|Sunday, Feb 4th 2001
A Masked Existence
The man who would be white
The late Anatole Broyard, a star New York Times book critic in his day, lived a disguised life. It was a secret kept even from his children on his dying bed
MY LONG apprenticeship in journalism consisted mainly in studying the works of a few newspapermen I admired.
One of them was Anatole Broyard, the late leading book critic for The New York Times. When I sought him out for an interview in 1988, he was no longer a critic for the daily - he had already put in 13 illustrious years as one - but was one of the eight editors of the influential New York Times Book Review, the weekly tabloid supplement which comes with the Sunday edition of the paper.
As editor, he still kept his hand in though, maintaining in the supplement a monthly column called On Writing. I remember how much I enjoyed those monthly pieces that he wrote, even as I was studying them. They were really short lyrical essays that, despite their brevity, conveyed depth, insights and a winning charm and playfulness. They were always peppered, in just the right places, with the most apposite of quotes from a mind-bogglingly, wide range of literary works.
This was a man who had read widely, and for whom literature was life.
I still remember vividly several of the columns.
One of them was about him visiting a house which had been put up for sale, and discovering inside it, a collection of books that was left behind that must have taken the house owner a whole lifetime to build up.
Why did the owner choose to leave all these books behind, these books which amounted to a life? Broyard mused.
Did he want to erase that life, and create a whole new self altogether somewhere else?
When I met Broyard at his office canteen, I did not know then that the 68-year-old man had himself erased his past brutally when he was in his 20s, and reinvented himself.
Neither did his son and daughter, nor his friends and colleagues. His erasure of the past was so total that he could live the life of a lie without being caught out by even those nearest to him for almost five decades.
It was a lifelong secret which he refused to unburden to his two children even when he was dying of prostate cancer in 1990.
Broyard was a black man who had passed himself off as a white, a fact which was revealed in 1996 by the eminent black scholar and writer Henry Louis Gates Junior in an article in the New Yorker magazine.
The article is included in his 1997 book, Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Black Man.
I did not know about the article then, but I did read a short news story somewhere about this revelation. Although surprised, I didn't think much of it at the time.
The pathos of this disguised life, and the inumerable implications of such a life, hit me only last weekend, when I read Philip Roth's latest novel, The Human Stain (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).
About a classics professor who is forced to leave the small New England university where he was the dean because he was accused of using a politically- incorrect label on two black students, it is the last of a trilogy of stories that add up to a scathing commentary on the excesses of mid-20th- century America.
The other two books are American Pastorial, the 1997 book which won the Pulitzer prize, and I Married A Communist (1998), which is an angry rebuttal to his long-time lover Clare Bloom's book, Leaving The Doll House (1996).
The premise of The Human Stain appears to have been inspired by Anatole Broyard's life or the account written by Gates.
The professor, you see, is a black who has passed himself off as a white.
This is supposed to be the book's secret. When the conscientious Claire Tham reviewed it in Life! last August, she made very sure she did not give it away. I'm sorry I've done so here, but since the book isn't really a whodunit, I don't suppose it would hurt your enjoyment of it. You must absolutely read it though, if you haven't already.
Broyard was born to a black family in New Orleans, and spent his childhood in the black section of Brooklyn, New York. After serving in the navy, he moved to Greenwich Village in Manhattan where, with the help of the G. I. Bill, he went to the New School of Social Research three nights a week, studying under German professors like the prominent psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, who had fled to America from Hitler.
Greenwich Village in the 1940s after the war was like Paris in the 1920s, the place to be. Broyard lived the life of a white bohemian, which he recounts in a slim, elegantly-written memoir, When Kafka Was The Rage, published posthumously in 1993. He kept away from people from his past, even his darker skinned sister, whom his children met only after his death.
He was such a natural writer that most people expected him to write The Great American Novel. He did try, but never succeeded in doing so, perhaps as Roth suggests of the professor in his book:
'Writing personally is exposing and concealing at the same time, but with you it could only be concealment and so it would never work. Your book was your life - and your art? ... your art was being a white man. That was your singular act of invention: Every day you woke up to be what you had made yourself.'
Rereading Broyard's memoir for this column, I thought I detected a couple of clues which, on hindsight, serve to point to the reinvention of the man.
Commenting on the fact that most of the German professors at the New School were Freudian revisionists, he writes: '...that was what I wanted, to be revised. I saw myself as a first draft.'
Although a happy young man, he felt there was a shadow on his happiness, a dissonant hum or crackle in his nerves which sounded like the AC-DC converter which people kept in their closets, but whose whirring static could be heard. He had a converter in his closet.
So he went to an analyst, recommended by Fromm.
He wanted to be transfigured, he told the analyst. He wanted to discuss his life with the analyst not as a patient talking to a doctor, but as if they were two literary critics discussing a novel. But the analyst failed him.
'It might have been the shortest, or the only, way through my defences, because I had a literature rather than a personality, a set of fictions about myself,' Broyard discloses.
04/02/01 The man who would be white