This essay was submitted (without the images) for NORAM4305-Literature and Society in the United States and Canada at University of Oslo, spring 2014.
The human stain was a recurring subject for Philip Roth long before it became the title of a book, and in American Pastoral, which preceded The Human Stain, it is one of several lead motifs. American Pastoral is a multifaceted book, but its main issue is assimilation into American society and how to become a part of the American Dream. Its lead character is Seymour “Big Swede” Levov, a third-generation Jewish glovemaker and factory owner, who after a life of trying to assimilate by doing and being all the right things, finds himself “as deep in the shit as a man can get, the real American crazy shit” (Roth 277). Once one starts looking for it, it becomes apparent that the book is remarkably full of dirt, filth, vomit and stench.
One who has made this observation is Columbia University Professor Ross Posnock’s who in Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity makes this analysis of dirt and cleanliness in the context of the Levov family’s assimilation.
Phobic anxiety about dirt and cleanliness is the animating, if unconscious infrastructure of assimilation, which, in turn, produces in outsiders a susceptibility to idealization (of self and envied others) as a means of entry into the “uncontaminated life”, in the phrase of the protagonist of American Pastoral. (90)
This essay will argue that, yes, there is indeed a susceptibility to idealization and an anxiety about dirt, just as Posnock observes, but that this anxiety of dirt is so much more than just a phobia. The anxiety is grounded in history and experience, and it is paired and contrasted with a longing for dirt. The tension between those two desires is vital to the narrative in American Pastoral. If we look beyond Roth and examine academic research on purity, assimilation and assimilation’s antithesis, genocide, there are several voices who are likely to concur with Jerry Levov’s surgically precise analysis: “of course the shit hits the fan” (Roth 277).
Dirt, filth, purity and cleanliness are all terms with wide spectrums of connotations, and there is no lack of any of them in American Pastoral or in Roth’s earlier writing. Yet rarely, if ever, does any of it seem to stick unto Seymour “Big Swede” Levov. The book conveys this in a multitude of ways, but already in its very first paragraph, in the initial description of Swede Levov, his Teflon-like personae is made clear: “the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyedropper blond” (Roth 3). In this iconic image of unwrinkled fair blondness the keyword is “insentient,” as in lifeless, devoid of feelings, without sensation, free from the stain of humanity. Where this lack of humanity originates from, is hidden under several layers of narrators. Of course it originates in Philip Roth, but whether this insentience is an attribute of Roth’s attributed to the narrative voice of American Pastoral, Nathan Zuckerman, who then projects it onto Seymour Levov in his dreamed-up narrative, or if it is meant to be simply a feature of Swede’s, is buried deep by Roth’s layers of narrators. For the sake of brevity, this thesis will leave those layers unexplored and assume that this insentience is Swede’s definitive attribute and that Roth has attributed to Zuckerman and Jerry Levov an understanding of human life as something you cannot go through without getting dirty. The relationship between Roth and Zuckerman, a recurring figure in Roth’s novels, who has been described by Roth as his alter ego, deserves some extra attention. In American Pastoral Zuckerman is not as much a part of the narrative as he is its narrator and dreamer.
A fear of having to expose himself directly to the dirt and filth both Swede and Nathan wade in, and thereby risk being stained by the human traits of his literary characters may serve as an explanation for Roth’s choice of using Zuckerman as a first person narrator, rather than to tell a story straight as if told by himself. When issues in his books become too personal for comfort, Roth can point to Nathan Zuckerman when confronted and say, that, “he — not I” thinks or does so-and-so. In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian in 2007, Roth even admits to using this confusion and illusion quite consciously: “Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise. To act a character. To pretend. The sly and cunning masquerade” (Tyler). Throughout Roth’s books Zuckerman is no stranger to filth, and his presence acts as Roth’s glove, mask and sock puppet whenever convenient.
America, a muck
Filth is ubiquitous in this novel. Even the narrator is stained by the ultimate filth, being cancer-ridden and incontinent, as is probably Swede. Filth is found in the tannery where Swede, his father and his grandfather learned their craft, “a filthy stinking place” and “shithole” (Roth 11). It flourishes in politics, when Merry screams at President Lyndon Baines Johnson on TV, calling him a “f-f-f-f-filthy fucking collaborator” (Roth 123). It is found in Swede’s fear when he does not dare to move his factory away from filthy Newark in fear of being accused of “Victimizing black people and the working class and the poor solely for self-gain, out of filthy greed” (Roth 162).
