Black Philip Roth

March 28, 2014

Not biologically black, of course (though what an “African-American biology” might mean is not entirely clear either).

Still, Philip Roth might be said to be partly black — through mediation, association, and, perhaps most of all, contention — in at least one novel.   Coleman Silk, the professor who passes as white in The Human Stain — is assumed by everyone to be inspired by Anatole Broyard, literary figure and frequent New York Times contributor, whose racial identity became public knowledge after his death.  Wikipedia proceeded on that assumption.   Philip Roth, chagrined, posted an open letter on the New Yorker blog stating, in no uncertain terms, that Coleman Silk was based, not on Broyard, but on his friend Mel Tumin.

Bliss Broyard, chagrined in her turn, argued on Facebook that there was no way her father’s two memoirs, and especially Henry Louis Gates’ long and much-discussed piece about him in the New Yorker, would have gone by unnoticed by Roth, leaving no traces in his mind.

Maybe that’s how we should think about this: Mel Tumin as a “strong” template for Coleman Silk in Roth’s mind, and Anatole Broyard as a weak, perhaps unconscious, but nonetheless not-absent template.

Strong and weak, present and not-absent: it’s not a bad way to think about the phenomenal field of race, especially when channeled through things like the New Yorker, Wikipedia, and Facebook, media that disseminate, accentuate, and dilute.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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