Study Guide

American Pastoral Visions of America

By Philip Roth

Visions of America

Where was the Jew in him? You couldn't find it yet you knew it was there. (1.45)

Being Jewish in America is one of Zuckerman's major themes. He delights in exploring Jewish stereotypes and Jewish realities. In American Pastoral's predecessor, The Human Stain, Zuckerman's hero is Coleman "Silky" Silk, a man passing as a Jew who is not a Jew. Here we have the Swede, a man who is Jewish, but who can pass as Gentile.

"It's the worst city in the world, Skip." (1.60)

Newark is the heart of Philip Roth's America. It's always the most wonderful and the most awful place in the world. From the time of the 1967 riots to 1995, when Zuckerman and the Swede are eating at Vincent's, Newark has fallen on troubled times and is a hotbed of poverty, crime, and despair.

The depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, in masse, everyone in it together. (2.1)

This is from the speech Zuckerman writes in the wee hours of the morning after he's already been to his forty-fifth high school reunion. He's thinking about America just after the end of World War II. It's the mood of America in general, as he perceived it as a child in his specific neighborhood.

The daughter who transports [the Swede] out of the longed for American pastoral and […] into the indigenous American berserk. (3.114)

This is one of the novel's most quoted lines. The word "indigenous" is important. It alludes to the indigenous or original inhabitants of America (the Native Americans) and the extreme violence done to them in the name of the American dream. On some level, the novel connects the tragedy of Merry with that original American tragedy.

A TWA jet is bombed in Las Vegas. […] A bomb goes off in the pentagon—in a women's restroom on the fourth floor of the Air Force area of the Pentagon! (4.176)

During the five years Merry is missing, between 1968 and 1973, the Swede watches a lot of news. This is a snippet of dozens of similar news items. Readers have to look lots of stuff up to determine which of the news bites are real and which are the products of the twisted mind of Nathan Zuckerman. Either way, this period in American history was extremely volatile.

These were the factories where people had lost fingers and arms and got their feet crushed and their face scalded, where children once labored in the heat and the cold, the nineteenth century factories that churned up people and churned up goods […]. (5.65)

This moment, when the Swede is exploring Merry's neighborhood, hearkens back to another volatile period in American history (the US Civil War) and the factories of Newark during that time.

During the week in September 1949 leading up to the Miss America Pageant, when she called Newark every night from the Dennis Hotel […], what radiated from herself was sheer delight in being herself. (5.7)

Is this Dawn's sheer delight in American pageantry, or the Swede's? When she's suicidal and hospitalized after Merry's depression, Dawn tells the Swede that the Miss America Pageant was the worst experience of her life… and not just because she didn't win. He thinks she's just saying this because of her state. What do you think?

The loneliness he would feel as a man without all his American feelings. (6.53)

This is a touching moment. Love of country can be strong. Although some of the Swede's innermost reasons for loving America are put forth as naïve (and even dangerous and deluded), he is also always sincere.

The way his father talked to people, that got him, too, the American way his father said to the guy at the pump, "Fill 'er up, Mack. Check the front end, will ya, Chief?" (5.50)

If we didn't know better, we'd think the Swede just landed in America from some harsh planet and is reveling in its strange customs and funny speech.

This place where she worked certainly didn't make it look as if she continued to believe her calling was to change the course of American History. (5.74)

Merry is working at a dog and cat hospital in a dangerous and decrepit section of Newark. But is the Swede right or wrong? Can Merry change the course of American history by caring for animals in the worst part of town?

[…] from the look of her she could have been not fifty minutes east of Old Rimrock, but in Delhi or Calcutta […] (6.2)

This vision of Newark presents a stark contrast to Old Rimrock. The moment also alludes to Merry's feeling of connection with people outside of America.

"You want Miss America? Well, you've got her, with a vengeance—she's your daughter!" (6.258)

This, of course, is Jerry Levov yelling violently at the Swede when the Swede is on the edge of despair over Merry. Jerry is suggesting that Merry Levov as a Jain is closer to the "true" face of America than Miss America herself.

Wasn't a Jew, wasn't an Irish Catholic, wasn't a Protestant Christian—nope, Johnny Appleseed was a just a happy American. (7.145)

For the Swede, being American means not having to worry about messy religious issues unless you want to… and he definitely doesn't want to.

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