One do not have to scratch deep under the surface of Dawn’s beauty pageants to uncover unclean motives, and there are filthy movies around, first those shown in private clubs in the 1930s and then the Watergate-informant-named porn movie Deep Throat shown in public cinemas in the 1970s. Filth is so widespread that it may not be just nostalgia that causes Lou Levov to lament that women no longer wear gloves on all occasions (Roth 347). When looking for metaphors of fitting in and keeping dirt out, a glove factory really towers in the narrative landscape.
Posnock describe the society the Levovs try to assimilate into as a “WASP nation founded on a myth of personal innocence,” and where outsiders are required to purify themselves (Posnock 90). This also goes for Swede’s recently face-lifted wife, Irish-American Dawn, who is attracted to WASP aristocracy “as a way to avoid the messiness of real time” (Posnock 107). When he has discovered his wife being intimate in the kitchen with their architect William Orcutt III, the betrayed Swede reasons that she, teamed up with Mr. America (Orcutt), will “be rid of the stain of our child, the stain on her credentials” and she can “begin to resume the uncontaminated life” (Roth 345)
Filth is also found in the nation’s government, as uncovered by the Pentagon papers and later the Watergate scandal, a scandal so abhorrent that even Swede’s mother must excuse her filthy language when talking of President Richard M. Nixon as the “mamzer” (Roth 299). In American Pastoral the conversations about Nixon must have happened no earlier than in 1972, since they occur some time after the premiere of the movie Deep Throat.
There is some irony to the dirty mouth of Swede Levov’s mother. Transcripts from the Watergate tapes have since revealed that President Nixon and his chief of staff, Harry Robbins Haldeman, were disgusted by the writings of Philip Roth and discussed them more than once in The White House (Wiener). This happened November 5, 1971, after Newsweek published a favorable review of Roth’s political satire Our Gang, in which a president named Trick E. Dixon ends up in Hell after being assassinated. While still alive, President Dixon defends Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the only man sentenced (and quickly pardoned) for the My Lai massacre, which left more than 300 unarmed Vietnamese killed, many of them women and children. Nixon was a sworn opponent of abortion. The fictional President Dixon builds a defense for Calley against charges that he, by shooting a pregnant woman may have performed an abortion, which would be wrong.
In American Pastoral, Swede’s mother gets nauseous simply by seeing Nixon’s former Chief of Staff, John D. Erlichman on television. In the tapes released by the White House Haldeman is heard describing Roth’s books as “well written but sickeningly filthy.” The president’s response: “Roth is of course a Jew.” President Nixon was obviously shaken and made uneasy by Roth’s satire. Nixon actually brought up the subject of Philip Roth on another occasion the same day in a conversation with his special counselor and so-called “hatchet man” Charles Colson, who later had to serve seven months in federal prison for confessed to obstruction of justice. To Colson, the president described Philip Roth as a “bad man” and “a horrible moral leper.”
Smell the life
There are two pivotal moments in American Pastoral in which dirt and smell are dominant to the narrative: The hotel-room encounter with the blackmailing terrorist Rita Cohen and the Newark meeting with the veiled Jain Merry. Posnock calls it the “novel’s emotional climax” when Swede visits Merry in her rented room in Newark (Posnock 111). The narrator works hard to hammer in all aspects of dirt in that room, just off the dusty highway, available only through a dangerous underpass. There Merry ironically lives “for purity — in the name of purity” — but unwashed and veiled in the “ragged foot off an old nylon stocking” and in a world so full of dirt that the smell of his daughter disgusts the father so that he vomits on her. She has become a Jain, a follower of an ancient religion in which even the cycle of life, Karma, is seen as a staining form of cosmic dirt.
Roth does not mention this in American Pastoral, but the official symbol of Jainism is an open palm and the swastika. No glove. No Star of David. No Stars and Stripes. A “pariah” — a ritually unclean, a social low-caste untouchable — is the name the factory-owner chooses for his own daughter when it dawns on him that his daughter has transformed beyond his mental reach, that the ultimate goal of this creature who is twice raped and three times a murderer, is not procreation, not fertility, but self-starvation. The only assimilation she aspires to, is the one from dust to dust.
In the other pivotal dreamed-up encounter smell is equally important. So are “fourchettes” — as the French, the glove-makers and the gynecologists call them. In the first meeting between Swede and Rita, the terrorist masked as an interested student, he shows her his version of the fourchette, the “meticulously done“ element which — if not pulled straight — causes problems while fitting a glove. In their following meeting in a hotel room Rita does more than just talk dirty. She undresses and quite literally flexes and fingers her fourchette — the posterior margin of the vulva, which is prone to be torn during rape or childbirth. Unlike in the straight-pulled and tailor-fitted glove, there is a “jungle down there,” she tells the terrified Swede (Roth 144). Glands, holes, flaps. It is the smell of Rita’s fingers and the notion that the saliva on those fingers taste like his daughter that makes him bolt, that makes him give up his quest for his lost daughter, the “fecund smell released from within” (Roth 146). Fecund: The word means highly fertile, yielding and productive, both in bearing children and in yielding crops. The word “fecund” appears only twice in American Pastoral. The other instance is when William Orcutt III tells the story of Thomas Orcutt, the 18th-century Irish immigrant, the “sturdy, fecund patriarch,” he who rooted the Orcutts in Morris County, Newark, in a way Swede can only dream of (Roth 305).
