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From New York City: Letter
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For further relevant reading, see the Milton Klonsky material in  these web pages

From New York City: Letter to the Inhabitants

The New Yorker
4 Times Square
New York, NY 10036
October 21, 1999

 

 

 


Further Comments on "White Like Me," by Henry L. Gates, Jr., in the 1996 New Yorker exclusive, in which it was stated—in a 15-page spread—that very few people knew the racial heritage of Anatole Broyard, former New York Times senior editor.

            This story, "White Like Me" (June 17, 1996, by the brilliant Harvard professor Henry L. Gates Jr., sometimes called a "superstar"), was supposed to be the startling posthumous core revelation in the biography of the New York Times editor/critic Anatole Broyard. Impeccably well written, it was convincing. But as I pondered in the months since, it became clear that the slant should be corrected. It took time to come to this conclusion; the story appeared to cover all angles.

            The well-known Harvard University writer, author of this essay, took a portion of a biography (from interviews, primarily) and—perhaps understandably—generalized from the available material. He was evidently unaware of the impression retained among others of Anatole Broyard's friends and acquaintances.

                To go back, then, to 1966. I was introduced to him by his "closest friend for many years"[1] (quoting the article, p. 69: this was "the poet and Blake scholar"), Milton Klonsky, who said to me that we were to be joined by not just a friend of his, not just a Times reporter. But—going out of his way to make sure I did not miss this point—a black man. I could not see that fact as obvious, nor even pertinent. So it was made completely clear. Now, I was not the only one in the world that had this experience. Nor was I even admonished not to tell anyone of it. I had the impression everyone knew; I saw no attempt to conceal it. It was not a deficit in that (Greenwich Village) community in that 60s period. Nor would it have been among that group, in any period. (On p. 69, Anne Bernays says that Milton Klonsky had told her of Anatole's heritage; she and I are not the only two people that he, to name one "source," told—he being the "closest" lifelong friend of Anatole Broyard. Thus having his blessing to do so—one would conclude.)

  1. To move on, about seven months before Anatole died, I revisited him, up in Cambridge. That is a revealing story—worthy of being part of his professional record. Collecting material from the 60s for his memoirs (published as Kafka Was the Rage, but not getting so far as the 60s), he was collecting from me what he called "Milton stories." ("People want to read about the 60s," he said.) That chapter never appeared. (For clarity's sake, let me say that the Margaret in the publication is not myself.) The material which he talked about that day what he intended to focus on—is unrecorded. He had set the chapter up, researched the material, the slant, the focus (perhaps the "surprising switch"), then walked out. And the book ended—not on the note of what it would have said and the impression it would have left.  He was jumping on the trampoline, sure he was going to live, in high artistic inspiration, when I talked to him by telephone, just after this conversation. Sometime later I learned that that October, he was dead, leaving a manuscript that could not conclude on the point proposed.
  2. As to why some people or whole communities knew that he was black (and if like me, thought that everyone did), whereas others thought the contrary, I think it important to add some data. For instance, in the conversation referred to above (in 1990), he cited a cherished value—which, in poetic justice, obliquely or implicitly addresses this question. Ironically, he had avoided the disparity of being looked down on, due purely to birth certificate (H. L. Gates, Jr. interprets his choice as one in which "Anatole Broyard, Negro writer, was the larger lie," which he deleted from his life). But there was another side to that coin. He became looked up to. There is some suggestion (in the comments quoted) that he coveted this position. Anyone would. That suggestion is not entirely correct, however—belied by his exact words in 1990. He opened up to say, that he was greatly thinking about and missing Milton Klonsky—in that (word for word), "After he died no one talked to me as an equal." Without interacting and dialoguing on equal grounds, life missed something, paled. He said—pertinent to the description in the Gates essay, of Anatole as often "ironical"—Milton Klonsky was "an ironist" with him ("a romantic" with me: MK had said to me, on this topic, "You've never played with me. I can go to any carnival. Put on any mask. [Pausing.] I'm an ironist—on the very highest level.") That "very highest level" was perhaps the key, where settling the aspect of the racial factor would not be the end of it. Indeed, once given the privilege of equality, that you exercised it. Quotes in the essay did not bring this in. (Klonsky was known for indirection, when not being blunt. Anatole is accused of this same style, as if it meant insincerity were or a drawback, if used. He lightly said the word here in Cambridge, as if it stated a certain breadth of approach, an ability to stand in distance, the way humor or self-deflection does. Or all the possibilities the true ironist knows how to assert.)
  3. I believe this and other "replies" will turn up data that belongs in his
    Papers. If the added record is not printed in The New Yorker, I will look for somewhere in which to preserve this data, be it in his Collected Papers. The touchingly "human" narrative of how he waited in the snow, recovering from cancer, positive, generous, in the January before he died—the beautiful pair of photos I took at that moment, young and healthy-looking. This and other aspects. Unincluded information of how he came to write "What the Cystoscope Said," for instance. Also, the counter-reply—that in his generation, not only he and Ralph Ellison had writer's block; nor (further) was he alone in receiving a never-fulfilled advance for a manuscript. Further, as to why Chandler Brossard was asked to delete a reference in the text of the unpublished of Who Walk in Darkness, I have extra info.
  4. Though here in America, there are numerous opportunities to read book reviews, if you jump to a country like Romania, where authors (such as Arthur Koestler) were blacklisted, you will notice how the intellectuals, even now, value the Sunday literary section of the Times. Who Anatole Broyard was and what he contributed belongs, in fact, in an international context, such as there, where there was no concern what color might have gone into the genes, to create the information and style appreciated.
  5. The essay does not mention the caricature factor (watermelon/black) in the manuscript of Who Walk in Darkness. What he would have replied to this 1996 New Yorker story, we do not know. We do know (or I know) what happened in the case of an earlier misunderstanding, when his father misconstrued the motive of a deathbed suggestion, in which the intention was to remove pain.
  6. What was shocking in some quarters must have been that the "revelation" was considered a well-kept secret. Also, that many writers are praised (considered interesting) for "inventing themselves." Take Faulkner, as example. So even here, because of having certain blood, was one to be denied a privilege accorded to artists, right and left—to invent the way they see themselves, use their life material inside their creativity. No one said, "This is a matter to be kept hush-hush." This is a truly troubling point. Though an eminently researched opening presentation, which is highly contributive—up to the point it stopped, due to (probably) the inaccessibility of other material.

