Stamps and Street Game:
Mapping Roth’s version of Historical Truth in the 1940s America
Ng Lay Sion, Osaka University
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) is a counter-historical novel in which the homegrown anti-Semite, famous isolationist, white supremacist, and aviation hero Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, and the Jewish Roth’s family in Newark, New Jersey, suffer the consequences of it. Through this manipulation of historical facts, Roth comes to “denaturalize the link between Jewish bodies and American national identity in the mid-twentieth-century” (Levine 31). In other words, he visualizes the identity crisis of the Jewish communities in America in the 1940s—more specifically, creating his own version of “American Jewish ‘otherness’”—through fictionalizing his childhood experiences in an imagined history of America (Levine 35). Here, it is very important to know that for Roth, “historical truth is not defined by actions, events, and outcomes,” but by the “innumerable possible outcomes inherent in that moment, whether or not they came to fruition” (Siegel 131, 132-3). That is to say, The Plot Against America does not merely imagine what would have happened if America had become a fascist and anti-Semitic country; the novel claims that “America was such a state to some degree and that we ignore this aspect of history if we limit our definition of historical truth to a factual chronicle of events and outcomes” (Siegel 135). Some scholars criticize Roth’s manipulation of historical truth as misguiding the reader in understanding history, as anti-Semitism in the 1940s America was not as bad as the murderous acts of the Ku Klux Klan against blacks. And yet, this does not mean that Roth’s experience of anti-Semitism is not worth narrating; Roth’s narrative is as important as the others as it represents “a plurality of factual and fictional narratives that reveal the multiplicity of experiences that constitute [Americans’] histories” (Siegel 132).
Based on this idea, this paper attempts to explore Roth’s version of historical truth through analyzing the young Philip’s hobbies: collecting stamps and the street game “I Declare War.” It is suggested that the act of collecting stamps and the street game “I Declare War” serve as an important metaphor to visualize the moments of instability in the national ‘position’ of Jewish Americans (denaturalization). Furthermore, it is also interesting to link the theme regarding Philip Roth’s Jewish American “otherness” to topography and utopia/dystopia theory: the mapping of a utopian America through collecting stamps; the construction of a dystopian map of fear through the “I Declare War” game; the combination of utopia/dystopia maps in his swastika nightmare. Further explanation will be shown in the following.
- Collecting Stamps: Mapping America’s Otherness
Everyone collects something. The young Philip in The Plot Against America likes to collect stamps. He receives a small magnifying glass and also The Stamp Collector’s Handbook on his seventh birthday (21-2). Through collecting stamps, Philip learns about the nature and geography of his wide homeland: “Yosemite in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Mesa Verde in Colorado, Crater Lake in Oregon…the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee” (43). Besides that, he learns about important heroes and their social values through collecting stamps: “just above the picture of the Lamp of Knowledge, was Horace Mann [the Father of public education in the US]; on the red-two cent, Mark Hopkins [the American railroad magnate]; on the purple three-cent, Charles W. Eliot [the most senior president of Harvard University]; on the blue four-cent, Frances E. Willard [the American teacher and social reformer]; on the brown ten-cent was Booker T. Washington, the first Negro to appear on an American stamp” (23). In short, Philip collects to learn and preserve history; a utopian version of America is constructed by him through the process of collecting/learning/mapping.
The world inside the magnifying glass is totally a utopia: the “Lamp of Knowledge” becomes “Aladdin’s lamp” and the young Philip transforms himself into the boy in the Arabian Nights (23). Imagining, the seven-year-old boy continues to state, “What I would have asked for from a genie were […] first, the celebrated 1918 twenty-four-cent airmail, a stamp said to be worth $34000 […]; the Pan-American Exposition issue of 1901 […] were worth over a thousand dollars apiece” (23). Here, the fact that a seven-year-old boy knows how to buy and sell, that he collects for investment, comes to remind us of the stereotype that all Jewish people are good in business. In fact, it is this (racial) stereotype that fosters the economic anti-Semitism in both history and the novel: Lindbergh claims that “the Jew’s ‘greatest danger to [America] lies in their ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government” (14; italic mine).
