The Sequence of Generations in Philip Roth's American Pastoral

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)




Lou Levov

Seymour “The Swede” Levov

Meredith “Merry” Levov




Much has been said about Philip Roth’s American Pastoral in terms of general criticism. While some critics say it is a book about a writer, the famous novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who somehow comes to terms with the hero of his youth, Seymour “The Swede” Levov, others say that it is “a novel about three generations of family life and, in particular, the rupture between a father and a daughter that embodies the social upheaval of the 60’s.”[1] So, who is right? All of them are. It just depends on one’s point of view and one’s focus.

Nathan Zuckerman narrates the story of Seymour Levov, who “is a consummate athlete, husband to Miss New Jersey and heir to a glove factory. […] With his canny eye, Zuckerman gives us the Swede's rise and fall, from hale high school hero to bastion of mediocrity.”[2] Zuckerman’s own story about his childhood in Newark and parts of his life lead to the Levov-story starting on page 89, which is when Zuckerman disappears and does not return as a character. He does come back, though, from time to time when his sarcasm gives him away while telling the story. His sarcastic, personal involvement would certainly be an interesting subject to talk about, along with other themes that run through the novel, e.g. the shifts in perspective, the different settings and their meaning, the question whether “Swede Levov [is] a good innocent man who has the bad luck to become history’s plaything” or whether there is “something significantly wrong with [him]”[3], “the trials of ethnic identity, the fate of Old World values transposed to the New World, the wrenching political confusion of recent American history.”[4]

My focus will be on the three generations of the Levovs and their relationships towards each other. Lou, the Swede and Merry are “people as different from one another as they could possibly be, but intimately intertwined.”[5] Critics have often said that “family” is a major theme in all of Roth’s works, and American Pastoral is no different. In this novel, too, Roth views “family relationships as extremely problematic and essentially frustrating but acknowledge[s] their importance in human affairs.” The problems between parents and children, again, are caused by the lost viability of “traditional ideas of family solidarity and reinforcement of personal identity through strong familial bonds.”[6] But this cannot be the only reason for the breaking apart of the Levovs’ world. This paper intends to discuss the characteristics of each Levov generation and the way Lou and Seymour Levov in particular deal with “the total vandalization of their world.”[7]

Lou Levov

The first generation in question to this paper is actually the second generation of Levovs in Newark. Lou Levov’s father “had come to Newark from the old country in the 1890’s” (11), so Lou belongs to “the first postimmigrant generation of Newark’s Jews [that] had regrouped into a community that took its inspiration more from the mainstream of American life than from the Polish shtetl their Yiddish-speaking parents had re-created.”(7) George Searles says, “almost always, the “older man” in Roth’s fiction, as in Hemingway’s, is a wisdom figure – almost a Bellovian “reality instructor.”[8] In American Pastoral Roth shows a somewhat altered father figure:

Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy. (11)

Those are Nathan Zuckerman’s words, but they can be taken as Roth’s words, too. Lou Levov is a self-made man, having worked hard and gained success through his own efforts. He learned the glove-business from scratch starting work at a tannery and working his way up to his own glove-factory. According to his son Jerry, he is “a brute man”(75), according to Nathan Zuckerman, “he could sometimes still manage to be […] civil”(12). Lou Levov appears to be very American from the outside[9], after all, his “American claim [is] not inconsiderable” (208), but just beneath the surface, he is a Jew. He values “community, home, family, parents, work” (365), and religion is no small thing to him. He laments “the lack of feeling for individuals, [and] the lack of feeling for places” (365) that seems to be the general attitude in the late 60’s. Being the man he is, he wants to spare his family grief of any kind, and he tries to do this by controlling everybody, by being “overbearing [and] omnipresent” (66). Lou Levov is even in control of himself. When his father died, he sat on the front steps of his house, taking an hour time to calm himself and then “got back in the car and drove to work” (369). Which is not to say that he did not mourn his father’s death, but he would not let himself be brought down by it; the most important and “serious thing in [his] life [was and always has been] to keep going” (11).

