First edition cover
|Subject||Family life (fiction)
U.S. history (fiction)
|May 12, 1997|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3568.O855 A77 1997|
American Pastoral is a Philip Roth novel published in 1997 concerning Seymour "Swede" Levov, a successful Jewish American businessman and former high school star athlete from Newark, New Jersey. Levov's happy and conventional upper middle class life is ruined by the domestic social and political turmoil of the 1960s during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, which in the novel is described as a manifestation of the "indigenous American berserk." The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was included in Time's "All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels." The film rights to it were later optioned by Paramount Pictures. In 2006, it was one of the runners-up in the "What is the Greatest Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years?" contest held by the New York Times Book Review.
The framing device in American Pastoral is a 45th high school reunion attended by frequent Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who is the narrator. At the reunion, in 1995, Zuckerman meets former classmate Jerry Levov who describes to him the tragic derailment of the life of his recently deceased older brother, Seymour "Swede" Levov, who succumbed to metastatic prostate cancer at age 68. After Seymour's teenage daughter Merry, in 1968, set off a bomb in protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War, killing a bystander, and subsequently went into hiding, Seymour Levov remained traumatized for the rest of his life. The rest of the novel consists of Zuckerman's posthumous recreation of Seymour Levov's life, based on Jerry's revelation, a few newspaper clippings, and Zuckerman's own impressions after two brief run-ins with "the Swede," in 1985 and shortly before his death. In these encounters, which take place early in the novel, Zuckerman learns that Seymour has remarried and has three young sons, but Seymour's daughter Merry is never mentioned. In Zuckerman's reimagining of Seymour's life, this second marriage has no part; it ends in 1973 with Watergate unraveling on TV while the previous lives of the protagonists completely disintegrate.
Seymour Irving Levov is born and raised in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, in 1927 as the son of a successful Jewish American glove manufacturer, Lou Levov. Called "the Swede" because of his anomalous blond hair, blue eyes and Nordic good looks, Seymour is a star athlete in three sports at Weequahic High School, a Marine Corps veteran of World War II, and the narrator Nathan Zuckerman's idol and hero. Zuckerman and Seymour's younger brother, Jerry—who grows into a curmudgeonly, irascible heart surgeon with little empathy for the Swede—are schoolmates and close friends. The Swede eventually takes over his father's glove factory, Newark Maid, and marries Dawn Dwyer, an Irish Catholic winner of Miss New Jersey from nearby Elizabeth, whom he met at Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey.
Seymour establishes what he believes to be a perfect American life with a beloved family, a satisfying business career, and a beautiful old home in rural Old Rimrock, New Jersey. Yet, as the Vietnam War and racial unrest wrack the country and destroy inner-city Newark, Seymour's precocious teenage daughter Meredith ("Merry"), beset by an emotionally debilitating stutter and outraged at the United States' conduct in Vietnam, becomes more radical in her beliefs. In February 1968, at age 16, Merry commits an act of political terrorism. In protest against the Vietnam War and the "system," she plants a bomb in the Old Rimrock post office and the resulting explosion kills a bystander. In this singular act, Seymour is cast out of the seemingly perfect life he has built and thrown instead into a world of chaos and dysfunction. Like a number of real-life members of the Weather Underground, Seymour's daughter goes permanently into hiding. In Zuckerman's narration, a reunion of father and daughter takes place five years later, in 1973, in the squalor of Newark's ruined inner city, where a disheveled Merry, now age 21, has been living under the most deplorable conditions. During this reunion, Merry reveals that since the first bombing she had set off several other bombs, resulting in three more deaths, and that she has been repeatedly raped while in hiding. Though Merry informs him that she acted consciously and willingly in all four murders, Seymour decides to keep their meeting a secret, refusing to give up the notion of his daughter as basically an innocent young woman who has been manipulated and radicalized by stronger influences in the form of an unknown political group and a mysterious woman named Rita Cohen.
