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The Fall of the American Puritanism Revision

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[The Fall of the American Puritanism: An Analysis of “The Human Stain” by Phillip Roth]
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Puritanism refers to a religious movement that arose within the Anglican Church in the 16th century. Puritanism wanted to purify the church and preached a closer, non-mediated relation with God that emphasized hard work and discipline. Thanks to these values that contrasted the Anglican Church, they were prosecuted, and many fled to the colonies in America, contributing with the construction of what would become the United States of America. For this reason, Puritanism has always been part of the country’s culture, and undoubtedly, the influence of these first English settlers has marked the way the country behaves and works. In The Human Stain, particularly in chapter three, Philip Roth creates a portrait of the American society and how Puritan values are slowly fading away. The book illustrates a part of the American society that is often unseen and calls for the understanding of the American core values. Hence, part of understanding the culture of the United States is by digging and finding its roots; the so-called American Puritanism and highlight the values that have become staples in the American society. For instance, Americans despite their level of economic development are relatively likely to emphasize the importance of religion, endorse traditional family values, and reject divorce, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide.” (Ulhmann et al., 2008). This view supports much of the today’s understanding of the psychology of the Americans, who catalog these actions as evil and removed from the American way of life.

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Likewise, 50% of the Americans rate god among the most important things in their lives and attend church at least once a month (Ulhmann et al., 2008). This kind of surveys shows the importance of God for the Americans and how Puritan ethics might have shaped their minds. To Roth, American Puritanism refers to the
“America’s core values (…) that maintain widespread jurisdiction by masquerading itself as something else. (…) As a force, propriety is protean, a dominatrix in a thousand disguises infiltrating if need be, as civic responsibility” (Roth, 2000, 150)
Hence, this American values can be empirically defined as civic responsibilities that construct the American way of life. Consequently, throughout its narrative, The Human Stain collects pearls of Puritanism, from Coleman Silk’s upbringing in an African-American household of a working family to the honest work the man performed in the Athena University during his entire career. Nevertheless, instead of painting a compelling portrait of the Puritan American Roth charges against it, trying to show the supporting beams of the American Society and the flaws in that notion. In The Human Stain, Philip Roth shows the decadence of the puritan values through Coleman Silk’s life. The man, born in an African-American family decided to hand over his identity and pose as a Jewish man, deceiving every person in his life and effectively disconnecting from his past. Through the book, Silk’s identity plays a critical role in asserting his relation with the world, using his status as a white individual to live a life he would not have been able to live as a black man. In the book, we can see two Coleman Silks, the first, a zealous and hardworking Classics professor, and the other, the writer who takes up a young lover and behaves with cunning immorality as a way to regain his life in his last years. Hence, in this dichotomy between right and wrong lies the division and the fall of the American Protestantism. By addressing and putting attention on the issues of sex, sexuality, family and racism, The Human Stain shows without a hint of political correction how the values of the American society are flawed and represent a repressed version of the true values hidden behind the mask of the Puritan ethics that captivated the Coleman Silk and strengthened his resolution regarding becoming another person.
As a consequence of this mindset, public politics and politicians, understanding and assessing the importance of the American Puritanism, use it to achieve their political goals, manipulating their image and the public perception to maintain the same set of values unchanged through the time. Plus, by placing the protagonist in the late 1990s, Roth had the possibility of addressing President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, marking it as the foreshadowing of the fall of the Puritan values while criticizing the values of Generation X.
“Part of this generation that is proud of its shallowness. The sincere performance is everything. Sincere and empty, empty. The sincerity that goes in all directions. The sincerity that is worse than falseness, and the innocence that is worse than corruption. (…) Their shamelessness they call lovingness, and the ruthlessness is camouflaged as lost ‘self-esteem.” (Roth, 2000: 152).
In Roth’s eyes, Clinton’s behavior reflects the paradigm shift between the Puritan ethics of the past versus the post-modern vision of the world popularized by this selfishness disguised as sincerity that permeates contemporary ethics, Silk illustrating both sides of the discussion. The faculty member and the man, both together in one body. To Silk, Clinton’s downfall had to do with a severe lack of the qualities he admired in other presidents. For instance, had he silenced his lover, nothing would have happened to his reputation.
“Had he [Clinton] fucked her in the ass, I doubt she would have talked to Linda Tripp. Because she wouldn’t have wanted to talk about that.” (Roth, 2000: 152).
This mention of anal sex relates to the idea of control. The same control the protagonist would like to exert over Faunia Farley, his lover. Nevertheless, he, like Clinton with Monica Lewinsky, is incapable of controlling the woman. Plus, Silk’s decision to call Faunia Voluptas represents his inability and an unwillingness of controlling her, allowing his desires to run rampant in a way Professor Silk would have frowned upon.
“Here in America either it’s Faunia Farley or it’s Monica Lewinsky! The luxury of these lives disquieted so by the inappropriate comportment of Clinton and Silk!” (Roth, 2000: 153)
Moreover, Roth further deepens Silk’s similarities to Clinton when he ponders the ex-president’s sexual banters, regarding him as a schoolboy (150). The use of the word schoolboy does not seem casual and helps us to link Clinton’s to the fall of the American puritanism as the moral compass of the country. It also represents Silk’s decision to steer clear from the academic conventions he has believed in, and go ahead and do an act that would be seen as morally incorrect according to the Puritan standards of the place where he lives. All those colleagues that did not support him, and the family that regards him as a deranged for following his will are now behind, as they did not care for the man; they cared for the image of the Professor Silk. However, the man did not seem to care about the other’s opinions concerning the role they believed he should have in society. To him, the role of the respected, retired seventy-two-year-old man does not suit him. Besides, if he already demonstrated his mother what he was capable of by rejecting his race, he is capable of go ahead without caring about the opinions of the rest (155). In a way, being stripped of his academic privileges served Silk to realize his nature as a lackey of the academia and the false nature of his life. He constructed a life to appease his willing of recognition, but when that recognition came, it meant nothing.
Ultimately, Silk’s mistake provoked his fall, but his fall cannot be seen as something wrong per se. On the contrary, it is in his acceptance of the new paradigms of the post-modern life where Silk finally sets himself free from the chains of his past lies. It is in the arms of Faunia Farley he destroyed the altar of the American Puritanism and embraced his new life. Likewise, by choosing a lover so different than his previous paramours, a woman who creates a sheer contrast with him, he frees himself from the conventions of the academic life, finally living a life of his own; a life driven by impulses, by the desires of the day. By staying true to his impulses, impulses that led to his death, Coleman Silk manages to wash the stain he covered himself with and lived the way he wanted.

References
Roth, P. (2000). Chapter 3. In The Human Stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Ulhmann, E., Poehlmann, T., & Bargh, J. (2009). American Moral Exceptionalism. In J. Jost & A. Kay (Eds.), Social and psychological bases of ideology and system justification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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