Philip Roth, photographed in 2008. (Richard Drew )
This post has been corrected. See the note below.
Other than the phrase “posted by Philip Roth” (Really? Roth a blogger?), there’s nothing particularly astonishing about the author’s open letter to Wikipedia, which ran on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog Friday afternoon.
Roth, after all, has long been a tender of his reputation, a writer aware of -- even obsessed by -- posterity. Just think about the seven volumes (and growing) of his collected works published by the Library of America.
Or the news, earlier last week, that he had agreed to cooperate on a biography with Pulitzer finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award winner Blake Bailey, perhaps the preeminent literary biographer of his generation. Bailey’s previous subjects have been Richard Yates and John Cheever, which indicates something of the company in which Roth sees himself.
In that regard, it only makes sense that Roth would complain about what he considers “a serious misstatement” on Wikipedia about his 2000 novel “The Human Stain.” As he writes: “My novel … was described in the entry as ‘allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.’ … This alleged allegation is in no way substantiated by fact.”
The source of the confusion? Both Broyard (the author and New York Times book critic who died of cancer in 1990) and “The Human Stain's” protagonist, a professor named Coleman Silk, were light-skinned black men who, in the racist atmosphere of the 1940s and 1950s, decided to pass as white. Roth, who was rebuffed when he first brought his complaint to Wikipedia’s attention, uses his “Open Letter” to vigorously disavow any connection between the two.
And yet, for all that this appears to be another case of Roth guarding his legacy, it has provoked some interesting fallout.
First, Wikipedia has updated its entry on “The Human Stain” to reflect Roth’s concerns, while also noting that “critics, such as Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, Lorrie Moore, Charles Taylor, Touré, and Brent Staples” have made similar comparisons. That’s the beauty of the digital age, its endless flexibility and fluidity, a self-corrective sensibility I love.
But more to the point, Roth’s letter returns our attention (for a moment, anyway) to Broyard, who was an elegant and insightful critic, author of a memoir of postwar Greenwich Village, “Kafka Was the Rage,” and the heartbreaking “Intoxicated by My Illness,” in which he traces, without pity, his inexorable passage toward death.
In his post, Roth mentions “two excellent short stories” that Broyard published in the 1950s: “What the Cystoscope Said” and the understated “Sunday Dinner in Brooklyn,” which traces the unbridgeable distance between a bohemian son and his middle-class parents, in a borough where “everyone ate dinner at the same time.”
Over the weekend, I reread that story (reprinted in the 1990s in Andrea Wyatt Sexton and Alice Leccese Powers’ excellent anthology “The Brooklyn Reader”) and I remain struck by its attention to detail, the measured way it traces the inner life of a narrator, who, as Roth observes, never gives us any reason to believe that he and his family were not “a hundred per cent white.”
This, of course, is tragic, and it probably has a lot to do with why Broyard never finished the novel from which the story was drawn. Still, Roth suggests, there is something to be learned here, about (if nothing else) how fiction works.
“I had no idea,” he writes, “what it was like for Anatole Broyard to flee from his blackness because I knew nothing about Anatole Broyard’s blackness, or, for that matter, his whiteness. But I knew everything about Coleman Silk because I had invented him from scratch.”
The point, in other words, is that “[n]ovel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend” -- a faith, I think it’s fair to say, both Roth and Broyard share.
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[Updated, 3:33 p.m., Sept. 14: Roth did not orchestrate the Library of America's publication of his collected works. Initially this post said he has orchestrated the series.]