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'It's hard to remember all these books!'


Melvin Tumin: the germ of The Human Stain
Philip Roth Writer
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The... the germ of The Human Stain was provided by... from the life of a very dear friend of mine now... now dead, a guy named Mel Truman [Melvin Tumin], who taught… a sociologist at Princeton. Mel's expertise was in segregation, he wrote the first sociological books on segregation in America back in, I think, in the '40s, and when I'd taught at Princeton we'd become good friends.

Near the end of Mel's life as a teacher, he had a class in which two of the students didn't show up, week after week. And he'd take the roll week after week, and they wouldn't be there, and finally in the sixth... sixth or seventh week he said to the class, 'Does anybody know these people, or are they spooks?' And it turned out that they were African American, these two kids, and they went to the Dean and said they'd been insulted by Professor Tumin, by his using a pejorative about Blacks — the word spooks. I wanted to use that story, but as I contemplated it I... I found that it was just another... it was a commonplace, in a way, of… there were people who'd had a lot of those kinds of experiences in colleges in those years.

And then it dawned on me that the guy should be Black, a pale-skinned Black, as we had many in America, many, many; miscegenation was the name of the game in 19th and 20th century – in 19th century America in particular, 18th century America. And so that clicked for me, and I thought of make him... make him this White Black, and then make it up…  so I began to make it... make it up, and that became The Human Stain... and... and the end of that little cycle of books, of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain.

The fame of the American writer Philip Roth (1933-2018) rested on the frank explorations of Jewish-American life he portrayed in his novels. There is a strong autobiographical element in much of what he wrote, alongside social commentary and political satire. Despite often polarising critics with his frequently explicit accounts of his male protagonists' sexual doings, Roth received a great many prestigious literary awards which include a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1997, and the 4th Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Princeton, America, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, Melvin Tumin

Duration: 2 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2011

Date story went live: 18 March 2013