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My Life As an American

October 11, 1998|PHILIP ROTH | Philip Roth is the author of numerous books, including "American Pastoral," which received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. "I Married a Communist" is his 23rd book

With my last three books, I've tried to depict something of the impact on ordinary Americans of the three historical events that have had the strongest shock effect on my own American life. The first coincided with the heart of my boyhood. I was 8 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, 12 when Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and when Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945, a highly susceptible schoolboy at a time when a normal country transformed itself almost overnight into the mightiest of war machines and patriotism became the state religion to which the entire society was converted. The monstrous ordeal of invasion and conquest perpetrated by two powerful enemies on virtually everyone alive suddenly made our familiar native land the world's best hope.

Between '42 and '45, an American child didn't just live at home, in the neighborhood and at school; if the child was at all attentive and curious, he or she also lived within the ethos of a tragic drama that was global. The terrifying symbol of its tragic nature was, for me, the plain little gold-star flag that hung in the front window when a son or a father or a husband of the household had been killed in action. There were several such flags in the windows of apartments along our Newark, N.J., street, and it was difficult for most kids to pass before those windows on the way to school in their usual state of school-going levity. I silently wondered back then what it would be like to have to enter one of those houses as a member of the grief-stricken family, tearily eating dinner, gravely going to bed, unbelievingly waking up behind the gold-star flag--and, when I came to write "Sabbath's Theater," I found out for myself by imagining the Sabbaths of Bradley Beach, N.J., the death in action, in the Pacific, of their 20-year-old son, Morty, and its destructive consequences for the mother, the father and, particularly, for Morty Sabbath's worshipful kid brother, Mickey, who grows up to be the dynamic source of much turbulence.

I was 30 when the Vietnam War began to percolate under Kennedy, 40 when it fizzled out finally under Nixon. Through most of this crazy period, I was living in New York, so there was little that I missed seeing of the outrage and savagery, of the unflagging assault on authority and civility that the war fomented among many of its opponents. Friends I frequently visited in Greenwich Village lived across the street from the townhouse inadvertently blown apart by a squad of Weathermen who'd secretly been building bombs in the basement. I knew the mother and the father of one of the survivors of that blast, a young female munitions-maker who fled the burning house and her three dead comrades and disappeared into hiding; some years later, she wound up in jail, serving a sentence of 25 years to life for her role in an armed stickup in which her band of self-styled revolutionaries, who staged the robbery, killed a black security guard and two black policemen. The woman I lived with was a lawyer who had a job with a Quaker outfit counseling young men in flight from the draft. I joined her whenever she trooped off to participate in a public demonstration against the war.

In 1972, I even began a novel about a New Jersey family whose adolescent daughter blows up the town library to protest the war. But I never got beyond Page 70 because, watching the war news on TV every night, I felt like blowing something up myself. Like it or not, I was learning what a terrorist's mind is like but, just because of that, couldn't yet imagine the mental life of a terrorist's mother and father. That's what I tried to portray, some 20 years later, when I at last achieved detachment enough to resume writing my novel--"American Pastoral"--about the domestic casualties of the Vietnam War.

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