Philip Roth’s American Pastoral measures the gulf between a careful business leader and his radical daughter

Daniel Akst writes in 2020:

“Roth was fascinated by business,” Bailey said. American Pastoral was published in 1997, but the author wrote the first 20 pages in 1974 without any clear idea of what business it would be about. Later that year, living in Woodstock, N.Y., Roth met a glove manufacturer through a friend and visited the man’s factory in Brooklyn. This in turn led him to Gloversville, N.Y., once the center of the industry. There, Bailey said, a retired leather cutter provided further insight and made the writer a pair of gloves that he always cherished. The Swede’s extraordinary mastery of glovemaking, in other words, was the result of his creator’s extensive research.

In American Pastoral, a book deep with religious undercurrents, making fine ladies’ gloves rises almost to the level of a sacrament.

…The connection between political extremism and religious faith isn’t lost on Roth. Seymour and Dawn easily transcended the religious practices that might have divided them, but all her life their daughter has been consumed by the search for some new faith, running through a series of near-religious passions before devoting herself to Marxist radicalism — and eventually embracing a form of religious asceticism so harm-averse that even killing plants for food is a form of sin. Righteousness requires fasting to death.

It is the Swede’s special misery to possess all the features of the classic tragic hero. He is highborn, noble in character, blessed in seemingly every way, and bound for a terrible fall much worse than he would seem to deserve. The problem is that the tragic hero’s downfall must be the result of some action for which he is responsible, so that in some sense he brings about his own fate. The Swede has always striven to earn his destiny, and accordingly, he labors mightily after the fall to discover where he went wrong.

It’s not easy to say. Tolerance, application, steadiness, and love have been his unshakeable values. Never religious, he nonetheless lived by a kind of covenant, assuming salvation would be his through hard work, self-restraint, deferred gratification, and the cultivation of his native gifts. He strove at all times to take care of his family, his employees, and his customers, trusting that in America, this would produce the desired results.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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