Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002

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...

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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, Straus and Giroux. On June 4, 1976, The New York Times announced that Brodkey had delivered the more than two-thousand-page manuscript of this sprawling work to the publisher—sixteen years after the original contract was signed. Major sections of “Party of Animals” have been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, and New American Review. The three segments that make up Women and Angels, published in 1985, are from “Party of Animals,” as are many of the stories in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1988. The latter, like Brodkey’s first collection, was a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection.

Brodkey regularly published short stories and poems, particularly in The New Yorker. His output was small but well wrought. Typically, he took his stories through at least twenty revisions before he considered them finished. His attention to detail and the easy unfolding of his prose attracted a loyal following despite there having been only three collections in print for the first three decades of his productive life.

Brodkey was awarded both the Prix de Rome Magazine Award and the Brandeis Creative Arts Award in 1974. He received first prize in the O. Henry short fiction awards in 1975 and again in 1976. Brodkey was a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He taught writing and literature at Cornell University and at the City University of New York. Brodkey married Ellen Schwamm, a novelist, in 1980. He maintained a desk at The New Yorker and was an occasional lecturer on the college and university circuit.

Brodkey’s life changed drastically in the early 1990’s, when he was diagnosed as HIV positive. Full-blown AIDS followed and claimed his life in 1996. Brodkey had been quite closeted, but with the AIDS diagnosis, he became more forthright in discussing his homosexuality. He kept a journal that was published posthumously in 1996 as This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death. He also published Profane Friendship (1994), in which he was more forthcoming in his presentation of homosexual relationships.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

Harold Roy Brodkey was born Aaron Roy Weintraub across the Mississippi River and slightly to the northeast of St. Louis, Missouri, in Alton, Illinois, in 1930. His father, a junk man, was illiterate. Brodkey’s mother—who was bright, bookish, and fluent in five or six languages—died when Harold was an infant, and the 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.

In Brodkey’s fiction, Joseph and Doris Brodkey become Leila and S. L. (perhaps to suggest St. Louis) Cohn. Their daughter, somewhat older than Harold, is Nonie in Brodkey’s stories. Brodkey has kept the details of his personal life private except as they are revealed in his stories.

When he was six, Brodkey’s high intelligence quotient was recognized, and special training was recommended for him. His birth father took him from his adoptive parents when he learned this but could not cope with the boy and returned him the next day. Having lost his real mother so early that he could not remember her, Brodkey created the mother he dreamed she was, reconstructing her from scraps of information gleaned from her acquaintances. By inventing her in his own imagination, Brodkey unleashed the earliest stirrings of his ability to create credible characters and situations.

Brodkey lost his adoptive parents when he was a teenager. Joseph Brodkey had a stroke when Harold was nine and was an invalid thereafter. He lived for five years, requiring constant attention. One year before her husband died, Doris Brodkey developed cancer and died during Harold’s early days at Harvard University.

His Harvard scholarship and a small inheritance enabled Brodkey to live outside the Midwest. His first collection of stories, First Love and Other Sorrows, became an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The three segments of Women and Angels, published in 1985, were taken from A Runaway Soul, as were many of the stories found in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode. This book was also a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection.

Brodkey married Joanne Brown in 1952, and they had a daughter, Amma Emily, in 1953; the couple divorced in 1962. He married novelist Ellen Schwamm in 1980, and they settled in New York City. He has taught writing and literature at Cornell University and at the City College of the City University of New York. Harold Brodkey died in New York City on January 26, 1996.

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