Anatole Broyard

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Anatole Broyard
File:Anatole Broyard.jpg
Broyard in 1971
Born Anatole Paul Broyard
July 16, 1920
New Orleans, Louisiana
Died October 11, 1990(1990-10-11) (aged 70)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Ethnicity Louisiana Creole
Alma mater New School for Social Research
Spouse Aida Sanchez
Alexandra (Sandy) Nelson

Anatole Paul Broyard (July 16, 1920 – October 11, 1990) was an American writer, literary critic and editor born in New Orleans who wrote for The New York Times. In addition to his many reviews and columns, he published short stories, essays, and two books during his lifetime. His autobiographical works, Intoxicated by My Illness (1992) and Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (1993), were published after his death. He had moved to Brooklyn, New York with his family as a youth.

After his death, Broyard became the center of controversy when it was revealed that he had "passed" as white as an adult, when he wanted simply to be accepted as a writer. Some friends said they always knew he had black ancestry. A Louisiana Creole of mixed race, Broyard was criticized by some blacks for this, during a period of increased political activity by African Americans. Advocates of multiracial culture have cited Broyard as an example of someone insisting on an independent racial identity before it was widely popular in mainstream America.

Life and career

Anatole Broyard was born in New Orleans into a mixed-race Louisiana Creole family, the son of Paul Anatole Broyard, a carpenter and construction worker, and his wife, Edna Miller, neither of whom finished elementary school. Broyard was descended from free people of color who had achieved that status before the Civil War. The first Broyard recorded in Louisiana was a French colonist in the mid-eighteenth century.[1][2] Broyard was the second of three children; he and his sister Lorraine, two years older, were light skinned with features that were more European. Their younger sister Shirley, who eventually married the lawyer and civil rights leader Franklin Williams, was darker and showed more African ancestry.[3]

When Broyard was a child, his family joined the Great Migration during the Great Depression, moving from New Orleans to New York City, to go where his father thought there were more work opportunities. They lived in a working-class and racially diverse community in Brooklyn. Having grown up in the French Quarter's Creole community, Broyard felt he had little in common with the blacks of Brooklyn. He saw his parents "pass" as white to get work, as his father found the carpenters' union racially discriminatory.[3] By high school, the younger Broyard had become interested in artistic and cultural life; his sister Shirley said he was unique in the family with these interests.[3]

As the writer and editor Brent Staples wrote in 2003, "Anatole Broyard wanted to be a writer -- and not just a 'Negro writer' consigned to the back of the literary bus."[4] The historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote: "In his terms, he did not want to write about black love, black passion, black suffering, black joy; he wanted to write about love and passion and suffering and joy."[5]

Broyard had some stories accepted for publication in the 1940s. He began studying at Brooklyn College before the US entered World War II. When he enlisted in the Army, the armed services were segregated and no African Americans were officers. He was accepted as white at enlistment, successfully completed officers' school, and was promoted to captain during his service.

After the war, Broyard continued with his white identity. Staples noted:

"Those who had escaped the penalties of blackness in the military were often unwilling to go back to second-class citizenship after the war. One demographer estimated that more that [sic] 150,000 black people sailed away permanently into whiteness during the 1940's alone, marrying white spouses and most likely cutting off their black families."[4]

Broyard used the GI Bill to study at the New School for Social Research in New York.[2] He settled in Greenwich Village, where he became part of its bohemian artistic and literary life. With money saved during the war, Broyard owned a bookstore for a time. As he recounted in a 1979 column:

"Eventually, I ran away to Greenwich Village, where no one had been born of a mother and father, where the people I met had sprung from their own brows, or from the pages of a bad novel.... Orphans of the avant-garde, we outdistanced our history and our humanity."[5]

Broyard did not identify with or champion black political causes. Because of his artistic ambition, in some circumstances he never acknowledged that he was part black.[6] On the other hand, Margaret Harrell has written that she and other acquaintances were casually told that he was a writer and black before meeting him, and not in the sense of having to keep it secret. That he was part-black was well known in the Greenwich Village literary community from the early 1960s.[6]

During the 1940s, Broyard published stories in Modern Writing, Discovery, and New World Writing, three leading pocket-book format "little magazines". He also contributed articles and essays to Partisan Review, Commentary, Neurotica, and New Directions Publishing. Stories of his were included in two anthologies of fiction widely associated with the Beat writers, but Broyard did not identify with them.

