In 1997, Philip Roth published “American Pastoral,” the first in his America trilogy, which examined the evolving socio-cultural-political landscape of the United States in the half-century following World War II. Next came “I Married a Communist” and then “The Human Stain” in 2000, ending the trilogy on an anguished and impassioned high note.
Narrated by Roth’s long-term literary alter ego, writer Nathan Zuckerman, the book begins in the summer of 1998 with the country disgusted yet morbidly obsessed with the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. The author’s contempt for the degradation of human privacy and the sensationalistic way the affair was treated by the media, politicians and public alike is palpable in the opening pages, in which Zuckerman fulminates against “the ecstasy of sanctimony” and expresses his fervent wish to hang a banner across the White House reading, “A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.”
But Clinton is not the only one under assault that summer. Coleman Silk, an aging classics professor at a small New England college, is facing accusations of using a racial slur in the classroom. A dynamic and gifted department head who helped revitalize the college by instituting worthy but difficult reforms, he’s stepped on more than a few academic toes, and the chance to humiliate him is one few faculty members can resist, even on the thinnest and most politically correct of allegations. All the while, Silk holds onto a long-kept secret which, if revealed, would exonerate him. But, for reasons simultaneously heroic and tragic, his personal integrity and identity are more important than his public reputation.
After leaving the college, Silk embarks on an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate janitor half his age – a relationship which, in the eyes of the academic community, seems to confirm the worst about Silk. But, as eventually becomes both poignantly and ironically clear, outside eyes rarely understand what truly goes on behind closed doors.
And what, exactly, is the human stain of the title? As befitting the book’s richness and complexity, its meanings are multiple. On the surface level, it refers to the traces of Clinton’s semen on Monica Lewinsky’s dress, the “stain” that would lead to his impeachment. On a deeper level, it is about the human obsession with skin pigmentation and its tragic legacy of racism, alienation and forced deception. Finally, it is an allusion to a secular form of original sin, in which people of all walks of life are woefully capable of hypocrisy, pettiness and violence, whether in the political realm or the personal.
“The Human Stain” is a work of both of rage and pitch-black humor, of wisdom, eroticism, score settling, and, ultimately, deep humanity and sensitivity. The book can be appreciated either as the conclusion of a trilogy or as a stand-alone work. Either way, the prose cuts hard and deep in its exploration of the secrets we hold in our hearts, the lies we tell others, and the freedom to define one’s life, regardless of the price it eventually exacts.
Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily columnist.