Here is the description of the podcast by Burning Books and links to the podcast (Episode #14):
Feel like making glove?? That’s not a typo. This week we discuss perhaps the best passage in any of Philip Roth’s novels, the ‘glovemaking scene’ (again, not a typo) in American Pastoral. And we do this with American lit scholar and Gloversville, NY native, Menachem Feuer. Also, we discuss the definition of a schlemiel, a person who could never make a glove. And Franz Kafka makes an appearance at the end – another person we can safely assume was not versed in the art of glovemaking, IN ANY SENSE OF THE WORD. Get that hand out of your pocket and put your headphones on. *heat*.
When Swede, the main character of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, finally makes contact with his daughter Merry – who, as I have pointed out in other blog entries, became a domestic terrorist – he has a few moments of reflection on what “happened to our smart Jewish kids?” Swede’s reflections are worth recounting since they show how, to his mind, cynicism directed at the middle class, assimilated Jewish life is at the core of Merry and Rita Cohen’s radicalism. This cynicism is in dire contrast to the optimism of the two previous generations of American Jews; namely, Swede and his father Lou Levov. Their optimism was based on their successes in the leather industry, sports, and American life. All of this is trashed by Merry and the third generation of American Jews because they find the source of this optimism – and the optimism itself – to be corrupted by capitalism and inequality. The process of Swede’s coming to this realization shows us what, in part, is at stake for Jews in America.
Swede is astonished when he first sees his daughter because – after engaging in several terrorists acts, killing four people, and also being taken advantage of by people she had encountered in her flight from society – she had become a Jain. As a Jain, she wears a veil and walks barefoot in fear that she may kill an insect. Swede reads her conversion into a Jain as a sign of powerlessness and it eats him up. Thinking to himself, we learn that Swede sees her powerlessness, emblematized in her veil, as destroying the power and optimism of the entire Levov family. It is a rejection and as such has its own power which angers and weakens Swede:
Your powerlessness is power over me, goddamn it! Over your mother, over your grandmother, over everyone who loves you – wearing this veil is bullshit, Merry, complete and utter bullshit! You are the most powerful person in the world! (254)
Zuckerman, the narrator, notes that this rage against his daughter wasn’t going to make him “any less miserable.” Nonetheless, Zuckerman can’t help to spell out the audacity of her gesture: “The viciousness. The audacity. The unshatterable nerves. God alone knew where such kids came from”(254). Reflecting on this, Zuckerman goes into the paradox of Jewish American children become radicals; he can’t believe that this is possible:
They were raised by parents like him. And so many were girls, girls whose political identity was total, who were no less aggressive and militant, no less drawn to “armed action” than the boys. There is something terrifyingly pure about their violence and the thirst for self-transformation. They renounce their roots to take as their models the revolutionaries whose conviction is enacted ruthlessly…They are willing to do anything they can imagine to make history change. (254)
Swede’s father, Lou, after “foolishly watching a TV news special about the police hunt for Underground Weatherman” also chimes in. Astonished, he asks the key question: “What happened to our smart Jewish kids?” What follows his question is a series of observations about how Jewish American kids cling to oppression and seem to flee away from what his generation fled to.
What happened? What the hell happened to our smart Jewish kids? If, God forbid, their parents are no longer oppressed for a while, they run where they think they can find oppression. Can’t live without it. Once Jews ran away from oppression; now they run from no-oppression. Once they ran away from being poor; now they run away from being rich. It’s crazy. They have parents they can’t hate anymore because their parents are so good to them. (255)
Reflecting on this, Zuckerman wants to get at what “drives them crazy” and he concludes that it is cynicism: “Distrust is the madness to which they have been called”(255). Distrust led Merry to rebel so as to “bring the world into subjection” but in the end this cynicism led to the opposite. Now, as a Jain, she is “subject to the world.”
Regardless, Swede realizes that she is no longer in his power and perhaps never was (256). And, thinking this, he also becomes cynical:
She is in the power of something that does not give a shit. Something demented. We all are. The elders are not responsible for this. They are themselves not responsible for this. Something else is. (256)
The cynicism spreads to Zuckerman who reflects on how “the bodies of mutilated children and their mutilated parents everywhere” indicate that we are “all in the power of something demented. It’s just a matter of time, honky! We all are!” And, according to Zuckerman, this all comes how to Swede by way of the laughing terrorists:
He heard them laughing, the Weatherman, the Panthers, the angry ragtag army of violent Uncorrupted who called him a criminal and hated his guts because he was one of those who own and have…They were delirious with joy, delighted having destroyed his once-pampered daughter and ruined his privileged life, shepherding him at long last to t heir truth….Welcome aboard, capitalist dog! Welcome to the fucked-over-by-America human race! (257)
In the above-mentioned fictional scenario, Roth shows us the power of cynicism. It touches everything in this novel: Swede, Merry, and the narrator. It is something that comes not from one’s ancestors, as Swede notes above, so much as from history. This novel has much relevance today. As I have noted elsewhere, cynicism seems to be making a comeback. And the laughter we are hearing is by and large destructive. This would be a good time for the schlemiel who teaches us what Ruth Wisse would call “balanced irony.” This irony maintains a tension between hope and cynicism. However, in American Pastoral, this irony is absent. And that is truly tragic.
