Philip Roth: The Human Stain

After finishing I Married a Communist—which I didn’t like—I didn’t know how long it’d be before I gained the courage to read the next book in Roth’s America trilogy, The Human Stain (2000; PEN/Faulkner).  But I did know that for many The Human Stain is Roth’s best book.  And unlike I Married a Communist, The Human Stain was critically acclaimed and seemed to hark back to the success of American Pastoral, which I loved.  So I picked The Human Stain off the stack and didn’t ever want to put it down again.

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I don’t know how to begin to take the measure of this book.  Beginning with a broad stroke, the book overtly reaches back to the great themes of the Greek tragedies and arranges them in the unlikely context of America in 1998.  In the first few pages we meet this book’s Jewish protagonist, Coleman Silk, fortunate enough to have his life analyzed, turned around, and reanalyzed by our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman.  Coleman is a seventy-one year-old classics professor voluntarily exiled from Athena College, where he was once a king.  Coleman has just informed Nathan Zuckerman that as a mistress he has a thirty-four year-old cleaning woman from the college.  In a short span of sentences we learn this even as Roth zooms his lense out to introduce the setting and some of the themes of the novel: we get the American flag waving in the back ground; Nathan explains “the ecstasy of sanctimony”; and we learn that it “was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.”

In excellent Roth form, the narrative takes us back and forth through time and location until we get a sense of who Coleman Silk is and why he is being cast as the protagonist in a Greek tragedy.  He has caused an uproar in his community because one day in class he asked about two students who had as yet never attended class: “Do they exist?  Or are they spooks?”  It turns out the two students are black, and they soon file a complaint to the dean of faculty, and, surprisingly, many faculty members side with the students, claiming that Professor Silk was racist.  Here is the chorus, clamoring for purification.  It is clear, however, that Coleman was not being racist; nevertheless, things get so ugly he resigns out of principle and vows to fight the college.  In the midst of the struggle, his wife dies, he claims because of the stress the college placed on them.  Now in exile, Coleman has settled with Faunia Farley, the new mistress who pretends she is illiterate.

The story soon takes an unexpected twist, however.  Nathan Zuckerman takes us back into Coleman Silk’s hidden past, where we find that he was raised in East Orange, New Jersey, in a black family.  Yes, Coleman himself is a black man wearing the mask of a white Jew.  Indeed, one could say that his profession, his college, and all, that he is more white than most white men.  This might appear unbelievable, but this has happened, particularly in the time before the Civil Rights movement when it was just so much easier to get around (let alone get a job) as a white man in America.  If you were pale enough, it could work.  Roth delves into the mind of a man who would cast off his birth and family to assume a new role.  Even before his momentous decision to live life as a white man, Coleman resents being classified with a group.  Here is a passage taken from when he has left home to attend Howard, one of the nation’s most prestigious black colleges.

Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the of the we’s overbearing solidity, and he didn’t want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either.  You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we?  Another place that’s just like that, the substitute for that?

We spend many pages on Coleman’s childhood and adolescence (all excellent pages), and we sense the oppressive atmosphere bearing down on this incredibly successful black man even in Roth’s subersive prose:

Yet on the Silks’ own modest tree-lined side street ordinary people needed not to be quite so responsible to God and the state as those whose vocation it was to maintain a human community, swimming pool and all, untainted by the impurities, and so the neighbors were on the whole friendly with the ultra-respectable, light-skinned Silks—Negroes, to be sure, but, in the words of one tolerant mother of a kindergarten playmate of Coleman’s, “people of a very pleasing shade, rather like eggnog”—even to the point of borrowing a tool or a ladder or helping to figure out what was wrong with the car when it wouldn’t start.  The big apartment house at the corner remained all white until after the war.  Then, in late 1945, when colored people began coming in at the Orange end of the street—the families of professional men mainly, of teachers, doctors, and dentists—there was a moving van outside the apartment building every day, and half the white tenants disappeared within months.  But things soon settled down, and, though the landlord of fthe apartment building began renting to colored just in order to keep the place going, the whites who remained in the immediate neighborhood stayed around until they had a reason other than Negrophobia to leave.

