Plot Against America Term Paper

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Philip Roth's The Plot Against America

Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America follows a fictionalized version of the author's family in an alternate-history America where Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency, bringing with him a raft of anti-Semitic policies. The novel uses the personal fears of a young Philip Roth to speak more broadly about the tenuous grip democracy has on America, and is able to employ Philip's unique perspective as a way of reinterpreting the events around him. Philip is keenly aware of the social upheaval going on around him, but as a child he notes the danger of rising anti-Semitism in fittingly child-like contexts, offering the novel a way of addressing the risk of totalitarianism in a visually resonant metaphor. Thus, Philip's fear of the rising anti-Semitism around him is first expressed in a nightmare he has regarding his stamp collection, and the stamp collection reoccurs throughout as a metaphor of an ideal America, the ultimate thing threatened by Lindbergh and his policies. By examining the appearances of the stamp collection, and especially Philip's fears regarding their defacement, it will be possible to see how the novel uses the stamp collection as a representation of the ideal America, and points out how that ideal must be continuously reified and jealously guarded if it is to remain free from tyranny.Buy full Download Microsoft Word File paper
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Term Paper on Plot Against America Assignment

Philip's stamp collection is first imperiled in a nightmare he relays at the conclusion of the first chapter, after Rabbi Bengelsdorf has given a speech nearly guaranteeing Lindbergh the presidency. In the nightmare, Philip finds his stamp collection exactly the same except for the images on certain stamps, and it is here where the stamps' relation to America first becomes clear. The stamp collection functions as a metaphor for an idealized America and can be seen in the description of the stamps' defacement in the nightmare, because this narration explicitly conflates America and the stamps themselves. The first disfigured stamps Philip discovers in his nightmare are his "1932 Washington Bicentennials -- twelve stamps ranging in denomination from the half-cent dark brown to the ten-cent yellow," somehow altered so that "instead of a different portrait of Washington on each of the twelve stamps, the portraits were now the same and no longer of Washington but of Hitler. And on the ribbon beneath each portrait, there was no longer the name of "Washington" either" (Roth 43). Although a dramatic image, and one positively ripe for analysis, Washington's transformation into Hitler is better addressed later, in a larger consideration of the second instance of Philip's fear for the safety of his stamp collection, when the Roths go to Washington. The image, name, and location of Washington hold a special relevance within the novel, because it specifically represents the American history which must be repressed or edited in order to accommodate the newly totalitarian, anti-Semitic regime. For now, it is simply worth noting the initial disfigurement Philip observes before assessing the true damage, so devastating that it shocks him out of his slumber.

Following the discovery of the 1932 Hitler bicentennials, Philip looks "next at the facing page to see what, if anything, had happened to [his] 1934 National Parks set of ten" and is terrified by what he finds:

Yosemite in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Mesa Verde in Colorado, Crater Lake in Oregon, Acadia in Maine, Mount Rainier in Washington, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Zion in Utah, Glacier in Montana, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee -- and across the face of each, across the cliffs, the woods, the rivers, the peaks, the geyser, the gorges, the granite coastline, across the deep blue water and the high waterfalls, across everything in America that was the bluest and the greenest and the whitest and to be preserved forever in these pristine reservations, was printed a black swastika (Roth 43).

The conflation of the stamps with an ideal America should be obvious here, because although Philip is ostensibly looking at disfigured stamps, in the world of the nightmare, the stamps and the actual landscape of America are one. While Washington turning to Hitler represents a kind of symbolic transformation or perversion, the black swastika printed over the National Park stamps, and thus the natural features they represent, is a literal defacement, showing in stark terms the stain of anti-Semitism on the country. The contrast between the two kinds of defacement, for leaders and places, further demonstrates that the stamp collection as a whole functions as representation of the idealized America, because the differing defacements affect their targets in unique ways.

The two different defacements that happen to Philip's stamps show how anti-Semitism and totalitarianism affect leaders and the entire country in distinctly different ways. In the case of the leader, Washington simply is Hitler, and the conversion is total. Foreshadowing the eventual election of Lindberg, this serves to point out that totalitarianism often requires a charismatic leader, and more interestingly, to posit that the leap between Revolutionary War hero and Nazi leader is much smaller than one might anticipate, at least in terms of charisma and power. (As will be discussed later, this transformation also has ramifications for the acknowledgement of history). The defacement of the National Park stamps, however, is of a wholly different kind. Instead of being transformed by the inclusion of Nazi imagery, the images of national parks and their most famous features simply have a swastika printed over them, defacing the image but not altering the fundamental subject. Thus, while totalitarianism requires a unifying, total leader, it only concerns itself with nature and beauty so far as to stamp it, to claim it, and having done so ignore it altogether. The images of a quintessentially free, frontier America cannot be entirely done away with, and so must be uniformly stamped, reducing each glorious image to just another swastika-marked slide. However, in a way this metaphor of America is hopeful, because it allows for a reversal of these defacements. Although the totalitarian leader must be written off as a loss, as the variety of portraits replaced by Hitler's image cannot be recreated, the natural beauty and resources represented by the National Park stamps suggest that the imprint of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism, though permeating across the entire country, can be effectively removed to once again reveal the beauty and promise of the ideal America.

Following Philip's initial nightmare regarding his stamp collection, the next time he fears for its safety is when the Roths are planning a trip to Washington DC. Philip manufactures a number of reasons to convince his mother to allow him to bring his stamp collection, as "out of fear that [Philip] would lose it and be heartbroken afterward, [his] mother at first said no but then allowed herself to be won over when [he] insisted on the necessity of at least having with [him his] president stamps" (Roth 57). In reality, however, Philip is afraid that his stamps might suffer their fate from his nightmare, and is reluctant to leave them unattended:

In fact, I was afraid to leave the album at home in our empty flat because of the nightmare I'd had, afraid that either because I'd done nothing about removing the ten-cent Lindbergh airmail stamp from my collection or because Sandy had lied to out parents and his Lindbergh drawings remained intact under his bed -- or because of the one filial betrayal conspiring with the other -- a malignant transformation would occur in my absence, causing my unguarded Washingtons to turn into Hitlers, and swastikas to be imprinted on my National Parks (Roth 57).

In this case, Philip fears a corrupting influence, either as a result of his Lindbergh stamp or his brother's Lindbergh drawings or a combination of the two, because by this point in the story Lindbergh has been elected and represents, in person, the magnitude of the totalitarian threat. Thus, Philip has identified the cause of the stamp defacements as Lindbergh, and seeks to protect against it. Philip's fears regarding his stamp collection are presented as a kind of reflection of his father's own fears, because just as Philip must take his stamps with him in order to protect his "unguarded Washingtons" from turning into Hitlers, so too does Philip's father want to visit Washington DC, as a means of ensuring that despite Lindbergh's rise, Washington is still Washington, and still contains the historical weight of its many years.

The singular importance of Washington as an image, name, and place is attested to by Philip's original nightmare and the initial focus on the transformed portraits of Washington. First of all, it is important to note that not only has Washington transformed into Hitler on each of the stamps, but that "instead of a different portrait of Washington on each of the twelve stamps, the portraits were now the same and no longer of Washington but of Hitler" (Roth 43). The key detail here is that every stamp featured a different portrait of Washington, so that the entire series presented a wide variety… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Plot Against America.  (2011, May 9).  Retrieved August 3, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Plot Against America."  9 May 2011.  Web.  3 August 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Plot Against America."  May 9, 2011.  Accessed August 3, 2020.