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American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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Jan 30, 10

bookshelves: novels, favorites

In his Introduction to a 2010 sesquicentennial edition of Leaves of Grass, the critic Harold Bloom stated in a matter of fact way that Roth is the greatest American novelist who is still living. I do not have enough familiarity with contemporary novelists to judge the truth of this statement, but Bloom is no lightweight, and his pronouncements cannot be casually dismissed.

American Pastoral is easily as compelling as what the great novelists of a century ago (e.g., Dreiser, Lewis, Norris) were writing. Roth is a master craftsman, both of individual sentences and the overall structure of the novel. American Pastoral was the first Roth novel I read, and my encounter with this great writer was very long overdue. It is packed with profound reflections on the state of American society and its degeneration from the values of a not so earlier time. Roth is a great novelist because of his moral seriousness and the remarkable grace and elegance of his style. His sentences are often long but never convoluted or lacking in a clear direction. Many are written with incredible skill.

The title is highly suggestive. "Pastoral" brings to mind a world that is lost, a golden age much like the one at the heart of the ancient Roman psyche, where Saturn reigned over Latium in a kind of primordial utopia: no commerce, no crime, no dirty dealings between men. Here, pastoral doesn't mean so much agricultural as it does an earlier age uncorrupted by politics and the ideology of violence.

The novel is, in his hands, a vehicle for artistic expression of the highest order. This book should be required reading in high school English classes, instead of the politically correct tracts that seem now to dominate the curriculum.


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