The hotel room scene is somehow paraphrased near the very end of the book, when Swede, panicking at home in his pastoral stonehouse, only a fork-stab shy of the complete mess, remembers when young Merry, the 4H farmer girl, the one he had hoped would grow roots into the well-manured pastures of the suburban Garden State, showed her urbanized father her jungle. In a paragraph laden with sexual imagery, between the “pussy willows” and the “black cherry” she pulled apart the husks of nuts and stained her fingers with “acid pungency” (Roth 419).
A broader context
This agrarian connection, the fertilizing, the shoveling of cow manure, the breeding, the mating, the doing the dirty deed, the sowing of oats, the putting down roots and claims to land are vital aspects missing in Posnock’s focus on dirt. Dirt is earth. It is soil, mulch and peat. Emile Durkheim noted that “if there is a religiously enforced cleanliness, there is also a religious filthiness which is derived from these same principles” (165). Yes, there is, like Posnock claims, a fear of dirt driving both assimilation and the narrative in American Pastoral, but there is also a lust for dirt, as exemplified by Swede actively joining US Marines and actually moving to a farm. He may not actually have gotten his hands dirty, but he did actually try. The tension between these opposites is a stronger force than fear alone. Being solidly planted for generations in the dirt of Old Rimrock allows a perfectly rooted and assimilated William Orcutt III to dare stand out in his Hawaiian shirt while Seymour Levov tries his best to blend in. Posnock refers to Swede’s visit to Jain Merry’s room as “counterpastoral” to his Old Rimrock “sterile pastoral,” but there is nothing sterile about a dairy farm (Posnock 111). It is fertile. It is fecund. It is where “Merry shoveled cowshit from the time she was six” (Roth 135).
The author, narrator and protagonist are all Jews who had their formative years during and after World War II. Holocaust is not mentioned by name at all in American Pastoral. Still, its shadow stretches far into the story. It is mentioned by indirect reference only, when Lou Levov rants about Watergate-fascists like “Von Erlichman” and “Von Haldeman” and airs his fear that such people “would take this country and make Nazi Germany out of it” (Roth 287). Whether Philip Roth knew that he himself and his Jewish heritage had been a subject of discussion for “Von Haldeman” in Nixon’s Oval Office when Roth penned this, is unknown, but fully within the realm of possibility. American Pastoral’s tale of assimilation cannot be read without the story of assimilation’s antithesis, Holocaust, as a backdrop. Holocaust was — in part — the ultimate consequence of a quest for purity and an idolization of the pastoral life. The American immigrant experience has also been a story of cleanliness, baptism and agrarian idolization. These two parallels between assimilation in American Pastoral and assimilation in general — purity and agrarian idolization — deserve to be explored further.
To find answers to why attempts at assimilation fail, we can look into how genocides start. In his Folkemordenes Svarte Bok, (The Black Book of Genocides) Norwegian professor Bent Hagtvet blames the most evil forms of intolerance on the Christian, Muslim and Jewish claims of monopoly on virtue, salvation, truth and purity (54). He finds support from the British anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas, who pointed to Leviticus as one source for beliefs of sacred contagion and purity. Douglas has traced concepts of purity in many civilizations, and some of her observations in Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Pollution and Taboo mirror Swede Levov’s fate:
The quest for purity is pursued by rejection. It follows that when purity is not a symbol, but something lived, it must be poor and barren. It is part of our condition that the purity for which we strive and sacrifice so much turns out to be hard and dead as stone when we get it. (199).
Both she and her predecessor Émile Durkheim separated the concepts of contagion vs. purity in religious terms and in hygiene. Those were wholly separate terms, they insisted, and millenniums before the discovery of germs the concept of hygiene was unavailable. Physical contagion was not yet within the mental grasp of the persons of Leviticus, but cultural or sacred contagion was. It could not be understood, however unless “we distinguish a class of cultures in which pollution ideas flourish from another class of cultures, including our own, in which they do not” (95).
