If we accept the well-known distinction that literary fiction is character driven and commercial fiction is plot driven, then the work of Harold Brodkey is the most literary American fiction of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is a critical commonplace to compare Brodkey's work with that of Marcel Proust (1871–1922), the French master of memory and psychological nuance. Born Aaron Roy Weintraub in Staunton (some sources say Alton), Illinois, on 31 October 1930, Harold Brodkey was adopted after the death of his mother by his father's cousins, Joseph and Doris Brodkey (the S.L. and Leila or Lila in his fiction), who lived in University City, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brodkey graduated from Harvard (cum laude) in 1952, the same year he married Joanna Brown (they were divorced in 1962), with whom he had a daughter, Emily Ann. In his early twenties he began to publish stories in The New Yorker magazine, which were collected to form his first book, First Love and Other Sorrows (1957). The title sardonically recalls the melancholic longing of the European romantic movement. The difference is that Brodkey's protagonists—boys, college students, young marrieds—are unheroic, suburban, and American. They reach for levels of passion and sublimity beyond their capacity, Brodkey all the while maintaining a tone of tender pathos. The first story, “The State of Grace,” recounts the failure of an unnamed thirteen-year-old boy to make a connection of redemptive love with Edward, a beautiful seven-year-old. In the last five of the nine stories, Brodkey portrays Laura—sensitive, intelligent, a representative white middle-class female of the 1950s—from adolescence to marriage and young motherhood. Two of these five stories are parodically titled: Piping down the Valleys Wild (a William Blake poem of paradisiacal vision) and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (a reference to the powerfully sensual woman in William Shakespeare's sonnets). Laura and her world, Brodkey wants us to know, are poignantly distant from what Blake and Shakespeare evoked. In its depiction of innocence and loss, First Love and Other Sorrows resembles the stories of two other New Yorker writers of the 1950s—J. D. Salinger and John UpdikeLess
Access to the complete content on Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature requires a subscription or purchase. Public users are able to search the site and view the abstracts and keywords for each book and chapter without a subscription. If you are a student or academic complete our librarian recommendation form to recommend the Oxford Research Encyclopedias to your librarians for an institutional free trial.
If you have purchased a print title that contains an access token, please see the token for information about how to register your code.