American Pastoral is a Philip Roth novel published in 1997 concerning Seymour “Swede” Levov, a successful Jewish American businessman and former high school star athlete from Newark, New Jersey. Levov’s happy and conventional upper middle class life is ruined by the domestic social and political turmoil of the 1960s during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, which in the novel is described as a manifestation of the “indigenous American berserk”.
American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was included in TIME’s List of the 100 Best Novels. The film rights to it were later optioned, though a film version was not made until 2016. In 2006, it was one of the runners-up to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in the “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?” contest held by the New York Times Book Review.
The book is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman. While attending his high school reunion in 1995, he runs into his old friend Jerry Levov. The two catch up with one another, and Levov tells Zuckerman the story of his recently deceased older brother’s life. Seymour, called “Swede,” was Zuckerman’s role model back in the day. Hearing Swede’s tragic story prompts him to research and verify his former idol’s life events in order to gain some kind of closure. Zuckerman wants to know the truth, free from Jerry’s bitter tone concerning his brother.
The Swede grew up the eldest son and thus inherited management of his father’s glove factory. He lived in Weequahic, New Jersey. The place was an idealized sort of sleepy town, such as the book’s title, American Pastoral, implies. In a neighboring town the Swede meets the beautiful Dawn Dwyer and marries her. They settle down to build the ideal simple life together. They have three children: two sons and one daughter named Meredith or “Merry.”
As time goes on, the Swede’s perfect little life loses its charm. America is engaged in the Vietnam War at this point. People start to lose their tempers, and racial hatred thrives like never before in Newark. Tormented by a socially debilitating stutter, Merry becomes more and more unstable as the political turmoil unfolds. She hates the war. In 1968, she sets off a bomb at the local post office to protest the war. One innocent bystander was killed, and Merry immediately runs away and goes into hiding. The Swede doesn’t see her again for five years. Believing she was manipulated by a woman named Rita Cohen into carrying out several bombings, despite her insistence to the contrary, he keeps their meeting a secret. Meanwhile Dawn has an affair with an illustrious man named William Orcutt III. He finds out that she is planning to leave him.
At a couple instances before his death, Zuckerman reunites with the Swede. The impressions he gathers from those meetings, combined with his research, lead him to form an interesting picture of the late man’s life. When they meet again, Zuckerman learns that the Swede had remarried and had three more sons. This second chance isn’t factored into Zuckerman’s final narrative, however. His final conclusions about the Swede’s life unfold in season with Watergate. That’s how the novel ends, with the death of a disillusioned old man and the loss of innocence of an entire country