Such ideas of pollution flowing were common during the 1930s when Europe was torn between communism and fascism. Jews were — among other sins — blamed for the spread of communism, and according to the British philosopher Jonathan Glover in his book Humanity, A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, “it was a common Nazi device to liken Jews to dirt, to disease-bearing creatures, or to disease itself. When Jews were driven out of a place it was said to be ‘Judenrein’: clean of Jews” (339). Glover notes that although that these stereotypes were images rather than literal beliefs they created a psychological aura or tone which may have been as important as explicit beliefs. Being stereotypes rather than factual claims, there were also harder to criticize as untrue.
Next to godliness
Cleanliness and personal hygiene was a defining trait in the German self-image, and Nazis cultured the image of “reinheit.” For those who fell under the spell of Nazism, Hitlers longing for purity was considered a noble trait. Killing was done as a service of ethnic purity. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler hailed it as an especially good sign of character if one in the name of humanity overcomes one’s inner inhibition and kills for the sake of humanity’s cleanness (Hagtvet 25-27).
In Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture Harvard professor Werner Sollors observes that “dirty” is an epithet often hurled against minorities in America (3367/3933). As in Germany, cleanliness was, and still is, a part of the American national self-image. To assimilate, you must be clean. Sollors quotes Gertrude Stein, who in The Making of Americans: The Hersland Family told the story of an immigrant boy who was “strong in sport and washing. He was not foreign in his washing. Oh, no, he was really an American” (Stein 14).
Sollors points to similar attitudes found in the Henry Ford Language School’s Melting Pot Ceremony, which also is described in detail in Jeffrey Eugenides’ immigrant tale Middlesex. In this ceremony immigrants who graduate from the motor company’s language school, enter a zangwillian melting pot as dirty Italian-American or Greek-American immigrants in shabby rags, only to reappear as clean and neatly clothed Americans, free from derogatory hyphens. Among the slogans memorized at the Henry Ford Language School was “Nothing makes for right living as much as cleanliness” and “The most advanced people are the cleanest” (Eugenides 97). Eugenides also tells of how Ford representatives inspected employees’ homes for sanitary problems and provided instructions on personal hygiene, like how to use a toothbrush.
Norwegian professor of criminology Nils Christie, who studied the treatment and murder of Serbian war prisoners in Norwegian camps during World War II, observed how dirt and filth could affect the Norwegian guards’ sense of moral. Being denied decent living conditions over some time, Serbian war prisoners deteriorated into weak, filthy, smelling beings who over after a quite short period of time were seen as aliens, not as fellow human beings. Christie observed that the Norwegian camp guards then failed to see the prisoners as fellow human beings and they could therefore inactivate or bypass what would normally have been their norms of humanity. Taking away the prisoners’ personal hygiene increased the guards’ propensity to commit “inhuman” acts (Hagtvet 467). Their filthiness had removed them from the perceived sphere of humanity.
In his Immigrant Minds, American Identities Norwegian historian Orm Øverland mentions the blood sacrifice as an essential part of the assimilation process (87). As part of their homemaking myths, the stories they tell to support their American identity, immigrant groups could support their claims of being as American as anybody else by pointing to the blood their young men had shed for their new country. Øverland aknowledges that this is no uniquely American phenomenon, as even the French right-wing nationalist Jean Marie le Pen was willing to accept foreigners as French through the sacrificial act of blood-spill. Swede’s trajectory from US Marine to suburban farmer fits within this framework, but can also be seen within the German concept of “Volk” (people) and “Blut und Boden,” (blood and soil) which have roots long before National Socialism — and deep into quite recent history.
In an article in The American Political Science Review, historian Robert L. Koehl traces the National Socialists’ view of land rights back to feudal times (923). He quotes the German Reichsminister of Food and Agriculture from 1933-1942, Richard Walter Darré, who said the German idea of property “was the right of usufruct and inheritance in return for service rendered to the community.” Whether Swede, who never actually shed a drop of blood in his wartime service, earned such a right, is debatable, but as a Jew his very existence was incompatible with Volkism. The British historian Jeffrey Richards wrote that Hitler did not invent the notion of the German Volk (people), but only adapted the century-old German Volkist tradition, which idealized the Volk, a “racial unit rooted in the soil of the homeland and in spiritual communication with Nature.”
Even pre-Nazi Volkists excluded the rootlessly wandering materialist Jew as “the epitome of finance, industry and the town, and thus alien to the agrarian peasant ideal of the Volk” (289). The German Pastoral simply had no place for the Jew.