Philip Roth’s American Pastoral takes American radicalism and terrorism as one of its main topics. Zuckerman, the narrator, explores the life of “the Swede” (or “Swede”) whose daughter, Merry, becomes a radical and ends up blowing up a few buildings and killing a few people in the process. In flight from her first terrorist act, she leaves home and her father. In despair, Swede imagines that if he becomes radicalized (or shows himself to her as radicalized) she will come home. Parodying his attempts to understand and become radical, Zuckerman imagines Swede as having a fantasy that Angela Davis appears in his house. I have dedicated two blogs to Zuckerman’s portrayal of Angela Davis (“Saint Angela”) which, to be sure, has its comic elements. As I noted in my entries, Zuckerman shows how Swede wants his daughter back so bad that he does all he can to “hide” some of his differences with Davis regarding her radicalism.
Zuckerman, at many different points in the novel, mocks radicalism and associates it with a kind of fanatical, religious form of worship. (I have pointed this out in his reflections on Angela Davis and Swede’s emulations of her as a “saint” who he prays to for help.) Later in the novel, Zuckerman recounts how Merry, in flight from the FBI, becomes paranoid. She recalls this moment to her father when, towards the end of the novel, the two come back together:
Merry told her father, she noticed a youngish black bum, new to the park (where she was hiding out in Miami), watching her tutoring boys (English). She knew immediately what that meant. A thousand times before she’d thought it was the FBI and a thousand times she’d been wrong – in Oregon, in Idaho, in Kentucky, in Maryland, the FBI watching her at stores where she clerked; watching in the diners and the cafeterias where she washed dishes; watching on the shabby streets where she lived; watching in the libraries where she hid out to read the newspapers and study the revolutionary thinkers (260)
Zuckerman tells us that in these libraries she would read so as to “master” the work of “Marx, Marcuse, Malcom X, and Franz Fanon”(261). Of the three thinkers, Zuckerman gives the most space to Franz Fanon. Writing on him, Zuckerman notes that Fanon was a “French theorist whose sentences” were “litanized” by Merry “at bedtime like a supplication”(261). He goes on to note that for Merry, Fanon’s work had “sustained her in much the same way as a ritual sacrament”(261). To bring out the ritualistic nature of the text, so to speak, Zuckerman quotes him at length:
It must constantly be borne in mind that the committed Algerian woman learns both her role as “a woman alone in the street” and her revolutionary mission instinctively. The Algerian woman is not a secret agent. It is without apprenticeship, without briefing, without fuss, that she goes out into the street with three grenades in her handbag. She does not have the sensation of playing a role. There is no character to imitate. On the contrary, there is an intense dramatization, a continuity between the woman and the revolutionary. The Algerian woman rises directly to the level of tragedy. (261)
Immediately after this passage, Zuckerman takes us into Swede’s mind. What does Swede think about this passage from Fanon which his daughter recites as if it were a holy text?
Thinking: And the New Jersey girl descends to the level of idiocy. The New Jersey girl we sent to Montessori school because she was so bright, the New Jersey girl who at Morristown High got only A’s and B’s – the New Jersey girl rises directly to the level of disgraceful playacting. The New Jersey Girl rises to the level of psychosis. (261)
As one can see, he thinks of this text and its recitation as evincing a “level of disgraceful playacting” and the “level of psychosis.” In his mind, this text affirms the unthinkable. These words evince the anti-American pastoral.
Edward Said, however, doesn’t deem this psychotic or playacting. He takes it seriously and argues that violence makes perfect sense. In his book Culture and Imperialism, Said turns to Fanon’s work as a move toward post-nationalism (which, in effect, is the anti-American pastoral). Said notes that Fanon turned to violence as a way of going beyond nationalism:
If I have so often cited Fanon, it is because more dramatically and decisively than anyone, I believe, he expresses the immense cultural shift from the terrain of nationalist independence to the theoretical domain of liberation. (268)
But, to be sure, one doesn’t arrive at the “theoretical domain of liberation” without violence. In fact, Said says it is necessary for the transformation of the national into a “trans-personal” and “trans-national force”(269). Fanon’s “entire work” is “set into motion, so to speak, by the native’s violence, a force intended to bridge the gap between white and non-white”(270). Violence (and not peace) is the great uniter of humankind. Said calls it a new kind of “humanism” and calls violence (drawing on a Hegalian language used by Fanon) a “synthesis”:
For Fanon violence…is the synthesis that overcomes the reification of white man as subject, Black man as object. (270).
