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Wednesday, September 8, 2021

September 8, 2021: PageantStudying: American Pastoral

[September 7-8 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy histories and stories of pageants!]

On a superficial but still strikingly symbolic fictional character.

I wrote about one central thread and theme in Philip Roth’s historical novel American Pastoral (1997) in this post, and in lieu of my opening paragraph here would ask you to check that one out if you would and then come on back here.

Welcome back! If the character of Merry Levov is one complex female protagonist of Roth’s novel, the Swede’s wife Dawn Dwyer Levov is another. As is so often (if not indeed always) the case in Roth’s works, these women are filtered through multiple male lenses: that of the Swede himself, the perspective character for the novel’s 3rd-person section; and that of Nathan Zuckerman, the novelist-narrator for the framing 1st-person section. And indeed Dawn, a former Miss New Jersey and Miss America contestant, is consistently portrayed through various superficial or physical elements that appeal in stereotypical but unquestionable ways to these male characters: her beauty; her allure to the Swede and his entire Jewish American community as a “shiksa” (a non-Jewish woman; “He’d done it,” Zuckerman writes of the moment when the community learns that the Swede had married a shiksa); her multiple plastic surgeries through which she attempts to maintain those elements over the years, dragging the Swede with her to exotic European clinics in the process; and her sex appeal, both in extended sex scenes with the Swede and then in (SPOILERS) the adulterous sex scene which comprises one of the novel’s final moments.

But while Dawn might not be successful as a three-dimensional character, she is nonetheless a strikingly successful representation of the novel’s historical, cultural, and national themes (on which I touched a bit in that prior post). The three generations of the Levov family reflect the myths and realities of the American Dream (and its flipside, what Zuckerman calls the “American berserk”), both for immigrant and ethnic communities and for all Americans. The most overt symbolic representation of those themes is the Swede and Dawn’s home in Old Rimrock, the fictional New Jersey community (with a history dating back to the Revolution) where they move to raise their all-American (in every sense) daughter Merry. But I would argue that it’s easy and wrong to overlook Dawn’s starting point as a Miss America contestant, not only in terms of what she represents to the Swede and his community, but also and even more importantly in terms of that event as a goal for Dawn herself. Indeed, that early flashback section of the novel is the place where Dawn’s character is most fully developed, and where we get a sense of what “Miss America” means for young Dawn Dwyer and her family and community, at least as much as it does for young Seymour Levov and his.  

Next PageantStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Pageant histories, stories, or contexts you’d share?

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