Harold Roy Brodkey was born Aaron Roy Weintraub across the Mississippi River from and slightly to the northeast of St. Louis, Missouri, in Alton, Illinois, in 1930. His father, a junk man, was illiterate. Aaron’s mother died when he was an infant, and his father, unable to care for the child, allowed Joseph and Doris Brodkey to adopt him. They changed his name to Harold and gave him their surname, a corruption of the family’s original Russian name, Bezborodko.
In Brodkey’s fiction, Joseph and Doris Brodkey become Leila and S. L. (perhaps to suggest St. Louis) Cohn. They figure prominently in early stories, in which Leila is portrayed as having adopted Aaron/Harold largely as a means of reclaiming her husband, from whom she was separated. Leila (variously Leah and Lila in Brodkey’s stories) is shown as a woman too self-absorbed to offer much love to anyone else. There apparently was a daughter, somewhat older than Harold, who becomes Nonie in his stories.
One can speak only tentatively about the life of Brodkey; he kept the details of his personal life completely private except as they are revealed in his stories. For example, in an interview, Esquire journalist D. Keith Mano asked Brodkey if he had ever worked. Brodkey replied that he had but would provide no other details because he had not yet written about that experience. So intensely personal are Brodkey’s stories that he guarded assiduously the autobiographical details of which they are composed. His stories are generally thought to record with diary-like authenticity the actual events in his coming of age.
If one is to believe the information given in “Largely an Oral History of My Mother,” Brodkey, in the persona of Alan Cohn, was discovered to have a remarkably high IQ—so high, in fact, that special training was recommended for him. The adoptive parents, by now having had their fill of Alan/Harold, used this opportunity to try unsuccessfully to return the boy to his birth father.
Brodkey apparently lived a childhood that was in many ways typically midwestern. He went to school, earned money as a baby-sitter, and belonged to the Boy Scouts. His family situation, however, was not typical. Having lost his real mother so early as to be unable to remember her, he tried to construct her in his imagination, using the small pieces of information that he was able to glean from people who knew her. Although she was not well-educated, his birth mother was bright, bookish, and fluent in five or six languages. Brodkey invented her and thus stirred his ability to create characters and situations by paying special attention to small details. This talent would later become the hallmark of his stories.
Having sustained the early loss of his real mother and, because of his adoption, his father, Brodkey would sustain similar losses in adolescence through the deaths of his adoptive parents. Joseph Brodkey had a stroke when Harold was nine and was an invalid thereafter. He lived on for five years and required considerable attention. One year before her husband died, Doris Brodkey developed cancer. She lived a painful and increasingly isolated existence until her death, which occurred during Harold’s undergraduate days at Harvard University. Never an easy or outgoing person, she became increasingly embittered as her health deteriorated.
A scholarship to Harvard and a small inheritance enabled Brodkey to live outside the Midwest for the first time, presumably beginning in 1948. Shortly after that, he spent part of a summer in Europe, which was his first trip outside the United States. The events of his life upon leaving college remain a mystery.
In 1957, Dial Press published his first collection of stories, First Love and Other Sorrows , which became an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. This collection was received with considerable enthusiasm, and word was out that Brodkey was at work on a Proustian kind of novel, “Party of Animals,” under contract to Farrar,...
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