To add academic legitimacy (or is it, rather, the “legitimacy effect”?) to this, Said cites the respected Marxist thinker Georg Lukacs who, he claims, Fanon was reading while he wrote these words about violence as “synthesis.”
My conjecture is that while he was writing the work Fanon read Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness, which had just appeared in Paris in French translation in 1960. Lukacs shows that the effects of capitalism are fragmentation and reification: in such a dispensation, every human being becomes an object, or commodity, the product of human work is alienated from its maker, the image of whole or community disappears entirely. (270)
Although Lukacs doesn’t call for violence, Said paraphrases him to say that he calls for an “act of mental will, by which the lonely mind could join another by imagining the common bond between them, breaking the enforced rigidity that kept human beings as slaves to tyrannical outside forces. Hence reconciliation and synthesis between subject and object”(270). In other words, Said interprets “act of mental will” as violence. But in the following paragraph he calls it an “act of the will.” There is, of course, a difference between a mental and a physical “act of the will,” but Said elides the difference in one fell swoop of the pen.
Regardless, Said’s reflections of Fanon – by way of Lukacs – have one goal; namely, the legitimacy of violence. Said goes on to call violence, citing Fanon, a “cleansing force”(271), cites another passage where Fanon says that the “native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler,” and also a passage where Fanon states that, for the native, “life can only spring up from the rotting corpse of the settler”(271).
What is astonishing is the fact that all of this passes through the gates of reason and that Edward Said makes us think that violence makes perfect sense; in fact, for Said (and for Merry of American Pastoral) it makes the most sense. What would Zuckerman or Swede think of this legitimization of violence by Fanon and Said? Given what we have seen above, we can see that they think that Merry is psychotic and childish to repeat Fanon in a religious manner. But what happens when Fanon’s advocation of violence-as-an-answer is articulated by an academic and granted legitimacy? Should we also call him psychotic and childish or something else?
If Said and Fanon make sense, then post-nationalism, the kind arrived at through violence (real and mental), also makes sense. And this should give us pause….This is no laughing matter….
A good writer like Philip Roth knows very well how desperate situations can bring out things about a character that, as a matter of course, are troubling. But Roth, like Shalom Auslander or the Coen Brothers (in the genre of film), sometimes injects comic elements into troubling situations. This has an odd affect because, in many ways, this gesture is so audacious and inappropriate. But this affect is a gift of sorts: it prompts us to think about what we take for granted and, by way of this agitation, it discloses some form of truth.
Roth addresses one of the most radical figures of contemporary American history – Angela Davis – and one of the most difficult eras of America: the radicalism and terrorism of the late 1960s anti-war, anti-imperialist, etc movements. He does this by way of Swede, a character whose daughter, an upper middle-class white girl from Morristown, NJ, ends up blowing up a building and killing an innocent person. As I pointed out in the the last blog entry, Swede, Merry’s father, is forced to address her radicalism if he is to find his way back to his daughter (who had, since the bombing, disappeared).
Swede first comes into contact with 60s radicalism by way of Rita Cohen (a friend of Merry and a student of the Wharton school who is researching the leather business for a dissertation project). In his meetings with Rita Cohen, Zuckerman looks to show us how Swede responds to her rhetoric of radicalism; namely, by way of humor. Swede sees her gestures as a part of a radical chic that has no thought behind it so much as a feeling and a style that is childish and rebellious. As I noted, this humor gives him distance. This distance is challenged when Cohen meets Swede in a hotel room in an effort to seduce him. Zuckerman, the narrator, portrays her attempts at eroticism as comical. And although this comedy gives Swede (and the reader) some distance from Cohen’s radicalism, this distance is shadowed by something serious and “tempting.”
The interesting plot twist is found in the fact that Roth decides to metonymically (and literally) link Cohen’s (and his daughter’s) radicalism to a prominent African-American figure of radicalism: Angela Davis. This link is fascinating because it links Jews and African Americans (this is something Roth has done in novels such as The Human Stain). In this novel, one needs to look into this relationship because, in it, the Jewish-American women take an African-American woman as their model. And this mimicry is, in some ways, comical. To be sure, as I mentioned above, it has the element of radical chic. And, as I noted in my last blog entry, the figure of Angela Davis’s hair ties this knot between the characters.
Cohen has a Jewfro while Davis has an Afro. But there is more to the story; and that more has to do with Swede’s fantasy about Angela Davis.
Through Swede, we see how a character, who has an aversion to radicalism and hails himself as a liberal of sorts, becomes obsessed with radicalism so as to get closer to his daughter. The fact that he sees it as a means to an end affects how the reader takes in the ideology of radicalism. To be sure, it comes across as dogmatic and Swede’s responses to it come off as comical.
When “Saint Angela” appears to him, he wants her to believe that he is a devotee. But, in the spirit of the best Jewish humor, he shows he is with her while, at the same time, telling us that he doesn’t want her to find out about a few of his reservations. After all, that would ruin the truth effect and spoil the devotion-effect. In other words, this ruins her sainthood and preserves a margin of freedom for a narrator and a character who can’t buy into it all.
