Family and the Representation of Herman Roth’s Masculinities in The Plot Against America
Chapter 2, Part 2
Ng Lay Sion, Osaka University
In Chapter 2, the Roth family travel to D. C. Washington in order to convince themselves that nothing had changed other than Lindbergh had become the president of America. However, at the end of the trip, Herman Roth exclaims, “They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare,” implying that everything has, indeed, changed (76). During the two-day trip, Herman has been called “a Loudmouth Jew” twice: the first time in the Lincoln Memorial and the second time in the cafeteria (65, 78). Moreover, the Roth family encounters an unfair treatment, a form of psychological abuse, in the Douglas hotel, in which they are forced out by the hotel manager with the help of a police officer due to their Jewish background. These incidences put the Roth family into a sympathetic position: they are the victims of anti-Semitism. It is as if their human rights had been stripped down despite the statement “all men are created equal” and metaphorically, they have been removed to the days of slavery. However, even under these circumstances, the Roth parents (especially Herman) stand up for the family and take responsibility for minimizing the impact of anti-Semitism upon their children (65). Certainly, the family is not a new theme for Roth. However, compared to Roth’s other novels, as Alex Hobbs suggests, “The Plot Against America is seen as the novel most warmly appreciative of the family” (123). Similarly, Ross Posnock recalls The Plot as “Roth’s most emotionally reconciled novel” (25). Arguably, Roth’s representations of family seem to contain more warmth after the death of his father, Herman Roth (Hobbs 123). In writing the novel, Roth personally claims,
It […] gave me an opportunity to bring my parents back from the grave and restore them to what they were at the height of their powers in their late 30’s – my father, with the vast energy he was able to pour into what I call his “reforming instincts,” and my mother “performing each day in methodical opposition to life’s unruly flux” – and then to go ahead to image how they might have conducted themselves under the enormous pressure of a Jewish crisis…I’ve tried to portray them here as faithfully as I could – as though I were, in fact, writing nonfiction. (“The Story” para. 5 of 23)
Here, Roth clearly describes the role of his parents: his father is responsible for reclaiming their Jewish roots while his mother stabilizes the family’s everyday life. Through this division of parenting roles, the Roth family appears to overcome the novel’s depiction of the Jewish crisis in the 1940s. As Neelakantan suggests, “family matters forever expand and assume importance almost benefitting community and national issues,” to reveal the national Jewish issues, one should first explore the family matters in The Plot Against America (128).
- Jewish Father: The Changing Stereotypes
According to Roth, “In 1880, Newark was a city of approximately 100,000 people, most of them of British stock. And then, between 1880 and World War I, 250,000 immigrants came, two and a half times the population.” Roth continues to note, “as the city grew, the next generation, the children of these immigrants, took on another task, fought another struggle: the Americanization of their children” (Rothstein, 1991). Representing the second generation, Herman and Bess constantly struggle between the old Jewish values and the new American values. Under this environment, Herman and Bess on the one hand, reclaim their inherent Jewish roots (by living in a ‘Jewish only’ neighborhood) while on the other hand, they adopt the model of the middle-class American family. The family structure of the Roth family—Herman, Bess, Sandy and Philip—resembles the nuclear-family prototype in America. Regarding this, Jon Bernardes notes,
a common popular image of “the nuclear family” portrays a young, similarly aged, White, married heterosexual couple with a small number of healthy children living in an adequate home. There is a clear division of responsibilities in which the male is primarily the full-time breadwinner and the female primarily the caregiver and perhaps part-time or occasional income earner. (2-3)
Indeed, except for the word ‘White,’ the structure and the gender role in Roth’s family are relevant to the American norm. In the novel, Herman stands as “a manly provider” who pays all the basic bills, whereas Bess’s job is to run the household, schooling and budgeting Herman’s earning. She also earns a small amount of money at home (8). As Aviva Cantor suggests, “providing” was an exclusively male activity, for “man’s masculinity was defined in large part by his working and being breadwinner” (170). Just like the fictionalized Herman Roth, the Herman Roth in real life started his career as an insurance salesman and his daily work was to go into many Newark homes to collect premiums and sell policies. As Roth recalls, “He brought Newark into our house every night, he brought it in on his clothes, on his shoes – literally on his shoes. He brought it in with his anecdotes, his stories. He was my messenger out into the city” (Rothstein, 1991). This is why the fictionalized Herman is described as a “foot-soldier salesman” (2). This masculine image of Herman makes him the first hero in the young Philip’s eyes. As Hobbs commends, “it is at this point in Herman’s life that Roth perceives his father at his most masculine, both in terms of his age/physicality and due to his adoration of him when a child” (126). This explains why Philip happens to be the one who embraces his father’s masculinity the most.
