Writer, literary critic
Anatole Broyard had a long and productive career as a literary critic before his death in 1990. He was associated with the New York Times and its separate book review section as a contributor and editor for twenty years, producing more than a thousand reviews for the publication. Several years after his death, his daughter Bliss penned a memoir that affirmed what many who knew Broyard had long suspected—that he was not white but rather a light-skinned black person who dismissed questions about his race in order to avoid being pigeonholed as a black writer.
Broyard came from an old New Orleans family of free blacks whose men had been bricklayers and carpenters in the city for several generations. He was born there in 1920 and spent the first years of his life in the French Quarter at the family home on St. Ann Street. Called "Buddy" as a child, he had an older sister, Lorraine, who was light-skinned like him, but Shirley, their younger sister, was darker. Around 1927 the family moved to New York City and settled in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Following his graduation from the Boys High School of Brooklyn, Broyard took courses at Brooklyn College and married a Puerto Rican woman with whom he had a daughter. During World War II he enlisted in the U.S. Army, which was a segregated institution when the war began, and "passed" as white. He was sent to officers' training school but, somewhat ironically, was put in charge of a brigade of African-American stevedores during his stint as a troop transport officer in the Pacific theater.
Broyard simply continued the fiction that he was white upon his army discharge as he moved into the new postwar generation of artists, writers, and avant-garde musicians centered in New York City's Greenwich Village. For a time, he ran a bookstore on Cornelia Street but eventually gave it up as his articles began to appear in the New Republic, Commentary, and Partisan Review. "For people of his generation and mine, living in the Village, Anatole was the image of the Bohemian writer," a fellow writer, Herbert Gold, told Herbert Mitgang in 1990 in the New York Times. "In his stories and his style, he was my idea of a hipster—and he was one of the first to write about hipsters."
In another somewhat ironic twist, Broyard first made his name by writing about race. His "Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro" appeared in a 1950 issue of Commentary, and in it he remarked that "thousands of Negroes with ‘typical’ features are accepted as whites merely because of light complexion," according to an essay on Broyard by the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. Broyard also asserted that "the inauthentic Negro is not only estranged from whites—he is also estranged from his own group and from himself. Since his companions are a mirror in which he sees himself as ugly, he must reject them."
Broyard worked primarily as a critic, though he also taught creative writing at Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, and New York University for a number of years. Back in the late 1940s, a short story about his father's illness had led to a book deal with the Atlantic Monthly Press to write a semiautobiographical novel, but he was never able to produce a manuscript. His association with the New York Times began in 1967 with a review of the latest Norman Mailer book, Why Are We in Vietnam? Broyard gave it an unfavorable review, noting that "as a work of literature, this is not worthy of Mailer…. Still, a book by Mailer is news; the rock he throws usually has a message wrapped around it."
In the spring of 1971 Broyard began producing book reviews for the Times on an almost-daily basis. Writing years later about Broyard's stature, Gates asserted that his "columns were suffused with both worldliness and high culture. Wry, mandarin, even self-amused at times, he wrote like a man about town, but one who just happened to have all of Western literature at his fingertips. Always, he radiated an air of soigné self-confidence: he could be amiable in his opinions or waspish, but he never betrayed a flicker of doubt about what he thought. This was a man who knew that his judgment would never falter and his sentences never fail him." His best reviews were collected into the 1974 volume Aroused by Books. He also wrote a book of essays titled Men, Women, and Other Anticlimaxes, which was published by Methuen in 1980. He became an editor of the New York Times Book Review in 1986 and retired in 1989.
In 1961 Broyard had married for a second time and began a family with wife Alexandra Nelson, a dancer of Scandinavian heritage. They moved out of the city and to a series of restored eighteenth-century farmhouses in Connecticut. Even with his wife, Broyard had been evasive about his background, sometimes admitting that there was a black ancestor in the family history, but her attempts to broach the subject were usually met with hostility. Only when he was ill with prostate cancer did his wife divulge to their now-grown children, Todd and Bliss, that their father was actually black.
Broyard died at the age of seventy on October 11, 1990, in Boston. He had written about his illness in a series of essays that appeared in the New York Times Magazine and were later compiled in book form, Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death. "Cancer cures you of irony," Broyard wrote. "A dangerous illness fills you with adrenaline and makes you feel very smart. I can afford now, I said to myself, to draw conclusions. All those grand generalizations toward which I have been building for so many years are finally taking shape…. I see everything with a summarizing eye. Nature is a terrific editor."
Seven years after his death, Gates wrote about Broyard's racial identity in his book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. In 2007 Bliss Broyard published the book One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets.
At a Glance …
Born on July 16, 1920, in New Orleans, LA; died of prostate cancer, October 11, 1990, in Boston, MA; son of Paul Anatole (a builder and construction worker) and Edna Miller Broyard; married Aida Sanchez (divorced); married Alexandra Nelson (a dancer), 1961; children: (first marriage) Gala; (second marriage) Todd, Bliss. Military service: U.S. Army; served in World War II; became captain. Education: Attended Brooklyn College and the New School for Social Research.
Career: New School for Social Research, lecturer in sociology and literature, 1958-79; teacher of creative writing at Columbia University, New School for Social Research, and New York University; Wunderman Ricotta & Kline (advertising agency), copywriter, 1963(?)-70(?); New York Times, book reviewer and feature writer, 1971-86; New York Times Book Review, editor, 1986-89.
Aroused by Books (book reviews), Random House, 1974.
Men, Women and Other Anticlimaxes (essays), Methuen, 1980.
Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death, compiled and edited by Alexandra Broyard, foreword by Oliver Sacks, C. Potter, 1992.
Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, C. Southern Books, 1993.
"A Portrait of the Hipster," Partisan Review, June 1948.
"Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro," Commentary, July 1950, pp.56-64.
"A Disturbance of the Peace," New York Times, September 17, 1967, p. BR3.
"Books of the Times; Left-Over People," New York Times, August 23, 1977, p. 32.
"About Men; Intoxicated by My Illness," New York Times Magazine, November 12, 1989.
Broyard, Bliss, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, Little, Brown, 2007.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., "The Passing of Anatole Broyard," in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, Random House, 1997, pp. 180-214.
New York Times, October 12, 1990; November 7, 2007, p. E3.