As I noted in the last blog entry, the narrator humors Angela’s radical chic. Zuckerman notes how “her hair was extraordinary. She peers defiantly out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain”(160). Following this, the narrator notes how Swede “should” relate to Angela’s description of Merry, his daughter. In her view, Merry isn’t a terrorist, she’s a hero, a Joan of Arc of the movement”:
She praises his daughter, whom she calls “a soldier of freedom, a pioneer in the great struggle against repression.” He should take pride in her political boldness, she says. The antiwar movement is an anti-imperialist movement, and by lodging a protest int eh only way America understands, Merry, at sixteen, is in the forefront of the movement, a Joan of Arc of the movement. (160)
Saint Angela, as the narrator calls her, goes so far as to link Merry to “abolitionism” and “John Brown!” This link turns the protest movement into a liberal moment. But, clearly, the radicalism is much different. Swede, however, is told to take this as truth.
Moreover, Davis repeats, over and over again, how Swede should get it out of his head that what Merry did was a criminal act. And for a few pages Zuckerman gives us an experience of the propoganda of the radical movement (in all of its rhetorical flourishes, phrases, and repetitions.) Swede plays the role of a devotee to the Saint.
But when, in the midst of being lectured by Davis, he hears something that relates to him and his business (which has many African-American employees) he speaks up to vindicate himself:
Obediently he listens. She tells him that imperialism is a weapon used by wealthy withies to pay black workers less for their work, and that’s when he seizes the opportunity to tell her about the black forelady, Vicky, thirty years at Newark Maid. (161)
He goes on to say how, through working for him, he was able to help her to send her kids to medial school and how Vicky stayed with him during the 67’ riots in Newark. Moreover, he goes into detail how she helped to defer the rioters from burning the leather factory down by putting signs in the window that the business had employees that were, in bold letters, “NEGROES.” In attempt to win her favor, Swede gives this account to “Saint Angela”(162). If anything, Roth is showing us the nature of Swede’s white guilt. He wants to allay it by saying that he is not like the other white people.
However, although Swede felt good that Governor Hughes had sent in tanks to restore order in the city, he does not tell this to Angela (162). He also doesn’t tell her that he wanted to leave Newark after the riots and take his business elsewhere for fear that it would be ruined – which is what actually happens (162). In other words, he cannot totally agree with her point of view, but he is afraid to tell her as that would create distance between them.
Swede goes along with whatever Davis says because he believes that this “Saint” will bring him to his daughter. He has a kind of faith and, at the same time, a struggle with the dogma that is based on this faith (a struggle he cannot let show on the surface).
However, in the midst of all this, Zuckerman notes Swede’s greatest fear; namely, that Merry will, ultimately, see him as the enemy. The fact that he has African-American employees and sympathizes with them is not enough for her:
Victimizing black people and the working class and the poor solely for self-gain, out of filthy greed! (163)
This message, playing in the midst of his Angela Davis fantasy, prompts Zuckerman, the narrator to mark a disillusionment with Davis’s radical ideology. It is, in his view, yet another delusion. But…Swede has no choice but to go along with it:
In the idealistic slogans there was no reality, not a drop of it, and yet what else could he do? He could not provide his daughter with the justification for doing something crazy. So he stayed in Newark, and after the riots Merry did something crazier than crazy…The factory under siege, the daughter at large, and that took care of the future. (163)
Yet, with all of this, the narrator points out that, at this point, it seemed that nothing Swede could do would counter the affect of what had already gone down. Swede and his future – it seems – is destroyed by history in general and his daughter’s acts in particular.
But he doesn’t speak his mind as much as his father, Lou Levov, who, the narrator shows us is more sympathetic that Swede is to the plight of African Americans in Europe. Nonetheless, he is angry at the decision that they made to riot. He is angry at how the radicals, in his view, were making life for African-Americans in America more difficult. And sees this all through the downturn his business takes thereafter; workers become apathetic and unfocused and the quality gloves that used to be made with pride become shabby. Everything he has worked for goes down the drain:
A whole business is going down the drain because of that son of a bitch LeRoi Jones, that Peek-A-Boo-Boopy-Do, whatever the hell he calls himself in that goddamn hat. I built this with my hands! With my blood! They think somebody gave it to me? Who? Who gave it to me? Who gave me anything, ever? Nobody! What I have built! With work – w-o-r-k! (163)
The father says he has “conscience” since he made many efforts to help African-Americans in Newark but asks “Where is theirs?” He is astonished and believes that there must be parity. Regardless, Zuckerman tells us about the father’s pain, Swede “stubbornly defies the truth” of what his father was saying (165) because he thinks that his daughter Merry would use it against him.
