by Joey Perr
This essay was adapted from a lecture by the author delivered at the 24th annual Conference of the American Literature Association (Boston, Massachusetts, May 2013).
PHILIP ROTH’S AMERICAN PASTORAL is a contemporary American retelling of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman stories. Looking past their different historical contexts, the Tevye stories and American Pastoral share the same narrative: a story of generational tension between a controlling father and his daughter(s) from the father’s perspective. Most readers are probably familiar with Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. The musical adaptation shares none of the moral ambiguity of Sholem Aleichem’s original work. With American Pastoral, Philip Roth breathes new life into this narrative, reclaiming the story as inherently ambiguous.
In 1973, Mad Magazine published its inevitable parody of Broadway’s longest running musical, Fiddler on the Roof. Antenna on the Roof, as Mad called it, lampooned the notion that modern American life would be the “happily-ever-after” to any narrative:
As far as we’re concerned, Fiddler made a goof! … Which is why Mad now takes this famous musical about the problems of people who had nothing, and updates it with a version about the problems of people who have everything—mainly America’s Upper Middle Class.
Mad’s parody imagines the lives of Tevye’s assimilated American descendants as nothing less than dreadful. The youngest daughter of Mad‘s Upper-Middle-Class-American Tevye is Joy, who “makes bombs in the attic and answers the phone with quotations from Mao!” before running away from home and renouncing violence: “I’m off the violence kick, Pop!” Mad’s Tevye tries to understand why his daughters rebel so: “The headshrinker says I treat my daughters like possessions, not like human beings! He’s right!” By rejecting the musical’s fairy tale ending, Mad recalls the moral ambiguity and universality of Sholem Aleichem’s original stories.
Ironically, Mad’s parody is truer to Sholem Aleichem’s original stories than Fiddler on the Roof, which transforms the ambiguity and modernism of Sholem Aleichem’s original stories into a folksy validation of the American Dream. The unresolved tensions within the original text—between tradition and modernity, father and daughter, oppressive past and uncertain future—are papered over in the musical, as Tevye brings together not only his entire family (nearly intact!), but much of Anatevka in order to migrate to America, the land of freedom and opportunity. This optimistic ending is at odds with Sholem Aleichem’s original work. Seth Wolitz, a scholar of Yiddish literature, makes the following distinction: “Aleykhem’s Tevye attempts to defend a world he believes in but cannot protect, leaving him bitter and isolated, whereas the American Tevye of 1964 joyfully prepared his shtetl… Anetevka, for boarding the Jewish Mayflower for the Golden Land.”
Broadway’s reinvention of Tevye is fueled by nostalgia for a lost world. But Sholem Aleichem didn’t enjoy the privilege of hindsight when it came to the fate of Eastern European Jewry. His Tevye stories were published one by one between 1894 and 1914, and played out in real time. Until the last two stories, Sholem Aleichem was far more concerned with Tevye’s dysfunctional family than with anti-Semitism. Even when the latter rears its head, it is upstaged by the narrator’s neuroses. The stories, unlike the musical, are neither retrospectively therapeutic nor paradigmatically Jewish folktales; to the chagrin of their own narrator, Tevye’s stories are morally ambiguous and modern, offering no satisfying resolution, no clear sense of right and wrong.
Twenty-four years after Antenna on the Roof, Philip Roth published American Pastoral, his own challenge to the consensus view of Jewish American history heralded by Fiddler. The plight of Roth’s protagonist, Seymour “the Swede” Levov, mirrors that of Mad‘s Tevye. The Swede’s daughter, Merry, is Cartoon Tevye’s daughter, Joy, fully realized: a radical anti-capitalist who builds homemade bombs, runs away, and eventually renounces violence. Like Mad‘s cartoon psychoanalyst, Swede Levov’s brother accuses him of loving his daughter “as a fucking thing. The same way you love your wife.” Roth, too, finds it ironic that America would be the happy ending to any immigration narrative; this point is driven home as American Pastoral plays out against the backdrop of the Newark race riots and anti-war movement of the 1960s. If it weren’t published a quarter of a century earlier, Mad‘s spoof could be mistaken for a musical comedy adaptation of Roth’s novel. Asked for this essay if American Pastoral was indeed inspired by Mad‘s Antenna on the Roof, Roth replied in a single sentence: “Didn’t know Antenna and never read Tevye.”
