Published March 5th 1998, Philip Roth’s much-loved novel, American Pastoral is one of his most famous. Winning the Pulitzer Prize Winner, also in 1998, it has gone on to symbolise much of Roth’s writing style and themes. In this analysis, I’ll take a look at those themes and delve a little deeper into the character of Nathan Zuckerman.
The book is brought together by the 45th High School reunion of Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.
Here, Zuckerman meets one of his former classmates, Jerry Levov, who tells of his nightmare downfall. This includes the story of his brother, Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov, who has recently died.
The latter two-thirds of the novel is made up of Zuckerman’s posthumous recreation of the Swede’s life. This is mostly fantasy as little information is given from Jerry’s initial mentioning, newspaper clippings, and his own impressions from briefly bumping into him twice prior to his death.
In these encounters before the Swede’s prostate cancer, Zuckerman learns of his remarrying and the births of his three young boys. During these periods, Zuckerman takes note that Merry is ever mentioned.
During the reimagining of Seymour ‘the Swede’s’ life, his second marriage has no part as it ends with Watergate being revealed on the TV, all whilst the previous lives completely disintegrate.
Who is Nathan Zuckerman?
First appearing in My Life as a Man, Nathan Zuckerman is one of Philip Roth’s main protagonists/narrator. Zuckerman makes repeat appearances in what is later known as the ‘Zuckerman Unbound’ series.
Roth uses Nathan Zuckerman to create distinct parallels between what is fiction, and what is reality. Using meta-fictional information Roth can begin to explore the concerns that critics, and the general public, are having towards his own books. He can also recreate real-world distresses within fictional environments.
In the case of American Pastoral, these anxieties are; the Vietnam War, terrorism, generational disconnection, and his often referred theme – Jewish Immigration.
Seymour ‘the Swede’ Levov
Seymour Levov is based on a real-life character, Seymour ‘Swede’ Masin, an all-around Jewish athlete who attended Newark’s Weequahic High School, just as Seymour Levov did. Masin was admired by many local Jews, again, so was the character of Levov.
Both were tall, with blond hair and blue eyes. This helped them to stand out amongst the local population, who consisted of dark hair with characteristically dark complexions. They also both married outside of their faith, served in the military, and subsequently moved to the suburbs of Newark.'And in the everyday world, nothing to be done but respectably carry on the huge pretence of living as himself, with all the shame of masquerading as the ideal man.' Click To Tweet
Merry Levov and the Subsequent Bombing
The main plot revolves around ‘Swede’ Levov’s daughter, Merry, and her role in a local bombing. Merry has suffered all of her life with a stutter, something that she later tries to rectify with a ‘stuttering diary’. A place where she can write down when she stutters and try to change her ways in the future.
Despite Seymour’s view of his family being idyllic, Merry becomes increasingly heated by the on-going war. This forces her beliefs to become radical.
Merry joins a group who are in protest against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. To ‘send a message’ to the politicians, in 1968, Merry sets off a bomb, blowing up the local post-office. In doing so she accidentally kills an innocent bystander, their elderly doctor. Subsequently, she goes into permanent hiding, leaving Seymour traumatised for the rest of his life.
Closing Thoughts on American Pastoral
American Pastoral is a deeply engrossing book, yet I wouldn’t call it Roth’s best work. I realise this statement flies completely against the awards it has won and the lists it has been placed on.
As with most of his work, it deals with Jewish characters struggling to fit into their American society and the many steps they take to do so. The usual problems come up; immigration and identity, as well as social relations between two warring countries/cultures.
Overall, it is well worth reading, especially if you’re already a Philip Roth fan. However, don’t expect anything overly ground-breaking or new. If you want that then you’re better off visiting Portnoy’s Complaint.
American Pastoral was later reproduced as a film, with Ewan McGregor both directing and starring. The rest of the cast featured Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning.