American Pastoral: Who are You?

Philip Roth was a very important American writer, and no one knew that better than Philip Roth. If you have read only one sentence of Mr. Roth’s, then you know he was born in Newark, New Jersey, where he appears to have spent much of his life wandering the streets making prescient observations about humanity. He wrote many books, but American Pastoral is the only one that has a legend attached to its creation.

The legend is this. One day, while Mr. Roth was roaming Newark, a vagrant challenged him. “I bet you could never write a short and sweet tale about this town.” So Mr. Roth wrote American Pastoral, and the vagrant won the bet. But be forewarned, despite what the title may suggest, the book has little to do with farming (the small amount of farming that does happen takes place in northern New Jersey – putting this book firmly in the Fantasy genre).

In American Pastoral Mr. Roth argues that we know very little about people beyond the superficial exterior they present of themselves – even the people we have known our entire lives. Now, you may be thinking this is patently false. Has Mr. Roth heard of the internet? Why, I can go to the internet or turn on talk radio or cable news and immediately learn how worthless and evil anyone is. If the person is noteworthy for anything (or nothing at all), there will be thousands of people (if not more) prepared to tell me how awful the person is, even if they have never met. And if the person is a nobody, there will still be a dozen people prepared to blithely inform me of the nobody’s moral and ethical failings. To which Mr. Roth would reply, “I have heard of the internet, you idiot. And everything you have said is entirely correct. And all of it proves my point. Now leave me alone, I am dead.”

Mr. Roth uses a lot of words in American Pastoral, and some of them he uses quite well. But a single paragraph will often trudge across several pages as he tracks and bludgeons his theme. This leaves the reader somewhat impressed but mostly exhausted. However, all those words culminate in a second curious thought. Perhaps the fact that we do not really know other people is not all that surprising considering how we actually know very little about ourselves beyond the superficial exterior we present to others.

Alison Wonderland, Chief Editor and Adjunct Professor for Student Loans

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