Zuckerman goes on to show us how, in an effort to gain Angela Davis’s favor, Swede lies about his love of communism and the cause (166). He says “yes” to everything:
So he says yes to her yes, his daughter is a soldier of freedom, yes, he is proud, yes, everything he has heard about Communism is a lie, yes, the United States is concerned solely with making the world safe for business and keeping the have-nots from encroaching on the haves – yes, the United States is responsible for oppression everywhere. Everything is justified by her cause, Huey Newton’s cause, Bobby Seale’s cause…Merry Levov’s cause. (166)
What we find in this moment is a radical shift from radical chic to the utmost seriousness. Swede commits himself, dogmatically, to radicalism. However, Zuckerman underscores the irony of this commitment, which is forced. He even hides this “secret” commitment from his African-American worker, Vicky, because even she thinks Angela Davis is too radical. Zuckerman likens this secret commitment to a kind of religious commitment to a saint, a “secret prayer”:
Meanwhile he mentions Angela’s name to no one, certainly not to Vicky, who thinks Angela Davis is a trouble maker and who says as much to the girls at work. Alone then and in secret he prays…for Angela’s acquittal. And when it happens he is jubilant. She is free! (166)
This is no longer funny. Zuckerman portrays Swede as a devotee by virtue of his desire to see his daughter once again. We see this in the preface and his reaction to Angela Davis’s release. In it, her freedom becomes equivalent to Merry’s freedom. He becomes a devotee, protester, of sorts:
Free the Rimrock Bomber! Free my daughter! Free her, please! Cries the Swede. “I think it’s about time,” Angela says, “for all of us to begin to teach the rulers of this country a few lessons,” and yes, cries the Swede, yes, it is about time, a socialist revolution in the United States of America! (166)
Zuckerman notes how deluded this is by pointing out how “he remains alone at his kitchen table” because he “cannot do anything that he should do or believe anything that he should believe or even know any longer what he should believe.” In other words, Swede’s devotion is comical and deluded. He is in a state of existential paralysis.
All of these reflections make the narrator angry and prompt him to wonder whether he should have “fucked” Rita Cohen: “I f he would do anything for Merry, why not that? Why did he run?”(167). Regardless of these reflections, we can see that Zuckerman doesn’t take the radical ideology put forth by Davis to be truth so much as a means to an end. He mocks it and the devotion to it; yet, in this situation, he realizes that Zuckerman may have to act “as if” it is true. And this masquerading – of taking on something that is ridiculous for the sake of seeing a lost daughter-terrorist – makes this ridiculousness tragic and debilitating.
Saint Angela and her radicalism may be comically portrayed and parodied but, in the end of the day, no amount of mockery can reduce the tragic effect they this ideology has on Swede’s life. Comedy, in other words, seems to be ineffectual. And the distance it gives seems, for Zuckerman, impossible to maintain.
Many critics agree that Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is his best novel. And there is a consensus regarding the fact that this is a tragic novel, or as Roth’s narrator Zuckerman says the “anti-American Pastoral.” The sections of the novel map this out: “Paradise Remembered,” “The Fall,” and “Paradise Lost.” However, for this reason, critics often overlook or miss the comic elements in the novel. To be sure, Roth uses comedy at very important parts of the novel so as to inject a critical perspective. Although the novel bears witness to the rise and fall of Swede, the main character, it, at rare moments, offers a critical perspective by way of a kind of distance that is comical or ironic.
What is most interesting about these moments is that they often go from taking an ironic distance to losing it; and, in the process, Swede (or the narrator) becomes embroiled in panic. To be sure, all of the panic is around his desire to find his daughter, Merry, the “Rimrock Bomber.” After she bombs a store in New Jersey, during the Vietnam War, she disappears. And he does everything he can to find her. In the process, he tries to understand her. And this leads him to take in her radical ideology which sees the United States and Capitalism as the enemy of “the people.” Though he at first humors it, Swede starts becoming obsessed with the ideology. He takes to it because, in his desperation, he believes that it will somehow lead him to his daughter. But before this takes effect, Roth shows us that, at first, there is a comic distance.
We see an important example of this comical distance (which ultimately collapses) by way of two encounters: one with a Jewish girl named Rita Cohen and the other with a fantasized meeting with Angela Davis. The two encounters – one real, the other fantastic – come together in the figure of the “afro” (or Jew-fro, by way of Rita). But it is the fantastic encounter with “Saint Angela” that gives us the best sense of how Swede turns to comedy to give himself some distance; yet, in the end, it seems this distance is not enough to keep him from losing his mind.
