Hide this

Results from Google Books

Click on a thumbnail to go to Google Books.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

The Human Stain (2000)

by Philip Roth

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The American Trilogy (3), Zuckerman Bound (8)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4,74667987 (3.85)183

Sign up for LibraryThing to find out whether you'll like this book.

No current Talk conversations about this book.

» See also 183 mentions

English (58)  Spanish (4)  Dutch (2)  French (1)  Italian (1)  German (1)  All languages (67)
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Coleman Silk has had a stellar career as a classics professor and dean of faculty at a small New England college. He was, we're told, "one of a handful of Jews on the…faculty when he was hired and perhaps among the first Jews to be permitted to teach in a classics department anywhere in America." He grew up in the 1930s in East Orange, NJ, neighboring Newark. In high school, he excelled academically and was a standout boxer. After a stint in the navy, he moved to NYC's Greenwich Village, attended NYU, met and married a Jewish girl named Iris Gittelman. They had four children.

As Philip Roth's novel begins, Coleman Silk has stepped down as dean to return to the classroom. About five weeks into the semester, he notes that two students have never appeared, never attended a single session. He doesn't know who they are; he's never laid eyes on them. He asks those in the room: "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?" So of course these people exist and they are…blacks. Called into the dean's office--his old office—and told a complaint charging racism has been lodged, Silk is stunned, then enraged. He tells the dean:

"I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of work. What's galling is that the charge is not just false—it is spectacularly false."

It doesn't end there though. The dean sets up a formal hearing. Faculty members begin tiptoing around, most aligning themselves against their demanding, autocratic former dean. Silk abruptly resigns. Iris—Mrs. Silk—abruptly has a stroke and dies. He seeks out a writer, Nathan Zuckerman, that he knows lives in the area.

Coleman was at the side of my house, {Zuckerman says,} banging on the door and asking to be let in. Though he had something urgent to ask, he couldn't stay seated for more than thirty seconds to clarify what it was...I had to write something for him—he all but ordered me to…I had to write about this "absurdity," that "absurdity"—I, who then knew nothing about his woes at the college and could not even begin to follow the chronology of the horror that, for five months now, had engulfed him and the late Iris Silk: the punishing immersion in meetings, hearings, and interviews, the documents and letters submitted to college officials, to faculty committees, to a pro bono black lawyer representing the two students . . . the charges, denials, and countercharges, the obtuseness, ignorance, and cynicism, the gross and deliberate misinterpretations, the laborious, repetitious explanations, the prosecutorial questions—and always, perpetually, the pervasive sense of unreality. "Her murder!" Coleman cried, leaning across my desk and hammering on it with his fist. "These people murdered Iris!"

Zuckerman turns him down, but the two men stay in touch. And Silk begins writing the book himself, planning to title it Spooks. Ultimately, Zuckerman does write Coleman's book, and it is the one we are reading.

A couple of years pass, during which Silk takes up with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age who's a janitor at the college and, on weekends, at the post office, who lives at a farm in exchange for milking cows, who claims to be a victim of childhood molestation by her stepfather, who purports to be illiterate, who was married to a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet who stalks her because he believes her responsible for the deaths of their two children in a housefire. Yoiks! One night, this former husband, Les Farley, barges into Silk's house to threaten both him and Faunia. So Coleman turns to Atty. Nelson Primus for advice, which advice (and more particularly the way in which it is delivered) so enrages him that he tells the lawyer, "I never again want to hear that self-admiring voice of yours or see your smug fucking lily-white face."

Primus is mystified. "Why 'lily-white'?" he wonders.

Cut—three pages later—to 1943 in East Orange, NJ. Ernestine Silk is recounting for her brother Coleman an overheard conversation between their parents and Dr. Fensterman, a Jew and a prominent surgeon. He offers the Silks $5,000 if his son Bertram is helped to become valedictorian of the East Orange High School Class of 1944. The help needed? Coleman, who is first in the class, must boot a course to allow Bertram, now second in the class, to slip past him into first. Bert needs to be the best of the best to beat the tight quotas designed to keep Jews out of the top medical schools. The irony? The Silks are Negroes, victims of even greater discrimination in all things than Jews.

