It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.
Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."
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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 19, 1933
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Education:B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
Read an Excerpt
It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silkwho, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of facultyconfided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.
Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his maila thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.
The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detailevery last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn't had a season like it since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorismwhich had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's securitywas succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.
In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again.
No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you don't know what sanctimony is. The syndicated conservative newspaper columnist William F. Buckley wrote, "When Abelard did it, it was possible to prevent its happening again," insinuating that the president's malfeasancewhat Buckley elsewhere called Clinton's "incontinent carnality"might best be remedied with nothing so bloodless as impeachment but, rather, by the twelfth-century punishment meted out to Canon Abelard by the knife-wielding associates of Abelard's ecclesiastical colleague, Canon Fulbert, for Abelard's secret seduction of and marriage to Fulbert's niece, the virgin Heloise. Unlike Khomeini's fatwa condemning to death Salman Rushdie, Buckley's wistful longing for the corrective retribution of castration carried with it no financial incentive for any prospective perpetrator. It was prompted by a spirit no less exacting than the ayatollah's, however, and in behalf of no less exalted ideals.
It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so crazy?" when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer whenfor the billionth timethe jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one's ideology and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.
Sometimes on a Saturday, Coleman Silk would give me a ring and invite me to drive over from my side of the mountain after dinner to listen to music, or to play, for a penny a point, a little gin rummy, or to sit in his living room for a couple of hours and sip some cognac and help him get through what was always for him the worst night of the week. By the summer of 1998, he had been alone up herealone in the large old white clapboard house where he'd raised four children with his wife, Irisfor close to two years, ever since Iris suffered a stroke and died overnight while he was in the midst of battling with the college over a charge of racism brought against him by two students in one of his classes.
Coleman had by then been at Athena almost all his academic life, an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek (as witness the Conversational Greek and Latin Club that he started, heretically, as a young instructor). His venerable survey course in ancient Greek literature in translationknown as GHM, for Gods, Heroes, and Mythwas popular with students precisely because of everything direct, frank, and unacademically forceful in his comportment. "You know how European literature begins?" he'd ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. "With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight." And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. "'Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.' And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It's as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war. Mia kouri-that is how she is described in the poem. Mia, as in modern Greek, is the indefinite article 'a'; kouri, or girl, evolves in modern Greek into kori, meaning daughter. Now, Agamemnon much prefers this girl to his wife, Clytemnestra. 'Clytemnestra is not as good as she is,' he says, 'neither in face nor in figure.'
That puts directly enough, does it not, why he doesn't want to give her up? When Achilles demands that Agamemnon return the girl to her father in order to assuage Apollo, the god who is murderously angry about the circumstances surrounding her abduction, Agamemnon refuses: he'll agree only if Achilles gives him his girl in exchange. Thus reigniting Achilles. Adrenal Achilles: the most highly flammable of explosive wildmen any writer has ever enjoyed portraying; especially where his prestige and his appetite are concerned, the most hypersensitive killing machine in the history of warfare. Celebrated Achilles: alienated and estranged by a slight to his honor. Great heroic Achilles, who, through the strength of his rage at an insultthe insult of not getting the girlisolates himself, positions himself defiantly outside the very society whose glorious protector he is and whose need of him is enormous.
A quarrel, then, a brutal quarrel over a young girl and her young body and the delights of sexual rapacity: there, for better or worse, in this offense against the phallic entitlement, the phallic dignity, of a powerhouse of a warrior prince, is how the great imaginative literature of Europe begins, and that is why, close to three thousand years later, we are going to begin there today."
Coleman was one of a handful of Jews on the Athena faculty when he was hired and perhaps among the first of the Jews permitted to teach in a classics department anywhere in America; a few years earlier, Athena's solitary Jew had been E. I. Lonoff, the all-but-forgotten short story writer whom, back when I was myself a newly published apprentice in trouble and eagerly seeking the validation of a master, I had once paid a memorable visit to here. Through the eighties and into the nineties, Coleman was also the first and only Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty; then, in 1995, after retiring as dean in order to round out his career back in the classroom, he resumed teaching two of his courses under the aegis of the combined languages and literature program that had absorbed the Classics Department and that was run by Professor Delphine Roux. As dean, and with the full support of an ambitious new president, Coleman had taken an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college and, not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a gentlemen's farm by aggressively encouraging the deadwood among the faculty's old guard to seek early retirement, recruiting ambitious young assistant professors, and revolutionizing the curriculum. It's almost a certainty that had he retired, without incident, in his own good time, there would have been the festschrift, there would have been the institution of the Coleman Silk Lecture Series, there would have been a classical studies chair established in his name, and perhapsgiven his importance to the twentieth-century revitalization of the placethe humanities building or even North Hall, the college's landmark, would have been renamed in his honor after his death. In the small academic world where he had lived the bulk of his life, he would have long ceased to be resented or controversial or even feared, and, instead, officially glorified forever.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. We hope they will provide you with fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a novel that has been called "one of the most provocative explorations of race and rage in American literature." —The Christian Science Monitor
1. Why does Roth begin the novel by establishing the parallel story of the public scandal over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinskya scandal that "revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony" [p. 2]? How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this context extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late twentieth-century American culture?
