Tonight we discussed Philip Roth’s masterful novel The Human Stain in my graduate class. I appreciate the book more each time that I read it (this was my third time). I love the language that Roth’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, uses to recreate the life of his friend, Coleman Silk, veering as it does from the lyrical to the crass (often within a single sentence), creating a heady mix of classical tragedy (Coleman was a professor of classics) and low comedy (it was the summer of 1998 when President Clinton’s sexual proclivities dominated the headlines).
The novel is set in Hawthorne country: it takes place in and around the fictional Athena College, nestled somehwere in the Berkshires. But the novel does a marvelous job of evoking a particular moment in the history of Greenwich Village — 1953 to be precise — when Coleman attends NYU on the GI bill:
He wanted to live in Greenwich Village far more than to go to NYU, wanted to be a poet or a playwright far more than to study for a degree, but the best way he could think to pursue his goals without having to get a job to support himself was by cashing in on the GI Bill. …
In those days in Greenwich Village there seemed to be no more engrossing off-hours entertainment for NYU’s ex-GIs than appraising the legs of the women who passed by the coffeehouses and cafes where they congregated to read the papers and play chess. Who knows why sociologically, but whatever the reason, it was the great American era of aphrodisiacal legs, and once or twice a day at least, Coleman followed a pair of them for block after block so as not to lose sight of the way they moved and how they were shaped and what they looked like at rest while the corner-light was changing from red to green. And when he gauged the moment was right — having followed behind long enough to become both verbally poised and insanely ravenous — and quickened his pace so as to catch up, when he spoke and ingratiated himself enough so as to be allowed to fall in step beside her and to ask her name and to make her laugh and to get her to accept a date, he was, whether she knew it or not, proposing the date to her legs.
Despite his literary aspirations, Coleman is no beatnik — in part “because he kept getting
co-opted because of his academic prowess” — but there is something of Jack Kerouac’s girl-chasing Dean Moriarty in Zuckerman’s description of Coleman as “ravenous,” I think.
What Coleman discovers in Greenwich Village is a space of transformation — in particular a space in which he can transform himself from a light-skinned African American into a white man. And, he discovers while he’s out with a girlfriend who also happens to be a light-skinned African American, he isn’t the only one doing it:
One evening she takes him around to a tiny Bleecker Street jewelry shop where the white guy who owns it makes beautiful things out of enamel. Just shopping the street, out looking, but when they leave she tells Coleman that the guy is black. “You’re wrong;’ Coleman tells her, “he can’t be.” “Don’t tell me that I’m wrong” — she laughs — “you’re blind.” Another night, near midnight, she takes him to a bar on Hudson Street where painters congregate to drink. “See that one? The smoothie?” she says in a soft voice, inclining her head toward a good-looking white guy in his mid-twenties cI1arming all the girls at the bar. “Him,” she says. “No,” says Coleman, who’s the one laughing now. “You’re in Greenwich Village, Coleman Silk, the four freest square miles in America. There’s one on every other block. You’re so vain, you thought you’d dreamed it up yourself.” And if she knows of three — which she does, positively — there are ten, if not more. “From all over everywhere,” she says, “they make straight for Eighth Street. Just like you did from little East Orange.”
Zuckerman emphasizes the contextual specificity of Coleman’s decision to pass: “The act was committed in 1953 by an audacious young man in Greenwich Village, by a specific person in a specific place at a specific time,” he tells us. Because it is 1953 and because he is at NYU, there is a particular kind of white man that Coleman is destined to become:
Coleman had been allowing that he was Jewish for several years now — or letting people think so if they chose to — since coming to realize that at NYU as in his cafe hangouts, many people he knew seemed to have been assuming he was a Jew all along. What he’d learned in the navy is that all you have to do is give a pretty good and consistent line about yourself and nobody ever inquires, because no one’s that interested. His NYU and Village acquaintances could as easily have surmised — as buddies of his had in the service — that he was of Middle Eastern descent, but as this was a moment when Jewish self-infatuation was at a postwar pinnacle among the Washington Square intellectual avant-garde, when the aggrandizing appetite driving their Jewish mental audacity was beginning to look to be uncontrollable and an aura of cultural significance emanated as much from their jokes and their family anecdotes, from their laughter and their clowning and their wisecracks and their arguments-even from their insults-as from Commentary, Midstream, and the Partisan Review, who was he not to go along for the ride …
There are, of course, costs. Zuckerman describes Coleman’s breaking the news to his mother as a symbolic act of murder: “Murdering her on behalf of his exhilarating notion of freedom! It would have been much easier without her. But only through this test can he be the man he has chosen to unalterably separated from what he was handed at birth, free to struggle at being free like any human being would wish to be free. To get that from life, the alternate destiny, on one’s own terms, he must do what must be done.” So Coleman leaves his mother, brother, and sister behind forever.
Zuckerman’s language here suggests a double crime — not only matricide but also hubris — and the Fates find a suitably ingenious way to engineer Coleman’s demise.
Roth’s novel brings together several different genres of U.S. literature: Hawthornian romance, the novel of passing (a la Chesnutt or Larsen), the Jewish American Bildungsroman, and the post-Vietnam novel of traumatic return (a la Tim O’Brien). With, as I’ve suggested above, an homage to the Beats.
Also highly recommended: Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity by our Columbia colleague Ross Posnock. The chapter on The Human Stain links the novel to two of our favorites here at P & W’s History of New York: Invisible Man and Moby-Dick.