Teaching Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America after Charlottesville

PALS Note: We are excited to feature this guest post by Katie Fitzpatrick that continues earlier discussions of the role of the political in literature classrooms. Fitzpatrick explains the immediacy of engaging students in constructive political discourse as she considers how to find a balance between the content of a course titled “Democracy in America” and the current political events students encounter outside of the classroom.

I designed my course “Democracy in America” in the fall of 2016, when the campaign was still in full-swing. Anticipating a different result on November 8th, I began the syllabus: “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down? How does democracy happen on a daily basis, at the local level, or even outside the law?” I imagined that with President Clinton in office many American liberals and centrists would take a step back from politics – in relief. I wanted to keep the focus on the way democracy unfolds between and beyond Presidential elections, in school board meetings, classrooms, living rooms, and rallies. I selected novels (and secondary sources) that would allow students to consider not just the formal procedures of democracy, but the attitudes, beliefs, and emotions (the ethos) underlying it. We would discuss paranoia and extremism through Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, racism and (mis)representation through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, and, finally, participation and public relations through Joan Didion’s Democracy and Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night.

Of course, my question “Where does democracy go after the clamor of a Presidential election dies down?” took on new meaning after the election. Far from stepping back in relief, my friends and colleagues seemed more involved in politics than ever. The risk was not that democracy would recede from view for another four years, but that, without our efforts, it would disappear entirely. Yet although the context had changed, the texts I had selected for the syllabus still seemed like apt choices. In fact, they had taken on a new urgency. When I learned I would be teaching the class this fall at Muhlenberg College, I saw it as an opportunity to contribute (even in a small way) to a more thoughtful and constructive political discourse.

Teaching The Plot Against America

“Democracy in America” was offered as a special version of a pre-existing sophomore-level English course, “Literature as Politics.” It was a seminar-style, writing-intensive course with only 13 students, allowing for in-depth class discussion. We began with Roth’s The Plot Against America, which I taught over five 75min class periods. In the latter half of the unit, I brought in non-literary texts from the 1930s-1960s that illuminated the novel’s historical setting. These also connected indirectly to the events of the present, especially the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which occurred a just few weeks before the class began. I taught selections from Hannah Arendt and Richard Hoftstadter, as well as a 1939 New York Times article, covering a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. But while the connections between these texts and 2017 were apparent to me, I didn’t make those connections explicit in class. Later, my students would ask why we had steered clear of a more direct conversation about contemporary politics during our Roth unit. This was a question that, as I will explain at the end of this post, prompted me to think more deeply about democracy, disagreement, and the post-Trump classroom.

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The Plot Against America narrates a counterfactual history of WWII. In place of FDR, Americans elect Charles Lindbergh – a famed aviator, but also a Nazi-sympathizer and anti-semite. Across the novel, Roth’s young protagonist (also named Philip Roth) watches as his family struggles to understand their place in a world of increasingly open anti-semitism.

Because almost everyone in my class was new to literary interpretation, I began by teaching close-reading skills. For this, I drew activities from Writing Analytically, by my colleagues David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen. For example, my students used what Rosenwasser and Stephen call “the method” to analyze Roth’s description of Jewish-American identity. Students looked for patterns, binaries, strands, and anomalies in a passage describing his family’s assimilation. They then used these observations to write a paragraph analyzing how Roth constructs (and then deconstructs) a binary between Jewish and American identity. Overall, The Plot Against America served as an excellent introduction to close-reading. Students found the plot engaging and Roth’s prose accessible. Moreover, his (to me) obvious allusions and metaphors—the Roth family arguing in front of the Lincoln Memorial; Philip’s national park stamp collection turning to swastikas in a nightmare—helped students practice interpreting symbolism, a skill that was vital when we read Invisible Man a few weeks later.

Frameworks for Analysis

After two class periods focused on close-reading, I began incorporating additional, interdisciplinary sources. The first was Richard Hofstadter’s well-known 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter argues that politicians using the paranoid style seek to explain complex political phenomena through a single scapegoat (Catholics, Jews, Communists, Freemasons). Students had no trouble naming uses of the paranoid style in the present. We discussed islamophobia, anti-semitism, and “pizza gate,” but also considered the liberal focus on Russian meddling, which sometimes risks occluding the profound divisions within American society. If anything, students found it too easy to name contemporary phenomena that seemed paranoid and we had to work together to put some limits on the term. They often defaulted to viewing any form of disagreement or antagonism through the lens of paranoia. I explained that, for example, it is not paranoid for Republicans to accuse Democrats of undermining the second amendment; it is paranoid to suggest that Obama is secretly Muslim. A particularly instructive moment occurred when one student suggested that being against GMO food products is paranoid. Two other students expressed that they were against GMO products. I allowed both sides to argue their viewpoints for a few minutes, then pointed out they had performed an example of legitimate democratic disagreement. Both sides had presented reasoned considerations without accusing one another of being secretly in the thrall of shadowy forces. This, I explained, was the difference between democratic antagonism and the paranoid style.

