American Pastoral

Activism, American History, Protest, Relationships, WWII


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 inspire Merry to carry out her bombing of a local post office.

Despite its use of many specific historical allusions, the novel is only loosely based on the major historical events and trends it explores. The Vietnam War and the largely peaceful protests against it hardly feature in the novel. The Tet Offensive, which was underway in February 1968, when Merry sets off her bomb, goes unmentioned. The only televised image connected to the Vietnam War that appears in the novel is the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in 1963 in protest against the policies of the South-Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem during the so-called "Buddhist crisis".

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.") were spoken by John Jacobs at a Weathermen "war council" in December 1969.