It Didn't Happen Here

Philip Roth explains that though he dislikes our current national politics, the alternatives were once much worse.

IN 1935, Sinclair Lewis published It Can't Happen Here, a frightening novel that imagined how the country might look if right-wing nuts took over the government. Fast-forward to 2004, and America's reigning literary novelist, Philip Roth, has revisited that same time and place, coming up with an even spookier scenario: The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, $26). The year is 1940, and 7-year-old protagonist Philip Roth watches in horror as aviator (and anti-Semite) Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the presidential election. Lindbergh then proceeds to make a nonaggression pact with Hitler; Jews are forced to relocate; and before too long, mobs of anti-Semites are roaming the streets. Seattle Weekly recently spoke by phone to the intensely private but genial 71-year-old Roth about his latest novel (just named one of The New York Times' 10 best books of the year). SW: Why did you choose "Philip Roth" as your protagonist? Philip Roth: I told myself this when I started this book—make one change. Just change the 1940 election and then follow out the consequences of it. Therefore, I used my family and me. Now, had I invented a family, I would have wound up inventing a family very much like ours. I also thought if I used our real names and said, "Look, I was there," at a certain point the reader might forget that this was an invention. A false memoir is what it is. The Plot Against America is one of several novels you set in Newark during this period. How do you re-create this city so well? I feel a very powerful affinity with this place. I grew up there and left when I was 17 years old. I never really lived in Newark again, but my family was there. I also think the riots in the late '60s, which destroyed a lot of Newark, made the city come alive for me again. All the poignancy and the pathos and the tragedy and the horror came through, and that turned me back to this place. As for remembering, this period made a powerful impact on me. . . . I didn't think we were going to win the war. The headlines at the beginning of the war were so dark: Bataan falls; Corregidor falls; Japanese occupy such and such. Was the Catholic broadcaster Father Charles E. Coughlin, a notorious anti- Semite, a part of your childhood? Yes, and he was very frightening. He was on every Sunday, you know. He either broadcast from his little church outside Detroit, or else, occasionally, he'd have a big rally in what was then the Detroit Tigers baseball stadium—and that used to scare me particularly because I knew how many people could be there. It may surprise some people that Lindbergh was so pro-Nazi. Do you feel some responsibility as a novelist to remind readers of that fact? Well, it was not a motive of mine. And I don't know that it's the responsibility of a novelist to correct those kinds of misperceptions. It simply came with the territory. Look, any isolationist who would have won in 1940—and I do believe, by the way, had Lindbergh been a candidate, that he would have won—would have had to make a deal with Hitler. But Lindbergh was terribly, terribly tempted by the racial mythology of the Nazis, the notion of the superior Aryan man, and the inferiority of all the other races. He bought all that worst stuff of the '30s back then. And he never really apologized or excused himself for his ideas. He was rather stubborn about that. Given current political trends, do you have a dystopic view of America today? I have a very anxious view and a very pessimistic one, yes I do. Of all the political disappointments I've had in my lifetime, this [period] is the worst. You have written about not wanting this book to be interpreted as a parable of today's politics. How do you want readers to read it then? Well, I think they can just read it as a fantasy of what did not happen. The triumph of America is that this did not happen. It happened in Europe; it did not happen here. They got fascism; we got Roosevelt.

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