American Pastoral

Historical setting

The novel alludes extensively to the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It refers to the 1967 Newark riots, the Watergate scandal, the sexual revolution and Deep Throat, the code name of the secret source in the Watergate scandal and the title of a 1972 pornographic film. In the novel's final scene, both the Watergate scandal and the pornographic film are discussed at a dinner party during which the first marriage of "the Swede" begins to unravel when he discovers his wife is having an affair. The novel also alludes to the rhetoric of revolutionary violence of the radical fringe of the New Left and the Black Panthers, the trial of the leftist African-American activist Angela Davis, and the bombings carried out between 1969 and 1973 by the Weathermen and other radicals opposing the US military intervention in Vietnam. The novel quotes from Frantz Fanon's A Dying Colonialism, which Zuckerman imagines as one of the texts that inspires Merry to carry out her bombing of a local post office.

In the novel, Merry's bombing takes place in February 1968, during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, after which she flees her parental home. By that time she has had a "Weathermen motto" tacked up in her room for many months. In reality this would have been impossible. The Weathermen group was, in fact, formed in the summer of 1969. The lines of the "motto" which appear in the novel ("We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers' nightmares.") allude to a speech by John Jacobs at a Weathermen "war council" in December 1969.

The inspiration for the Levov character was a real person: Seymour “Swede” Masin, a phenomenal, legendary all-around Jewish athlete who, like the Levov character, attended Newark’s Weequahic High School. Like the book’s protagonist, Swede Masin was revered and idolized by many local middle-class Jews.

Both “Swedes” were tall and had distinctively blond hair and blue eyes, which stood out among the typically dark-haired, dark-complexioned local residents. Both attended a teachers’ college in nearby East Orange; both married out of their faith; both served in the military and, upon their return, both moved to the suburbs of Newark.


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