Ten years after someone first wrote a Wikipedia entry for Philip Roth's best-selling novel The Human Stain, published in 2000, the great author has discovered the latest entry and he is not happy. As with many Wikipedia articles, this one includes details that are not wholly agreed upon by all—or, necessarily, any—of those involved. As Roth writes in an open letter published on The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, "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."
So what is this item? He explains, "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.)"
As for the alteration he mentions, there's now a section called "Inspiration," on the entry, in which Roth clarifies that the book's inspiration came from "an unhappy event in the life of my late friend Melvin Tumin," who used the word spooks to identify two students who hadn't come to class and then had to deal with an ensuing witch hunt to justify that his use of the term was not hate speech (he eventually emerged blameless). It had nothing to do with Broyard, says Roth. The Wikipedia addition continues:
"Roth was motivated to explain the inspiration for the book after noticing an error in the Wikipedia entry on The Human Stain. His efforts to correct the entry were thwarted by Wikipedia editors because he did not have a secondary source for his correction. Roth was responding to claims, given prominence in this entry, by Michiko Kakutani and other critics that the book was inspired by the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and New York Times literary critic. Roth has repeatedly said these speculations are false. In 2008 Roth explained that he had not learned about Broyard's ancestry until "months and months after" starting to write the novel."
So this has been brewing for a while, coming to an open-letter-writing head when Roth received notice that "the 'English Wikipedia Administrator'—in a letter dated August 25th" informed his 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.'”
It's easy to imagine the ire Roth must have felt, a novelist being told by Wikipedia—what is this Wikipedia, anyway!?—that he needed someone else to confirm what he, the novelist, said was true about his own book. This ire surely was compounded by the fact that Tumin was a longtime friend of Roth's, and, as evidenced in the letter, Roth still feels strongly about what happened. He writes, "Mel’s career, having extended for over forty years as a scholar and a teacher, was besmirched overnight because of his having purportedly debased two black students he’d never laid eyes on by calling them 'spooks.' To the best of my knowledge, no event even remotely like this one blighted Broyard’s long, successful career at the highest reaches of the world of literary journalism." (Broyard, on the other hand, was a man of mixed race who was criticized for "passing" as white for much of his life. His book, Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, published after his death, is great.)
Roth writes in his open letter,
As for Anatole Broyard, was he ever in the Navy? The Army? Prison? Graduate school? The Communist Party? Did he have children? Had he ever been the innocent victim of institutional harassment? I had no idea. He and I barely knew each other. Over more than three decades, I ran into him, casually and inadvertently, maybe three or four times before a protracted battle with prostate cancer ended his life, in 1990.
There is a certain inherent irony that these are questions to which a person with access to Broyard's Wikipedia entry would find easy, if not necessarily completely verified, answers.
Much of the rest of the letter is devoted to how much Roth in fact did not know Broyard, at all, and how much what he does know about Broyard doesn't match with The Human Stain's main character, Coleman Silk, "the light-skinned offspring of a respectable black family from East Orange, New Jersey, one of the three children of a railroad dining-car porter and a registered nurse, who successfully passes himself off as white from the moment he enters the U.S. Navy at nineteen."
Once, Roth says, he tossed a football around on the beach with Broyard and some other men, "newly published writers of about the same age," for less than 30 minutes, and "before I left the beach that day, someone told me that Broyard was rumored to be an 'octoroon,'" he writes. "I didn’t pay much attention or, back in 1958, lend much credence to the attribution. In my experience, octoroon was a word rarely heard beyond the American South. It’s not impossible that I had to look it up in the dictionary later to be sure of its precise meaning.... Broyard was actually the offspring of two black parents. I didn’t know this then, however, or when I began writing The Human Stain," he explains, before going on to talk more generally about what happened in America "before the civil-rights movement began to change the nature of being black in America." And then he turns back to the business of novel-writing, a game, he says, of "let's pretend." Once he had the idea he pretended and invented everything else. But that only makes one wonder why he's going to such trouble to say what the germ of the idea was not. Clearly, this is his novel, and not a Broyard biography.
Maybe, though, like writing novels, this is a good time to discuss what Wikipedia is and isn't, or what the Internet is and isn't. Most of us live under the premise that once something ends up here, it's going to be pretty difficult to wipe it clean from our records. Yet Roth didn't come of age in the time of the blog, and is perhaps less inured to certain aspects of contemporary technological life that others of us have grown complacent with (for better or worse). Recently, he sent a letter to The Atlantic taking issue with the way a mental breakdown had been described, as a "crack-up." Is this latest effort at clarification an example of Roth both growing aware of and also trying to clean up his "Internet footprint" having chosen a new biographer, Blake Bailey, whom he's agreed to allow unfettered access to his letters and archives? If so, this may not be a good sign for Bailey. Then again, maybe it's simply a case of what happens when a famous writer starts playing around with the Google.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.