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Vichy-Washy

Robert O. Paxton writes expertly on France’s selective amnesia about the Vichy regime [“The Discreet Eminence,” Reviews, December]. But the French are not the only ones guilty of this; in 1940, American leaders also fell under the spell of Marshal Philippe Pétain. They hoped that by backing Pétain, a hero from the First World War and a seeming pillar of stability in a rapidly deteriorating world, they might keep France staunchly anti-communist, neutral in Germany’s ongoing war with Great Britain, and nominally pro-American. Given the fear and uncertainty in Washington over France at that moment, Pétain seemed to Roosevelt as good a bet as any, and a better choice than Britain’s: a little-known renegade officer named Charles de Gaulle.

The Roosevelt Administration’s subsequent decision to recognize Pétain’s reactionary and collaborationist government was an ill-considered start to a war ostensibly fought to bring the world the Four Freedoms. The British were appalled at American willingness to recognize, and even support, a government filled with odious German collaborators. De Gaulle never did forgive the United States for committing its prestige and resources to the cause of traitors to France.

Support for Vichy sits uncomfortably alongside the reigning narrative of the heroic American war effort. As late as the summer of 1944, there were still Americans who hoped to put Pétain or one of his acolytes in a position of power after the war. Other Americans were willing to consider a full military occupation of France. Little wonder, then, that the Americans, almost as much as the French, have often been content to forget that the Vichy years ever happened.

Michael Neiberg
Professor of history and chair of war studies,
United States Army War College
Carlisle, Pa.

 

Pastoral American

Hannah Gold’s report on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Philip Roth festival [“Your Mind’s in the Hands of Everything,” Letter from Newark, December] deftly captures the thrills, and occasional discomforts, that Roth’s fiction continues to provoke. As president of the Philip Roth Society, I helped to plan the three-day academic conference that directly preceded the festival. That week in Newark was a welcome opportunity to reflect on how much the field of Roth studies has grown in the two decades since the Society’s founding, and to consider new ways to approach Roth’s immense oeuvre.

At the festival, Steven Zipperstein and Claudia Roth Pierpont offered a smart take informed by their keen insights into Roth’s person and their deep appreciation of his work, while the panel featuring Ayad Akhtar, Susan Choi, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Gary Shteyngart posited that Roth’s capacity to outrage his readers remains one of the most compelling aspects of his fiction. As a case in point, the handful of sessions that I attended returned consistently to Portnoy’s Complaint, the scandalous 1969 novel that made Roth a literary celebrity (though we academics tend to focus on his later novels, which secured Roth the bulk of his literary prizes). I was reminded of how much of Roth’s public image remains deeply defined by Portnoy.

When I taught Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation this past spring, I was struck by how much it resonated with my undergraduate students. One of Roth’s most brutal novels, it centers on a promising college sophomore who, by the whims of historical circumstance, dies in the Korean War. Like much of Roth’s later work, the novel explores how easily our individual lives can be consumed by the contingencies of history. Nothing is assured in Roth’s later works, and it was this sense of fragility that my students responded to. That Roth’s fiction continues to inspire such a robust response not only from young students but from critics and writers of fiction alike is an encouraging sign for those of us invested in his work.

Matthew Shipe
Senior lecturer in English and director of advanced writing,
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Mo.

 

Editorial Malpractice

Ben Lerner’s winding tale about a man who deploys a phalanx of false accounts on Wikipedia in order to defy consensus [“The Hofmann Wobble,” Experiment, December] brought to my mind the countless Wikipedians who have held tight to the pursuit of truth while the semi-fictional Lerner, by his own admission, lost his grip. I have been a Wikipedia editor since 2019, and the mission of free knowledge has continuously motivated me to clean up vandalism and fill in the site’s informational gaps (as in articles pertaining to local politicians, emerging comedians, and extinct cousins of the platypus). With each keystroke, my fellow editors and I have contributed to the largest and most accessible—albeit still imperfect—source of information humans have ever had.

Take the software engineer in Washington who has corrected the grammatically incorrect phrase “comprised of” about ninety thousand times, the librarian in Alberta who doggedly patrols for copyright violations, or the California product manager who guards pages against content that glorifies Nazis. One teenager spent hours each day editing articles about the 472 subway stations in New York City until every one of them had a comprehensive entry. A white-haired retiree I know spends his days cycling around the Tri-State Area, taking freely licensed photographs of infrastructure, and sometimes letting me tag along. Though some of Wikipedia’s contributors manipulate the platform, just as Lerner’s avatar did in his worst moments, the vast majority of us are shrewd, delightful, and ordinary people operating in achingly good faith.

Annie Rauwerda
New York City


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February 2024

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