May 11, 2000
In Philip Roth's new novel, "The Human Stain," a classics professor at a small New England college creates a fictional identity for himself. His name is Coleman Silk, and he lets colleagues and friends know that he is Jewish.
Since Silk is an academic, an intellectual, a former tough-minded dean of the college, no one questions his biographical credentials. What could be more natural? If he had been selected for a part in a film or a TV drama, the director might be accused of type-casting. Who better than a Jewish intellectual would we find inhabiting this role?
But, in fact, Coleman Silk is not Jewish, we discover soon enough in the novel. He is a light-skinned black man who passes for white. And he is singled out by an anti-Semitic colleague for making a remark in class that is mistaken for a slur directed against blacks. Silk, the self-invented character, a black man who is no longer black, is pilloried in part because he is a Jew. Who said that irony is not a way of life in America?When asked recently by Charles McGrath, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, where the idea (for passing or reinventing yourself) came from, Roth explained that when he was a graduate student at the U. of Chicago in the late 1950s he met a young black woman with whom he had a fling. She was "as we then said, a Negro - moreover a Negro from a professional family. ... Anyway, we began to go out, and I met the family, who were very pale Negroes, decidedly so on her mother's side. And I never forgot her mother saying that there were relatives of hers who'd been lost to all their people. That was the phrase she used - 'lost to all their people.' The girl explained to me later what her mother was talking about - that these relatives, who could physically pull it off, had given up identifying themselves as Negro, had moved away and had joined the white world, never to return."
More recently Roth had occasion to read about the reinvented self of the former New York Times literary critic, the late Anatole Broyard. He had been a writer and literary figure in New York City sometime in the late '40s. He was dashing, handsome, bohemian; and an intellectual of the first rank. He had great panache and was said to be one of the city's great seducers of young, innocent women.
Broyard looked and passed for white, although there were rumors that he had grown up in New Orleans and was an octoroon. In the sixties he became The NY Times' leading literary critic, just about when Roth's own career as a novelist was taking off.
Actually, as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in The New Yorker several years ago, Broyard's parents were black; as was his sister, who was then married and living in New York City with her husband, a black lawyer.
Broyard had denied them all. Only as he lay dying of cancer in his home in Cambridge, Mass. did he tell his children, then of college age, that he was a black man and that they had a black aunt in New York. Even then, it was his wife, a handsome fair woman of Scandinavian ancestry, who insisted that if he did not tell his children, she would.
As it happens, I know several men, actually boys with whom I went to school and knew quite well when we were teenagers, who took their own turn at reinvention.
They were Jewish, with few ties to Judaism and no connection to the history or culture of their people. They were bright and ambitious; being Jewish at that time seemed to them a formidable disadvantage, a way of being kept off of the playing field. As one of them told me years later, "It defined me as a victim, and I was unwilling to accept that."
Like Broyard, they reinvented themselves and turned their back on a past that appeared to offer them little. They changed their names, dropped their religious affiliation; and, in one case, became an active member - eventually the president - of a Unitarian congregation.
It was freeing, at first; but the secret, the earlier self, never did quite fade altogether. One of those friends - the one I thought stood the best chance of disappearing into his new self successfully - some thirty years later found himself with a wife who, ardently looking to Judaism, had embarked on a course of study to become a rabbi. She took their two daughters to Israel for a year of study, leaving him behind in New York. He was bewildered, convinced that some mythical Jewish prankster had kept him in sight all through his adult life.
Another had found himself sitting around a campfire with a group of friends one summer evening, reminiscing about the past, musing about the meaning of life, when suddenly, he told me, out jumped the phrase: "You know, I'm Jewish." .
He was a vice president in a major advertising agency not known especially for its openness to Jews; everyone thought he was a Christian Scientist. You know, he told me sometime later, it didn't make one jot of difference. But, boy I sure felt better. I didn't realize it before, but now I was reconnected to my life.The idea of reinvention, of shucking a past life and identity, possesses a certain American, romantic aura. Our novels are chock-full of such figures. There 's The Great Gatsby (and perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald himself) and Theodore Dreiser's sad, doomed Clyde Griffiths in "An American Tragedy" and, of course, Isabel Archer in Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady." The moral in all of these works of fiction appears to be that America may be the land of endless possibility, but inventing a new persona for yourself only leads to defeat, if not doom.
I think I prefer, however, the comment one of my old friends made two years ago. We were at a party together in New York, and he was approached by an endless stream of friends and well wishers. Not surprising, given that he had become an eminent jurist and a best-selling writer of non-fiction. Any regrets, Charlie (not his real name), someone asked him. He smiled. "Yes, just that dumb thing I did years ago when I changed my name."
He shook his head. He had been young and frightened and didn't know any better. "You see," he said, confident in his ability and his accomplishments, "I could have kept my own name. It wouldn't have made any difference at all."