Coleman’s white family does not know about his past.  It is like a sin waiting to be uncovered, one that could be uncovered in the most tragic way, say when one of his children marries a white man but has a black child.  Hopefully, if nothing else has, this gives a sense for how this book has the feel of Oedipus or The Bacchae.  Roth weaves this strange secret into Coleman’s current life in 1998, and the irony is rich:

As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises, infiltratin, if need be, as civic responsibility, WASP dignity, women’s rights, black pride, ethnic allegiance, or emotion-laden Jewish ethical sensitivity.  It’s not as though Marx or Freud or Darwin or Stalin or Hitler or Mao had never happened—it’s as though Sinclair Lewis had not happened.  It’s, he though, as though Babbit had never been written.  It’s as though not even that most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance.  A century of destruction unlike any other in its extremity befalls and blights the human race—scores of millions of ordinary people condemned to suffer deprivation upon deprivation, atrocity upon atrocity, evil upon evil, half the world or more subjected to pathological sadism as social policy, whole societies organized and fettered by the fear of violent persecution, the degradation of individual life engineered on a scale unknown throughout human history, nations broken and enslaved by ideological criminals who rob them of everything, entire populations so demoralized as to be unable to get out of bed in the morning with the minutest desire to face the day . . . all the terrible touchstones presented by this century, and here they are up in arms about Faunia Farley.  Here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or it’s Monica Lewisnsky!  The luxury of these lives disquieted so by the inappropriate comportment of Clinton and Silk!  This, in 1998, is the wickedness they have to put up with.  This, in 1998, is their torture, their torment, and their spiritual death.

One might think the weight of these large themes, would crush the individual characters in the novel, that the characters would be mere props for Roth’s ambitious trek through humanity.  However, Roth achieves here what he himself calls the “juxtaposition of grandeur and intimacy” (yes, there’s metafiction at work here too; isn’t Roth always a bit solipsistic? a bit metafictional?).  Despite these large themes working in the background, the characters remain fixed in the foreground, completely in focus.  The characters are always given priority over theme.  Indeed, in this book Roth succeeds in introducing us intimately to more characters than in any other Roth novel that I’ve read.  Roth takes the time to explore these lives, from Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley, to Coleman’s nemesis at the college, Delphine Roux, and Faunia’s ex-husband Lester Farley.  Roth even takes the time to put a personal face on a herd of milk cows and a black crow.  Somehow, in all of the tangle that would normally be confusion in such an ambitious story, Roth is able to shine the light on the perfect detail to bring his characters achingly to life without distracting the reader from the whole, and that whole never distracts us from its pieces.  This is master craftsmanship at work.

18 thoughts on “Philip Roth: The Human Stain

  1. This is my favorite Roth book and I think your review does an excellent job of explaining why. He develops a host of interesting characters, he explores very intriguing issues, he avoids some of his frequent failings (the sex in this book isn’t repulsive) and he continues his trademark of acquainting readers with the parts of America that he knows well. For someone who doesn’t know Roth, this book is as good as he gets, in my humble opinion.

  2. Trevor says:

    I haven’t yet decided where this one stands in comparison to the rest of Roth I’ve read. I am pretty sure American Pastoral and The Ghost Writer are at the top, but I don’t know how to stack The Human Stain against The Counterlife and Zuckerman Unbound. Perhaps all of this will change, though, since I consider all to be excellent novels.

  3. Lois says:

    Yes, indeed you are one talented young man. Finally made it to your blog and will check back often.

  4. Trevor says:

    (thanks for checking out my blog, Mom :) )

  5. Yoicks. The first three-generation literary blog on the web. I am most impressed. Can’t wait until the sons comment, although Mrs. Berrett’s thoughts are among my favorites and I do wish she had more time to comment.

