Anatole Broyard Biography

Anatole Broyard, a renowned writer, literary critic, teacher, and editor, dedicated much of his life to the world of literature. He spent 15 years as a book critic for the New York Times Book Review, followed by three years as an editor. Even while teaching creative writing at the college level, Broyard continued to write captivating short stories, personal essays, and book reviews. One of his notable essays, “Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro,” shed light on the experiences of black men who passed as white to access opportunities denied to them due to racial discrimination. Interestingly, unbeknownst to many, Broyard himself lived as a white man, disregarding his own mixed race heritage. As he worked on his autobiography, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, prompting him to set it aside and instead write a collection of articles exploring illness and death. These pieces were published in prestigious publications such as the New York Times Magazine and The Book Review. Following his passing, these articles were compiled into a book titled “Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death.” However, Broyard faced criticism posthumously for his failure to acknowledge his African-American ancestry and his decision to pass as white.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 70
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Aida Sanchez, Alexandra (Sandy) Nelson
    • Father: Paul Anatole Broyard
    • Mother: Edna Miller
    • Siblings: Lorraine, Shirley
    • Children: Bliss, Todd
  • Died on: October 11, 1990
  • Place of death: Boston, Massachusetts
  • U.S. State: Louisiana
  • City: New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Education: Brooklyn College

Childhood & Early Life

Anatole Broyard was born on July 16, 1920, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Paul Anatole Broyard and Edna Broyard. His father was a carpenter and construction worker. Anatole had two sisters.

He graduated from Boys High School and enrolled at the Brooklyn College in 1937. He loved to read books, but loathed studies and thus dropped out of college after a couple of years.

Career

He did jobs after dropping out. In spite of being of mixed ancestry he declared himself to be white on his Social Security application. He enlisted into the army in 1942 during the World War II. Since the services were segregated, he again passed off as white and went to the officers’ school. He served in the 167th Port Company, based in New Guinea.

As a result of serving in the war he acquired a G.I. Bill which provided a range of benefits to returning World War II veterans. Broyard used his G.I. Bill to study psychology and modern art at the New School for Social Research.

He retained his “white” identity after the war and aspired to become a writer. He had already begun writing during the pre-war days and now felt it was time to follow his passion wholeheartedly. He was married with a child by then but his wife did not support his literary aspirations, so he divorced her and settled in Greenwich Village. He integrated into the village’s literary life and opened a bookstore with his savings from the war.

His stories started getting published during the 1940s in the leading pocket-books of those times like ‘Modern Writing’, ‘Discovery’ and ‘New World Writing’. His story ‘Portrait of a Hipster’ was published in ‘Commentary’ magazine in 1948. In this work he described a hedonistic hustler who lived on the edge of the society, a concept that Norman Mailer would later popularize in a future essay. In 1950, the ‘Commentary’ published his ‘Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro’, which had been inspired by the work by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre.

Being of mixed ancestry he was often troubled by his complicated racial identity. He refused to openly acknowledge his African-American heritage, though his writings such as ‘Portrait of the Inauthentic Negro’ often belied his racial confusion.

He supplemented his income from writing by teaching creative writing at the New School at New York University and Columbia University. By now he had also gained great reputation as a book reviewer and wrote daily book reviews for the New York Times. During the 1970s he started publishing brief personal essays in the ‘New York Times’ which won him much acclaim. His works were then collected and published in ‘Men, Women and Anti-Climaxes’ in 1980.

Major Works

His autobiographical work, ‘Intoxicated by My Illness’ which was published posthumously became a widely acclaimed book. In this memoir he had bravely recounted his battle with cancer and expressed his opinions on life, illness, and death.

Personal Life & Legacy

Broyard was married briefly to Aida Sanchez. They divorced when he returned from service after World War II. They had one daughter named Gala. He married Alexandra Nelson in 1961 when he was 40 years old. Alexandra was a much younger woman of Norwegian-American descent. They had two children. He was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 1989. He continued writing in spite of his ill health and died on October 11, 1990. He had kept his African-American heritage a secret from his children which was revealed to them shortly before his death. Throughout his life he had claimed that he would write a great novel. He often talked about it, and it seemed like he sincerely planned to write it. But ultimately he never wrote the novel.

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