Happy Birthday, Coleman Silk
Updated: May 21
Just a few days ago, November 12, would have been Coleman Silk’s 88th birthday, if Coleman Silk were a real person and still alive. But he was neither. He “died” on November 11, 1998, and he was the problematic hero of Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain. I am fascinated by Coleman, his story and its complex themes. (There was also a good film version of the novel made with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, which led me to the book.)
Coleman was a professor of classics at the imaginary Athena College in Western Massachusetts. For many years he was also the dean of faculty. During that time he cleared out the deadwood on the faculty, brought in fresh blood, made people compete for raises and perks and generally revitalized the college and the town it was located in. He was bold, purposeful, unafraid to make enemies and to all appearances a very rational man. When he retired as dean in his late sixties to spend the last years of his career teaching, he seemed to be a blessed man, with an audacious painter for a wife and four grown children.
This was in the 1990s when moral hysteria about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky dominated the headlines. Coleman ran afoul of a similar moral hysteria. When calling the roll for the fifth session of a class he noticed that there were two students who had never attended and whom he did not know. He asked the class, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”
Now, some of my readers may not be old enough to know that “spook” was once upon a time a derogatory slang word for black people, not as bad as the n-word, but still offensive. Unfortunately for Coleman the two MIA students were African American.
Après that, le déluge: an endless procession of meetings, accusations, desertions by faculty who felt slighted by his meritocratic actions as dean. Coleman refused to back down or apologize. There was nothing to apologize for, in his mind. His wife, Iris, who had not shared his bed in years, shared in his cause. Just when the furor was perhaps about to calm down, Iris had a stroke and died the next day.
Coleman resigned from the faculty after the funeral and went a little mad. He gathers up the documents from the racism case and storms over to the house of his neighbor Nathan Zuckerman, whom he barely knows. Zuckerman is a novelist, the narrator of this novel and a stand-in for Philip Roth. Coleman wants Zuckerman to tell the story of his unjust treatment and the “murder” of his wife. Zuckerman politely declines, but the two older men become friends.
Coleman determines to write the book himself and works obsessively at it. But one night he has Zuckerman over for their weekly game of gin rummy and forties music, and all the tension and madness is gone from Coleman. He has dropped the idea of writing the book. For the first time in their acquaintance, Coleman is happy. In a wonderful scene, he even gets Zuckerman to dance with him. What has changed? With the help of the new drug Viagra, Coleman has embarked on a love affair. Through his sexuality, Coleman’s life force, always formidable, has reasserted itself.
There is just one problem: He is 71 and a retired college professor and his lover is a 34-year-old illiterate cleaning lady and milk maid. She is the abused ex-wife of a crazy Vietnam vet (whom Roth humanizes rather than treating like a cliché) who blames her for the death of their two children. Apparently not a good match, yet it is. These are two people who have lost a lot and who find sanity in each other and redemption through sex. And their sex is not just animal coupling: They spend time together outside of bed–but the sex is the core of it.
Soon the voices of moral hysteria are raised again. A Yale-educated French female deconstructionist professor from the college sends him an anonymous letter. His daughter won’t talk to him. And then there’s the crazy ex-husband.
There’s a lot more to this novel I don’t want to reveal: Coleman has a big secret. It is a huge twist near the middle that colors the whole story. I am going to have a little trouble saying what I love about this novel while talking around the twist, but here goes:
As far as I have been able to tease out, the novel has four interlocking themes. First, is individualism. Coleman is very much a self-made man. He refuses to be part of his own group’s “we” or to be part of anyone else’s pre-packaged “them.” This theme is realized in many ways, including in the way Coleman keeps his own counsel (to put it mildly) and the way in which he does what he thinks best no matter what anyone, including his family and colleagues think of it. A lot of the novel is told in flashbacks (reconstructed by Zuckerman) and Coleman’s career as an amateur boxer gives us great insight into this aspect of his character.
The second theme is the unpredictability of fate. Some people at some times just get crapped on, benevolent universe or not. This theme is most realized in Coleman’s mistress and her ex-husband, but also in Coleman’s encounter with the forces of Political Correctness and in a youthful love affair that just can’t work out. Zuckerman references Sophocles at this point. Unsaid in the air is the famous quote from Oedipus the King, “Count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.”
For a time I worried that this tragic message was Roth’s last word on Coleman and on the universe, but it is not. It’s more complicated than that. What saves Coleman from his madness and his mistress from her loneliness is that life force of his. That life force is the third theme. Roth seems to be a bit sex-obsessed (One of his novels is called The Breast.), but he seems to allow that Coleman’s ambition to be an individual is just as valid an aspect of the life force as sex.
And what Roth, and therefore Zuckerman and also Coleman object to is misguided notions of purity, the kind that generate moral hysteria. The fact that life, at least any life worth leading, is messy, is the fourth theme of the novel and the one which gives rise to the title. But far from being an objection to life, that messiness can save a life.
I am not completely won over by Roth’s integration of his themes, but their interplay is fascinating, as is Coleman’s character, especially with that twist. I think that someone who takes a principled stance on life would do well to consider the life of Coleman Silk.
There’s another level to the novel that is interesting to ponder, but which is only implicit. Zuckerman in the end does write about Coleman, but not just about the “spooks” incident and the death of his wife. He writes about Coleman as a boy and a man. But he does so with only minimal input from Coleman. The rest he gets from other sources and from his imagination. Zuckerman is not an omniscient narrator but a reconstructer of a life. He fills in gaps based on his knowledge of Coleman’s character, but he often does not try to create dialogue or flesh out action. There is much more “telling” and much less “showing” than I would normally want from a novel, but it works for me because Roth is such a good storyteller.
Think about it: You’re an interesting person and there are a lot of interesting things about you including one or two big secrets. Now imagine you’re friends with a novelist who is so impressed with you that after you die he writes your life, without extensive help from stories you’ve told, a diary, letters, etc. How would that come out? Would it resemble you very much? It’s hard to believe that Zuckerman got all the details right–but what am I saying? There is no Coleman Silk apart form Zuckerman’s story, and there is no Zuckerman apart from Philip Roth. It is a testament to Roth’s talent that Coleman Silk (along with the other characters in the novel to a lesser extent) seems like an actual person, exquisite in his reality.
So Happy Birthday, Professor Silk. And Thank You, Philip Roth.
If you enjoyed this essay, you might also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs Reality in American Life.