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American Pastorals

At the height of our national ease, Philip Roth and Allegra Goodman each warned us that the end of history was just an illusion

Michael Hoberman
March 19, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

It was the fall of 1998, and my wife, daughter, son, and I were on a two-week vacation from my American literature teaching gig in the Netherlands, touring the south of France in a rented car. Late one afternoon, as we were joyriding through the sunbaked hills of the Cote d’Azur, our little boy needed a bathroom. While Della and I waited in the car, Janice took Lang by the hand to see what a sprawling art gallery had to offer in the way of toilets. They saw a promising doorway on the building’s exterior, tried the handle, entered, and did what had to be done. Within a minute, the galeriste was on them, shouting first in French and then en Anglais: “Can’t you see the sign—Privée—Private! You dirty Americans! Get out! You are like CLINTON!”

I have no idea what our dirty countrymen did to this guy in the past to evoke such bitterness from him. Since Lang and Janice had already accomplished what they’d set out to do, though, being compared to the Man from Hope didn’t really faze them. They jumped into the car, I pulled out of the parking lot, and the four of us made our way into St. Paul, where we sat on a bench, snacked on bread, cheese, and fruit, and watched the old men playing boule in front of a café. Though our sojourn in paradise had been interrupted for an awkward moment, we quickly recovered as the French villagers reverted to acting out the colorful roles to which we tourists had appointed them.

This happened three whole impeachments ago—in an age that, while it may not really have been more innocent than our own, felt quite a bit less restrictive and fraught. As far as I was concerned, no chickens were coming home to roost, no global wars were demanding to be waged, and no feelings of dread were swirling in the air. “You are like CLINTON” and even “dirty Americans” were insults that failed to implicate us in a world that, as Francis Fukuyama had just told us, was approaching “the end of history.”

The Age of Clinton put meaning in suspense. I couldn’t gauge it then, I have trouble remembering it now, and I’m doubtful I’ll ever be able to find a satisfying interpretation in the future. The Cold War had suddenly dissipated, eliminating all those nightmares I’d grown used to having. In the spring of 1990 or so, a rich guy I knew passed out invitations to an all-day party he had declared in the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, where people were going to celebrate their freedom from a burdensome past. In 1995, the Arafat-Rabin-Clinton handshake assured me that my Israeli relatives would live out their lives in peace and security.

Now that the gory past had finally agreed to remain in its rightful place on my bookshelves, I set about realizing my own pastoral dreams. In the immediate aftermath of our wedding in 1994, Janice and I bought a five-acre farm in Buckland, Massachusetts. We purchased goats and chickens, planted a sprawling garden, and learned how to make maple syrup. Deep in the woods on that mountain, I found more than one old cellar hole and long segments of stone walls. History had happened hereabouts, but the rampant New England vegetation had consigned its remnants into oblivion.

Had I not been so absorbed by my child-raising, homesteading, and teaching responsibilities, I might have noted the publication, during the short period between May 1997 and August 1998, of two novels whose penetrating portrayal of self-actualizing, paradise-seeking American Jews like myself would certainly have drained some of the enthusiasm from my all-too-eager embrace of a future with no past.

In superficial terms, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls couldn’t be more different. Roth’s novel is tragic, plot-driven, and relentless in its societal critique. The explosion of a murderous bomb is its centerpiece, the downfall of a hero is its main subject, and its author’s indictment of American naivete loads every page. Kaaterskill Falls, by contrast, resembles a tranquil stream with a few little eddies along its path. Its characters’ tragedies predate (and maybe postdate?) the story that Goodman tells, which is basically the gradual unfolding of two Jewish calendar years, holiday by holiday. Critics rightly celebrated Kaaterskill Falls as an “Austenesque” novel of manners, an aesthetically rich paean to communal values, generational reconciliation, recuperative orthodoxy, and even puppy love. What it and American Pastoral have in common, however, is their authors’ attention to the deleterious consequences of willful ignorance, or, as Goodman put it, “separateness.” Though they had been born more than a generation apart from one another, Roth and Goodman realized—at the exact same time—that the desire to transcend history exacts an enormous cost both to individuals and to communities, especially when they are Jewish.

The common ground of both novels is the ground itself, which is to say that both Roth and Goodman assign an outsize significance to setting. Their invocations of the pastoral aren’t incidental but, on the contrary, pointedly ironic, in the case of Roth, and sadly wistful, in the case of Goodman. Who are these people to think that they can run off into the woods just as the rest of American society is gearing up to destroy itself? Why do they feel that their leafy surroundings will protect them from the historical forces that instigated two world wars, the Holocaust, and racialized urban blight, to name merely a handful of 20th-century plagues?

