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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Frankenstudents: Experimenting with Horror Narratives

Warning: Students may have a hard time grappling with the difficult emotions that horror evokes.

This is a warning that I frequently hear when I ask other instructors about their experiences teaching horror narratives. Horror often strikes a deeply personal, intimate chord that can make students feel uncomfortable when reading, discussing, and writing about horror. Strong feelings of discomfort, as we all know, can potentially poison a course.

This semester, I’m teaching an upper level class on the horror novel. Like many of my fellow instructors, I work to make my classroom a safe environment, but the nature of horror challenges that safety, sometimes resulting in student pushback. While I have a number of students who consider themselves “fans” of the genre, I also have students who don’t. Furthermore, even some of my self-proclaimed “fans,” especially those whose fandom is grounded in popular horror tv series like The Walking Dead or The Strain, find themselves unprepared, at times, to deal with the graphic nature of certain texts like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1983) or Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart (1986).

Pet SemataryThe Hellbound Heart

Therefore, it’s important to find a methodology that allows students to engage with difficult emotions that they otherwise wouldn’t want to discuss in ways that are productive and non-alienating.

Developing My Methodology

According to Allison Whitney, “[Student] resistance is particularly strong when dealing with a genre like horror, one that trades in the baser emotions of fear, disgust, shock, and arousal, and which many perceive (sometimes justifiably) as exploitative, sadistic, or motivated by prurient interest” (38). Of course, we can’t just ignore or avoid discussing these difficult emotions because they are, as Whitney asserts, “central to human experience” (38). Focusing on such emotions, she argues, is “crucial to understanding [a horror narrative’s] rhetorical, social, political, and aesthetic properties” (38), and I agree.

I find that the best method to help students meaningfully work through their emotional reactions to horror narratives is initially to put some objective distance between themselves and their emotions. In other words, students should step back from their emotions and examine them “clinically”—as if they were analyzing someone else’s emotions and not their own.

Instead of treating emotions as subjective and personal, my students are the observers of an “experiment” in which emotions are “lab specimens” to be dissected and analyzed. As weird as it sounds—this method really works.

To get students thinking “clinically” about their emotional responses to horror narratives, they read several critical essays by Noël Carroll, a foundational horror scholar who pulled the genre out of the trash and into the realm of academia. According to Carroll, horror texts “cue” the audience’s emotional responses. More specifically, the emotional reactions of audience members generally run parallel to the emotional reactions of the character(s) the audience members identify with.

Carroll writes, “This mirroring-effect…is a key feature of the horror genre. For it is not the case for every genre that the audience response is supposed to repeat certain of the elements of the emotional state of characters” (18). For example, Carroll explains, “When a comic character takes a pratfall, he hardly feels joyous, though we do. And though we feel suspense when the hero rushes to save the heroine tied to the railroad tracks he cannot afford to indulge in such an emotion” (18). On the contrary, in horror, “emotions of the characters and those of the audience are synchronized in certain pertinent respects” (18).

The parallel between character emotions and audience emotions thus, according to Carroll, “suggests a way in which we can formulate an objective, as opposed to an introspective, picture of emotion…rather than characterizing art-horror solely on the basis of our own subjective responses, we can ground our conjectures on observations of the way in which characters respond to the monsters in works of horror” (18).

By studying the emotional responses of characters, Carroll concludes, “Works of horror…teach us, in large measure, the appropriate way to respond to them. Unearthing those cues or instructions is an empirical matter, not an exercise in subjective projection” (31).

To facilitate “clinically” reading, discussing, and writing about horror, I use Allison Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment. A “segmentation,” Whitney explains, “provides a scene-by-scene outline of [a] film, noting its major narrative events” (51). Although Whitney’s assignment is intended for the analysis of horror films, it is highly adaptable to horror literature. A literary segmentation still requires a unit-by-unit breakdown of a text in which the beginning and end of a unit is marked by a shift in space, time, and/or action. Whitney also has her students read Carroll’s commentary on horror cuing audience emotions, which serves as the assignment’s theoretical foundation.

