Race Passing and American Individualism

By Kathleen Pfeiffer | Go to book overview

Epilogue: Passing in the Present

In the following passage from Philip Roth's recent novel The Human Stain, the passing protagonist, Coleman Silk, is memorialized by a black colleague:

Here, in the New England most identified, historically, with the American individualist's resistance to the coercions of a censorious community— Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau come to mind—an American individualist who did not think that the weightiest thing in life were the rules, an American individualist who refused to leave unexamined the orthodoxies of the customary and of the established truth, an American individualist who did not always live in compliance with majority standards of decorum and taste—an American individualist par excellence was once again so savagely traduced by friends and neighbors that he lived estranged from them until his death, robbed of his moral authority by their moral stupidity. (310–11).

Such specific references make clear that the American literary imagination continues to be enthralled with the relationship between passing and individualism. Coleman Silk understands his decision to pass as a desire for “singularity. ” He resists the oppressive pull toward racial solidarity that characterized his experience at Howard University. “Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we's overbearing solidity, and he didn't want anything to do with it or with the next oppressive we that came along either, ” narrator Nathan Zuckerman explains as he struggles to make sense of Silk's life. In The Human Stain, appeals to group solidarity and to racial community appear to be little more than tyranny. “You can't let the big they impose its bigotry on you, ” he realizes, “any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you. … Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum” (108).

In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk's world is wrought with irony, and the secret of his true racial origins creates that irony. The most pointed

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Race Passing and American Individualism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Introduction 1
  • 1 - Passing and the Sentiment Novel 18
  • 2 - Passing and the Rise of Realism 39
  • 3 - Passing and the Fictional Autobiography 58
  • 4 - Passing and the “fast Yellowing Manuscripts” 82
  • 5 - Passing and the Rise of Mass Culture 107
  • 6 - Reading Passing Through a Different Lens 128
  • Epilogue: Passing in the Present 147
  • Acknowledgments 153
  • Works Cited 155
  • Index 163
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