The Plot Against America: Counterfactual History and Historical Consciousness

 

What Might Have Been: President of the United States

 

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is a counterfactual historical novel. The story focuses on a Jewish family by the name of Roth living in an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi sympathizer, wins the 1940 election on the platform of keeping America out of the war. Despite the consternation of many Jews across America, some prominent rabbis become convinced (not without good reason as it turns out) that Lindbergh’s “Nazism” is calculated to put America in a better negotiating position vis a vis Hitler. Call it politics. Call it the ambiguous future.

Roth’s book emphasizes the unknown. If his story was straight historical fiction, we’d all be able to look up how the story ends. Instead we get familiar ingredients (Nazis, Jews, America, Hitler) but an unclear finale haunts the proceedings.

As expected, tensions divide the Roth family (what does Lindbergh intend?) but the author leaves the future ambiguous and in doing so confronts the audience with a vital historical truth: when we explore the past we must suspend our knowledge of the future if we truly wish to understand the decisions made in the past’s own present. This is easier said than done. Roth pulls it off as he explores the fears and optimism of people who have yet to acquire the benefit of hindsight.

Roth captures historical consciousness wonderfully as one of his characters reflects on history class as a child:

Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

The best storytellers and historians (are they so different?) know how to transport their audience into the past and make it the present. It’s a magic trick of sorts. In taking us back, the best historians deprive us of our hindsight and we are forced to face the complexities of the historical present and contemplate an unknowable and frightening future. In this way, the storyteller and historian seek to turn us the right way round and make history into something other than the harmless passage of inevitable events. History at its best immerses us in an un-tame, unpredictable world full of possibilities both terrifying and hopeful; it becomes an exploration of a present with a yet unwritten future.

Taking this approach, Roth’s exploration of the fictional Roth family becomes all the more powerful. As the reader, you can’t help but find Mr. Roth’s fear of a Nazi takeover  somewhat understandable, but then you realize you accept his paranoia in part based on your own preconception of the Nazis. Mr. Roth, though, comes across as somewhat paranoid and his fears ill-founded when confronted by the potent arguments of a rabbi who ultimately convinces Mr. Roth’s son to become a poster boy for Lindenberg’s new Americanism. And yet the unknown future haunts the characters just as the title of the book and fragments of Mr. Roth’s views set the reader ill at ease. As additional tensions emerge the reader quickly finds himself caught up in the web of the characters’ conflicting views and their diverging expectations of the future.

Not only is such storytelling an exercise in truth-telling as it forces us to see the messiness of the world as it was (or in this case, could have been), but it is also a moral enterprise for it refuses to turn “disaster into an epic” by ignoring the suffering on its way to an upbeat ending that makes sense of pain as part of a bigger plan. Of course, the West tells many stories about the ultimate utopia that awaits humanity (Christianity, Communism, Progressivism, etc.), but I’m not so sanguine about man’s ability to acquire the correct lens to explain the ways of God to man. In fact, when an author tries to make such an explanation, he is trivializing the tragic mystery of suffering in a particular present in a vain attempt to play God and wipe away every tear. See, look, it all worked out!

Roth’s ability to introduce us to the mystery of the past’s future (even a fictional past!), ultimately brings us face to face with the struggles of our own humanity and thereby implicitly cautions us against judging the fears, hopes, and actions of people in the past too quickly from our privileged vantage point that only comes with the passage of time. In fact, as I write this I have yet to finish the story and so I’m intimately caught up in the ambiguities of the characters’ lives, and like the characters themselves I am unable to escape the fluid confines of their present where the future is still open and nothing is inevitable.

Unfortunately, this is a point lost on many who haphazardly tar-and-feather historical personages for not knowing the unintended consequences of their actions and what the future would bring. Such uncharitable portrayals distort the past and prove that hindsight is not always 20/20. These iconoclasts ought to pray future folk are kinder to them than they are to the folk of the past. Why the future ought to be generous, though, I have no idea. Regardless, Roth’s story deconstructs arrogant presentism and forces the reader to see the world through the eyes of a conflicted people without a crystal ball.

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