American Pastoral and Historical Fiction

I finished reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral a couple of weeks ago, and came away impressed at not only the novel’s literary merit, but also the author’s skill in painting a brushstroke of twentieth-century American history. The book follows the life of Seymour “Swede” Levov, a former high-school athletic standout from Newark, New Jersey who seems to live the post-war American dream: married Miss New Jersey, took over and successfully expanded his father’s business, and lives in a beautiful country home. Predictably, this idyllic life is shattered, when his only daughter joins the radical and violent counter-culture movement and ends up committing an act of terrorism for her cause.

What I found fascinating was Roth’s ability to weave together nearly forty years of history as alternately a backdrop and main character, within the plot. One element that absolutely blew me away was his ability to craft the juxtaposition between the immediate post-war era with the radicalism and social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s. Roth does an impressive job of demonstrating the hollowness and fragility beneath the “Leave it to Beaver” surface of the 50’s. Historians have written extensively about the contradictions of American society during these years, as unprecedented prosperity and national power belied severe social inequalities and isolation. His historical backdrop picks up speed as it moves into the next decades. During this time, historical allusions cover everything from the New Left to the Newark Riots to Watergate. Both LBJ and Nixon have a kind of just-off-stage presence throughout much of the book.

While a strongly stylized work of fiction, I think American Pastoral could serve as a wonderful historical teaching tool. In my high school history classes, my teacher did a phenomenal job of incorporating literature into the curriculum. As such, works like Things Fall Apart, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Things They Carried served to educate our European and American history classes far more than any textbook. The obvious danger is the blurring between historical fact and fiction, and utilizing literature in a history class requires far more skill and subtlety for a teacher than asking their students to turn to page 546 in their textbooks. Nevertheless, learning to evaluate a source for reliability and bias remains a bedrock of historical study. I realize this is hardly an original epiphany, but it was one that struck me with particular force while reading American Pastoral.

In a similar vein, I also just read Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-Prize winning March (a Civil War epic), along with John Thatcher’s rather self-congratulatory post “A Historian’s Daring Use of Fiction to Tell the Story of the Black Death,” outlining his upcoming work The Black Death: A Personal History. I liked Brooks’ novel as a literary work, and I especially enjoyed her afterword explaining how she did her historical research, the choices she made, her conscious omissions, etc. I thought she succeeded in combining adequate historical accuracy with vivid literary craft. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to read Thatcher’s work, and applaud his attempt: “My motives were those of a historian: to teach the truth about the period in so far as we understand it, and to reveal the lost history of the Black Death, rather than to invent it or simply tell a good story.” Let’s hope he achieved his goals.