The House I Live In: Philip Roth’s America

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Philip Roth, 1960. Photograph by Sanford Roth. New-York World Telegram and Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17774

Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004) is set in the early 1940s, in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey, where Roth grew up and attended high school. Much of the novel’s action is staged within a version of the childhood home Roth lived in on Summit Avenue and nearby environs, and its characters have their basis in Roth’s own family.

While Roth’s last novel, Nemesis (2010), focuses on the impact of the polio epidemic on ordinary lives, The Plot Against America centers on a different kind of fear sweeping the nation and the Jewish community in Newark—an anti-Semitic nationalist wave of political neo-fascism that permeates the highest level of government. As in his other works, Roth uses the novel to examine the status of being Jewish and being American in a particular time period in American and world history. He sets the novel between 1940 and 1942, when he was himself a child, and makes Plot into a masterfully tweaked dystopic revision of real events.

Near the close of the recently broadcast limited-series television adaptation of Roth’s novel, created and written with HBO by David Simon and Ed Burns, Frank Sinatra is heard singing a rendition of the theme song from his 1945 RKO short film “The House I Live in.” It is an interesting choice—a reference not only to themes in the novel, but a nod to the impact of the movies and patriotic politics of the era. The Sinatra film, available online through the Library of Congress website and part of the Library of Congress National Film Registry, is a propaganda piece made to counter anti-Semitic and religious prejudice in the post-war United States.

Written by Albert Maltz, who was later blacklisted and imprisoned as one of the Hollywood Ten, the film layers Sinatra’s singing of the inspirational song by Earl Robinson and Lewis Allan with a swelling orchestral melody of the “and crown thy good with brotherhood” passage from “America the Beautiful.” In an unfortunate sign of ongoing anti-Asian prejudice, at a time when many Japanese Americans had fought with valor in the European theater of the war while their relatives were incarcerated in relocation camps in the United States, when African Americans were still experiencing Jim Crow racial segregation and violence on the home front, and Native American families had long experienced the separation and re-acculturation of their children in distant Indian boarding schools and the forced relocation of their tribal nations to territories and reservations, the 1945 film’s message was narrowed to questions of white ethnicity and religious difference, and the impropriety of childhood bullying. A passage of Sinatra’s spoken dialog utilizes derogatory anti-Japanese nomenclature while hailing an example of Jewish American military bravery in the Pacific theater.

The song “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me)” was popularized in sheet music and later re-recorded by Sinatra with Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians as part of an “America, I Hear You Singing” album in 1964, issued after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It continued into the Civil Rights era to represent ideals of a neighborly and pluralistic American post-war democracy.

Frank Sinatra in “The House I Live In,” RKO Radio Pictures, 1945. tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/mbrs/ntscrm/00009167/00009167.jpg

In the Simon and Burns 2020 adaptation of Roth’s The Plot Against America, the song is used as the audio backdrop for a visual sequence featuring voters streaming to ballot boxes at their local polling places. As the Italian American Sinatra sings, Jewish American, African American, and other citizens are seen demonstrating democracy in action at its most elemental roots. Quick cuts also show ballots being illegally confiscated and burned, and the Levin family gathered with hope and tension in the house they live in to listen to the returns. While in Roth’s novel the election outcome is revealed to the reader, in the series adaptation the radio dial and the light at the heart of the radio’s electronics form the final shot, leaving the results of the November presidential race a question mark for the viewer.

The Manuscript Division is home to the Philip Roth Papers collection. The bulk of materials available for research span from 1960 to 1999. There are letters received, interviews, and drafts of writings up to 2001. They include Roth’s meditation on his father Herman Roth, Patrimony (1991), for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and his deep-dive into secrets and the politics of identity, American Pastoral (1997), for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Roth (1933-2018), who died two years ago on May 22, was the recipient of the 2012 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. He was famously prolific. He published more than two dozen novels, which examined questions of character, the private foibles that lie behind public and personal affiliations, and the complex and messy multiple contradictions of Jewish heritage and American social and political life.

Philip Roth. Draft manuscript page, Patrimony. Philip Roth Papers, Manuscript Division. “From Haven to Home” virtual exhibition, loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/images/179_5s.jpg, loc.gov/exhibits/haventohome/haven-century.html#obj23

In Plot, the fictionalized Roth family (who are renamed Levin in the 2020 television adaptation) serve as allegory. Their domestic sphere in a shared house on Summit Avenue is a microcosm, a petri dish, of Jewish American perspective in a time of peril. The world outside the house is emblematic of both bad and good forces in the wider democracy and the choices and fates that shape the broader Jewish community.

