Philip Roth’s Open Letter To Wikipedia

I ran across this situation before, Wikipedia’s arrogance and stupidity. You almost expect Wikipedia to say, like generations of bureaucrats “I would like to believe you, but it is worth more than my job’s worth”.

Still, Philip Roth is in a league of his own and says it better:

“Dear Wikipedia,

I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all.

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

Thus was created the occasion for this open letter. After failing to get a change made through the usual channels, I don’t know how else to proceed.

My novel “The Human Stain” was described in the entry as “allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.” (The precise language has since been altered by Wikipedia’s collaborative editing, but this falsity still stands.)

This alleged allegation is in no way substantiated by fact. “The Human Stain” was inspired, rather, by an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin, professor of sociology at Princeton for some thirty years. One day in the fall of 1985, while Mel, who was meticulous in all things large and small, was meticulously taking the roll in a sociology class, he noted that two of his students had as yet not attended a single class session or attempted to meet with him to explain their failure to appear, though it was by then the middle of the semester.

Having finished taking the roll, Mel queried the class about these two students whom he had never met. “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”—unfortunately, the very words that Coleman Silk, the protagonist of “The Human Stain,” asks of his classics class at Athena College in Massachusetts.

Almost immediately Mel was summoned by university authorities to justify his use of the word “spooks,” since the two missing students, as it happened, were both African-American, and “spooks” at one time in America was a pejorative designation for blacks, spoken venom milder than “nigger” but intentionally degrading nonetheless. A witch hunt ensued during the following months from which Professor Tumin—rather like Professor Silk in “The Human Stain”—emerged blameless but only after he had to provide a number of lengthy depositions declaring himself innocent of the charge of hate speech.

A myriad of ironies, comical and grave, abounded, as Mel had first come to nationwide prominence among sociologists, urban organizers, civil-rights activists, and liberal politicians with the 1959 publication of his groundbreaking sociological study “Desegregation: Resistance and Readiness,” and then, in 1967, with “Social Stratification: The Forms and Functions of Inequality,” which soon became a standard sociological text. Moreover, before coming to Princeton, he had been director of the Mayor’s Commission on Race Relations, in Detroit. Upon his death, in 1995, the headline above his New York Times obituary read “MELVIN M. TUMIN, 75, SPECIALIST IN RACE RELATIONS.”

But none of these credentials counted for much when the powers of the moment sought to take down Professor Tumin from his high academic post for no reason at all, much as Professor Silk is taken down in “The Human Stain.”

And it is this that inspired me to write “The Human Stain”: not something that may or may not have happened in the Manhattan life of the cosmopolitan literary figure Anatole Broyard but what actually did happen in the life of Professor Melvin Tumin, sixty miles south of Manhattan in the college town of Princeton, New Jersey, where I had met Mel, his wife, Sylvia, and his two sons when I was Princeton’s writer-in-residence in the early nineteen-sixties.

Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend. Like most every other novelist I know, once I had what Henry James called “the germ”—in this case, Mel Tumin’s story of muddleheadedness at Princeton—I proceeded to pretend and to invent Faunia Farley; Les Farley; Coleman Silk; Coleman’s family background; the girlfriends of his youth; his brief professional career as a boxer; the college where he rises to be a dean; his colleagues both hostile and sympathetic; his field of study; his bedeviled wife; his children both hostile and sympathetic; his schoolteacher sister, Ernestine, who is his strongest judge at the conclusion of the book; his angry, disapproving brother; and five thousand more of those biographical bits and pieces that taken together form the fictional character at the center of a novel.

Sincerely,

Philip Roth “

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