The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth set in late 1990s rural New England. Its first person narrator is 65-year-old author Nathan Zuckerman, who appeared in several earlier Roth novels, and who also figures in both American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), two books that form a loose trilogy with The Human Stain. Zuckerman acts largely as an observer as the complex story of the protagonist, Coleman Silk, a retired professor of classics, is slowly revealed.
A national bestseller, The Human Stain was adapted as a film by the same name directed by Robert Benton. Released in 2003, the film starred Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Wentworth Miller and Gary Sinise.
19. Philip Roth, The Human Stain - The American Novel Since 1945 (ENGL 291) In this lecture on The Human Stain, Professor Hungerford traces the ways that Roth's novel conforms to and pushes beyond the genre she calls the...
The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who lives quietly in New England, where Coleman Silk is his neighbor. Silk is a former professor and dean of faculty at nearby Athena College, a fictional institution in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Silk is accused of racism by two African American students over the use of the word "spooks," using the term to describe their absence from the classroom (like "ghosts") rather than in the racially derogatory sense. The uproar leads to Silk's resignation. Soon after, his wife Iris dies of a stroke, which Silk feels is caused by the stress of his being forced out of the college. Silk begins a relationship with Faunia Farley, a 34-year-old local woman who works as a janitor at the college and is illiterate. Silk is criticized by feminist scholars at the college for this.
It is slowly revealed through Zuckerman's musings that Silk is an African American who has been "passing" as a Jew since a stint in the Navy. He completed graduate school, married a white woman and had four children with her. He never told his wife and children of his African American ancestry. As Roth wrote in the novel, Silk chose "to take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate".
The Human Stain is set in 1998 in the United States, during the period of President Bill Clinton's impeachment hearings and scandal over Monica Lewinsky. It is the third of Roth's postwar novels that take on large social themes.
Roth described in 2012, in The New Yorker, how his novel was inspired by an event in the life of his friend Melvin Tumin, a "professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years". Tumin was subject to a "witch hunt" but was ultimately found blameless in a matter involving use of allegedly racial language concerning two African American students.
The Human Stain is the third in a trilogy, following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, in which Roth explores American morality and its effects. Here he examines the cut-throat and, at times, petty, atmosphere in American academia, in which "political correctness" was upheld. Roth said he wrote the trilogy to reflect periods in the 20th centuryâ"the McCarthy years, the Vietnam War, and President Bill Clinton's impeachmentâ"that he thinks are the "historical moments in post-war American life that have had the greatest impact on my generation."
Journalist Michiko Kakutani said that in The Human Stain, Roth "explores issues of identity and self-invention in America which he had long explored in earlier works." She wrote the following interpretation:
It is a book that shows how the public Zeitgeist can shape, even destroy, an individual's life, a book that takes all of Roth's favorite themes of identity and rebellion and generational strife and refracts them not through the narrow prism of the self but through a wide-angle lens that exposes the fissures and discontinuities of 20th-century life.Â ... When stripped of its racial overtones, Roth's book echoes a story he has told in novel after novel. Indeed, it closely parallels the story of Nathan Zuckerman, himself another dutiful, middle-class boy from New Jersey who rebelled against his family and found himself exiled, 'unbound' as it were, from his roots."
Mark Shechner writes in his 2003 study that in the novel, Roth "explores issues in American society that force a man such as Silk to hide his background, to the point of not having a personal history to share with his children or family. He wanted to pursue an independent course unbounded by racial restraints, but became what he once despised. His downfall to some extent is engineered by Delphine Roux, the young, female, elite, French intellectual who is dismayed to find herself in a New England outpost of sorts, and sees Silk as having become deadwood in academia, the very thing he abhorred at the beginning of his own career."
Resemblance to Anatole Broyard
In the reviews of the book in both the daily and the Sunday New York Times in 2000, Kakutani and Lorrie Moore suggested that the central character of Coleman Silk might have been inspired by Anatole Broyard, a well-known New York literary editor of the Times. Other writers in the academic and mainstream press made the same suggestion. After Broyard's death in 1990, it had been revealed that he racially passed during his many years employed as a critic at The New York Times. He was of Louisiana Creole ancestry. However, Roth himself has stated that he had not known of Broyard's ancestry when he started writing the book and only learned of it months later.
The novel was well received, became a national bestseller, and won numerous awards. In choosing it for its "Editors' Choice" list of 2000, The New York Times wrote:
When Zuckerman and Silk are together and testing each other, Roth's writing reaches an emotional intensity and a vividness not exceeded in any of his books. The American dream of starting over entirely new has the force of inevitability here, and Roth's judgment clearly is that you can never make it all the way. There is no comfort in this vision, but the tranquility Zuckerman achieves as he tells the story is infectious, and that is a certain reward.
In April 2013, GQ listed The Human Stain as one of the best books of the 21st century.
- New York Times "Editors' Choice" (2000)
- Koret Jewish Book Award (2000)
- Chicago Tribune Editor's Pick (2000)
- WH Smith Literary Award (2001)
- National Jewish Book Award (2001)
- PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2001)
- Prix MÃ©dicis Ã©tranger; Meilleur livre de l'annÃ©e 2002
- Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction (2000).
- L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award (2001)
- The Human Stain was adapted in 2003 into a film by the same name, directed by Robert Benton and starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.
- Safer, Elaine B. "Tragedy and Farce in Roth's the Human Stain". in Bloom, Harold (ed.) Philip Roth. Chelsea House. ISBNÂ 0-7910-7446-3
- Shechner, Mark (2003). Up Society's Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth. University of Wisconsin Press, ISBNÂ 978-0-299-19354-6
- Boddy, Kasia (2010). "Philip Roth's Great Books: A Reading of The Human Stain". Cambridge Quarterly (2010) 39 (1): 39â"60. doi: 10.1093/camqtly/bfp025
- Faisst, Julia (2006). "Delusionary Thinking, Whether White or Black or in Between: Fictions of Race in Philip Roth's The Human Stain". Philip Roth Studies, 2006
- Kaplan, Brett Ashley (2005). "Anatole Broyard's Human Stain: Performing Postracial Consciousness." Philip Roth Studies, 1.2 (2005): 125â"44.
- Moynihan, SinÃ©ad (2010). Passing into the Present: Contemporary American Fiction of Racial and Gender Passing. Manchester University Press, ISBNÂ 978-0-7190-8229-0
- Tierney, William G. (2002). "Interpreting Academic Identities: Reality and Fiction on Campus". The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 73, No. 1, Special Issue: The Faculty in the New Millennium (Jan. â" Feb., 2002), pp.Â 161â"172
- The Human Stain at Random House's Reading Group Center page
- Awards: The Human Stain, Houghton Mifflin
- "Philip Roth's open letter to Wikipedia" â" Sept 7, 2012, New Yorker Blog 'Page Turner'
- Julia Faisst, "Delusionary Thinking, Whether White or Black or In Between" Fictions of Race in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, Philip Roth Studies 2:2, 2006, pp.Â 121â"137
- Derek Royal, Plotting the Frames of Subjectivity: Identity, Death, and Narrative in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, Contemporary Literature 47:1, 2006, pp.Â 114â"140.
- Carlie Sorasiak, Philip Roth and America's Inexplicable War: Situating The Human Stain and American Pastoral within the Vietnam Canon, Postgraduate English 27, 2013