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Resisting the Autobiographical Imperative: Anatole Broyard and Mixed Race

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 265-280 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

To speak is to exist absolutely for the other.

—Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

So much discussion has taken place about why people write autobiographies and what useful cultural work this does, that the question of those who do not write them may seem like a minority interest. Yet of course, from a comparative perspective, the absence of the life story is as interesting to analyze as its presence. There may be multiple reasons for refusing to commit one’s life to paper. Philip Larkin’s diaries were destroyed at his death, following his instructions, although his literary executors successfully argued that these instructions did not apply to his letters. Sir Isaiah Berlin chose to do a series of interviews about the history he had lived through because he specifically said that he did not want to write an autobiography, and Mick Jagger turned down a four million dollar advance, saying that writing an autobiography, which he had tried, was boring. All these people no doubt acted from very different motives, yet in explaining their choices, all were responding to some unseen, unheard criticism. The failure to tell one’s “story” is often treated as if it were in some sense rebellious and contrary. This article examines a similar situation, where a well-known author did not write his autobiography, but in this case his refusal to write has been portrayed as much more than a desire for privacy or an act of contrariness. In the case of Anatole Broyard, the absence of autobiography has quite famously been portrayed as cowardly.

Anatole Broyard was born in 1920 in New Orleans. When he was six, his family moved to New York, where he grew up, and at the age of twenty-one he went off to serve in Europe in World War II. When he got back to New York at the age of twenty-five, he opened a bookshop, which, although it did not last long, began to put him in touch with others who were interested in the literary scene. His extreme good looks won him friends and influenced people. This, plus an ability to write like a dream, saw him move from writing copy for a publishing company to articles for the New York Times, then daily columns, and finally a position as editor of the New York Times Book Review. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he became well known for being a member of a group of intellectuals based in Greenwich Village. He published hundreds of book reviews, a short story, and two books. He died in 1990 from prostate cancer, at the age of sixty-nine.

The titles of his two books hint slyly at another aspect of his reputation—his ability to charm any woman he met into bed. In 1974 he published a collection of his book reviews from over the years, entitling it Aroused by Books. In 1980 his second book was a collection of essays with another mischievous title, Men, Women and Other Anticlimaxes. Later, describing his final illness, he wrote: “I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before” (Foreword xiii). We can imagine a man who loved words, loved women, and happily constructed a public persona that expressed these passions. In his early forties he married a stunning blonde beauty, a member of a New York dance troupe, and had two lovely children, a boy and a girl. He was happy and settled.

However, there were clearly a lot of stories he could have told about his twenty-or-so years as a New York bachelor, partying with anyone who was anyone in literary and artistic circles. A publisher approached him and paid him an advance for his autobiography. But the book never appeared. John Updike was quoted as saying that the most famous book of this period was the book that Broyard was not writing (qtd. in Gates, “Passing” 198). Instead, he appeared as a character in two other books, both written after his death.

In 1995, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the distinguished African-American literary historian, made Broyard the subject of an article published first...



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