However, the rise of postmodernism has contributed to elevating the genre as a subject worthy of serious consideration.5 As Niall Ferguson suggests...