Book Review: American Pastoral, by Philip Roth 


American Pastoral is widely considered to be Philip Roth’s masterpiece. I’d have to agree. 

It’s a gut-wrenching story about the tragic, and totally unexpected, downfall of a Jewish American man who did everything according to the rules of the American game, but lost. 

He was a tall blonde stud, a star high school athlete, the husband of Miss New Jersey, a diligent operator of his father’s glove manufacturing business, a do-gooder by all means, a homeowner, and, fatally, an overly calm, overly disciplined, mostly unrevealed individual. 

I say fatally because when his sweet stuttering high school daughter is transforming before his worried but understanding eyes into a resentful, furious, uncompromising anti-Vietnam activist, he does nothing — nothing dramatic at least — to stop her forward progress into madness. 

He suffers from what I imagine many fathers do (not being one I don’t know for sure). 

He’s afraid to push too hard and lose her, to challenge her too much and damage her, to yell and scream and lock her away out of the fear of overreacting and traumatizing her. 

But he should’ve put his foot down (and he comes painfully to terms with this truth throughout the story) because his formerly sweet daughter ends up blowing up a post office in protest of the war, killing the local doctor, and destroying Swede Levov’s American Dream with it. 

The rest of the novel gives us the aftermath of this tragedy. It gives us a man trying to make sense of it, and more. 

What happens to the runaway daughter? How does the family stay together? How does the father reconcile his parenting techniques with this disaster, his genetics with this person so different from him? 

Philip Roth is the master of considering every consequence, and we see how this naive act of ideological terrorism tears apart the lives of those involved, especially those of her parents, whose past we learn about in the brief and touching remembrances of the Swede  — trying to fix their daughter’s stutter, raising cattle together, winning Miss New Jersey, overcoming the wall that is interreligious marriage, buying a home in the country.

In these memories we come to care about the Swede, learn about what it’s like to be Jewish in America in the mid-20th century, and wish that things could go back to normal for him. 

But it’s too late. The daughter has destroyed any chance of familial bliss. And the story ultimately leaves one feeling a bit uneasy about their fragile position in America today. 

Get Roth’s American Pastoral here

Major Takeaway: Ideologies Make us Stupid & Dangerous  

The more ideologies someone completely subscribes to the stupider they get.


Because they just start defaulting to the ideology when an issue pops up. “Oh, my ism says this about it so that must be the answer, and screw all the others!” Having an ideology is like outsourcing thinking. It erases the responsibility to think for oneself. 

Reading this book in the era of cancel culture and radicalism on both sides of the political spectrum made it all the more engrossing. 

The Swede’s cutting descriptions of his daughter’s irrational behavior and her rude, know-it-all communist friends could easily be applied to some of the nonsense we see today. 

The book is a reminder that we must reason ourselves into our beliefs, and be willing to subject them to criticism, and be willing to listen to people across the party line, or else we might lose ourselves in the ideology and go and blow something up; it might not be a post office, but it could be a friendship, a marriage, an opportunity to do good, or just our plain old intellectual dignity. 

America’s a place of opposites. That’s what makes it so great. 

I didn’t expect this takeaway to become a political plea, but the beauty of this country is that people with strong disagreements about political issues can get along, keep society afloat. We absorb shock in America. We keep on trucking even when we’re teasing at each other’s throats. 

We scream at each other across the Thanksgiving dinner table then join forces on the couch and scream at the television together.

Roth reminds us this in his novel, in some of the most wondrous displays of elegant variation in prose I have ever seen.

Elegant variation — that’s America’s marketplace of ideas in a nutshell right there. Let’s keep it that way. 

Get Roth’s American Pastoral here

Two Parts I Loved & Why

Marital Interview Between the Swede’s Father & Soon-to-Be Wife


DAWN DWYER (RAISED CATHOLIC): “I have. In high school I did for a while. 


DAWN DWYER: “No that wasn’t why I wore it. I wore it because I’d been to a retreat and when I got home I just started wearing a cross. It wasn’t a huge religious symbol. It was just a sign really of having been to this weekend retreat, where I made a lot of friends. It was much more that than a sign of being a devout Catholic.” 

  • Pg 391 – 400

The Swede has told his father that he wants to marry Dawn, who is Catholic. His father, not so pleased with his son not marrying a Jewish girl, decides to inquire into her religious life to see if the marriage will work, and to make necessary negotiations before giving his blessing. 

Interviews of any type are always interesting to me. This one was especially gripping because the stakes were high, the inquisitor was shrewd, and the interviewee was honest, even when she knew the answers were ones he wouldn’t like. 

I wonder if Roth put the capital letters in all caps to convey the power his father had in the exchange, not only because he’s the superior but also because he’s a seasoned negotiator as a business founder and owner in Newark, NJ. 

Regardless, that’s certainly an effect the choice has, aside from of course distinguishing their speech without using dialogue tags. You can almost hear his booming voice and see his “iron faced” look. 

Before the interview, the Swede mentions it was Dawn’s fearless honesty he loved so much, so that’s what I paid attention to, and it won me over too. 

After the interview, there’s a scene where the two families meet for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Swede’s father and Dawn’s father become instant friends. They spend their time reminiscing about the old days in Newark. It’s quite touching. 

This surrendering of religious barriers leads the Swede to refer to Thanksgiving as the American pastoral par excellence. 

The Swede Pretending to be Johnny Appleseed & an Ode to Walking 

“Johnny Appleseed, that’s the man for me. Wasn’t a Jew, wasn’t an Irish Catholic, wasn’t a Protestant Christian — nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably, but didn’t need ‘em — a great walker was all Johnny Appleseed needed to be. All physical joy. Had a big stride and a bag of seeds and a huge spontaneous affection for the landscape, and everywhere he went he scattered the seeds. What a story that was. Going everywhere. Walking everywhere.” – pg 316

At 26, after getting a new house in the town of Old Rimrock, the Swede goes on a long walk through the town, into woods, over hills, across streams, in fields of flowers, past cattle and farms, to the general store. 

The whole time, he imagines himself to be Johnny Appleseed, first reflecting on the story, then creating a fictitious life where he’s Appleseed, and, ultimately, pretending to toss seeds as he walks. 

It’s a great few pages to read. You really feel like you’re on a walk with him, and immediately after reading it all I wanted to do was to get out into the country and walk with large confident strides like Applessed and wave to the people I pass. 

Get Roth’s American Pastoral here


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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