We then discussed the place of paranoia in The Plot Against America. The fascist politicians in the novel express obviously paranoid views. But so do Aunt Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who rely on an elaborate conspiracy to justify their own complicity in an anti-semitic regime. Finally, Philip’s parents are unsure whether to believe the most seemingly paranoid theories on the Jewish left (expressed by radio personality Walter Winchell). Intriguingly, Winchell’s “paranoid” fears about the government’s violent intentions seem prescient by the end of the novel. In this way, Roth suggests that it can be difficult, without the advantage of historical hindsight, to determine which views will prove paranoid, and which prophetic.

Historical Contexts

For the fourth day of our unit, I brought in a 1939 New York Times Article (purchased from their online archive). The article, “22,000 Nazis Hold Rally in Garden; Police Check Foes,” covered both the rally and the clashes between police and protesters outside (events also described in the novel). In particular, I drew attention to a quoted statement from the American Jewish Committee:

“The German-American Bund is, in our opinion, completely anti-American and anti-democratic. It is a foreign-inspired organization endeavoring to arouse in the United States the same hatreds which in Germany have brought the condemnation of the entire civilized world. Nevertheless, because we believe that the basic rights of free speech and free assembly must never be tampered with in the United States, we are opposed to any action to prevent the Bund from airing its views.”

I asked students whether they agreed with this statement. Most did. We discussed to what extent that position was consistent with their view of the novel as a whole. After all, the central problem in the text is President Lindbergh’s refusal to join WWII to fight against the Nazis. If students wanted to protect the free-speech rights of Nazis in the United States, while supporting military intervention against those abroad, could they make those two positions consistent?

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New York Times article covering Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden.

The students were, at first, visibly puzzled by this problem, and they didn’t ultimately agree about their stances on it. But it led to some nuanced and interesting points. One student suggested that while we might intervene against the state violence being perpetrated in Europe, this was different than the non-state actors rallied at Madison Square Garden. Others considered whether and how democracy could contain both free-speech protections and fierce condemnations of hate speech. For me, this discussion obviously resonated with the recent events in Charlottesville and with contemporary debates about racism, anti-semitism, and free speech. I was glad to see my students wrestling with these urgent questions in an informed, thoughtful, and rigorous way. But while I assumed that they could make the connection to Charlottesville, I (mistakenly) did not make that connection explicit.

From the Classroom to the Campus Climate

About a month after we concluded our discussion of The Plot Against America, a racist incident occurred on our campus while my students were studying Invisible Man. This led to an impromptu (and heated) class discussion about how the racism in the novel connected to current events. When I asked students whether they would like to make those explicit connections more often, they all said they would. Several even mentioned that they wished there had been more opportunity to talk about current events during our Philip Roth unit. This surprised me at first; I had intended to make the connections quite clear. But upon reflection, I realized I had also felt a bit wary during class discussion. I wasn’t sure where my students stood politically, and being a new faculty member myself, I was worried about provoking a tense debate between them or appearing to “push” views they disagreed with.

Instead, what I learned over time (especially in our Invisible Man unit) was that most (perhaps all) of my students were roughly on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum. More importantly, they were capable of working through political disagreement among themselves when it arose. The irony, of course, is that when I designed the syllabus, I had intended to tackle political questions head-on. But the antagonistic political climate itself got the best of me. I wasn’t sure if we could have a democratic conversation about democracy, even though I was given a group of students who were more than capable of doing just that. Of course, my wariness might speak to my own lack of pedagogical courage. But I think it speaks equally to a vague chilling effect on free speech – not (or not only) for de-platformed conservative speakers, but for junior, contingent, and immigrant faculty teaching contemporary political issues, even at supportive liberal arts colleges.

Much of the current debate about free speech on campuses is less about free speech per se, than about which kinds of conversations colleges want to foster, which forms of disagreement they want to stage. Most colleges are prepared to hold debates on taxation, for example, but not on the humanity of people of color (a necessary distinction, in my opinion). In my class, I found myself faced with a different version of this problem. I was prepared to foster disagreement about students’ interpretations of the novel, their reactions to Hofstadter, or their views on Walter Winchell’s dissent. What I wasn’t prepared for, pedagogically or emotionally, was a conversation where one student compared President Trump to the Nazi-sympathizing President Lindbergh and another found this comparison outrageous. Of course, that’s a more vital conversation than anything about close-reading, but it would be a difficult conversation to have – one potentially destructive of our classroom environment, and early in the semester too.

I’m still not sure how to lead that kind of discussion, and I’m aware that it could go very well or very poorly. I’m still trying to learn how other teachers have led conversations about politics in the past year, and I think we could all stand to reflect on these questions more. But my major take-away is that my students wanted to have more difficult conversations, and were capable of doing so. Perhaps they understood democracy better than I did.

Contributor Bio

Macintosh HD:Users:Barbra:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 7.13.47 PM.pngKatie Fitzpatrick is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the English department at Muhlenberg College. She received her PhD from Brown University in May 2017 and is currently at work on her first book, Between Law and Justice: Legal Authority, Political Philosophy, and Postwar Fiction. She can be found at katiefitzpatrick.info and on twitter @katiefitzpat.

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