Letters

"The cheapest shot a critic can take": Readers blast Stanley Crouch's attack on Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America."


Salon Staff
October 13, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

[Read "Roth's Historical Sin," by Stanley Crouch]

Under "Roth's Historical Sin" I note, "America devoured by anti-Semitism -- ignoring the brutal anti-black bigotry that actually existed." which would imply that the anti-Semitism was some sort of neat and manageable problem, whereas anti-black bigotry actually existed.

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Mr. Crouch, give Roth a break. This is the story Roth chose to write, and it is about Lindberg, his Nazi leanings, the effect of inflated hero worship, resulting in the election of an unfit human being, blah, blah, blah. Or etc., etc., etc. if you prefer.

Now, Mr. Crouch, I assume you're African-American, and I want you to know that the way you opened this essay should be the beginning of your book. Let me know when it's published and I promise to purchase a copy.

And while I'm at this, let me say that the conceit of Roth's book is only one aspect of that period of history.

-- Carole Merritt

As a reader of the New York Times and Salon.com, I have enjoyed Mr. Crouch's commentaries and analyses of music, particularly my lifelong favorite, jazz.

Unfortunately, his forays in to literature don't quite keep up. I doubt that he can begin to imagine the contempt I felt when reading his screed on Roth's latest. The cheapest shot a critic can take is to criticize an author for the book he didn't write.

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Here's an exercise for him: Re-read "Huckleberry Finn" and write a critique blasting Twain for his blatant failure to address the greatest crime against humanity then being perpetrated -- the genocide of the Native Americans -- while concentrating his efforts on the "lesser sin" of slavery.

And yes, that last is sarcasm: It does not reflect my view. I don't trust someone of Crouch's critical literary faculty to be able to tell the difference.

-- R.L. Schoenwald

Stanley Crouch, in condemning Philip Roth's "Plot Against America," would have us believe that the book engages in the "sin" of historical amnesia. Ridiculous. He ignores two obvious justifications for Roth's narrative strategy. First, his narrator, speaking for himself as an adolescent, remains true at every point to the young Roth's environment and experience. Race is not the issue because it's not a part of the boy's experience growing up in a close-knit Jewish enclave in New Jersey. Second, Roth's subject isn't racism or anti-Semitism, it's fascism. Mr. Crouch would have to agree that if there were as many blacks as Jews in Nazi Germany, both would have been annihilated in the Holocaust. Roth, translating fascism to America, employs the thin edge of the historical wedge. Lindbergh is elected because he's an isolationist; that he happened to be anti-Semitic allows Roth to create an American parallel with Hitler. Roth doesn't focus on anti-Semitism at the expense of race; rather, he focuses on fascism, which trumps both anti-Semitism and race.

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-- Christopher D. Guerin

Why am I not amazed that Mr. Crouch waves the bloody shirt in his attempt to forget that fiction is, in fact, fiction? I'm too tired to write anymore about why Black America need not hate the Jews yet feels it gets traction out of that. All I can say is, feel free. Make it a monument to your anger and disappointment, Mr. Crouch. Let all art pass your agendized sniff test.

-- Stephen Rifkin

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Everything Mr. Crouch says about the treatment of black Americans is absolutely true and should be more widely known.

Mr. Roth was writing a novel, not historical fact. He created a world similar but not identical to America in the 1930s-1940s. He focused on "his" people, and why not?

Cut him some slack.

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-- Jonathan Lepoff

The veneer of civilization survives its punctures by the presence of Stanley Crouch and his ilk.

I'm a 53-year-old six-figure-making white guy, and I guess it's my fate only to hope the likes of Salon can get these perspectives in front of the broad social landscape of my kids' peers.

Thanks, Stanley, for sitting right up and writing this piece.