Zuckerman concludes his narration at a 1973 dinner party in the Levovs' home with Seymour's parents and several friends, during which Seymour discovers that his wife Dawn has been having an affair with a mutual friend and party attendee—a Princeton-educated blueblood, William Orcutt III, for whom she undergoes a facelift. Seymour then realizes that his wife is planning to divorce him and marry Orcutt (whose alcoholic wife will be dumped by him as well), and that Seymour's many efforts to help his wife surmount the tragedy of the daughter's behavior, including building her a dream house, have come to naught. The narrator also reveals that Seymour himself had had a four-month-long affair with Merry's speech therapist, Sheila Salzman, wife of a family practitioner, Dr. Shelly Salzman. The Salzmans, who are also at the party, had been responsible for hiding Merry in their home for three days after the first bombing five years earlier. During the party, the normally kind-hearted, unflappable, mild-mannered Seymour angrily confronts Sheila in the bedroom, demanding to know why the Salzmans refused to turn Merry in instead of harboring her. Seymour sadly concludes that while all those at the party may have a veneer of respectability, each participates in his or her own way in subversive behavior (which Zuckerman refers to as the "substratum of the mind"), and that he is unable to understand the truth about anyone based upon the conduct they outwardly display. In this final scene, Zuckerman reveals that Merry's actions have at long last forced the stoic Seymour to see the truth about the chaos and discord rumbling beneath the "American pastoral," chaos and discord which have brought about profound personal and societal changes the Swede no longer can ignore. Simultaneously, the dinner party underscores the importance of a line repeated by Zuckerman several times during the novel, that no one ever truly understands the heart of another person; in Seymour's case, his wife's affair and Sheila's refusal to tell him about her shielding of his daughter after the bombing drive home the reality that his faith in the people around him has been completely misplaced, and they have instead completely betrayed him.
The novel alludes extensively to the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It refers to the 1967 Newark riots, the Watergate scandal, the sexual revolution and Deep Throat, the code name of the secret source in the Watergate scandal and the title of a 1972 pornographic film. In the novel's final scene, both the Watergate scandal and the pornographic film are discussed at a dinner party during which the first marriage of "the Swede" begins to unravel when he discovers his wife is having an affair. The novel also alludes to the rhetoric of revolutionary violence of the radical fringe of the New Left and the Black Panthers, the trial of the leftist African-American activist Angela Davis, and the bombings carried out between 1969 and 1973 by the Weathermen and other radicals opposing the US military intervention in Vietnam. The novel quotes from Frantz Fanon's A Dying Colonialism, which Zuckerman imagines as one of the texts that inspires Merry to carry out her bombing of a local post office.
In the novel, Merry's bombing takes place in February 1968, during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, after which she flees her parental home. By that time she has had a "Weathermen motto" tacked up in her room for many months. In reality this would have been impossible. The Weathermen group was, in fact, formed in the summer of 1969. The lines of the "motto" which appear in the novel ("We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers' nightmares.") allude to a speech by John Jacobs at a Weathermen "war council" in December 1969.
The inspiration for the Levov character was a real person: Seymour “Swede” Masin, a phenomenal, legendary all-around Jewish athlete who, like the Levov character, attended Newark’s Weequahic High School. Like the book’s protagonist, Swede Masin was revered and idolized by many local middle-class Jews.
Both “Swedes” were tall and had distinctively blond hair and blue eyes, which stood out among the typically dark-haired, dark-complexioned local residents. Both attended a teachers’ college in nearby East Orange; both married out of their faith; both served in the military and, upon their return, both moved to the suburbs of Newark.
- Grossman, Lev; Richard Lacayo (October 16, 2005). "All-TIME 100 Novels". Time.
- "What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?". The New York Times. May 21, 2006.
- Photos of the first edition of American Pastoral
- American Pastoral, reviewed by Ted Gioia (The New Canon)
- Analysis of American Pastoral on Lit React