The Assignment

The “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” consists of three stages. I explain these stages as I have adapted them for literary analysis:

Stage 1: The Narrative Segmentation. In the form of a chart, students break down a text (either a complete short story or a chapter from a novel) into its major narrative units. In their brief descriptions of narrative events, students must identify the emotional states of characters. This segmentation anticipates how character emotions may cue reader response in the next stage.

Stage 2: The Emotional Segmentation. In a second chart, students document the various emotional responses they felt in relation to material on the narrative segmentation.

For this segmentation, my student scientists—even the mad scientists!—need effective tools of analysis. Students work with Carl Plantinga’s classification of “spectator emotions,” developed in Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Again, although Plantinga developed his taxonomy for film, I find six of the emotional categories he presents applicable to literature. Here’s how I have adapted Plantinga’s classification system (69) for literary application:

1) Global Emotions: Emotions that span all or much of a text’s duration, such as anticipation or suspense.
2) Direct Emotions: Emotions that concern narrative events and the unfolding of the story, such as curiosity about what will happen or confusion after an unexpected turn of events.
3) Local Emotions: Emotions that are typically brief, such as being startled by a graphic image or surprised by something a character says.
4) Sympathetic/Antipathetic Emotions: Emotions that take as their object the condition of characters, such as worrying about a character in danger or feeling disdain for a villain.
5) Meta-Emotions: Responses to one’s own emotions, such as feeling guilty for misjudging a character or feeling proud that you anticipated a plot twist.
6) Artifact Emotions: Responses to the text as a “constructed artifact.” These emotions are not preoccupied with elements of the fiction, but rather with the text as a product of creative activity. For example, one might feel admiration for a writer’s use of various literary devices or annoyance at a writer’s use of a cliché.

Stage 3: The Emotional Analysis Essay: Based on the narrative and emotional segmentations, students must develop an argument about a text’s emotional structure. In the analysis, students must comment on how the text cues their emotional responses and explain how these emotional responses contribute to the text’s overall meaning.

Important questions students must consider when writing the emotional analysis include:

How do your emotional reactions influence your interpretations? What are the similarities and differences between character emotions and your emotions? Are you surprised by any of your emotional reactions? How does the author solicit emotional states to build suspense, encourage or discourage character identification, or produce reactions of fright, shock, and/or disgust? Are there any moments in the text where you experience multiple emotions or conflicting emotions?

Students’ Work

The Birds

For the first “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, my students wrote about Daphne Du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” (1952). I was impressed with the diverse range of arguments they developed for the emotional structure of the text. Here are some of my students’ intriguing thesis claims:

“While the characters must fight through fear and prioritize their survival, readers have the ability to scrutinize the actions of characters and revisit character responses with judgement. It is this ability to reflect which helped form my emotional response as I am more empathetic when the characters involuntarily experience trauma and less compassionate when they voluntarily place themselves in jeopardy.”

“Throughout ‘The Birds,’ I found myself wanting to have Nat Hocken’s logical mindset, but I struggled because I identified with Nat’s unnamed wife who is more emotional. Since Nat remains calm and rational, I found him more trustworthy and reliable than his emotional wife, which means that under the same circumstances, I might be unreliable.”

“In ‘The Birds,’ the main character Nat Hocken champions the idea that the avian enemy is motivated by hunger and changes in the season. During my segmentation, I was surprised at the number of emotions I had dedicated to an alternate answer: that, in fact, the birds were more nefarious than Nat presumes. Certain passages contrast emotion and reasoning to challenge the idea that the birds are motivated by pure instinct, and, in some cases, suggest a self-awareness or sentience in the birds. This conflict creates an uncomfortable air of anxiety.”

“Once I reread the ending of ‘The Birds’ for the emotional segmentation, I realized that Nat demonstrates how using intelligence and rationality in uncontrollable circumstances is sometimes just as futile as acting on emotion and not thinking at all.”

For those interested in Whitney’s “Segmentation and Emotional Analysis” assignment, she discusses it thoroughly, including the assignment prompt itself and a sample segmentation in the article “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.”

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge, 1990.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. U of
California P, 2009.

Whitney, Allison. “Thinking/Feeling: Emotion, Spectatorship, and the Pedagogy of Horror.” The CEA Forum, Winter/Spring 2014, pp. 37-61.