Before we meet Rita Cohen, Zuckerman, the narrator, provides us with several “conversations” between Swede and his daughter which show us how she, gradually, became more radicalized. He tries to appeal to her by showing that he is liberal, but this is to no avail. The end of the first section of the book, which follows these conversations, tells us what happens in their wake:
After turning Morristown High into a battlefield (from protest against the Vietnam war), she went out one day and blew up the post office, destroying right along with it Dr. Fred Conlon and the village’s general store, a small wooden building with a community bulletin board out front and a single old Sunoco pump and the metal pole on which Russ Hamlin…had raised the American flag every morning since Warren Gamaliel Harding was president of the United States. (113)
There is nothing comical about these last lines. To be sure, they mark the end of an era and the beginning of another; they mark the beginning of the end of Swede’s life. The following section of the novel is entitled “The Fall,” begins with his meeting Rita Cohen. She comes across as a nice, American girl who attends The Wharton School. She visits Swede with an academic interest: she is interested in how the leather business works and, apparently, is looking to write a dissertation on the topic. Swede gives her a tour of the factory, discusses the ins and outs of the business (in detail), shows her how gloves are made, introduces her to the workers, and, in the end, he gives her a glove made to fit her small hands. The gloves are finished by Vicky, an African-American worker at the glove factory (131).
At the very end of the section, we learn, by way of a whisper, that Rita is connected to Merry: “She wants her Aubrey Hepburn scrapbook”(132). Swede drives Rita to the airport, gives her the notebook, and, for the first time, Rita shows another face to Swede. She tells him that his daughter, Merry, hates him (133). And thinks that he “ought to be shot.” Following this, Rita goes on a tirade against Swede accusing him of being a “shitty little capitalist who exploits the brown and the yellow people of the world and lives in luxury behind the nigger-proof security gates of his mansion”(133). There is nothing funny here.
The narrator notes that “taunting him was the project she had set herself”(133). At this moment, Swede’s world is upside down. But he also starts humoring her. By way of comic jibes at Rita, Swede starts distancing himself from her:
The unreality of being in the hands of this child! This loathsome kid with a head full of fantasies about the ‘working class’! This tiny being who took up not even as much space in the car as the Levov sheepdog, pretending he was on the world stage! This utterly insignificant pebble! What was the whole sick enterprise other than angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed? (134)
He sees her whole of Rita’s radicalism as childish and a fad of sorts. This is what Tom Wolfe would call “radical chic.” With this comical perspective in mind, Swede looks at her hair – modeled, as we will see, on the hair of Angela Davis – as evidence of radical chic:
Yes, the nonsensical hair constituted half of their revolutionary ideology, about as sound a justification for her actions as the other half – the exaggerated jargon about changing the world. (134)
He sees her acts as thoughtless and an act of self-glorification: “Thought just paled away beside their ignorance. They were omniscient without even thinking” (134). Zuckerman includes bits and pieces of their conversation to show how full it is of “ridiculous clichés.” In response, she maintains her rhetorical exaggerations and insists that her life was all a lie and that she was the product of privilege. Rita claims that Swede and his wife were ashamed of their daughter and “colonialized her…self-image,” “hated her” and turned her into a “piece of shit.” Rita doesn’t hear a word Swede says. He can’t hear a father’s need to see his missing daughter. Rita accuses Swede of thinking of her as a “possession” and misses his plea. In Swede’s mind, she is a “child crackpot.”
He next sees Rita in a hotel and gives her money (as per her request) to see his daughter. But Rita wants more than his money. As Zuckerman relates, she wants to “fuck.” He keeps his distance from her, however. He notes how comical she looks all made up: “She looks like a third grader who ransacked her mothers room”(142). And, to entice him she starts singing a comical song by Groucho Marx: “Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, my encyclo-pid-e-a, oh Lydia, the tattooed lady”(142).
She uses eroticism and comedy to entice Swede, but it doesn’t work. He wonders: “Could this lead to Merry, this onslaught of sneering and mockery? Was she impersonating someone, acting from a script prepared beforehand?” In other words, Swede can’t take Rita’s gestures seriously.
At the very end, Rita sticks her fingers into her vagina, pulls them out, and brings them near Swede’s face to smell. He pulls back, but then Rita makes comical/erotic gestures to herself:
The hand she’s offered him she now carried slowly up to her face, making loony, comical little circles in the air as she approached her mouth. Then, one by one, she slipped each finger between her lips to cleanse it. (147)
Following these comical/erotic gestures, he “bolted the room. With all his strength.” He sees he from a comical angle, yet, he also sees that she is using a comical/erotic strategy to break him down.
