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Philip Roth's open letter to Wikipedia

Anthony Hopkins played the lead character in the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the subject of Roth’s complaint

Philip Roth, a widely known and acclaimed American author, wrote an open letter in the New Yorker addressed to Wikipedia this week, alleging severe inaccuracies in the article on his The Human Stain (2000).

The saga began on Wikipedia in late August, when an IP editor—claiming to be Roth’s official biographer—removed this paragraph from the article: critic Charles Taylor argues that Roth had to have been at least partly inspired by the case of Anatole Broyard, a literary critic who, like the protagonist of The Human Stain, was a man identified as Creole who spent his entire professional life more-or-less as white.[1] Roth states there is no connection, as he did not know Broyard had any black ancestry until an article published months after he had started writing his novel.[2]

The IP was reverted within a minute, with the edit summary "Can you verify that?" Nineteen minutes after the revert, the IP removed the paragraph again, saying "the reference to Anatole Broyard ... is wholly inaccurate and therefore pointless. I am Roth's biographer, and have removed it at his request." The article was edited again six minutes later by Parkwells (talk · contribs), who over the next two hours added a significant amount of content to the article. The entire process was seemingly concluded within three total hours, and the article remained in this state until Roth’s open letter was published on 7 September. The new content relevant to Roth’s complaint read:

Kakutani and other critics were struck by the parallels to the life of Anatole Broyard, a writer and the New York Times literary critic in the 1950s and 1960s who was of Louisiana Creole mixed-race descent and passed for white.[3][4][5]

Roth said that he had not learned about Broyard's ancestry until after starting to write this novel.[6]

In this open letter, which was first brought to the community's attention by a Wikimedia Foundation employee, Roth was highly critical of Wikipedia. Interestingly, the ‘interlocutor’, most likely Roth's biographer, either emailed or was emailed by an English Wikipedia administrator, who said that removing the claim would require "secondary sources", even though they acknowledged that "the author is the greatest authority on their own work." This email is what led Roth to publish in the New Yorker, giving the real inspiration for the novel and its protagonist, Coleman Silk, in great detail: the experience of Melvin Tumin, a long-tenured professor of sociology at Princeton, with a seemingly innocuous question which turned into multiple major accusations of racism.

The question, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?", was prompted by the constant absence of two students from his class. Unfortunately for Tumin, 'spooks' happened to be an old derogatory term for African Americans, and both students turned out to be from that race. It was only several months later that Tumin could clear his name, after "several lengthy depositions" and what Roth described as a "witch hunt".

It appears that while Wikipedia was correct both before and after the removals—the article versions noted that the claim was a literary reviewer's opinion, and that Roth had rebutted the claim—the article never stated the genesis of the book, leaving the Wikipedia article with phrases Roth called "not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip".

However, it also appears that the open letter was the first time Roth has identified Tumin's story as the basis for The Human Stain.


  1. ^ Taylor, Charles (April 24, 2000). "Life and life only".
  2. ^ Philip Roth interview at
  3. ^ Taylor (2000), "Lie and Life Only, Salon, Quote: "The thrill of gossip become literature hovers over “The Human Stain”: There’s no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years. But Coleman Silk is a singularly conceived and realized character, and his hidden racial past is a trap Roth has laid for his readers..."
  4. ^ Lorrie Moore, "The Wrath of Athena", New York Times, 7 May 2000, accessed 20 August 2012. Quote: "In addition to the hypnotic creation of Coleman Silk -- whom many readers will feel, correctly or not, to be partly inspired by the late Anatole Broyard -- Roth has brought Nathan Zuckerman into old age, continuing what he began in American Pastoral."
  5. ^ Brent Staples, "Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny, Unless You Passed for White", New York Times, 7 September 2003, accessed 25 January 2011. Quote: "This was raw meat for Philip Roth, who may have known the outlines of the story even before Henry Louis Gates Jr. told it in detail in 'The New Yorker' in 1996. When Mr. Roth's novel about passing -- The Human Stain -- appeared in 2000, the character who jettisons his black family to live as white was strongly reminiscent of Mr. Broyard."
  6. ^ Robert Hilferty (2008-09-16). "Philip Roth Serves Up Blood and Guts in 'Indignation' (Update1)". Bloomberg. I knew Anatole slightly, and I didn't know he was black. Eventually there was a New Yorker article describing Anatole's life written months and months after I had begun my book.

In brief

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  • So much to cover in this Signpost. First off, I think this is a pretty good Signpost article. It shows both sides evenly and gives links in every part so readers can go look up the information themselves. It doesn't appear that Roth ever stated the Tumin story anywhere else. This is especially evident in past interviews he's had, where he was asked where his inspiration came from and he merely said that it wasn't Broyard, but that he had no particular inspiration. SilverserenC 05:00, 11 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • And it'll be interesting how the admin activity rate compares after August, considering we had a lot of admins promoted, far more than we've been averaging for quite a while (more than 10!). SilverserenC 05:00, 11 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Questions. With respect to " IP editor—claiming (truthfully). " What evidence establishes this as fact. The only competent evidence would be a confirmed (published) statement by the biographer, confirming that they are the IP. Although suppositions could be made, I don't see the direct evidence that the biographer did so. The IP did make the claim but has the biographer also confirmed? And if so, where? Thanks. Alanscottwalker (talk) 13:38, 11 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Here's an ironic twist: Salon published an account of the controversy that was sympathetic to Philip Roth, apparently blithely unaware that it was their own critic Charles Taylor who came up with the "literary gossip" that Roth sought to remove. Dcoetzee 01:27, 12 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • This is an evenhanded write-up of the Roth story, well done. As for Shapps, I looked into Shapps' edits to his own biography in a bit more detail, and reported my findings here, along with brief comments on some of the other recent news stories. JN466 14:20, 12 September 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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