Unlike Philip, Sandy is more likely to be drawn to the hegemonic masculine features displayed by Lindbergh. Unlike Herman, who has rather “fewer dashing qualities but is dependable [and] present,” Lindbergh represents “the American ideal personified: good-looking, courageous, strong, ambitious, and successful” (Cohen 34, Hobbs 128). During the Washington trip, the Roth family is forced to watch Lindbergh’s flying show: “we had no choice but to stand there like patriots and watch with the rest of them” (75). Among the family members, Sandy is the only one who shows his “enchantment with the very Interceptor that [Lindbergh] had flown to and from Iceland for his meeting with Hitler” (72). Not only Sandy, those who claim “Hurray for Lindy!” are also drawn to the “heroic proportions” of Lindbergh (72, 53).
Another character who challenges Herman’s non-hegemonic masculinity is his nephew Alvin. Having a strong sense of masculine pride, Alvin attempts to prove his own Jewish American masculinity to Herman Roth, his Jewish uncle and to Abe Steinheim, his Jewish boss, by joining the Canadian army to fight Adolf Hitler instead of going to college. Alvin dislikes the abusive masculinity of Steinheim which is born out of his money-making power and decides to give up the opportunity for a college education offered to him by Steinheim. Herman tries to persuade Alvin to think about his future. For Herman, going to college represents the Americanization of Alvin, whereas joining the Canadian army to fight Hitler represents the opposite; going to college will uphold his social position, whereas going to war will only make Alvin become more alien to Americans since the majority of Americans vote for the Hitler-friendly Lindbergh, for “no war.” Thus, paradoxically, Alvin’s boasting of his Jewish American masculinity becomes a burden that hinders his acceptance by the American society.
Despite the fact that Alvin leaves Newark on a Friday in February 1941, the responsible fatherhood performed by Herman is significant. Herman had continued to persuade Alvin for 4 nights before he left and even though Alvin was not his own son, Herman had treated him as such ever since he had started living with the family: “so he’d come to live with us during the four years he attended Weequahic High, a quick-witted boy who gambled and stole and whom my father was dedicated to saving” (45). Here, Herman’s masculine features are neither parallel to the mainstream hegemonic masculinity, nor the stereotypical image of fatherhood in Jewish American fiction: “the belligerently nurturant Jewish mother often predominates, while a mild-mannered husband shuffles quietly in the background or lies cooperatively in the grave…the Jewish mother [is] a more familiar literary figure than the Jewish father” (Iannone 131). Thus, one comes to a point that the representation of Herman’s masculine qualities in The Plot is ambivalent, as it both conforms to and subverts the White American and Jewish American stereotypes.
- Herman Roth’s Counter-Hegemonic Masculine Actions
It is suggested that Herman’s masculine qualities become negotiable when there are family responsibilities. For Herman, family comes first; his own masculine pride comes second. When the tour guide Taylor asks for 9 bucks for each day, Herman first asks Bess “Can we afford this?” and then asks Sandy, “Do you like this guy or not?” before deciding (60). He then negotiates the price to 7 bucks, shakes Taylor’s hand and happily leads the family to lunch: “‘Okay, let’s eat!’ as always teeming with energy even when there was nothing to do” (60). This energetic, positive, (half) dominant characteristic of Herman is important as the mother is always terrified: “she took my [Philip’s] hand in hers to assure herself by assuring me that everything was now going to be all right” (61). Bess’s terrified mood is not unreasonable, as the spreading of anti-Semitism shocks her terribly and beyond this, she is stuck in a sense of guilt derived from her inability to provide her children a healthy environment: “it isn’t like living in a normal country anymore. I’m terribly sorry, children—please forgive me” (58-9). However, her constantly terrified disposition is not helping the family. She even triggers the masculine tendency of the young Philip: “[my mother is] trying to act like someone whose panic wasn’t running wild within her, and suddenly I felt that it had fallen to me to hold her together to become all at once a courageous new creature” (66). Bess’s inferiority is the reason why Herman must constantly remain strong and positive in order to hold the family together.
It seems that Herman is aware of the importance of negotiating his masculine pride for his family. When Herman is called “a Loudmouth Jew” by a stranger and receives a violent threat from an old lady—“I’d give anything to slap his face”—in the Lincoln Memorial, he chooses not to walk over to argue with them (65). He then points to the Gettysburg Address and tells his son that “All men are created equal” (65). The labelling “Loudmouth Jew” is itself a stereotypical phrase. According to Brygida Gasztold, “Stereotypes are the lens through which members of the dominant group can identify their relationship to race, ethnicity, religion, social standing, gender and age” (162). Hence, the labeling of Herman as “a loudmouth Jew” by the man could imply nothing more than the inferiority that the man feels towards his own identity; Herman does not need to call the other a “loudmouth White” because he recognizes the strength of his Jewish roots. In this sense, Herman performs a counter-hegemonic masculine act by not arguing with the dominant class.