And so, on page 86, we're told what Coleman's secret is; but that's far from the totality of it. As the story unfolds, we learn how Coleman learns just how easy it is for him to pass for white, thanks to a tryout his boxing coach, a Jewish dentist in East Orange known as Doc Chizner, arranges with the Pitt boxing coach.

Doc was sure that, what with Coleman's grades, the coach could get him a four-year scholarship to Pitt, a bigger scholarship than he could ever get for track, and all he'd have to do was box for the Pitt team.
Now, it wasn't that on the way up Doc told him to tell the Pitt coach that he was white. He just told Coleman not to mention that he was colored.

"If nothing comes up," Doc said, "you don't bring it up. You're neither one thing or the other. You're Silky Silk. That's enough. That's the deal." Doc's favorite expression: that's the deal. Some¬thing else Coleman's father would not allow him to repeat in the house.

"He won't know?" Coleman asked.

"How? How will he know? How the hell is he going to know? Here is the top kid from East Orange High, and he is with Doc Chizner. You know what he's going to think, if he thinks anything?"


"You look like you look, you're with me, and so he's going to think that you're one of Doc's boys. He's going to think that you're Jewish."

Coleman Silk passes for white. He does it with Iris, with his children, with his academic colleagues, with everybody. To do it, he makes calculated choices. Iris suits him because of her hair, "that sinuous thicket of hair that was far more Negroid" than his own. He totally abandons his birth family, depriving his mother of her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. He never tells his daughter, who just may have to explain to a future white husband how it is their newborn child is black.

[The Human Stain] is full of wrinkles, all sorts that you might not imagine as you contemplate the ins and outs of a Negro passing for white. Once you make the choice, and the ancillary hard choices that follow—lying to your spouse throughout a close and intimate marriage, cutting yourself from your parents and siblings (and them from you), contriving and maintaining a false family history—you can't go back.

Philip Roth is a favorite author. [The Human Stain] is one of his best books, in my opinion. I give it two thumbs up.
1 vote weird_O | Nov 4, 2015 |
FORMAT:☊ - audio, narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris (did a good job)

This was a book that was so much on so many levels that I know my review will be inadequate. So I will start with what it is; this is the story of a man who loses his job at a college where he has been the dean because he used a word that had been a racial slurr at one time and because it was taken out of context. It is set in 1998 during the Clinton administration and the Monica Lewinsky situation. It is set in rural New England and is in the first person narrative of 65 y/o Nathan Zuckerman who appears in a couple other Roth novels American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist and make up a loose trilogy with this book. The narrator is observing the protagonist Coleman Silk, the retired professor of classics. The professor retired after being accused of racism by two African American students. This novel was inspired by an event that happened to a friend of the authors, Melvin Tumin, who had become a subject of a "witch hunt" but was found innocent of using racial language. The author explores American morality and the effects. He examines the cut throat and petty atmosphere of American academia "political correctness". The trilogy covers the 20th century--The McCarthy years, the Vietnam War and Pressident Bill Clinton impreachement which the author feels are historical moments of post war American Life that has had impact. The novel shows how the public zeitgeist can shape and even destroy an individual life. This book represents many themes that resonated with me but I still did not appreciate the amount and kind of swearing and some subject matter (though relevant to the book), it stil is a book that I will give a high rating too and one that I am glad I read. The book was a national bestseller and won numerous awards. It was adapted a film in 2003.

OPENING LINE: It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk - who, 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 faculty - confided in 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.

And by the way Fergus Falls, Minnesota has several mentions in this book set in the Berkshires. ( )
  Kristelh | Sep 5, 2015 |
  OberlinSWAP | Jul 20, 2015 |
The Human Stain by Phillip Roth; (4*)

With the story of Coleman Silk and the notations of the misadventures of Bill Clinton, Roth succeeds in showing us the irony of political correctness, relationships, and the impulsiveness of life. The characters in this novel are multidimensional and complex. Roth's ear for dialogue and insightful descriptions make them whole. His diction and accounts complete the world of Athens and East Orange perfectly by capturing nuances and details.
The book kept me engaged.
  rainpebble | Jun 27, 2015 |
I am surprised that it took me this long to get around to reading this. Amazing. Such a deep understanding of many extremely different personalities and viewpoints. Each and every character is perfectly exposed with no bias. Genius. ( )
  shesinplainview | Apr 11, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
no reviews | add a review

» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Philip Rothprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mantovani, VincenzoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
You must log in to edit Common Knowledge data.
For more help see the Common Knowledge help page.
Series (with order)
Canonical title
Original title
Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
Alternative titles
Original publication date
Important places
Important events
Related movies
Awards and honors
What is the rite
or purification? How shall it be done?