The primary action in American Pastoral and Kaaterskill Falls occurs in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. Both novels are products of a transformation that couldn’t quite have been realized, however, until those eventful and colorful decades had already receded into the past: the passage of Jews into the ranks of the American elite and their newfound ability to assert complete autonomy from the lower ranks of society. That transformation was enacted in many arenas simultaneously. Its physical manifestation—the movement of Jews away from crowded cities, drab suburbs, and vibrant communal life into the storied hinterlands where WASPs had conjured the myth of America—was an irresistible target.

Roth’s Swede is doomed by his eagerness to sever himself from the past and settle into what he views as the bosom of American innocence. His prosperity and his Aryan good looks enable him to escape Newark and “leapfrog” over the Jewish suburbs to their outskirts. He compares himself to mythical heroes like Johnny Appleseed who had, in an earlier phase of history, attempted to make a new beginning on the American frontier. He dreams of purchasing and inhabiting a Revolutionary War-era stone house located on “a hundred acres of America,” which, conveniently enough, happens to be a mere 30-mile commute from the glove factory he owns and operates in the decaying city. The Swede’s error is worsened by his notion that the geography to which he wishes to escape, the hills of north-central New Jersey outside Morristown, has been consecrated by its passage through the crucible of American history. Roth’s description of the landscape reminds us that the 30 road miles that separate the Swede’s wooded paradise from the urban squalor he wishes to avoid thinking about and seeing are a short distance indeed.

Newly established as the proprietor of the 100-acre wood, the husband of a (Catholic) former Miss New Jersey, and the father of a rose-cheeked child named “Merry,” Seymour Levov makes the acquaintance of one of the WASP natives of the place, a man hellbent himself, as he puts it, on keeping “the modern ills at bay.” Bill Orcutt, a former attorney who now practices abstract painting, offers him a guided tour of the county’s back roads. The tour reveals something to readers that the Swede himself, convinced as he is that has purchased a genuine piece of the New World, can’t see: Its earliest settlement was one and the same with exploitative industrialism. Even in the forested upcountry, “the towns and villages had been thick with rolling mills, nail and spike factories, foundries, and forging shops.” In later years, those same sites supplied the nation with the machinery of warfare, including “the powder company plant in Kenvil that made dynamite for the mines and then, for the First World War … and more or less paved the way for the government to build the arsenal at Piccatinny, where they’d manufactured the big shells for World War II.” Merry Levov’s act of protest against the Vietnam War—the detonation of a bomb at the Old Rimrock post office—represents the latest stage in the county’s long-standing practice of munitions use.

Who are these people to think that they can run off into the woods just as the rest of American society is gearing up to destroy itself?

Industry and warfare have shaped the entire cultural landscape, and even the deepest recesses of the woods into which the Swede has fled bear their ominous legacy. The old stone house on Arcady Hill Road is located near an 18th-century troop encampment (which Roth is likely to have based on the real-life Jockey Hollow, in Morristown National Historic Park). Bill Orcutt’s tour of that place only confirms the Swede’s view that the land he has purchased is of hallowed American vintage. Knowing what we know about the story’s tragic outcome and the protagonist’s inability to see what is coming at him, however, we can’t avoid interpreting the Swede’s proximity to this historical landscape as supremely ironic. Immediately adjacent to the site where Washington’s army built its huts is a churchyard containing the “remnants of 27 soldiers, buried in a common grave, who were victims of a smallpox epidemic that swept the encampments in the countryside in the spring of 1777.”

Within a few short years of his family’s settlement in the old stone house, Merry’s bomb succeeds in “bringing the war home” and kills the town’s postmaster. Dawn, the Swede’s wife, leaves her husband for Bill Orcutt. The Swede’s attempted retreat from history and pursuit of the pastoral dream accelerated his progress into the maelstrom of what his cynical brother Jerry calls “the American berserk.” By the time that Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, has managed to put all of the pieces of the Levov puzzle together, around the time of his 45th high school reunion in 1995, it is clear that the Swede’s Job-like downfall is symptomatic of a larger Jewish American cultural crisis whose effects can still be felt—the triumph of the prosperous individual at the expense of the middling community. By trading his own real history as the grandson of a Jewish immigrant for the mythical history of innocent American pioneers, the sad hero of American Pastoral has done himself in.

Less than 10 fictional years after Merry’s bomb goes off in the post office, the characters in Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls are happily celebrating the nation’s bicentennial in their Catskills mini-shtetl, enjoying their period of respite from the monasterylike apartment complexes they inhabit in their overcrowded neighborhood in Washington Heights.

The Kirshners represent a loosely affiliated group of modern Orthodox worship groups and tendencies, and their origins in the United States go back to the end of WWII, when those who survived the Holocaust sought and found safe haven in the United States. Rav Kirshner, their learned leader, is grateful for the gift of safety, but he is also saddened, as he approaches the end of his life, by the waning of his kehilla’s spirit. In purely practical terms, it has remained intact and even found a certain stability in America. Its middle-aged adults and children are all native-born beneficiaries of this newfound safety, but they also seem to be disappointingly content to live a “smaller and more private” existence, without any of the “grandeur” and “ease” that shaped their lives in Germany before the war. “American-born,” as Goodman puts it, “they cannot possibly appreciate the loss” of what they once possessed as Jews in a place where, for all of the discrimination they faced, their lives were enriched by their access to “the great Kirshner synagogue in Frankfurt which stood like a palace, with windows like jewels.”