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-- David Kearns

I am perplexed by Stanley Crouch's mean-spirited grousing about "The Plot Against America." Criticizing Philip Roth's novel for not addressing the African-American experience is like criticizing "Native Son" for overlooking the struggles of Polish immigrants in the Depression. I am halfway through Philip Roth's new book, and I find it a very moving and deeply troubling novel. However, a look back at the memories of a 6-year-old Jewish boy inherently limits the novel's scope to its most immediate environs: Jewish families in Newark, N.J. Not to address the admittedly terrible experiences that befell African-Americans in this country is hardly Philip Roth's fault. Furthermore, novels that address themes of oppression and bigotry ask the reader to bring their own experience to the page; one doesn't have to be Jewish for the events that befall the fictional Philip Roth to have emotional resonance. Crouch should stop holding Philip Roth to such a preposterous standard and get busy writing his own novel about the egregious treatment African-Americans suffered during the Lindberg administration.

-- Brian McGovern

One wonders if Stanley Crouch will be attacked by some in the Jewish community for being anti-Semitic because he dared to question a major blind spot in Philip Roth's latest novel.

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Some of the many troubling themes that have emerged out of intersectional banter between blacks and Jews is the game of body-count victimhood and charges of turf racism whenever one dares to comment on the works of both groups in a critical manner. Tragically, I do expect Stanley will be a recipient of such blows.

-- Greg Thrasher

In the past -- "The All-American Skin Game," "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome" -- Stanley Crouch has written on matters of race with passion and eloquence.

Mr. Crouch's rant aimed at Philip Roth's "Plot Against America" is both, but sadly, it's also ill-conceived.

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Let's start with this laughably tenuous passage:

"Could it be that because Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the bad sportsmanship of too many millionaire black athletes, black street-gang violence, the bullshit scholarship of the worst of black studies, and the decadent, dehumanizing minstrelsy of gangster rap have created such quiet animus in our intellectual community that it is preferable to forget the savage racial history of our nation?"

Now, Mr. Crouch may not appreciate gangsta rap, but to implicitly conflate two members of the Cabinet, an unusually bizarre grouping, only serves to undermine whatever point the author is making, and to boot, seriously degrades his credibility. However, this is not nearly so strange as the suggestion that these blights on African-American culture would provide Mr. Roth with the needed impetus to ignore 150-plus years of African-American oppression. Is it likely that the same man, who Mr. Crouch gamely says "hit one out of the park" with "The Human Stain," would be so willfully ignorant?

If Roth doesn't mention the oppression of black America, it's because "The Plot Against America" is, at its essence, about Jews. There's a dictum of Roger Ebert's that I think applies here: "Judge what's on the screen, not what isn't." It's the last grasp of the critic to tell the author what he should've done with a book. Anyway, that type of thinking, in its laziness, is a very, ah, Dale Peckian.

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Furthermore, the Jews as a group were largely cut off from mainstream American society, as Mr. Crouch would certainly admit -- not being allowed into top universities, victims of tokenism, etc. Perhaps not to the extent of the blacks, but they were certainly despised -- thus the plausibility of the "Plot" scenario. So in writing about the Jews, and only the Jews, Roth is not suggesting that the "bestial level of social bigotry was not a highly visible fact of American life"; that's just not what this book is about.

The saddest part of Mr. Crouch's polemic is that the argument is such an easy one to make. It's also tiresome. This type of discourse is a terribly slippery slope, because it becomes the literary criticism version of a Mobius strip. Could Jewish writers make the same claim of African-American writers? Maybe; but should they?

Lastly, Mr. Crouch writes, "Roth expects us to believe that the very deep hostility that white Southerners had against black Americans ... would suddenly dissolve and transform itself into anti-Semitism because Lucky Lindy defeated Franklin Roosevelt in 1940."

No, he isn't. How, exactly, can hostility toward blacks "transform" itself into anti-Semitism if, as Mr. Crouch insists, the very same hostility was so egregiously left out of the book? The Jew hatred doesn't displace anything -- as Mr. Roth tells it, the ugliness springs up, without elicitation. To say otherwise is careless, and perhaps an indication that Mr. Crouch does really stand by his words.

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Perhaps Mr. Crouch, not content to swat Dale Peck, is spoiling for a fight. If that be the case, don't underestimate Mr. Roth, who, while he is substantially Peck's elder, appears to be far trimmer.

-- Elon Green


Salon Staff

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