WHETHER OR NOT AMERICAN PASTORAL WAS INSPIRED BY MAD‘S PARODY, it achieves the same end, shattering the mythology of the American Dream subscribed to and propagated by Fiddler and the collective American imagination, and bringing us back to Sholem Aleichem’s original narrative. Wittingly or not, the novel is nothing less than a contemporary American retelling of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories, and a challenge to Fiddler’s morally un-ambiguous adaptation. Aleichem has Tevye, the father of six girls, narrate his own tale of generational tension; Philip Roth takes a step further, casting his alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman as the narrator of American Pastoral, in which Zuckerman tells the story of the fraught relationship of the Swede and his daughter Merry.
The shared narrative goes as follows: a controlling father raises his daughter to fulfill his personal dreams and desires for self-reinvention, suppressing her own aspirations and inclinations so as to fit her into his limited world. She grows up to reject her father’s dreams as outdated and limited, and struggles to establish her own identity outside of the role he’s predetermined for her. Unwittingly she emulates her father on a grotesque scale, embracing a series of radical identities that lead to her devastating estrangement from her family. But the father becomes unreliable as a witness as he shirks responsibility for his daughter’s alienation, refusing to acknowledge how his own actions have led to the situation with which he’s confronted, blaming circumstance and casting himself as a martyr. Here is where the narrator’s account becomes questionable, and the reader should ask what it’s concealing.
Sholem Aleichem gives Tevye six daughters, through whom we discover more about our narrator than he would like to admit. Tevye’s first two daughters, Tsaytl and Hodl, each assert their independence by marrying for love, and not, as Tevye wishes, for upward mobility. Tevye reluctantly yields to his two elder daughters, but not without inventing stories to hide the truth from his wife Golde, to shore up his own authority and to make it seem that his daughters’ decisions reflect his will and not their own. As our narrator unburdens himself to Sholem Aleichem, his authority is revealed to be based on lies and is satirized in the process.
The departure of Khave, Tevye’s middle daughter, pushes Tevye past the limits of his own professedly liberal tolerance. Sholem Aleichem’s Khave is Philip Roth’s Merry. Khave questions Tevye’s theology, reads Russian literature instead of the Torah, and ultimately leaves the Jewish faith to marry a non-Jewish intellectual. In short, Khave rejects Tevye’s wish to live in an idyllic Jewish past where women defer to their fathers and husbands, a world where one stays in one’s place, as prescribed by gender and religion.
Olga Litvak, scholar of Yiddish literature, writes, “The possibility that Khave might have chosen to convert of her own volition proves so disturbing that Tevye feels the need to project the irresolvable contest of wills between Khave and himself onto a third party.” Tevye convinces himself that there was a priest who tricked Khave into renouncing her Jewish faith, just as the Swede in American Pastoral comes to believe that a character named Rita Cohen is responsible for corrupting his own daughter. Tevye’s priest is never identified and this hypothesis holds no weight. Tevye himself describes Khave as strong-willed and articulately skeptical of his beliefs. He knows that Khave’s departure from Jewish tradition was ultimately her decision, but he cannot accept this: “Somebody must have put a hex on her… because how to explain all this?”
For the first time in his narrative, Tevye cannot explain “all this.” He chooses to pretend that Khave never existed: “Life went on its merry way. I made it clear to them all that I never wanted to hear of Khave again. There simply was no such person.”
As Tevye’s family falls apart one daughter at a time, Tevye looks to blame his daughters, his wife, the matchmaker, anyone but himself. How far are we willing to believe and absolve our increasingly calculating narrator? Tevye wishes to unburden himself but, feigning ignorance and innocence, he is compromised as we are all compromised. This is what makes Tevye so believable and compelling. Sholem Aleichem’s representation of Tevye is more than simply a means of more accurately portraying ‘reality.’ As we are led to sympathize with Tevye, we are led to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves.
PHILIP ROTH’S AMERICAN PASTORAL TELLS THE STORY of Seymour “the Swede” Levov and his rebellious daughter Merry. As if taking his cues from Mad, Roth pushes the Swede’s conventional morality, and Merry’s fanaticism, to their limits. The Swede is as pathologically conventional as Merry is pathologically rebellious. As the Swede’s own brother viciously observes, “Whatever society dictates, you do. Decorum. Decorum is what you spit in the face of. Well, your daughter spit in it for you, didn’t she… Quite a critique she has made of decorum…”
Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s aforementioned alter-ego, confesses from the start of American Pastoral that his version of the Swede’s life story can only be biased and wrong because “Writing turns you into somebody who is always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws on you.”
