The Human Stain

By Philip Roth

American writers have a thing for trying to express the spirit of the age in fiction. The first three decades of the century were anatomized in the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos. John Updike took Rabbit Angstrom through four books looking at four decades of American life, starting with the 1950s. More recently, Tom Wolfe has been credited with writing the great satire of the ’80s in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but was less successful when he tried to do the same for the ’90s with A Man in Full.

In his now complete Zuckerman trilogy, Philip Roth has taken the role of chronicler to another level. In the previous two novels, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, he examined the relationship between public and private American life in the 50s and 60s. In his latest, The Human Stain, he brings us up to date with a hard look at the moral and political environment of the 1990s.

In the ’90s America sat back and enjoyed a prosperity free of social upheaval. There was no McCarthy witch-hunt, no Vietnam, no civil rights movement, no counter-culture, and no economic crisis. There was also, let it be put in the balance, very little art.

It wasn’t a great time for art. It was, instead, a time for entertainments and diversions. It was a time when the tabloid tale of the Clinton sex scandals (a news story that forms the historical background for The Human Stain) dominated the media for the better part of a year.

What Roth sees the impeachment proceedings paradoxically standing for is the “tyranny of propriety” in American life, a veneer of hypocrisy that makes it seem “as though not even the most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance.” For a writer who has always been frank about discussing sexual feelings and relationships, this new gentility – and it is everywhere – is scary stuff. For individuals trapped by its strictures it is devastating.

In its foreground The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman Silk, a distinguished Classics professor at a small New England college who resigns in disgrace after being unfairly targeted by the forces of political correctness for making an allegedly racist remark. He finds some solace in an affair with a cleaning woman half his age, but is still pursued by two furies: Delphine Roux, a bitter young academic with an axe to grind, and Les Farley, a dangerous Vietnam veteran who is also the ex-husband of his new lover.

As Roth’s other self and narrator Nate Zuckerman tries to make sense of Silk’s cleverly designed and disguised life we see it begin to take a familiarly tragic shape. All of the novels in the trilogy are stories of rise and fall, featuring larger-than-life characters whose moral suffering and destruction result not so much from any single flaw (as this book reminds us, a human stain is simply elemental to our nature), but rather from their being out of step with their time. It is the age that is out of joint. Coleman Silk, like Swede Levov and Ira Ringold, is a successful man blindsided and “ensnared by the history he hadn’t quite counted on.”

For Roth, however, the time is now. William Faulkner once remarked that every great writer has a period, “one matchless time,” where they get “hot”: “the speed, and the power and the talent, they’re all there.” Despite being one of America’s best-known authors for forty years, my guess is that the 90s will be remembered as Roth’s hottest decade, his major phase. Roth’s achievement over the last ten years is as impressive as Hemingway’s in the 20s or Faulkner’s in the 30s. It’s that important and that good.

Is The Human Stain his best work? No. Some of the supporting characters, especially Silk’s twin nemeses, are surprisingly two-dimensional. But in the end this is almost by the way. Put simply, Philip Roth is America’s best writer, and probably the only one capable of handling material with this kind of moral complexity and weight, not to mention narrative sophistication, with such a sure hand.

The best analogy for what Roth has accomplished is provided by his account of the playing of the last movement from Mahler’s Third Symphony. Zuckerman describes the movement unfolding with “that simplicity that is not artifice, that is not a strategy, that unfolds, it almost seems, with the accumulated pace of life and with all of life’s unwillingness to end.” It is this perfect natural craft, this “exquisite juxtaposition of grandeur and intimacy” that leaves the audience, like the reader, immobilized with a sense of empathy and self-recognition – an experience of tragedy that is more valuable than catharsis.

Review first published May 6, 2000.


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