Another counter-hegemonic masculine action that Herman performs in front of his family is in the Douglas hotel, when he realizes their luggage is already packed and has been put beside the front desk. Despite the Roth family has already booked the room a month before, the hotel manager claims that the room had been booked by another family and returns their deposit (68). What makes Herman angry the most is when the manager accuses his son of stealing—“We will not charge you for what use you all made of the room today or for the bar of soap that is missing” (68)—which urges Herman to call for legal assistance. As a nation of America, Herman believes that they can ensure their rights through anti-discrimination laws: “There are laws in this country against people like you” (69). However, when Herman tells the police “all men are created equal,” the police answers, “But that doesn’t mean all hotel reservations are created equal” (70). Extremely furious, Herman wants to argue more but because of the family, he stops the argument and takes his family out: “There was more resistance in my father, but there was still some sanity in him as well, and he was able to understand that his argument had run out of interest to anyone other than himself” (71). Despite the fact that the whole family encounters public humiliation while leaving the hotel (“We left the hotel with everybody watching us” (71)), Herman’s calling of the police is still the right decision. If he just led the family out without even trying hard to prove that they were on the right side, his sons might have called him a cowardly father after this. At least Herman tries everything he can in this situation and the consequence is out of his control; this courage that Herman has, as I suggest, serves as an element of his counter-hegemonic masculinity.
The third scene during the Washington trip that displays Herman’s counter-hegemonic masculine actions is when he sings to cover anti-Semitic insults in the cafeteria: “At all at once, in a brisk cadence, my father began to sing it, and strongly enough for everyone in the cafeteria to hear” (82). Prior to that, a stranger with a mustache insults Herman by saying, “If ever there was a case of a loudmouth Jew with too much power—” after overhearing his personal thoughts on Lindbergh and his admiration of Walter Winchell (78). When his wife whispers to him, “You’ll frighten the little one,” Herman answers, “The little one knows everything already,” insisting that his son(s) can stay innocent but not ignorant (77); that neither will he hide his opinion from them nor dismiss their right to express their opinions just because they are ‘little.’ Later when Herman sings the folk songs loudly with his “baritone bravura,” the “little encyclopedia” Taylor smiles at last, and the mustachioed man who had insulted Herman before can do nothing and goes “berserk” (82). Again, it is Herman who causes the public humiliation but it is also his courage that helps the family to overcome the humiliation. According to Roth,
Humiliation is crippling – it does terrible injury to people, it twists them, deforms them…In this book it’s the humiliation that helps to tear apart and very nearly disable the family, inasmuch as each person in the family responds to it differently. What is it to be a man, to be a woman, to be a child, and not to be humiliated? How do you try to remain strong when you are not welcome? (“The Story” para. 17 of 23)
In the novel, Herman remains strong when he is not welcome: he argues back for the family by quoting rational statements, he tries to obtain legal assistance when it is necessary, he sings to cover the awkwardness and soften the humiliation the family feels, but he never resorts to violence. One time it seems to Philip that his father is going to stab the mustachioed man with his knife and fork, but then he stops: “What happened next was that my father’s hands rose violently from the table, as though to drive his knife and his fork upward into the stranger’s holiday-goose if a belly. He hadn’t to elaborate further to communicate his abhorrence” (78). These actions taken by Herman represent only one meaning: what it is to be a father, a husband, and a man. As Roth commends, “I discovered that my father’s stubbornness, which was notorious, had another side to it […] it was resistance; it was defiance” (Siegel 2014: 23). What lies underneath Herman’s stubbornness (his insistence on arguing with others) is his counter-hegemonic masculinity.
To sum up, Herman Roth’s counter-hegemonic masculinities serve as an important element to upload the family solidarity in order to overcome the Jewish crisis. Nevertheless, the femininity and motherhood of Bess Herman are also worth exploring when it comes to family matters. However, due to the time limitation, the exploration of Bess’s motherhood can only become the focus of my next presentation.
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Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. London: Vintage Books, 2004. Print.1
———. “The Story behind The Plot Against America.” The New York Times. 19 November 2004. Web. 14 May 2017.
Rothstein, Mervyn. “To Newark, With Love. Philip Roth: Memories of a father, by a son must remember everything.” New York Times (1923-Current file): Mar 29, 1991. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Siegel, Robert. “Roth Rewrites History with The Plot Against America.” All Things Considered, NPR, 23 September 2004. Web. 17 May 2017.
Siegel, Jason. “The Plot Against America: Philip Roth’s Counter-Plot to America History.” MELUS 37.1 (Spring 2012): 131-154.
 In this context hegemony describes manhood and breadwinning. It embodies the currently most honored way of being a man and all other men are required to position themselves in relation to it. It ideologically legitimates the subordination of women and other minority groups (Jewish, Asian, Blacks etc.) to the group (White) that leads the dominant position. (See R. W. Connel’s “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept”)
 The debate between Herman and the police officer recalls the historical debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858 regarding the issue of slavery. In this context, Herman represents Lincoln, who upholds equality, whereas the police officer resembles Douglas, who promotes a split notion in which only certain groups holds the power while others are treated as aliens (Siegel 143). This imbalanced ratio between nightmare (those who are inferior) and dream (those who are superior) implies the failure of the American Dream. As James Truslow Adams claims, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth (214-5).