The Swede’s life seems the embodiment of conventional success in America: he’s inherited his father’s business, married a former Miss New Jersey, and left his Jewish immigrant neighborhood in Newark for the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant colonial village of Old Rimrock. As narrator Nathan Zuckerman muses, “Swede Levov’s life… had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” At least, that is how it seemed until he learns of how Merry violently and definitively rejected her father’s dream of living in an idyllic America that simply doesn’t exist.
Like Khave, Merry chooses to live in the world of today and tomorrow rather than an idealized past. But whereas Khave only figuratively blows up her father’s idyllic world, Roth supplies Merry with a homemade explosive to detonate in the local post office in protest of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. A neighbor is killed in the detonation and Merry disappears.
The Swede is dead by the time Zuckerman learns about the rot in the American grain. Zuckerman makes it very clear that the rest of his story is his invention, his hypothesis. Four months after Merry’s disappearance, Zuckerman sends a young woman named Rita Cohen to the Swede as Merry’s emissary. She knows everything about the Swede’s family, and leaves no doubt that she is, indeed, in collusion with his daughter. Rita is presented as an anti-caricature of the Swede, a radically disillusioned and unreasonable character. In their most dramatic encounter, Rita lures the Swede to a hotel room with a briefcase full of cash for Merry. Rita then undresses herself and promises to produce his daughter if only he will allow himself to be seduced. The Swede runs from this character who “in being his tormenter and wrecking his family… had found the malicious meaning of her own existence.” The Swede becomes convinced that Rita has brainwashed his daughter. As Tevye invents Khave’s priest, the Swede reasons that Merry would never have done something so destructive on her own. Rita Cohen must have been behind the bombing.
But Rita’s existence in this story does not fit with what we learn next about Merry’s fate, and the reader is left to question what compelled Zuckerman to invent such a character. Is she merely a product of what Zuckerman imagines must be the Swede’s exhausted sense of reason? A fantasy that would allow father and daughter to awaken from this nightmare with clean hands? It is almost as if Roth—via Zuckerman—is winking at the reader, testing just how far we are willing to identify with and excuse his protagonist.
THE SWEDE FINDS MERRY FIVE YEARS LATER, squatting in an abandoned building in Newark. The impoverishment of the Swede’s hometown is a blatant metaphor for the broken promise of the American Dream, and Merry is living in the middle of the ruins. In their final confrontation, the Swede hesitates to ask Merry if she planted the post office bomb herself: “he could not bear to hear an answer.” Merry not only planted the bomb herself, but has since killed three other people in separate bombings. “Who talked you into it? Who brainwashed you? Who did you do it for?” But Merry has never heard of Rita Cohen. It is almost as if Zuckerman, in whose imagination the entire novel takes place, has realized that Rita Cohen would be too easy an excuse for the tragedy of the Swede’s life. Even if the Swede has done nothing wrong — and that is a big if — Zuckerman decides not to allow the Swede, as he imagines him, the luxury of a Rita Cohen to grant him absolution and exemption from contingency.
Merry tells her father the truth he cannot accept: “How strongly you still crave the idea… of your innocent offspring… Daddy, you can detest me alone. It’s all right.” And the Swede disowns his unrepentant daughter: “You are not my daughter. You are not Merry…”
Are we to believe in the Swede’s innocence? Just as we relate to all that is human — and therefore mistaken — in Tevye’s storytelling, readers may recognize their own desires for innocence, comfort, and belonging in the Swede. The question, then, for the Swede and for ourselves, must be: at what price and at whose expense?
Like Sholem Aleichem, Roth intentionally leaves the reader to sort through the novel’s moral ambiguity, to make his or her own personal sense of its artfully confused narrative. Roth even goes so far as to offer his reader a disclaimer:
You never fail to get [other people] wrong… Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception… Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong.
In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan Zuckerman paraphrases Kafka: “I believe we should only read the books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?” Roth, like Sholem Aleichem, prefers uncomfortable questions to easy answers. American Pastoral challenges the cultural mythology of Fiddler with an idea of history that Sholem Aleichem would immediately recognize: one contingent on individual life stories, in which the tragic, irreconcilable, impossible facts of life stand in the way of the pre-determined happy-ending of the American Dream. In challenging the deterministic cultural mythology embedded in Fiddler, Roth recovers the moral ambiguity of Sholem Aleichem’s original work and, wittingly or not, restores a compromised narrative. American Pastoral is the unhappily-ever-after — or at least humanly-ever-after — epilogue to Fiddler on the Roof.
Joey Perr is a reader, writer, illustrator, and public school history teacher born, raised, and based in New York City.