    Lois, you did a very good job raising Trevor and he is producing a very good blog. If you could point to some of his younger influences it would be most appropriate. I know that Thomas the Tank Engine occupies much of his attention now — to great effect for those of us who love this blog — but any other pointers would be worthwhile. Did he read any of the classics or were comic books more his style? Any data would help us evaluate his current tastes.

    Do you think his love of Philip Roth and Netherland has anything to do with his upbringing? I don’t, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

    Welcome to a great blog.

  6. Trevor says:

    Yoicks. The first three-generation literary blog on the web.

    Kevin, I assure you my wife and I are of the same generation :) . But I know what you mean. I’m interested in what my mom perceived to be my influences too. I’m sure they’re different from what I tell people.

  7. Jonathan says:

    The Human Stain is excellent. This and American Pastoral are probably my two favourite Roth books, of all those I’ve read so far.

    I’m inclined to say American Pastoral is better. Why? I’m not sure. There’s not much in it. Both are shocking, furious, gripping, rich and brilliantly written.

    The one thing I remember not liking about The Human Stain was Delphine Roux — a comical caricature in an otherwise serious novel, and probably a case of Roth’s misogyny surfacing.

  8. Trevor says:

    I liked American Pastoral more for two reasons I can think of right now.

    (1) More happened under the surface. Those final fifty or so pages where truly nothing happens on the surface are so excellent because so much turbulence is going on under the surface. And I felt that much of the book was subtle like that. The Human Stain was excellent for its issues, but Roth was, I felt, more blatant.

    (2) There was more Nathan Zuckerman in American Pastoral, or at least more of Nathan Zuckerman being Nathan Zuckerman. What I mean by that is that American Pastoral is very solipsistic. The whole thing is what Nathan imagines happened, with no evidence. And he does it all after sixty or so pages of narrative disclosing his own childhood and his own movement into old age. The high school reunion was brilliant. And the rest of the novel played with themes raised right there out of Zuckerman’s life. The Human Stain, on the other hand, was quite a bit of reportage about Coleman Silk. Sure, Nathan had to embellish the episodes, but he knew they happened. Also, the most metafiction we got into was the fact that Nathan discusses so often the book we are reading.

    I also agree that the character of Delphine Roux was a comical caricature, but I don’t mind that. My biggest problem was Coleman’s sister raging against Black History Month. Not judging her argument, but it felt contrived and out of place.

    All that said, I loved this book. The themes are fantastic. The structure, I think, is more intricate and complex than American Pastoral. Here Roth is playing with Greek plays and epics and also with musical structure. It’s amazing. And these devices lend themselves so well to the themese he traces about race and history and identity.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Jonathan! I have been trying to articulate how my reaction to both novels compared.

  9. Mrs. Berrett says:

    I believe we’ve firmly established that you and I are not from the same generation. Mine was much more hip, hence so am I.
    I like KFC’s idea for your earlier influences, and not just because he praised me in the same paragraph. I’m taking the idea a step further here, but I think an interesting post may be discussing the books that influenced your life at various stages. If it weren’t for Nancy Drew I never would have turned to Crime and Punishment.

  10. Mrs. Berrett has again sent us off into interesting territory. After some thinking, I would list the following as key personal influences — books read outside of school requirements that sent me off on literary explorations:

    1. The Catcher in the Rye certainly spoke to me as a youth. It led me to all of Salinger and I have reread him a number of times since and will do so again (I am one of those people who is hoping that there are several manuscripts on the shelf up in Vermont or N.H. that will be published eventually). My Salinger interest led me to John Cheever, someone else I mean to reread, so he does not get a separate listing.
    2. Couples by John Updike. This makes my list because it was my first Updike and the first “dirty” book that I read — my mother (she read Reader’s Digest Condensed) discovered it and that led to a very painful hour. It led me into all of Updike which then caused a migration into Fitzgerald (note Trevor, no Roth or Bellow — I only found them later).
    3. Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell. It is a book that is taught in high schools (although not mine) about growing up in the Canadian West and hence became my introduction to Canadian literature. I intend to post on it in the near future, comparing and contrasting with Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (which I only discovered recently) so will say no more at this point. I suspect both you and Mrs. Berrett have never heard of it — I’ll be trying to convince you to get a copy so your sons can read it when they hit their teens.
    4. Crime and Punishment. Mrs. B and I align here — I cannot remember why I decided to pick up the book, but I did. It lead me into a complete exploration of Dostoevsky (I do still favor the Constance Garnett translations) which has again resulted in a couple of rereadings — actually rereading Dostoevsky (and the extension effect of Tolstoy and Turgenev) is a more or less continuous, and rewarding, process. Finished A Raw Youth a couple of months ago and The Brothers Karamazov is on the future agenda.
    5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I fell into this one after hearing about 1984 but read this negative Utopia novel first. This ranks as my strangest influence — I have no desire to reread either this book or Orwell. I ordered a bunch of Huxley a few years ago and am slowly working my way through them again — still have not figured out why I liked him so much as a high school student.

    My more mature influences definitely came from a couple of university classes. One on the Canadian novel introduced me to Hugh Maclennan, Sinclair Ross and company — Atwood was just starting out then (and her non-fiction work Survival certainly influenced me). I don’t like much of her recent work but that book had an influence. The Year of the Flood is her offering this year and I understand the promotion tour involves choirs and recitals in a number of English cathedrals — all of which says I probably won’t be reading the book.

    And a course on the Modern European novel introduced me to Man’s Fate, a great novel, and Camus.

    All of which means that I never read Jane Austen until I was in my 50s, still don’t like Dickens (and I have tried) and only found Thomas Mann (another favorite) a decade ago.

    Thanks for sending me off down memory lane, Mrs. Berrett. I just realized this post is a little short on American authors — I’ll try to remedy that later.

  11. Trevor says:

    I want to ruminate on this for a while. One of the first “big” books I read, one that gave me the confidence I needed to expand into what looked too difficult, was The Brothers Karamazov, still one of my favorite books.

    It was after that book that I started buying buying buying books, really starting my collection. However, just before I read The Brothers I had finished both Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird, so it’s fair to say those got me enough courage to venture into The Brothers.

    After The Brothers Karamazov I read almost all of Hemingway and Steinbeck, asking my parents for their books at every holiday possible (I also asked for Faulkner’s books, and I have several, but I’ve only read As I Lay Dying, which I also loved).

    This was all after high school. I read a lot in high school, but I was a journalism student (yes, Kevin) and mostly read features, nonfiction, and essays. It was this time, however, that I read Thomas Hardy and Alexandre Dumas. It took me forever to get through The Count of Monte Cristo, but for years it was my favorite book, and I still look back on it fondly. Hardy’s Return of the Native was a difficult read for me. I enjoyed it, but I remember having to use many resources to understand what was going on.

    Oh, and Hamlet. Hamlet really may have been the piece of literature that opened my mind and forced my teenage self to look beyond Stephen King. No, I do not think Stephen King in any way opened me up to greater literature. I think it was probably counterproductive, actually, and I’ve never looked back.

    Now, if we want to look at what really got me exploring, it was this blog. Because of it and through it I’ve come to know and love many authors I would not have otherwise met for a long time if at all.

    So, I said I wanted to think about this for a while, and I still do. What did I read when I was little? What stories stood out to me? What opened my imagination and interested me in the life of the mind?

    I think it’s time you read The Brothers Karamazov, Kevin. I liked it more than Anna Karenina. (Haven’t read War and Peace yet!)

  12. I have read Brothers twice, maybe three times. This will be a reread.

    I liked it more than Anna Karennina and War and Peace is the best of all.

    I did not mention Hemmingway in my post and he was a factor in my youth, although an author who has not stood up to rereading so far. Faulkner escaped my attention then, but I have been catching up. For some reason I put him in a category with Conrad and Forester, perhaps because I came to all of them later in my reading life.