Pastoralism in itself, the worshipping of a pre-industrial simplicity, has historically been related to the extinction of cohabitants within the same landscape, according to Hagtvet (52). He describes the pastoral paradise as when “no other than your own are there, and all are of same larger family.” Genocide, says Hagtvet, is the ultimate expression of this longing for purity. Echoing Jerry Levov’s outburst of “of course the shit hit the fan,” Hagtvet summarizes that any society having sought such a pastoral paradise on earth have — without exception — created hell. The Australian-American historian Ben Kiernan offers the same view: From the Romans to Rwanda has a delusion of pastoral idyll and purity led to genocide.
Where does Johnny Appleseed fit into this picture? The myth of Johnny Appleseed is one of a very simple man, an American pioneer who never married, but travelled around the countryside of America planting apple trees. What attracts Swede to his story is the escapism, the thoughtlessness of such an existence. “Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably” (Roth 315). This shows not only Swede’s urge to escape from his own assimilation project, but also how little he knows about how much dirty work it takes to make trees grow roots. It also reflects his wish for his daughter’s escape from the troublesome humanity: If only she had been an animal. Such pure and blissful ignorance! Roth never mentions the fact that the real-life Johnny Appleseed did not just randomly drizzle his appleseeds around. He got his hands dirty. He built nurseries. He was opposed to grafting, which meant that none of his apples would be sweet. All his apples would be sour, only fit for cider — and for metaphors (Pollan 37).
It is tempting to accept Jerry Levov’s rant toward his catastrophe-stricken brother as a summary, an explanation and as Philip Roth’s condemnation of a man who never got his heels down, never was hardened by resistance, never became a pillar for his daughter and never really belonged in America until Merry dipped him “as deep in the shit as a man can get.” The problem with that is Jerry himself. He knows that he is a hard man who does not “come off looking very good” (Roth 278). He admits that under similar circumstances he could have been like Merry. He could have become a Jain. He could have planted bombs. As a result of living his own life on his own terms he has bombed at least three marriages. Yet he is willing to jump on a plane for his brother and go and get “the little shit.” He may be merciless in his critique of his brother, but he has no better alternative to offer. And what does he really know? It is Jerry’s perception of Swede that is under attack, not Swede. Like Nathan Zuckerman, Jerry may be getting Swede “wrong and wrong and wrong” (Roth 35). Jerry never attempts to portray his own life choices as better or worse, just different. When Jerry welcomes Swede as one who at last does indeed belong, who is assimilated, who is rooted as a true American, it is not in a Puritan pastoral idyll, but in a muck, the “real American crazy shit.” Then Jerry returns to his own filth, to his sick and bleeding patients. The “angriest kid in America” and her uncle seem to agree that life itself is messy, and for Swede it is about to sink in.
American Pastoral does not just tell the sad story of the Jew who failed for fear of stains. It also tells the tragedy of those who dared to get their hands dirty and stake their claims to their America, and it is the tension between them which animates this classic tale of assimilation.
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 2010.
Durkheim, Émile, and Joseph Ward Swain. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London,: G. Allen & Unwin, ltd., 1915.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002.
Glover, Jonathan. Humanity : A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. London: J. Cape, 1999.
Hagtvet, Bernt. Folkemordenes Svarte Bok : Politisk Massevold Og Systematiske Menneskerettighetsbrudd I Det 20. ÅRhundret. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2008.
Koehl, Robert. «Feudal Aspects of National Socialism.» The American Political Science Review 54 4 (1960): 921-33.
Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire : A Plant’s Eye View of the World. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2001.
Posnock, Ross. Philip Roth’s Rude Truth : The Art of Immaturity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Richards, Jeffrey. Visions of Yesterday. London,: Routledge & K. Paul, 1973.
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Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity : Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Stein, Gertrude, and Bernard Faÿ. The Making of Americans: The Hersland Family. New York,: Harcourt, 1934.
Tayler, Christopher. «The Ghost Writer.» The Guardian September 29, 2007.
Wiener, Jon. «When Nixon Asked Haldeman About Philip Roth». Los Angeles, 2014. Los Angeles Review of Books. May 10, 2012. <http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/nixon-asked-haldeman-philip-roth>.
Øverland, Orm. Immigrant Minds, American Identities : Making the United States Home, 1870-1930. Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
 ’Mamzer’ means ‘bastard’ in Yiddish, but it can also means a person with one gentile parent, like Merry.
 There may also be a connection to the fork that almost poked Lou Levov’s eye out, but that will not be explored in this essay.
 It is tempting to relate “fecund” to “fecal,” since fecal matter (manure) is essential for agrarian fecundity, but the two words have no common etymological root. Whether Roth has made the association, is unknown, but not beyond imagination. There are 38 instances of “shit”, “cowshit” or “bullshit” in American Pastoral.