Harold Brodkey American Literature Analysis

Brodkey wrote about the commonplace. His slow, sometimes agonizingly detailed unfolding of the commonplace distinguished him as a credible analyst of growing up Jewish and adopted in the Midwest. In the early stories, the cast of characters is identical: The story is told from the point of view of a boy, with an adoptive mother and father and an older sister given to tormenting him. Added to this ordinary American family configuration in some of the stories is a maid.

The first three stories of the nine that make up First Love and Other Sorrows are really the beginning of what might be called a Bildungsroman. They detail the childhood of the first-person narrator, who longs for love but is unable to attract it. The narrator was adopted by his foster parents in part because he was very attractive. In “The State of Grace,” however, he is thirteen years old, is six feet tall, weighs 125 pounds, and has ears that stick out. He is self-conscious about being the gangly teenager new to adolescence.

A recurrent theme in Brodkey’s work is that true selflessness does not exist. In his stories, as presumably in his early life, all Brodkey’s characters have motives for what they do, and these motives are inextricably tied to self-interest. This attitude may seem cynical, but in Brodkey’s work it appears more realistic than cynical. Sometimes he confuses reciprocity with selfishness. For example, in “Innocence,” one of the later stories in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, the protagonist is determined to give Orra Perkins her first orgasm, not so much to provide her with pleasure but rather to get a stronger hold on her and to increase the intensity of his own sexual pleasure with her. It is difficult in this story to know where the line is drawn between selfishness and selflessness.

Brodkey did not develop strong plots. His stories are essentially concerned with descriptive details about places and emotions. His prose style was shaped considerably by the style of The New Yorker. His style is unadorned, lean, and direct and is carefully calculated and assiduously polished to the point that it reads easily and is generally convincing. He succeeded best when he wrote about his midwestern childhood, perhaps because his uncomplicated style reflects the commonness of the situations in his life.

Verbal and typographical invention are an integral part of Brodkey’s technique. He was always conscious of how sentences look on a page. He used punctuation in a unique and extremely calculated way. A typical example of his technique is found in a description of his adoptive mother in “Story in an Almost Classical Mode”:What she did was get your attention; she would ask you questions in a slightly high-pitched pushy voice that almost made you laugh, but if you were drawn to listen to her, once you were attentive and showed you were, her voice would lose every attribute of sociability, it would become strained and naked of any attempt to please or be acceptable; it would be utterly appalling; and what she said would lodge in the center of your attention and be the truth you have to live with until you could persuade yourself she was crazy: that is, irresponsible and perhaps criminal in her way.

This complex sentence reveals Brodkey’s fascination with semicolons and his typical use of the colon to emphasize that what follows is the most important part of the sentence. The colon simultaneously connects and separates. Brodkey sometimes combined his affection for semicolons with a fondness of parentheses, lodging a semicolon in the exact center of a parenthetical section of a sentence; he then placed the parenthetical section in the exact center of the sentence.

In Women and Angels, Brodkey explored his real mother in the story “Ceil” and his adoptive mother in “Lila.” The philosophy that emerges from those stories, particularly the latter, is what one critic has dubbed the “tyranny of need.” Brodkey viewed dependence as an essential ingredient of love. Close human relationships seem to be based on reciprocal weaknesses between two people rather than on the strengths of one or both of them.

Although Brodkey’s parents, both real and adoptive, were Jews, it is difficult to classify his stories as notably Jewish. He was a Jewish boy growing up beside the Mississippi near the Missouri-Illinois border, but his life was shaped more by the convoluted emotions of the people who surrounded him for his first fifteen years or so than by the fact that he was Jewish. Formal religion did not play a significant role in his life. He had to handle larger, more personal discriminations as he grew up than anti-Semitism. His most developed statement of a religious philosophy occurs in “Angel,” the last story in Women and Angels.

“First Love and Other Sorrows”

First published: 1957 (collected in First Love and Other Sorrows, 1957)

Type of work: Short story

The adolescent first-person narrator sees love around him and seeks it himself.

The title story of First Love and Other Sorrows takes place in the springtime when its narrator is sixteen years old and is dealing with a budding sexuality. He lives with his adoptive mother and his twenty-two-year-old sister, who seems as unhappy with her looks as the narrator is with his. She complains that her face is too round and that she does not look good in suits. The brother has peach fuzz and admits to shaving every three days; his mother and sister think he needs to shave more often. His adoptive father is dead.

The boy’s mother warns him against playing too hard and about getting overheated in the springtime. This admonition seems to be a veiled warning that the heat of youthful sexuality can be as dangerous as the heat of April, which is the usual metaphor for youth. The boy certainly seems to feel that such is the case. The sister is dating Sonny Bruster, who, as the son of one of the town’s leading bankers, is a good catch in the eyes of the mother. The romance between the two of them is not without problems; at one point, they stop seeing each other for several weeks. They get back together, however, and are engaged before the story ends.

The boy feels like an intruder in his mother’s house. She makes it clear that she cooks only because he is there; were it only the two women, they would eat sandwiches. The family situation is not a hostile one, but little love is apparent. The mother, a controlling woman, is vitally concerned with having her daughter marry someone prosperous. She had known genteel living in a large house overlooking the Mississippi River, but the house was lost during a financial crisis, and she was reduced to living in more humble surroundings.

The boy’s best friend is a schoolmate named Preston, who is shy, and—although the same age—more heavily bearded than the narrator. He is unimaginative and suspicious of imagination in others. The narrator is the aesthete, and Preston is the scientist who aspires to a career in physics.

Preston is the narrator’s safe, dependable friend, with whom he enjoys athletics and double dating. Another boy in the school, however, is much more enticing. Joel Bush is so handsome that the other students can scarcely bear to look at him. He is described in ecstatic terms, but he is so perfect that people avoid him and admire him from a safe distance. Brodkey’s effusive description of Joel may be read within a homosexual context, particularly when compared with his description of Orra Perkins in “Innocence.”

One day, Joel reveals to the narrator that he had sex with an older woman the night before. He describes the event as masturbation with bells. Juxtaposed to this sexual revelation is a strenuous physical workout on the school’s playing field, which serves as a sex substitute for many budding adolescents. The narrator spends an evening with Eleanor Cullen, who previously had had an uneventful date with Joel. Eleanor reveals that she does not regard herself as a basically happy person, which echoes the narrator’s earlier statement that he is not popular because he is too gloomy.

The story ends with the narrator’s sister engaged to Sonny Bruster and wearing an heirloom engagement ring that she does not like. Her mother is in the kitchen writing letters to send to all of her relatives, telling them of the engagement. The boy and his sister come into the kitchen, and the mother offers to heat up some soup for them. Her eyes fill with tears of emotion, and the three embrace and kiss.

This story is typical of Brodkey’s early work and gives a strong indication of the course his later work would follow. Nothing much happens in the story except that an adolescent boy makes tentative moves toward growing into manhood. He is uncertain and fearful of rejection and therefore cannot approach Joel. The closest he can get to him is to be friends with Eleanor. The story deals with situations and emotions but has little plot. The...

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