He was often said to be working on a novel, but never published one. After the 1950s, Broyard taught creative writing at The New School, New York University, and Columbia University, in addition to his regular book reviewing. For nearly fifteen years, Broyard wrote daily book reviews for the New York Times. The editor John Leonard was quoted as saying, "A good book review is an act of seduction, and when he [Broyard] did it there was no one better."[3]

In the late 1970s, Broyard started publishing brief personal essays in the Times, which many people considered among his best work.[3] These were collected in Men, Women and Anti-Climaxes, published in 1980. In 1984 Broyard was given a column in the Book Review, for which he also worked as an editor. He was among those considered "gatekeepers" in the New York literary world, whose positive opinions were critical to success.

Marriage and family

Broyard first married Aida Sanchez, a light-skinned, multi-racial Puerto Rican, with whom he had a daughter Gala. They divorced after Broyard returned from military service in World War II.[3]

In 1961, at the age of 40, Broyard married again, to Alexandra (Sandy) Nelson, a modern dancer and younger woman of Norwegian-American ancestry. He was indirect about his family, but she learned about him. They had two children, Todd, born in 1964, and a daughter Bliss, born in 1966. The Broyards raised their children as white in suburban Connecticut. When they had grown to young adults, Sandy urged Broyard to tell them about his family (and theirs), but he never did.

Shortly before he died, Broyard wrote a statement which some people later took to represent his views. In explaining why he so missed his friend the writer Milton Klonsky, with whom he used to talk every day, he said that after Milton died, "No one talked to me as an equal." Although critics framed the issue of Broyard's identity as one of race, Broyard wanted equality and acceptance: he wanted neither to be talked down to nor to be looked up to, as he believed either masked the true human being.[6]

Sandy told their children of their father's secret before his death. Broyard died of prostate cancer, diagnosed in 1989. His first wife and child were not mentioned in his New York Times obituary.[2]

Cultural references

Novelist Chandler Brossard, who knew Broyard in the late 1940s, based a character on him in his first novel, Who Walk in Darkness (1952). After the manuscript was submitted to New Directions, Delmore Schwartz read it and informed Broyard that the character Henry Porter was based on him; Broyard threatened to sue unless the novel's opening line was changed. It originally read "People said Henry Porter was a 'passed Negro,'" which Brossard reluctantly changed to "People said Henry Porter was an illegitimate." Brossard restored the original reading for a 1972 paperback edition.[7]

Novelist William Gaddis, who likewise knew Broyard in the late 1940s, modeled a character named Max on Broyard in his first novel, The Recognitions.[8]

Given Broyard's stature in the literary world and discussions about his life after his death, numerous literary critics, such as Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, Lorrie Moore, Charles Taylor, Touré, and Brent Staples, have made comparisons between the character Coleman Silk in Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000) and Broyard.[9][10][11][12][13]

Some speculated that Roth had been inspired by Broyard's life, and commented on the larger issues of race and identity in American society. However, Roth stated in a 2008 interview that Broyard was not his source of inspiration. He explained that he had only learned about Broyard's black ancestry and choices from Gates' New Yorker article, published months after he had already started writing the novel.[14]

An episode of Law & Order - Episode #164, entitled "Blood," which aired November 19, 1997 - was reportedly based on the life of Anatole Broyard. (See Law & Order Season 8.)


In 1996, six years after Broyard's death, Henry Louis Gates criticized Broyard for concealing his African-American ancestry in a profile entitled "White Like Me" in The New Yorker. He expanded on this in "The Passing of Anatole Broyard", an essay published the next year in his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (1997). Gates felt that Broyard had deceived friends and family by "passing" as white, but also understood his literary ambition. He wrote,

"When those of mixed ancestry—and the majority of blacks are of mixed ancestry— disappear into the white majority, they are traditionally accused of running from their "blackness." Yet why isn't the alternative a matter of running to their "whiteness"?"[5]

(In his mini-series, African American Lives 2 (2008), Gates learned by DNA analysis and genealogical studies that he himself was more than half white by ancestry.[15])

In 2007, Broyard's daughter Bliss published a memoir, One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life: A Story of Race and Family Secrets.[16] (The title related to the "one-drop rule" adopted into law in some Southern states that classified people with any black ancestry as black.) It expressed her psychological and physical journeys of exploring her father's family in New York, New Orleans and the West Coast, and their meaning for her own identity and life.