Roth further connects anti-Semitism to racism in the description of Sandy’s winning of Abor Day’s poster contest in school. The design of the poster is based on Philip’s stamp and the prototype of the third character in the poster also comes to Philip (22). However, Philip is transformed into a Negro child in order to promote “the civic virtue of tolerance,” as his mother suggests (23). This changing of race implies two meanings: first, as Siegel suggests, it implies “a kinship between Jews and blacks as victims of discrimination” (140); secondly, as I suggest, it implies a hierarchy between the blacks and the Jews, that the social tolerance toward the former is somehow higher than the latter. This opinion is supported by Philip’s innocent question to his mother, “Do you think there’ll ever be a Jew on a stamp?” after seeing the stamp of Booker T. Washington, a Negro (23). This hierarchal social content can be further linked to the Nazis racial ideology, in which Hitler places the “Aryan race” (the Nordic and Germanic people) as the most superior one and secondly, Western Europeans and Honorary Aryan (Japanese and Chinese), thirdly, Mediterranean Aryan (Italian and Spanish), and finally, in the category called Untermenschen or the Subhuman, the Jews remain in the lowest ranking (Gumkowski and Leszczynski 219). The outcome of this race policy is the annihilation of the racially inferior Subhuman, as they are accused of having generically diseased bodies (see “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” and “racial hygiene”). Thus, racism has turned the Jews into the most undesirable bodies, both socially and biologically. Perhaps this is why Sandy chooses to draw a Negro rather than his Jewish brother on his Abor Day poster, as though the undesirable Jewish body would infect the young tree.
- “I Declare War”: Mapping the Utopian/Dystopian Society
On the sidewalk during the long vocation months of 1940, the Roth children enjoyed playing a new street game called “I Declare War” (27). Meanwhile, the war progressed in Europe and the radio constantly reported on it. According to Russel Maloney and S. Zelinka, the game “I Declare War” first appeared in the “Talk of the Town” section of the New Yorker on May 17, 1941.
The children of Washington Heights have a new street game. They draw a big chalk circle, divide it into segments, and letter each segment the name of a European country. The child who is “it” stands in the centre of the circle with a rubber ball at his feet. He is Hitler. The other contestants stand around him, one to each part of the circle. Hitler says, “I declare war on Poland.” Poland runs, while Hitler stoops down, picks up the ball and without moving from the centre of the circle, tries to hit him with it. If Poland is hit, he’s captured and retires from the game. It’s just a question of who can hold out the longest and as for Hitler, he can’t lose. (11; italic mine)
In the version above, the position of Hitler is fixed and he is the sadist who has the authority to attack any other country. While in Roth’s version, neither the player who “declares war” nor the one who throws the ball is named as Hitler. It is the player representing the country who declares war and enjoys the sadistic fun of inflicting real physical pain on the others: “walloping each as hard as he could with the ball, beginning by throwing at those closest to him and advancing his position with each murderous thwack” (27). Compared to the former version, Roth’s version is more sadistic and perverted because any player who holds the ball can become Hitler—“each murderous thwack” of the innocent kids symbolizes nothing but the “humanly stained fascination with violence, cruelty, and aggression” (Stinson 46).
It is suggested that the shouts of “I declare war on…” do nothing but increase the tensions building all the time with news from Europe, which is why the mothers and the neighbors dislike the game: “it drove some of the mothers crazy who had to hear us at it for hours” (28). For the Jewish Americans in New Jersey, it is as though Hitler/Lindbergh was declaring war on them as they represented Europe/America. From the real aspect of history, this game echoes the real beginning of Hitler’s ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question,’ which parallels the beginning of Lindbergh’s ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question in America. Interestingly, when the adults ask the kids to play another game, the children simply cannot stop because “declaring war was all [they] thought about too” (28). What is ironic here is that the whole idea of declaring war, for the kids, represents merely a utopian condition that contains a pure sadistic impulse and innocence; while for the adults, it implies a dystopian fall of humanity. Recalling Erika Gottlieb’s claim that “each dystopian society contains within it seeds of Utopian dream” (8) and Kristan Kumar’s conception that dystopia is “one side of the self with individuals who have been indelibly stamped with the Utopian temperament” (124), one realizes that the children and the parents are like each side of the self; the street game “I Declare War” represents the utopian seeds within this going-to-declare-war society.
