First edition cover
|Subject(s)||Family life (fiction)
U.S. history (fiction)
|Publication date||May 12, 1997|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Dewey Decimal||813/.54 21|
|LC Classification||PS3568.O855 A77 1997|
American Pastoral is a Philip Roth novel concerning Seymour "Swede" Levov, a Jewish-American businessman and former high school 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. 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 all the protagonists completely fall apart.
Seymour Levov is born and raised in the Weequahic section of Newark as the son of a successful Jewish-American glove manufacturer. Called "the Swede" because of his anomalous blond hair, blue eyes and Nordic good looks, he is a star athlete in three sports and narrator Nathan Zuckerman's idol and hero. The Swede eventually takes over his father's glove factory, Newark Maid, and marries Dawn Dwyer, an Irish-American Miss New Jersey 1949 winner (the actual winner that year was Betty Jane Crowley).
Levov establishes what he believes to be a perfect American life with a beloved family, a satisfying business life, 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 teenage daughter Merry, born with an emotionally debilitating stutter, and outraged at the United States' conduct in Vietnam, becomes more radical in her beliefs and in 1968 commits an act of political terrorism. In protest against the Vietnam War and the "system," she plants a bomb in a local post office and the resulting explosion kills a bystander. In this singular act, Levov 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 in 1973 in Newark's ruined inner city, where Merry is living in abysmal conditions. During this reunion, she claims that since the first bombing she has set off several other bombs resulting in more deaths and that she has been repeatedly raped while living in hiding. Though informed by Merry that she acted consciously and willingly in the murders, Seymour decides to keep their meeting a secret, unwilling to give up his notion of her as essentially an innocent who has been manipulated by stronger influences in the form of an unknown political group.
Zuckerman concludes his version with a dinner party with Seymour's parents and several friends, during which Seymour discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a mutual friend and attendee of the party. The narrator also reveals that Seymour himself has had an affair with Merry's speech therapist who is also attending the party, and had been responsible for hiding Merry in their home after the first bombing. Seymour concludes that all the members of the party have a veneer of respectability, yet each participates in subversive behavior, and that he is unable to understand the truth about anyone based on the actions they reveal outwardly. In this final scene, the narrator reveals Seymour to have concluded that his daughter's actions have made him see the truth about the chaos beneath the pastoral surface of things, something he can no longer ignore.
Historical setting 
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 inspire 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.
See also 
- 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