George Orwell's "1984," Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here," and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" were just three dystopian novels that experienced a post-2016 presidential election rediscovery. Others seemed to be discovered for the first time, including Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America."
Roth's book is an alternative-history novel (later made into an HBO miniseries) based on the premise that then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt loses the 1940 election to an isolationist, Nazi-accommodating Charles Lindbergh. In real life the famed aviator campaigned to keep the country out of World War II under the banner of "America First" — the same phrase chosen to trumpet the foreign policy of former President Donald Trump.
In actuality, as prescient as some pronounced Roth in 2016 for writing about rising extremism in America, when the novel was published in 2004 it was considered an allegory of the George W. Bush presidency and the Iraq war — a perception that Roth himself downplayed in a New York Times essay.
"Roth's main argument in the novel is how fragile our individual and national fortunes are, how the whims of history can radically alter or destroy our lives," Mathew J. Shipe, director of advanced writing in the English Department at Washington University in St. Louis, said in an e-mail interview. Shipe, who is also president of the Philip Roth Society, added that the book originally resonated "because it suggested how 'provisional' (Roth's language from the New York Times essay) our security actually is."
That certainly seemed to be the case on Jan. 6, 2021, when a MAGA mob attacked the U.S. Capitol, and in more recent weeks with the backlash against the FBI's Mar-a-Lago search.
The book is a "basis for [Roth] to explore just how America could spiral so quickly into such a terrifying place," said Miriam Jaffe, an associate teaching professor at Rutgers University. Jaffee (the Philip Roth Society's program director) added that the novel's power is that it "creates real dread in the reader, like us sort of living in perpetual fear."
This existential dread stemmed in part from Roth's realization "that if he had been born in Europe rather than Newark then his fate would have been drastically different," said Shipe, referencing Roth's Jewish and Jersey upbringing. As it happens, his youth provided the setting for another novel with newfound — and certainly profound — resonance: "Nemesis," about polio.
"Nemesis" takes place in the scorching summer of 1944 during a polio outbreak that ravages randomly, suddenly and unmercifully, often fraying the social fabric of the tightknit Newark Jewish community that Roth — and Jaffe's mother — grew up in. Roth "described it perfectly" in "Nemesis," Jaffe recalls her mother saying, including "how in any time of illness, fear increases."
As it did with COVID, then monkeypox, and now, astonishingly, with the return of polio, which has been detected in New York and elsewhere.
While the recent outbreak is limited, it shouldn't exist at all. Not nearly seven decades after the advent of polio vaccines, which if universally used can eradicate the dreaded disease.
And not just in the relatively wealthy Western world, but worldwide, with Pakistan and Afghanistan the only remaining countries considered susceptible to endemic wild polio, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Its persistence there is not necessarily due to vaccine rejection, but to a host of other factors that make these two South Asian nations still vulnerable.
Since 1988, GPEI reports that it has reduced polio cases by 99.9%, allowing 20 million people to walk today who otherwise would have been paralyzed. But this progress depends on vaccination vigilance. Because beyond the wild virus, the GPEI reports, the world must curtail outbreaks of "a non-wild variant of the virus that can emerge in under-immunized communities — that are currently spreading in parts of the world."
Anytime "you have polio in an area that you didn't have before, it's of course a setback to your efforts to eradicate it globally," said Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesperson for polio eradication at the World Health Organization. Speaking from Switzerland, Rosenbauer said vaccination and strong disease surveillance are the key strategies to interrupt the transmission. And even though overall vaccination rates are quite high in most countries, pockets of non-vaccinated individuals can bring tragedy, as in the Netherlands in the mid-1990s, where "a community was resisting vaccination, and the virus established a foothold, and 67 children were paralyzed for life."
Over time, Rosenbauer said, "We've kind of forgotten and lost the visual respect of this disease. We haven't seen it in a long, long time. You know, in the 1950s, no one refused vaccinations; people were terrified of two things: One is a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, the other that a polio outbreak would indiscriminately hit your community. In Pakistan, if you walk down the road in Karachi you will see people with polio, the effects of it. Here in Geneva, you're not going to see that and so many people have kind of lost the respect [of it], but it is a terrible, terrifying disease. And it's entirely preventable."
Roth didn't lose respect or even the fear of polio, as his searing prose in "Nemesis" attests.
"The fact that people have forgotten, and Roth's use of memory to fight against the impotent witness of terror and death, [shows] how important it can be to think historically," Jaffe said.
Both books "seem so real now," Jaffe said. In truth, the novels "seem deeply uncanny," Shipe said. "They feel like they were written for our current moment."
The current moment, as it was in Roth's formative years, is fraught. But while Roth was unflinching in his view of the dark side of America, he was also confident the country could overcome such convulsions.
"What's remarkable about late Roth [novels] is his deep concern for the American project and his awareness of how easily it can be led astray," Shipe said, adding that in his best novels Roth "captures how unpredictable history and other people can be. Roth remained deeply committed to this nation — his worldview was very much shaped by his childhood during the Depression and World War II — yet he remained keenly aware of his nation's shortcomings and how easily things can go awry."
As Roth wrote in "The Plot Against America" and reprised in his revealing New York Times essay, "Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen is what we schoolchildren studied as 'History,' harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic."
America must not allow the threats of extremism, preventable disease and other scourges to become an epic. Indeed, just as the country overcame daunting challenges in Roth's day, it can write a new, more enlightened chapter of history in this era, too.