- Ralph Ellison:The Invisible Man in Philip Roth's The Human Stain
When Philip Roth published The Human Stain (2000), the conclusion to a trilogy that began with American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), he told an interviewer, "I think of it as a thematic trilogy, dealing with the historical moments in postwar American life that have had the greatest impact on my generation" ("Zukerman's Alter Brain"). World War II, the McCarthy witch hunts, the social unrest of the 1960s, Vietnam, Watergate, and even the impeachment of Bill Clinton all receive detailed and impressive treatment by Roth. Of the three volumes, The Human Stain has generated perhaps the most critical excitement (including an A-list Hollywood movie version) because of its sensational plot revelation that its typically Rothian hero, a Jewish academic, is, in fact, an African American passing as a Jew. While no one to my knowledge has yet suggested that The Human Stain portrays Roth's own desire to be black, Roth's work is deeper and more surprising than just another foray into the realm of identity politics.1 Demonstrating [End Page 421] that Roth is keenly aware of recent multicultural critiques of the universalist presumption to a knowable American identity and, to a certain extent, feels chastened by them, The Human Stain portrays Roth's engagement with how traditional understandings of American identity as a pluralistic and malleable form have come under increasing scrutiny since Roth wrote Goodbye, Columbus (1959). There Roth had begun his literary career by presuming to write a self-consciously American saga with a Jewish inflection, thereby enraging many Jewish readers who felt that their private histories had been exposed before non-Jewish eyes. The Human Stain extends that original impulse by telling a Jewish American story as if it were an African American one. Roth invents the strange story of Coleman Silk to revisit not only the key political history of the past American half-century but also its literary history and in particular Roth's evolving position as a key figure within that history.
More than a reflection on Roth's own career, though, The Human Stain can also be read as Roth's way of using fiction to think through the meaning of Ralph Ellison's truncated literary career and his novel Invisible Man (1952). As readers of Roth's essays and public statements will recognize, Ellison's book captured Roth's attention as the era's definitive exploration of the relationship between race and American identity. In my reading, Roth resurrects Ellison as a kind of victim of multiculturalism in order to reposition Roth's own place in the recent American canon. As such, The Human Stain may be the most audacious literary act of Roth's audacious career, since it can be read as both a sequel to Ellison's novel and as an investigation of Ellison's fate after the publication of Invisible Man. It would certainly be an exaggeration to say that the novel is only about Roth's relationship to Ralph Ellison or was written [End Page 422] intentionally to meditate on Invisible Man. Yet insofar as Roth wants to define the historical period that shaped him as a writer, it is not surprising that he would be drawn to revisit the work that Roth once identified in his criticism as the conclusive expression of the kind of fiction he aspired to write. To be sure, Coleman Silk is neither Ralph Ellison nor Ralph Ellison's invisible man, just as Nathan Zuckerman is not Philip Roth. Yet in the context of the novel and Roth's career, Silk emerges as an identifiable amalgam of Ellison, Ellison's famous narrator, Zuckerman, and Roth himself. Roth gives his African American protagonist the comfortable, mostly stable academic life he might have enjoyed had he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, a version, in fact, of the professorial life Ellison chose to lead after publishing Invisible Man.
Roth situates The Human Stain in the context of Invisible Man, but the Ellison he invokes is the writer who never finished another novel but remained comfortable in the world...