In the wake of this encounter, Swede starts thinking more and more of the ideology that inspired them. And, at a certain point, he has a fantasy that Angel Davis, “a black philosophy professor of about Rita Cohen age…a Communist professor at UCLA who is against the war…tried…for kidnapping, murder, and conspiracy”(157). As one can see, Zuckerman (and Swede) make a connection between Angela Davis and Rita Cohen. And this is brought together by Angela Davis’s hair and her radical chic:
Her hair reminds the Swede of Rita Cohen. Every time he sees that bush encircling her head he is reminded of what he should have done at the hotel. He should not have let her get away from him, no matter what. (158)
In many ways, Rita Cohen (a Jew) and Angela Davis (an African-American) are merged. And both are, to some extent humored. But, as I noted above, this humor diminishes because he becomes obsessed with them. He sees them as his way to his daughter:
Now he watches the news to see Angela Davis. He reads everything he can about her. He knows that Angela Davis can get him to his daughter. (158)
In the drawers of his daughter’s room, he finds the writings of Angela Davis (amongst other radical literature). And, in the midst of his discovery, he recalls how, in the same room, his daughter – influenced by his wife’s Catholic mother – became obsessed with Saints. He remembers how this was a passing fad. He imagines that reading Angela Davis is like reading “those tiny pamphlets” (on the Saints) and “illustrated holy cards.” But “luckily the child outgrew them”(159). Nonetheless, she would still, on occasion, pray to the Saints. Meanwhile, “Grandma Dwyer…prayed to St. Anne to help Marry stay Catholic despite her upbringing (mind you, Swede is Jewish)”(159).
Immediately following this, Swede has an epiphany of Angela Davis. She becomes, at this moment, Saint Angela:
At the kitchen one night Angela Davis appears to Swede, as Our Lady of Fatima did to those children in Portugal, as the Blessed Virgin did down in Cape May. He thinks, Angela Davis can get me to her – and there she is. (160)
The description of Angela Davis by the narrator, however, is comical. It sets a wedge between the passion and dispassion Swede experiences in his epiphany. She looks “more beautiful than she looks on television”:
Her legs are long and she wears colorful minidresses to expose them. The hair is extraordinary. She peers definitely out of it like a porcupine. The hair says, “Do not approach if you don’t like pain.” (160)
When I first read Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral, I was blown away by the plot. It was based on something very close to my own life-story: the decline of a Jewish family (the Levovs) which coincides with the rise and fall of the leather business in upstate New York. Indeed, Roth’s words on Gloversville, New York – where my father and grandfather worked in the leather business and where I grew up – and its ailing leather industry have deep resonance for me. If I were to read myself into the plot, I would be in the position of the third-generation, which, for Roth, completely turns against the family tradition and its Jewish-American values. This story, to be sure, is Roth’s allegory for post-WWII Jewish life in America and its descent into assimilation and madness. Reading this, I wondered how close Roth’s novel about this leather family and its decline was to my own. Although the narrative was strangely reminiscent of my own, was it my story? And how could a story like this give birth to the schlemiel, a comic character?
This last question is my question, not Roth’s. For, if anything, the novel ends on a tragic and not on a comic note.
Before reading American Pastoral, I often wondered whether the story of how my family ended up in Gloversville in the leather business and what happened to that business – and my family – touched on a larger, yet more tragic story; namely, the story of Jews becoming Americans. I, like one of the main characters in Roth’s novel, am the last of three generations. My grandfather Menachem Menkis, who I am named after, died before I was born. He was raised in the mountains of Hungary in a house whose first floor was a synagogue. His father, a Rabbi, taught him to stay close to his Jewish heritage. And when he went off to Vienna to join the army, fight in the war (serving as a corporal over a Jewish platoon), learn a trade, and make a living, he brought this tradition with him.
After fighting in the First World War and learning the leather trade in Vienna, he went on to sell leather in Odessa. At a certain point, he decided that the leather business would do better in America than in Europe. With this in mind, he and his family left for the United States on the cusp of Hitler’s coming to power. In America, he built a large leather corporation which had its home base in Gloversville, New York. He would travel weekly to Gloversville from his nine-room apartment on 89th and West End Avenue in Manhattan (where my father grew up).
Menkis (the name he went by) made a fortune during World War II and, as the years progressed, he became one of the largest deerskin producers in the world. His children – my father and his brothers – eventually took the helm of the business when my grandfather, in the late 1960s, decided to retire.
What happened after they took over was tragic. They fought with my father, their youngest brother, and kicked him out of the family fortune and the leather business. I was not allowed to see my cousins from the Feuer side of the family, and even my grandmother was forbidden to see me. (Near her death, she broke the rules my uncle set down for her – “talk to them and I’ll cut you off” – and called us to see her in her Central Park West apartment. I was only 17 years old and her apology for never seeing me was a little late in coming, and…it hurt.) My father spent his life trying to get back what was taken from him. He hired many lawyers, received many threats (which included threats to me and my family), and eventually gave up on getting back the millions he was cheated out of.
Meanwhile, the leather business was going down the tubes. I grew up in the midst of this decline and I watched it all break down (“all” includes my father, my family, and the leather business). Like the third generation of American Jews in American Pastoral, I wanted nothing to do with the business or with any of the mess that I grew up with.
This brings me to Roth’s novel, his real life models for the story, his description of Gloversville, and the decline of the leather business.
There are two real life models in Roth’s novel that are of interest to me: 1) a legendary Jewish sports star from Gloversville named David Smukler (“Dynamite Dave”) and 2) the real decline of the leather business in Gloversville.
