Study Guide

American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

American Pastoral Introduction

The good news: when you're done with American Pastoral, you have two more books left in Philip Roth's American Trilogy.

The bad news: American Pastoral is so deeply affecting, so upsetting, so brain-tinglingly Postmodern and so dryly hilarious and biting that… oh, wait. That's also good news.

Okay. The bad news: American Pastoral is such a nuanced and clever look at 20th Century American politics and the media, and has such deeply flawed yet sympathetic characters that… hmm. Still good news.

All right. All right. Here: don't read American Pastoral if you're thinking of buying property in Newark, New Jersey between 1967 and 1995. That's the bad news. This book will dissuade you from time-traveling and flipping houses.

American Pastoral, first published in 1997, is the twenty-second (yeah, you read that right) book by American author Philip Roth. It was nominated for the 1997 National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is on Time magazine's list of the top 100 novels since 1923. Oh yeah—it was a national bestseller, a New York Times editors' choice, and it was awarded the coveted Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

See why we couldn't find any reasons why reading American Pastoral would be bad news bears?

But don't crack this bad boy expecting a happy-go-lucky romp through malt-shop mid-century American. American Pastoral is one of Roth's many tragic novels. And boy oh boy is it depressing: at his high school reunion Zuckerman learns that the daughter of his childhood idol bombed a small-town post office when she was sixteen and killed a doctor. As you can imagine, this tragedy wreaks havoc on the Levov family. Zuckerman sets out to imagine the Swede's life and to explore the effects of the tragedy on the family, all the while interrogating ideas of the American dream.

So put aside all your Americana fantasies. Forget about happy families on rural farms. Forget about peaceful Vietnam War-era hippies offering flowers to soldiers. Forget about the snazzy first days of disco. The America in American Pastoral is, from the early sixties onward, gritty and nightmarish. It's real.

We'll let you keep your nurse-and-sailor-kissing-in-Times-Square WWII-era American dream, though—after all, the Swede remembers those days fondly—and we promise we won't touch 1990's nostalgia. Some things, like Daria, are just sacred.

What is American Pastoral About and Why Should I Care?

Everyone's been jealous of someone. They might be a Regina George-type queen bee, who does a car commercial in Japan and can punch whoever they like in the face and leave them sighing, "It was awesome."

Or perhaps you know someone that's kind of like American Pastoral's "the Swede" Levov. Someone who women want and men want to be. A guy who can out-smooth James Bond, who inspires men to write poems to their girlfriends apologizing for not being as cool as he is, who is so gleaming and perfect that you want to hate him… if only he wasn't so cool, so smart, so kind, so handsome.

There's someone like the Swede in everyone's present, but characters like the Swede tend to exist most often in the past. These mysterious creatures appear most often during the glory days of high school. And dang do we obsesses over them. We obsess over them so much, in fact, that many of us find ourselves thinking about these bright stars for years after we've last seen them.

But what would happen if you not only ran into one of these mythical beings, but also found out that their lives had taken a turn for the dark and twisted?

Well, you might just be tempted to write a novel about them.

American Pastoral is the story of a man who looks perfect on the outside—married to a beauty queen, rich and utterly irresistible, but inside he's shattered with pain, grief, doubt, and guilt. And just as we see the dark inside of the Swede Levov, we also get a peek into the underside of The American Dream, which the novel calls "the American berserk" (3.114). 

Maybe American Pastoral will make you think seriously about your own notions of the American Dream. Maybe it will be a lesson in compassion, nuance, and human complexity. Maybe it will stop you from turning into a green-eyed monster every time you think about your own personal Swede Levov.

Or maybe it will just provide hours of awesome reading. Any way you cut it, American Pastoral delivers a win. Just like the Swede did in back in his glory days.

American Pastoral Resources

Websites

The Philip Roth Society
You don't have to be a member to access this excellent Roth site.

"Philip Roth News"
Check out The New York Times page on Roth for lots of helpful resources.

American Pastoral on Time's Top 100 List
The list looks at fiction from 1923 to the present.

Students for A Democratic Society
Some information on the protest organization alluded to in the novel.

Weather Underground
From PBS, some information on another group alluded to in the novel.

Join an American Pastoral Reading Group
This site is from Random House, the publishers of the novel, and has a long list of questions to direct your reading.

Movie or TV Productions

The 1960s come to 2016
Ewan McGregor: from Trainspotting junkie to American Pastoral hero.

Documents

"The Trouble With Swede Levov"
An essay from The New York Times.

"Terrorist Infiltrations"
An Newsweek essay by David Gates discussing the role of the terrorist in fiction. Gates mentions American Pastoral.

Zuckerman's Obituary
From the Guardian—lots of Zuckerman history, for your enjoyment.

"Innocence Lost"
A review from Slate.

"Roth Holds the Key"
A review from the Post-Gazette. Provides a nice discussion of "the pastoral" as a literary form.

"Roth on Zuckerman's Curtain Call"
Roth talks about the final Zuckerman book, Exit Ghost.

An Interview with Roth
Roth talks about why he has to kill Nathan Zuckerman and much, much more.

Videos

Part One of An Interview
From 2006: getting to know the great man himself.

Part Two of An Interview
Roth discusses America. He does not shout "USA! USA!"

An Interview
Jeffrey Brown interviews Roth. Roth keeps his poker face on.

The Newark Riots
Information on the 1967 riots referenced in the novel.

An Interview
Roth on writing about sex. Scan-da-lous.

Images

A Book Cover
This cover features a family on the front.

Heyyy
Roth is the coolest kid on his block.

Roth at Home
Looks nice, Phil! Can we come visit?