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Reviewed by:
  • The Human Stain
  • Jay L. Halio
The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 361 pp. $26.00.

If Saul Bellow’s early novel, The Adventures of Augie March, inspired Roth at the beginning of his career to write about a generation of Jews younger than the immigrant Jews of Malamud’s fiction, a generation characterized less by victimization than by one “steeped in America, its freedom and talk, its energies and superabundance,” as David Remnick reports in his recent New Yorker profile (May 8, 2000), then Bellow’s later novels—his novels of contemplation—may have encouraged Roth to emulate him again, at least to some extent. In Ravelstein, for example, Bellow is concerned not so much, if at all, with relating the strong narrative line his critics desiderate as with a meditation on contemporary civilization, or what passes for civilization. Similarly, in Roth’s last three novels, what he has called his “thematic trilogy” on America in the 1950s, 60s, and later, Roth has given us both a retrospective view of where post-World War II America was and where we have emerged in the Clinton era. Unlike Bellow, his narrative line is clear enough but, like Bellow, it is subordinated, if not as obviously, to Roth’s more important concerns with American attitudes and behavior which, astute observer that he is, have preoccupied the writer—as it should preoccupy us—for some time. [End Page 173]

The Human Stain, supposedly based upon the life of the New York Times literary critic, Anatole Broyard, is about Coleman Silk, a Newark-born African American whose fair complexion allows him in his adult life to pass as a white man. In ways that for some critics recall Alexander Portnoy’s struggle to free himself from the shackles of his middle-class Jewish upbringing, Silk tries to escape his heritage and his family ties—and for most of his life, he succeeds. After one or two failed relationships with white women in New York, where he is studying classics after serving in the navy in World War II, he determines to renounce his race and everything and everyone connected with it. His father having died, he severs all other family ties, proclaims himself a secular white Jew, and marries Iris Gittelman, a woman born of atheist Russian immigrant Jews. Neither she nor their four children ever learn of his true origins; in fact, no one does until after his death, except perhaps for Faunia Farley, the lover half his age whom he has taken near the end of his life.

Coleman Silk’s well-kept secret stays safe, although by the second chapter Roth casually reveals it to the reader as a means of developing some of the many ironies in the novel. The most pronounced one involves the incident resulting in Coleman Silk’s resignation from the faculty of Athena College, the small liberal arts college in New England where he has taught and for many years served as its dean. Wondering where and who two students are who have failed to attend any of his class meetings since the beginning of the term, Silk asks his other students whether they exist or if they are “spooks.” Although his meaning is clear, the absent students, who are black, seize upon the term’s ambiguity: its secondary meaning as a derogatory term for Negroes. They therefore file a complaint against him with his department chair and dean. Enraged, not only because it is so transparently a misrepresentation by students whom he has never laid eyes on, but even more because none of his colleagues springs to his defense (these include an African American sociology professor whom as dean he had hired as the first black faculty member at Athena College), Silk resigns. In the ensuing controversy, his wife Iris dies of a stroke brought on, Silk believes, by the turmoil the students have caused him and his family to experience. Not since David Mamet’s Oleanna has there appeared so powerful an indictment of political correctness and a travesty of student rights and faculty vulnerability in higher education.

Enter two years later Nathan Zuckerman, Silk’s neighbor...

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pp. 173-175
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