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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

September 26, 2023: Cultural Falls: American Pastoral

[As the leaf-peeping begins in earnest (seriously, that’s a thing we do here in New England), a series on some iconic American cultural representations of the loss of innocence that we so often associate with autumn!]

On a novel with over-the-top moments that practically scream “loss of innocence,” and the quieter scene that much more potently captures it.

To follow up the main idea from yesterday’s post, I experienced a very different kind of teenage literary loss of innocence when I decided to read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) for pleasure in early high school (what can I say, I was a nerd and the son of an English professor to boot). I can still quite distinctly remember arriving at Chapter 2, “Whacking Off,” and encountering for the first time just exactly how far Roth is willing to go—how obscene, how graphic, how flagrantly over-the-top. For reasons not quite known to me, in my second semester at Fitchburg State I chose to put Portnoy on the syllabus of a junior-level seminar on “Major American Authors of the 20th Century,” and got to see 25 undergrads—24 women, by chance—having their own such encounters with Roth, the novel, and that chapter in particular. Let’s just say that it wasn’t just me.

Roth’s late masterpiece American Pastoral (1997) is a far more realistic and restrained work than Portnoy, but nonetheless Roth includes a couple of distinctly Roth-ian over-the-top scenes, both symbolizing quite overtly his novel’s overall themes of the loss of innocence that accompanied the late 60s and early 70s in American culture and society. In the first, the novel’s now middle-aged protagonist, Swede Levov, meets with a seemingly innocent young women to try to learn the whereabouts of his missing daughter Merry; the woman turns out instead to be a brazen and cynical 60s radical, and she meets the Swede naked, graphically exposing and probing herself in front of him (while daring him to, in essence, rape her). In the second, the tour-de-force set piece with which Roth concludes the novel, a family dinner full of shocking revelations and betrayals is set against the backdrop of the televised Watergate hearings, and culminates with an insane drunken woman stabbing an elderly man in the head with her fork.

These scenes are as surprising and shocking as intended, and I suppose in that way they make Roth’s point. But if he intends the theme of the loss of innocence to be tragic as well as disturbing and comic (which those two scenes are, respectively), then I would point a far quieter and to my mind far more potent scene. In it, the Swede finally finds Merry and sees her again, for the only time between her teenage disappearance (after she bombs a local post office in political protest and kills an innocent bystander) and his own later death. He asks a few questions, but mostly what he does is listen (to her stories of all the horrors she has experienced in the years since the bombing) and observe (her literally fading life as a converted Jainist, one for whom any contact with the world is destructive and so self-deprivation and -starvation comprises the only meaningful future). As a parent, I can imagine nothing more shattering hearing and seeing such things from one of my children—and in the Swede’s quiet horror and sadness, Roth captures a far more powerful and chilling loss of innocence.

Next fall tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?

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