By banishing a man, or expiation
of blood by blood . . .

--Sophocles, Oedipus the King
For R.M.
First words
It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk - who, 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 faculty - confided in 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.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
Publisher's editors
Publisher series
Original language

References to this work on external resources.

Wikipedia in English (1)

Book description
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0375726349, Paperback)

Athena College was snoozing complacently in the Berkshires until Coleman Silk--formerly "Silky Silk," undefeated welterweight pro boxer--strode in and shook the place awake. This faculty dean sacked the deadwood, made lots of hot new hires, including Yale-spawned literary-theory wunderkind Delphine Roux, and pissed off so many people for so many decades that now, in 1998, they've all turned on him. Silk's character assassination is partly owing to what the novel's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, calls "the Devil of the Little Place--the gossip, the jealousy, the acrimony, the boredom, the lies."

But shocking, intensely dramatized events precipitate Silk's crisis. He remarks of two students who never showed up for class, "Do they exist or are they spooks?" They turn out to be black, and lodge a bogus charge of racism exploited by his enemies. Then, at 71, Viagra catapults Silk into "the perpetual state of emergency that is sexual intoxication," and he ignites an affair with an illiterate janitor, Faunia Farley, 34. She's got a sharp sensibility, "the laugh of a barmaid who keeps a baseball bat at her feet in case of trouble," and a melancholy voluptuousness. "I'm back in the tornado," Silk exults. His campus persecutors burn him for it--and his main betrayer is Delphine Roux.

In a short space, it's tough to convey the gale-force quality of Silk's rants, or the odd effect of Zuckerman's narration, alternately retrospective and torrentially in the moment. The flashbacks to Silk's youth in New Jersey are just as important as his turbulent forced retirement, because it turns out that for his entire adult life, Silk has been covering up the fact that he is a black man. (If this seems implausible, consider that the famous New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard did the same thing.) Young Silk rejects both the racism that bars him from Woolworth's counter and the Negro solidarity of Howard University. "Neither the they of Woolworth's nor the we of Howard" is for Coleman Silk. "Instead the raw I with all its agility. Self-discovery--that was the punch to the labonz.... Self-knowledge but concealed. What is as powerful as that?"

Silk's contradictions power a great Philip Roth novel, but he's not the only character who packs a punch. Faunia, brutally abused by her Vietnam vet husband (a sketchy guy who seems to have wandered in from a lesser Russell Banks novel), scarred by the death of her kids, is one of Roth's best female characters ever. The self-serving Delphine Roux is intriguingly (and convincingly) nutty, and any number of minor characters pop in, mouth off, kick ass, and vanish, leaving a vivid sense of human passion and perversity behind. You might call it a stain. --Tim Appelo

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:32 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Coleman Silk is a respected professor at a New England college who suddenly finds his life unraveling after a comment he makes about some African-American students is misinterpreted as a racial slur. As the scandal heats up, Nathan Zuckerman, a writer researching a biography of Silk, begins to dig deeply into Silk's life. Eventually, matters are made worse when Coleman's affair with a young married janitor named Faunia Farley is exposed. But amid the controversy, Silk must struggle to keep his greatest secret, a secret he's held for the majority of his life, from becoming made public.… (more)

» see all 4 descriptions

Quick Links

Swap Ebooks Audio
16 avail.
129 wanted
7 pay8 pay

Popular covers


Average: (3.85)
1 16
1.5 9
2 64
2.5 10
3 235
3.5 67
4 409
4.5 60
5 278


3 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

See editions

Is this you?

Become a LibraryThing Author.


Help/FAQs | About | Privacy/Terms | Blog | Store | Contact | LibraryThing.com | APIs | WikiThing | Common Knowledge | Legacy Libraries | Early Reviewers | 100,871,800 books! | Top bar: Always visible