The Human Stain is the third of Philip Roth's trilogy of novels that explore the relationship between public and private life in America during the second half of the 20th century. As in American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's favorite alter ego, serves as the narrator. After a prostate operation rendered him impotent, Zuckerman has retired from the world to become writer in residence at idyllic Athena College.

There he meets Coleman Silk, a former dean and classics professor who was forced to resign because of a supposed racial slur, in which he asked whether two students who had registered for his course but never attended a lecture were "spooks." They were African-Americans. Hence, political correctness dictated that Silk's academic career was history.

Zuckerman enters the scene a couple of years later, when the septuagenarian Silk is having an affair with an illiterate college janitor. This liaison has revitalized the old professor, whose wife died during the period of disgrace after his "racism" was exposed. However, Silk's enemies at the college, led by a bitterly proper young deconstructionist, have gone on the warpath again, this time condemning him for exploiting the young janitor.

The real story, though, lies deep in Coleman Silk's past. We eventually learn that Silk is a light skinned African-American who gradually drifted across the American racial divide and for 50 years has successfully passed as a white Jew. The irony in this situation is complex. A black man thought by the world to be Jewish is publicly disgraced for uttering the word "spook" in its correct denotation. (This is reminiscent of a case a few years ago in which a public official in the United States was chastised for using the word "niggardly" with reference to an inadequate budget allocation.)

The situation is doubly ironic because Silk has chosen to live his life as a white man, thereby in a sense establishing his own racism. Silk's original goal had been to live as an individual, and not as a representative of his race, but in choosing to deny his roots, perhaps Coleman Silk's guilt is deeper and more complex than his pursuers at Athena College realize.


What is "the human stain" of the book's title? An obvious candidate is the racism that compromises public and private morality in America. But racism is only one example of the overall problem of evil. In his work here as elsewhere, Roth tells us that evil originates in the human quest for purity. When people commit themselves to becoming pure--e.g. by which Roth means better, more noble or sincere than the next person--whether it is through political correctness, racism, anti-Semitism, religious fanaticism, utopianism, or even restrictive sexual morality, they sow seeds of evil. There is no question that "purity" in this sense is the archfiend that stalks Roth's moral world.

Roth is a terrific stylist. His language is complex, expansive, mellifluous, literate, and remarkably impure. As is the case with Saul Bellow, Roth's sentences are a world of their own, a joy to read. However, despite the wit and beauty of his writing, I often find Roth's novels difficult to take. While Roth might consider fanaticism the root of evil, his persona (in the voice of Zuckerman or otherwise) is anything but moderate.

Sometimes his voice is fanatical; e.g. Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath's Theater (1995), who incessantly declaims the primacy of sexual experimentation over all other forms of experience or value in life. Roth's "in your faceness," while bracing in moderate doses, can become overweening. However, I didn't have that feeling in reading The Human Stain. In this and the other novels of his trilogy, Roth has his style-to-story ratio under control. In fact, they may be his finest works.

Editor's note (12/4/08): an interesting article about this novel appeared in Publications of The Modern Language Association, vol. 123/5, pp. 1465-1478 (October, 2008):  "The Jew in the Canon: Reading Race and Literary History in Philip Roth's The Human Stain," by Jennifer Glaser.  She discusses Roth's "vision . . . of a new kind of multicultural literature, a literature situated at the intersection of races rather than in a system of racial binaries" (1476).


Vintage International

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New York



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