- “American First”: A Nightmare Against (Jewish) American
While America is in the position that it might get involved in the European war, Lindbergh runs his presidential campaign by encouraging America to isolate itself from the war and at the same time, promotes a Hitler-friendly environment in the country. In October 1940, when Lindbergh arrives at Newark Airport, the Jewish Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a man who is claimed as “the religious leader of New Jersey” (35), welcomes him with a speech:
“I offer my support to the candidacy of Colonel Lindbergh because the political objectives of my people are identical with his. America is our beloved homeland. America is our only homeland…Our religion is independent of any piece of land other than this great country, to which, now as always, we commit our total devotion and allegiance as the proudest of citizens. I want Charles Lindberg to be my president not in spite of my being a Jew but because I am a Jew—an American Jew.” (36)
Bengelsdorf’s claiming of ‘American Jew’ instead of ‘Jewish American’ attempts to “denounce the Jewish who are placing their interests over the national interest” (“Phil’s Stock World” 2017). Prior to that, he calls for attention to “the Americanization of Americans” by stating to his audience, “Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all” (34). This means, a man who says he is an American but also a Jew, is not an American. This reference to ‘American First’ slogan is similar to Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan. In fact, it is this slogan which Trump repeats on the Capital steps that draws the fondness of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to unmask himself and crow: “We did it!” (“Phil’s Stock World” 2017).
Listening to Bengelsdorf’s speech defending Lindbergh’s relation to Hitler, Alvin claims, “he’s giving the goyim all over the country his personal rabbi’s permission to vote for Lindy on Election Day” (40). The insecurity and fear that the young Philip feels for Lindbergh’s election through the radio and his parents’ reaction is so overwhelming that he had fallen onto the floor: “My falling after all these years could only have had to do with Lindberg’s showing up at Newark Airport (37). Also, the sense of guilt that is derived from his desire of keeping Lindberg stamp—as it will soon become his “single most valuable possession” due to this election (27)—and the dismissal to speak of his brother’s Lindbergh drawings to his parents come to haunt him as a nightmare. The nightmare begins when Philip is walking toward his friend Earl Axman’s house, someone suddenly calls his name and he accidentally drops his stamp album at the very spot on the sidewalk where they regularly play “I Declare War.” When he opens the album he discovers that the portraits in his 1932 Washington Bicentennials collections are no longer of Washington but of Hitler; the illustrations in his 1934 National Park collections are unchanged but “a black swastika” is printed on each one (41).
If one looks into Philip’s nightmare as a map, one sees that his nightmare consists of both a utopian and dystopian one. The utopia is that his homeland remains the same: “the woods, the rivers, the peaks, the geyser, the gorges, the granite, across the deep blue water and the high waterfalls, across everything in America that [is] the bluest and the greenest and the whitest and to be preserved forever in these pristine reservations,” are still the same as before, only that every part of his homeland is now ‘contaminated’ by Hitler’s swastika symbol (as we know, the swastika stands for the Aryan invasion theory, a theory designed by the Nazis to establish their anti-Semitic views). Ironically, it seems to the whole nation in America that it is the Jews who are contaminated/unclean while Lindbergh serves as a God-like person who purifies/clean the country. Recalling Alvin’s claim that “Koshering Lindbergh for goyim”—because Koshering means blessing or purifying foods and goyim means non-Jew nations—the Jews are excluded in the process of purification, symbolizing the ‘unclean’ animal such as pig (40).
It is suggested that this idea of ‘Lindbergh dehumanizing Jews’ terrifies the young Philip, which urges him to run toward Earl Axman, a person who lives in a total different situation from him and thus serves as a ‘utopia figure’ to him. Axman’s non-traditional family structure, the unusual power relationship between his mother and him, his rich knowledge about stamps and his little ‘awful’ voyeuristic hobby—all of these ‘elements’ become a kind of utopia escape to Philip in this situation. Thus, the interaction between Axman and Philip in the next chapter is worthy of further investigation.
There is a dynamic shifting of utopia/dystopia conception throughout the story and this represents Philip Roth’s version of historical truth: the activity of collecting stamps (mapping the landscape of America) in the beginning represents a utopia escape from the reality but in the end the stamps/landscape of America are contaminated by the swastika symbol; the street game “I Declare War” turns from an innocent children game into a declaration of war on Jews; the awful voyeuristic behavior exhibited by Axman soon will be a practice conducted by the young Philip in order to escape himself from the burden of anti-Semitism.
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 According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, “[it] is one of the ironies of history that Aryan, a word nowadays referring to the blond-haired, blue-eyed physical ideal of Nazi Germany, originally referred to a people who looked vastly different. Its history starts with the ancient Indo-Iranians, peoples who inhabited parts of what are now Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.”