America, by contrast, stipulates “a life of greater separation,” which means that, because they are being left alone to live as religiously as they choose, their existence borders on inconsequentiality. Thanks to the same spirit of religious tolerance and pietism that spawned the existence of countless sects from the colonial era forward, the Kirshners live like urban Amish in a hermetic world of their own fashioning. Several times a year and for the duration of each long, hot New York City summer, they visit a collective pastoral retreat in the village of Kaaterskill, where the Rav’s late wife purchased a cottage in 1948 using reparations from the German government.

The year of the colony’s founding is symbolically significant, but in an ironic way. One of the sect’s quirks is its leaders’ refusal to recognize or even talk about the State of Israel. That their own point of origin as a freestanding summer community coincides with the establishment of the Jewish state matters in the same way that Thoreau’s casually informing his readers that he took up residence in his cabin “by accident, on Independence Day, or the fourth of July, 1845” matters. It represents a deliberate “secession within a secession,” an act of withdrawal and an assertion of autonomy by a body whose entire collective existence derives from its own willful rebellion against the outside world.

The Kirshners’ separateness is twofold. By virtue of their Orthodoxy, they draw a distinction between themselves and the other Americans who celebrated the bicentennial in 1976, and by virtue of their anti-Zionism, they assert a distinction between themselves and their fellow Jews.

Goodman is attentive to the nuances of the Kirshners’ Judaism—to its fabled European legacy, its fine-tuned liturgical traditions, its complex rabbinical rivalries, and its social politics. Nonetheless, her novel’s title speaks to its notably American provenance and, more specifically, its pastoral implications. Kaaterskill Falls is both a real place and the title of a famous early-19th-century American landscape painting, a work which was completed by Thomas Cole in 1826.

Like the Swede’s version of paradise in north-central New Jersey, the area where the Kirshners spend their summers is a fabled piece of territory—Rip Van Winkle country. Early in the novel, two of the Kirshner men follow the “Washington Irving Highway” on their way from northern Manhattan to Kaaterskill, at one point passing a place where “they exchange the sunny afternoon for shade, and the light breeze for damper, stiller air.” Rip himself might very well be around the corner, bowling with the crew of Henry Hudson’s Half Moon. As for the Cole painting, the novel’s most prominent female protagonist, Elizabeth Shulman, undergoes an epiphany while viewing it on a museum wall. In an earlier episode in Goodman’s novel, we learn that she has come to believe in “secret forests where you can become someone else.”

Encountering the enveloping beauty of Cole’s landscape, she loses her ability to distinguish between what she sees in the painting and what she remembers having experienced while visiting the site commemorated in the painting. Her mind travels to a time in the past when she slipped on the trail to the actual waterfall on a pile of yellow leaves “so deep that she felt that she were falling in a dream.” The reverie conjured by the Cole painting startles her into the realization that she must “do something of her own.” Though her ambition is a perfectly modest one (she resolves to open a kosher grocery store, which challenges both the patriarchal structure of the kehilla and the prejudices of Kaaterskill’s non-Jewish majority) it represents yet another rift within a community whose existence is already too precarious to accommodate such changes.

The consequences of Elizabeth’s act of separation from the Kirshners are far less dire than those that follow from the Swede’s flinging himself headlong into the American berserk. These characters’ attempts to assert both individual autonomy and communal hermeticism derive from a common point of origin, however, which is America itself—its invitation to personal liberty and its association of that liberty with the transcendence of history and the fashioning of innocent selves in the trackless wilderness.

In the 19th century, as the nation girded its industrial loins and waged a succession of territorial conquests, a handful of well-meaning and sensitive poets and thinkers formulated an American romanticism in hopes of turning back the clock and disburdening themselves of Europe’s vexing legacy. Were they complicit in the subjugation of native peoples as they sang the praises of the continent’s “wide open” spaces? Did they fail to see that the nation’s very existence, from a certain standpoint, was a rapacious enterprise? To judge previous generations of American pastoralists by the same standards by which we judge ourselves is perhaps unfair.

To judge their latter-day legatees, on the other hand, especially when some of them happen to be Jews schooled by the harsh experiences of the 20th century, is another matter. At the precise moment when some of them, myself included, were beginning to hope that the lessons of history could be carelessly thrown off, Philip Roth and Allegra Goodman—jaggedly cynical and gently elegiac prophets of the Jewish American experience, respectively—warned us to stay in touch with a world that was making other plans.

Michael Hoberman is a Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University and author of A Hundred Acres of America: The Geography of Jewish American Literary History.