    I will admit that I have only ever read one Stephen King book — found it interesting but no reason to pursue him further.

    I loved The Return of a Native when I got to it (which was only a few years ago — Hardy, like Austen, was one those authors I missed). And I have never actually read Hamlet, although I have seen enough productions to convince me that I don’t want to see another. I do love theatre and will post later on my favorite productions. Stay tuned.

  13. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Regarding King, I find it funny he thinks of himself as a gateway to literature and then rants about Stephenie Meyer and her go-nowhere readers. I don’t know of any statistics regarding people moving on from his books, but I do know that bookstores have reported that the Twilight phenomenon has increased sales in Bronte, Shakespeare, and Austen. In fact they now display them with Meyer.

  14. Trevor says:

    I’m not a big fan of Harold Bloom in general (like James Wood, I find his pomposity very offputting, though I can’t help but read what they have to say), but I did agree with him when he wrote this popular little article about Stephen King winning the National Book Foundation’s annual award. It’s still a very pompous article, annoyingly full of spite, and one wonders how he has found any enjoyment at all in literature (he can only come up with four great living American authors; Bellow has since died), but I found myself nodding in agreement at times, even while shaking my head at his curmudgeonly ways.

    On other matters, I’m trying to think about what I read as a very young child that I enjoyed. Some of those children’s books are very poetic and touching.

  15. I have been following dovegreyreader’s Inner Child project with interest — and mainly it has reminded me how few children’s books I remember.

    We didn’t have a lot of books around the house so after reading Pooh countless times and Journeys Through Bookland (a 10-volume set of excerpts) I was pretty much a library reader. I do remember Edith Nesbit (especially The Railway Children and a few other English authors but not by name — read a couple of Hardy Boys and found them boring.

    One thing that really struck me in Annie Dillard was her memory of being “promoted” to the adult library. In my case, that came at age 11 — first adult book was Ben Hur (it was the big movie that year); followed by The Old Man and the Sea, so I’m thinking one of the reasons that I don’t have a lot of childhood book memories is that I was reading adult books at an early age.

    I got my first New Yorker subscription at age 14 — that would be the introduction to Salinger, Updike, Perelman and Barthelme, among others. I still remember reading the New Yorker serial version of In Cold Blood. And I suspect it was critical references in the New Yorker that got me onto the Russians, but that is speculation.

  16. Deucekindred says:

    5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I fell into this one after hearing about 1984 but read this negative Utopia novel first. This ranks as my strangest influence — I have no desire to reread either this book or Orwell. I ordered a bunch of Huxley a few years ago and am slowly working my way through them again — still have not figured out why I liked him so much as a high school student.

    Brave New World was the book that got me reading literature. In turn I devoured nearly all of Huxley’s novels in turn. As KFC stated neither can I return to BNW or anything by Huxley. I liked him when I was in secondary school (this was in 1995) cause I felt that I could relate to Bernard Marx and the things that Huxley mentions in the book were things that bothered me about the world.

    I still think that it’s way ahead of it’s time though.

  17. Deucekindred says:

    I’m halfway through The Human Stain and I absolutely loving it!! I thought The Plot Against America and American Pastoral may be Roth’s best books.

    I think I may have to change that opinion!

  18. Trevor says:

    I’m not sure where this one stands in my Roth hierarchy. It was excellent! I think I still place American Pastoral and The Ghost Writer above it.

    I haven’t read The Plot Against America yet. There seems to be a split opinion about it. Some say it is Roth being polemical, and I actually quite detest Roth the polemic, not because of what he says but because it makes whatever book it’s in much more fake to me. He’s so good when the characters speak for themselves but when Roth speaks through his characters it becomes something else entirely. However, many others say that The Plot Against America is one of Roth’s best books. I will definitely be reading it, and I definitely hope I’m in the later camp :) .

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