2. Coleman Silk's downfall is caused, ostensibly, by the spurious charge of racism that results from his question about two absent black students. But as we learn more of Silk's pasta past of which his colleagues at Athena have no knowledgehis disgrace takes on different meanings. What ironies are involved in Silk being charged with racism when he himself is black? By denying his own racial identity has he turned it into a kind of ghost? Is Coleman in any way responsible for his own destruction?
3. Delphine Roux appears to act on behalf of the aggrieved students, but what other motives does she have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between her public position and her emotional struggles?
4. Why do Silk's colleagues fail to defend him? Why would highly educated academicspeople trained to weigh evidence carefully and to be aware of the complex subtleties of any object of studyso readily believe the absurd stories concocted to disgrace Coleman Silk? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as "a hotbed of ignorance" [p. 328]?
5. Coleman and Faunia are an unlikely couplea seventy-one-year-old classics professor and a thirty-four-year-old janitor. What draws them together? What do they offer each other? How is their relationshipthe relationship about which "everyone knows"[as Delphine Roux claims in her anonymous letter]different from what others imagine it to be? Why is Coleman able to reveal his secret to her?
6. Throughout the novel, characters are portrayed as caricatures through a set of preexisting and cliched storiesColeman is the racist professor and lecherous old man who takes advantage of a woman half his age; Faunia Farley is the nafive and helpless victim; Les Farley is the crazed, abusive husband. How does the real story of each of these characters defy or complicate these simplifications?
7. In what ways are each of the major characters in the novelColeman, Faunia, and Lescontrolled by the past?
8. After the funeral, when Ernestine reveals that Coleman was black, Nathan reflects, "I couldn't imagine anything that could have made Coleman more of a mystery to me than this unmasking. Now that I knew everything, it was as though I knew nothing" [p. 333]. What is Roth saying about the limits of our ability really to know one another? At what other points in the novel does this problem arise?
9. Late in the novel, Nathan discovers that Faunia had kept a diary and that "the illiteracy had been an act, something she decided her situation demanded" [p. 297]. Why did Faunia feign illiteracy? Was there any reason why she chose this flaw in lieu of others? What are the implications of her secret?
10. In the overheard conversation that begins Chapter 3, one of the characters complains of his students, "They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and endevery experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious, must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman clichZ?. Any kid who says 'closure' I flunk. They want closure, there's their closure" [p. 147]. In what ways does The Human Stain resist this "conventionalizing" need for closure? How does it alter the classical unities of beginning, middle, and end?
11. The Vietnam vet Les Farley is a menacing, violently angry character, whose stream-of-consciousness rants reflect some of the most powerful writing in the book. What kind of mental and emotional damage has the war done to him? How has it changed who he is? What are the implications of Les's being the instrument of Coleman's destruction?
12. After an argument with Coleman, Faunia drives to the Audubon Society to visit Prince, a crow who was raised by people and achieved notoriety for acting like a "big shot" and stealing girls' barrettes. When Faunia learns that Prince has ripped down the newspaper clippings about him, she says, "He didn't want anybody to know his background! Ashamed of his own background! Prince! . . . Oh, you good boy. You're a good crow" [p. 240]. And when she's told that Prince can't live among other crows, she says, "That's what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The Human Stain" [p. 242]. In what ways can this episode be read as a parable of Coleman Silk's own experience? How does this passage help to explain the novel's title?
13. Nathan interprets Coleman's choosing to reject his past and create a new identity for himself as "the drama that underlies America's story, the high drama that is upping and leavingand the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands," whereas Walter thinks of his brother as a "calculating liar," a "heartless son," and a "traitor to his race" [p. 342]. Which of these views seems closer to the truth? Are they both legitimate? What is Ernestine's position?
14. Coleman Silk is a professor of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and the novel abounds in classical references. The college is named Athena, Coleman thinks Viagra should be called Zeus, the author of the anonymous e-mail message that slanders Coleman calls herself Clytemnestra, the three young professors whom Coleman overhears commenting on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal are referred to as a chorus, and so on. What do these allusions add to the novel? How are elements of Greek tragedy such as hubris, the hero's fall, retribution, and ritual cleansing relevant to the action of the novel?
15. The Human Stain ends with Zuckerman finding Les Farley ice fishing in the middle of a secluded lake. Les says, "And now you know my secret spot. . . . You know everything. . . . But you won't tell nobody, will you? It's nice to have a secret spot. You don't tell anybody about 'em. You learn not to say anything" [p. 361]. In what sense is the entire novel about revealing and concealing secrets?
16. The Human Stain is a novel of sweeping ambition that tells the stories not just of individual lives but of the moral ethos of America at the end of the twentieth century. How would that ethos be described? What does the novel reveal about the complexity of issues such as race, sex, identity, and privacy?