Critics have called Lou Levov “a quintessential Jew […]”[10], a “bulldog of a father”[11], and a “controlling father.”[12] All three statements describe parts of Lou Levov, and I will focus on the last one. Lou Levov controlled his two sons as much as possible. The Swede had broken off an engagement to a girl in South Carolina at his family’s request, which is to say, on Lou Levov’s demand. Jerry, the younger son, also was not spared his father’s controlling forces. Lou gave each of his ex-daughters-in-law money after Jerry had divorced them. But Jerry “doesn’t pull his punches,” “doesn’t back down” (297), he fights his father’s influence on his life. The Swede does not. What his mother calls his “considerateness” (297) others, namely his brother, call “compromising [and] abid[ing] everything patiently” (274). On two occasions only did the Swede stand up against his father: When he married Dawn Dwyer, and when he bought the stone house in Old Rimrock. Buying the stone house seemed to be “impractical and ill-advised” to Lou, to the Swede, it “was an act of bravery” (310). Lou Levov was against the marriage with Dawn because of her being Catholic, and so he interrogated his future daughter-in-law about anti-Semitism and religion. “After three solid hours of negotiations” (388), in which the religion of Dawn and the Swede’s child was decided, Lou agreed to let Dawn celebrate Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Easter bonnet with the child. Apart from that, the child was to be raised in Jewish tradition. It makes one wonder, though, why the Swede stayed as inactive as he did during the whole interrogation. He left it entirely up to Dawn and his father to settle the matter, and Lou Levov never seemed to think that the child’s religious upbringing could be a decision its parents should make on their own: “I’d rather make the decision myself” (396). Later Dawn let Merry get baptized without Lou’s knowing, but by the time he found out about the secret baptism, “Merry was a family treasure six years old, and the up-roar was short-lived” (389).

Just as Lou tried to influence his sons, he also tried to do it with Merry. He tried to “influence Merry’s behavior” and “to control […] not so much [her] opinions as the ferocity with which she sputtered them out” (287/288). The subject in question was the Vietnam War, which is also the time Merry began to go radical. Lou mailed her copies of letters he had written to politicians, President Johnson in particular. He wanted “to nip [her enragement] in the bud” and so he “ostentatiously all[ied] himself with her” (288). He also showed her alternatives – “You can write letters. You can vote. You can get up on a soapbox and make a speech. […] You can join the marines. [You can] join the other side” (289/290). But nothing he did prevented Merry from planting the bomb. Later, he talked about his feeling for her, “I saw it coming. […] I knew it. I sensed it. I fought it. She was out of control. Something was wrong. I could smell it. I told you” (291).

Lou Levov does sometimes come across as someone not easy to deal with, and at times, he seems to be stuck in the old times – at least Nathan Zuckerman thinks so: “…an opinionated old man, fettered still to his fantasy of the world” (361). But Lou also has some characteristics of the “traditional” Rothian father figure. First of all, Seales states that Roth has a “tendency to portray father figures warmly.”[13] This is certainly true for Lou Levov, for he does show deep affection and love for his family and would do anything for them. The controlling, dominant side of his character is just Lou’s way to ensure the well being of his loved ones. His feeling for Merry does go conform to the already mentioned “wisdom figure”. One could even say that he tried to prevent the catastrophe by interrogating Dawn and making the “religion-deal” with her. But still he “could [never] shake the conviction that what lay behind Merry’s difficulties all along was the secret baptism: that, and the Christmas tree, and the Easter bonnet, enough for that poor kid never to know who she was” (389). Lou told the Swede from the very beginning that the Swede was “going to raise a child who [wouldn’t] be one thing or the other” (386) – neither Catholic nor Jew. So Lou blames Merry’s downfall on religion, namely, the lack of one constant religious upbringing. He believes in his grandchild’s innocence – and he wants everybody else to believe in it, too:







[6] Searles, George J. The Fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike. Carbondale, Edwardsville, 1985, 31.

[7] Roth, Philip. American Pastoral. London, 1998, 237.

[8] Searles, George J. The Fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike. Carbondale, Edwardsville, 1985, 35.

[9] “Fill’er up. Mac“, American Pastoral, 208.




[13] Searles, George J. The Fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike. Carbondale, Edwardsville, 1985, 37.

Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Sequence of Generations in Philip Roth's American Pastoral
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistics Seminar)
Hauptseminar Contemprary American Novels
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
479 KB
Sequence, Generations, Philip, Roth, American, Pastoral, Hauptseminar, Contemprary, American, Novels
Quote paper
Anke Balduf (Author), 2000, The Sequence of Generations in Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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