If I were to situate myself into Roth’s novel, Swede, the main character, would be my father. What would this imply? Swede embodies Roth’s vision of the totally assimilated Jew. He is the son of an immigrant leather businessman who has risen above all stereotypes of the Jew to become, in effect, an American. He is, without a doubt, not a schlemiel. The narrator’s description of him is, to the say the least, heroic and mythic:
Fifty or sixty kids gathered along the sidelines at practice to watch Swede – in a battered leather helmet and the brown jersey numbered, in orange, 11 – working out with the varsity against the JVs…I haven’t forgotten the Swede, after being smothered by tacklers, climbing slowly to his feet, shaking himself off, casting an upward, remonstrative glance at the darkening fall sky, sighing ruefully, and then trotting undamaged back to the huddle. When he scored, that was one kind of glory, and when he got tackled and piled on hard, and just stood up and shook it off, that was another kind of glory, even in scrimmage. (19)
Swede is “one with his America.” And Swede’s Jewishness is not a heavy burden for him, but it does evoke a sense of shame in those who look at him:
The Jewishness that he wore so lightly as one of the tall, blond athletic winners must have spoken to us too – in our idolizing the Swede and his unconscious oneness with America. I suppose there was a tinge of shame and self-rejection. Conflicting Jewish desires awakened by the sight of him were simultaneously becalmed by him; the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist that they are no different, resolved itself in the triumphal spectacle of this Swede…Where was the Jew in him? You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there. (20)
The narrator, when looking at him, is confused about Jewishness; yet, somehow, he thinks that Swede is the “resolution” of the dichotomy between being Jewish and being American. And we see this in the last words: “You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there.”
This ambiguity is based on the fact that Swede, unlike many American Jews, is the embodiment of the American athletic hero. Although Roth never discusses this in any of his interviews, the model for Swede was most certainly Dave Smukler: the Jewish football star who was born and raised in Gloversville and who, in fact, spent a little time in Roth’s hood – Newark, New Jersey. He, like Swede, was a Jew who also happened to be a star athlete when Jews were represented as schlemiels and nebbishes (in the most negative sense). Smukler, like Swede, went on to professional football, left sports for the military, and upon his return, takes up the mantle of the leather business. And while Swede succeeds, the business does not.
And this is where Gloversville and its decline come in. Swede bears witness to this. Strangely enough, this narrative about Gloversville is one I am very familiar with: it is personal. I heard it, and I still hear it today when I go out to breakfast with my father and his friends who spent their lives in the leather business:
When the first guy left Gloversville, New York, in ’52 or ’53 and went to the Philippines to make gloves, they laughed at him, as though he were going to the moon. But when he died, around 1978, he had a factory there with four thousand workers and the whole industry had gone essentially from Gloversville to the Philippines. Up in Gloversville, when the Second World War began, there must have been ninety glove factories, big and small. Today there isn’t a one – all of them out of business or importers from abroad. (27)
With the decline of Gloversville and its industry, we also see a decline in the generations of the Levov family. Swede’s daughter ends up resenting money and power; she rejects her family and resents her father.
I can understand where Roth is going with this and of how the decline is paralleled with the Jew, Swede, becoming a fully assimilated and proud American. My father’s story is different insofar as my father wasn’t an athlete so much as an academic and an engineer. He was the Valedictorian at Bronx Science and at Columbia University. He was the NASA fellow at Johns Hopkins University and envisioned himself as being on the crest of a new America.
But, like Swede, he gave all of this up for a leather business that, when he arrived in Gloversville, ejected him. The leather business ruined whatever greatness he had. And, like Swede, as the business went down, so did he.
In the last blog entry, I discussed Ben Katchor and Saul Bellow’s representations of upstate New York. The point I was trying to make was that, for them, upstate New York was a space where the Jew went “wild” and lost his Jewish identity. What Roth adds to this urban legend of upstate New York (and Gloversville) is a wasting away of Jewishness that goes hand in hand with the decline of the leather industry.
But this wasting away really starts when the Jew goes from being a schlemiel to being an American hero, an athlete like Swede. As the narrator notes above, it was hard to see where the Jewish part in Swede was; he was “one with America.” But was he “one with America” when he went into decline? How is losing one’s Jewishness about becoming one with America? And is the story of going from riches to rags an American story? What does a generation of Jews, born outside of this tradition do? Are they lost in the American wilderness?
These are general questions that one can draw out of Roth’s novel, but, as you can see, I have personal questions. Here are a few:
Was I born to be a Jew or born to be wild? Since I was born in upstate New York to two generations of leather men who went into decline, am I living Roth’s American Pastoral or….my own?
Perhaps the main difference between my American Pastoral and Roth’s is the fact that while Roth has no room for the schlemiel in his American Pastoral (to be sure, Swede is the anti-thesis of Roth’s Portnoy) I do. After all, although my father was an academic success with big dreams, he has more in common with the schlemiel than with Swede and David Smukler. And that, perhaps, makes all the difference. Unlike Swede, he was almost “one with America.”