  • 1954, "What the Cystoscope Said", Discovery magazine, one of his best-known short stories,[5] also included in Intoxicated by My Illness (1992)


  • 1974, Aroused By Books, collected reviews, published by Random House
  • 1980, Men, Women and Other Anticlimaxes, collected essays, published by Methuen
  • 1992, Intoxicated by My Illness: and Other Writings on Life and Death
  • 1993, Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir


  1. Farai Chideya, "Daughter Discovers Father's Black Lineage", interview of Bliss Broyard, News & Notes, National Public Radio, October 2, 2007, accessed 25 January 2011
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Anatole Broyard, 70, Book Critic And Editor at The Times, Is Dead", New York Times, Oct 12, 1990.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1996), "White Like Me", David Remnick, ed. Life Stories: Profiles from the New Yorker] (New York: Random House, 2001), pp. 275-300, accessed 25 January 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Brent Staples, "Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny, Unless You Passed for White", New York Times, 7 September 2003, accessed 25 January 2011
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "The Passing of Anatole Broyard", in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, New York: Random House, 1997
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Margaret A. Harrell, 21 October 1999 Letter to The New Yorker, "From New York City: Letter" blog
  7. Steven Moore, Foreword, Who Walk in Darkness (Herodias, 2000), p. ix.
  8. Joseph Tabbi, Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis (Northwestern University Press, 2015), p. 78.
  9. Brent Staples, "Editorial Observer; Back When Skin Color Was Destiny, Unless You Passed for White", New York Times, 7 September 2003, accessed 25 January 2011. Quote: "This was raw meat for Philip Roth, who may have known the outlines of the story even before Henry Louis Gates Jr. told it in detail in The New Yorker in 1996. When Mr. Roth's novel about "passing" – "The Human Stain" – appeared in 2000, the character who jettisons his black family to live as white was strongly reminiscent of Mr. Broyard."
  10. Janet Maslin (27 September 2007). "A Daughter on Her Father's Bloodlines and Color Lines". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 September 2012. Though its scope is large, the heart of "One Drop" lies with the author's father. She must try — as Philip Roth did in "The Human Stain," a book that was seemingly prompted by the Broyard story but goes unmentioned here — to understand the choices that he made, whether by action or omission.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Lorrie Moore, "The Wrath of Athena", New York Times, 7 May 2000, accessed 20 August 2012. Quote: "In addition to the hypnotic creation of Coleman Silk – whom many readers will feel, correctly or not, to be partly inspired by the late Anatole Broyard – Roth has brought Nathan Zuckerman into old age, continuing what he began in American Pastoral."
  12. Taylor, Charles (2000-04-24). "Life and Life Only". Salon. Retrieved 2012-09-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Quote: "The thrill of gossip become literature hovers over "The Human Stain": There's no way Roth could have tackled this subject without thinking of Anatole Broyard, the late literary critic who passed as white for many years. But Coleman Silk is a singularly conceived and realized character, and his hidden racial past is a trap Roth has laid for his readers..."
  13. Touré (16 February 2010). "Do Not Pass". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 September 2012. Anatole Broyard, the great literary critic of The New York Times in the 1970s and '80s, was probably the inspiration for Coleman Silk.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Robert Hilferty (2008-09-16). "Philip Roth Serves Up Blood and Guts in 'Indignation' (Update1)". Bloomberg. I knew Anatole slightly, and I didn't know he was black. Eventually there was a New Yorker article describing Anatole's life written months and months after I had begun my book.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Troy Duster (2008). "Deep Roots and Tangled Branches". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2008-10-02.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Johnson, Joyce (October 21, 2007). "Passing Strange". NY Times. Retrieved 7 September 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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