The heart of the Roth house is the living room, where family members listen to radio broadcasts by the Jewish American commentator Walter Winchell. They hear baseball scores and news of an assassination, of mob violence, and of a missing president. The adjacent dining room is where the moral rock of the family—the mother, Bess—provides food and sustenance. She dishes out fortifying instruction and supportive guidance, extends hospitality to guests, and uses a nearby telephone as a metaphorical long-distance umbilical cord in a time of crisis. The dining room is also where generational conflict and intrafamily turmoil break out, when dinner guests bring differences of opinion from “outside” to the table.

The upstairs bedroom is where Roth’s alter-ego child-self, little Philip, crawls into the womb of his bed and cordons away his precious stamp collection, representative of what he knows of the history and geography of the nation. Pressed by bewildering outer-world circumstances and equally befuddling adult behaviors, young Philip is rushed in a too-fast and confusing way through his age of innocence. He shares the room with various roommates—his cousin Alvin, his brother Sandy—who open his eyes to outer things. Alvin, the hot-head, goes to war against Nazis in the only way he can: through the Canadian military. He returns to the Roth house an amputee, and his stump continues to irritate and ooze even as he reenters society. Sandy, meanwhile, engages in adolescent rebellion by admiring the very leaders and policies abhorred by his parents. He draws sketchbook images that link his family with scenes outside of the home and listens to the sound of planes like Charles Lindbergh’s fly overhead with a degree of awe. The charting of plane flights plays a larger part in the plot of the series adaptation than in the original novel.

Training high school boys to identify planes, Weequahic High School, Newark, New Jersey. July 1942, U.S. Office of War Information. Prints and Photographs Division. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b07435

Though anathema to Philip and Sandy’s parents, President Lindbergh—for in Roth’s imaginative version of events, the aviation hero has risen to the presidency of the United States, despite questionable ties to Nazi leadership—is enthusiastically embraced by their aunt Evelyn. She fulfills personal ambitions working for the Just Folks relocation program, part of the Office of American Absorption and the focus of new Homestead legislation. She rises to an associative pinnacle in the new regime by marrying Lindbergh advisor Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who, as a descendent of German Jews in the formerly Confederate South, in some ways counters the culture of the more recently assimilated Russian, Ukrainian, and Eastern European Jewish community.

Philip’s bedroom is located above other areas of the house, while the cellar, where dark nights of the soul take place, lies beneath it. Philip believes the ghosts of previous residents lurk there, and he witnesses and hears secret things there that are hidden from the communal rooms above. By novel’s end, the cellar produces a real haunt in the person of his Aunt Evelyn, who, rumpled and deranged, is discovered having hidden in the coal bin for fear of being rounded up by the same authorities who came after her husband.

Outside the house—as in the Sinatra song—there is the street, the school, the grocer, the butcher, the newsstand, and the bus stop that leads to offices downtown: the department store and life insurance companies where Philip’s parents work, and the Newsreel Theater where Philip’s father, Herman, goes to learn of political and world events from footage edited by his longtime friend and the theater’s projectionist, Shepsie Tirschwell. As world tensions mount, and as he is confronted by increasingly disturbing news media day by day, Tirschwell decides to leave America for Canada, much as some European Jews made early exodus from the Nazi regime after Kristallnacht in Germany. While his vehicle takes his family north and across a border once used as a path to freedom by runaway slaves, the Roth automobile brings them on a long-planned family vacation to witness the patriotic monuments and centers of power in Washington, D.C. There they read words of freedom and emancipation at the Lincoln Memorial and lose their hotel room due to anti-Jewish red lining. Before leaving town to return home, Herman stands and sings a song from the American Songbook as an act of resistance against bullies in a cafeteria.

Later in the plot, Herman Roth and Sandy find themselves in their auto going even further south. They avoid frightening roadblocks placed by Ku Klux Klansmen and witness Jewish businesses ablaze, to successfully rescue a boy orphaned by anti-Semitic violence in Kentucky. They take the boy—their former neighbor, Selden—home to the Summit Avenue house he once lived in, to the haven of Bess’s dining table, and a bed upstairs, and envelop him as a surrogate member of their family until an actual blood relative can be located to take him in. He becomes the newest roommate for Philip in the house.

Selden’s mother, the heartbreakingly named Mrs. Wishnow, has meanwhile been tragically subjected to the government relocation program. Removed from the house she lived in, she falls victim to murder at the hands of racial terrorists while driving alone at night on a country road. It does not seem for her to be the heartland that is most “American,” but the neighborhood left behind. The dual-family Summit Avenue residence she once shared with the Roths, and the Jewish-American community that enveloped their shared life there, serve as a model of second- and third-generation immigrants making good in American society. It is the America of democracy and promise that the patriotic Herman Roth fervently believes in and that is captured in the Sinatra song: “All races and religions /That’s America to me . . . The house I live in . . . a street . . . the children in the playground . . . The right to speak my mind out . . . That’s America to me.”

 

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