I read the story about Professor Rosen with astonishment. In fall 1985, Professor Melvin Tumin of the Sociology Department, a distinguished specialist in race relations, was taking the roll for his seminar in the middle of the semester and two students on the list had never come to class. “Does anyone know these students?” he asked the class. “Do they exist or are they spooks?” He meant “ghosts,” but it turned out that the students, whom he had never met, were African American, and he was summoned by University authorities and spent several months establishing that he was not guilty of hate speech.
If this story sounds familiar to some PAW readers, it is because Philip Roth, a friend of Professor Tumin, used it as the “initiating incident” of the plot in his prize-winning novel "The Human Stain" (2000). Roth wrote about his source in a lengthy letter published in The New Yorker on Sept. 6, 2012. The tragic downfall of his protagonist, Professor Coleman Silk, is the result of his “unwarranted,” “heinous, needless persecution” for these words.
I taught Roth’s fiction along with other powerful contemporary novels at Princeton for many years, and had no problem reading passages for discussion aloud. I wonder whether either of those options would be possible now. And I am surprised, on a lesser scale, that no one recognized the parallel.