Harold Brodkey 1930-1996
(Born Aaron Roy Weintraub) American short story writer, essayist, novelist, poet, and memoirist.
Brodkey is acknowledged as a formidable stylist whose prose is characterized by grandiose metaphor, intense lyricism, and minute descriptions of emotions and events. In his fiction, Brodkey generally eschews plot and linear time, preferring instead to produce accumulations of insights and feelings about small but important incidents in the lives of his characters. Most of his writing is concerned with reconciling personal tragedy through reminiscences of his childhood and adolescence, during wich Brodkey endured the death of his mother and adoptive parents. A major theme in Brodkey's fiction involves the loss of innocence and the struggle to regain grace.
Born on October 25, 1930, Brodkey grew up in Alton, Illinois, a small town about twenty-five miles from St. Louis. Much of Brodkey's work draws from his childhood experiences and familial relationships with his adoptive parents and sister. In 1948 he enrolled at Harvard University and earned his B.A. in 1952. His first collection of short stories, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957), garnered favorable critical attention. In the next few decades, he published short fiction, poetry, and essays in such periodicals as the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Partisan Review. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1984 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1987. Brodkey worked as a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1987 until his death from complications from AIDS in 1996. He wrote about his illness and impending death in a series of autobiographical essays that appeared in the New Yorker and were collected in the volume This Wild Darkness: Story of My Death (1996).
The nine stories in Brodkey's initial collection, First Love and Other Sorrows, are composed in the slick, realistic manner characteristic of fiction published in the New Yorker, where eight of these pieces first appeared. Brodkey utilized events from his own life to depict familiar experiences of childhood, college romance, marriage, and parenthood. All of the stories in his next collection, Women and Angels (1985), focus upon the emerging consciousness and imagination of Wiley Silenwicz, a sensitive prodigy who serves as Brodkey's persona. Wiley reappears as the protagonist of his long-awaited novel, The Runaway Soul (1991), which appeared to mixed reviews amongst literary critics. Another collection of short fiction, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode (1988), contains twenty-five years of previously published work and exhibits radical changes in his writing, from carefully-crafted tales of middle-class Jewish life to highly metaphorical, visionary stories that attempt to recreate the sensations of childhood and adolescence. Brodkey's long-time love of Venice inspired Profane Friendship (1994) the story of an intense love affair with an American novelist and Italian actor. His firsthand account of his impending death from AIDS, This Wild Darkness is considered one of Brodkey's more accessible and powerful achievements.
Although some critics faulted Brodkey for inadequate plot and character development and a narrow range of subject matter, others lauded his ability to render nuances of perception and complex psychological and moral states. Reviewers have expressed mixed opinions on his highly personal, almost confessional style: some have commended his unflinching and powerful insights on every aspect of his life; others consider it self-indulgent, frustrating, and tedious. Yet most critics contend that his treatment of such common life experiences as childhood, sexuality, adolescence, marriage, and parenthood is unique. He has often been compared to Marcel Proust in his interest in every minute detail of his life and his utilization of memory in his work.