Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part II)


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.

Saint Angela: Philip Roth’s Comic Portrayal of Angela Davis in “American Pastoral” (Part I)


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)

….to be continued….in the next blog entry….