             There must be at least one person on The New Yorker staff who would be interested in hearing what material is available, to revert to a fairer portrait of such a figure in the US publishing scene.

Very sincerely yours, with the highest respect for your great publication,


MARGARET A. HARRELL

Postnote: No one was. Though kindly replying that this was their position.


 

          West 4th Street: Human Like Me
Another Look at the Portrayal of Anatole Broyard, in "White Like Me"

           West 4th Street, the location where, as reported in "White Like Me," Anatole Broyard, stepping out of the subway, became white, is ironically precisely the street where Milton Klonsky lived, though not precisely at the subway. Two of Milton Klonsky's[2] best friends were Anatole Broyard and Seymour (Sy) Krim. They were very different as writers, but they belonged to the same literary period, which Krim has characterized in What's This Cat's Story?[3] , explaining how the high value put on intellectualism affected his generation rather adversely—noteworthily including himself. Krim's kinetic effusiveness of style is opposed to that of the New York Times critic Broyard, who was uneffusive, while being exquisite (see Kafka Was the Rage).

            What causes me to write this, even having waited some time to do so, is that I saw Anatole nine months before he died, and that from the first day I was introduced to him—back in 1966—I was not told I was to meet Anatole Broyard, the writer/critic, but Anaole Broyard, the writer/critic, who was black (or was the phrase "spade"?). This seemed unnecessary, but I had no choice but to learn this. Anyone whom Milton Klonsky, Anatole's "closest friend for many years," introduced to him got this information up front, as if it were the most open nonsecret in the world, and with no restrictions whatsoever about whom one told. For this reason, I was completely taken aback and baffled at the implication that "the world" did not know this (in a fascinating, masterful New Yorker revelation after his death).

           Certainly what I would call the Greenwich Village world—in particular, the West 4th Street world[4]—did know him. Any reporter (back then) could have dug up the information, despite the fact that he did not brandish it on letterheads. I could have written a news story about it and in fact when Anatole and Milton were typecast as characters in the manuscript of Who Walk in Darkness, the author was threatened with a suit for caricature by Anatole (the character based on was to be depicted with the flagrant detail of "eating a watermelon"). Thus, caricature. This particular information I received from Milton Klonsky.

            Milton Klonsky would never have endured a friendship in which, as Anatole himself said, in his obituary tribute, there was any "compromise" whatsoever ("which," he said—the refusal of compromise in a relationship—"condemned him to a rather lonely life"). The racial detail about him was stated without stress or emphasis—just included, if no other part of the introduction were kept. 

            I happened to live in Greenwich Village in the last half of the 60s, just around the corner from Milton Klonsky (who lived between West 4th and West 11th streets), during which time I saw Klonsky many evenings. Jumping to nine months before Anatole died: after not seeing him during the intervening years, I had an appointment for a dramatic meeting with him in Cambridge. I would like to record the graciousness of that meeting and something of the subject. He was working on Kafka Was the Rage. By the flukes of life, then, I have some insight into how the book would have gone on. For at our meeting, he was convinced he would live, would finish it; just afterwards when I telephoned, and instead of letting the machine speak, he picked up, he said he had been "working out on the trampoline." That he felt great, in high energy, inspired. That he was going on with his chapter of Milton stories (the chapter perhaps never written, certainly never published); that he approved the character creation in the text by me I had given him,[5] in that he found himself now calling "Milton" (as he wrote his own 60s text) "Robert" (in his mind). "Robert" was the fictional name that I used. There could have been no greater blessing given me, than that the publication I envisioned was honorable.

            Let us describe that snowy day in Cambridge at the train station, in 1990, after not seeing each other for 20 years. He a famous critic.

            The ground was covered with snow. I came in by train. He had assured me that he would wait at a particular place near the station exit. I couldn't find him. After twenty minutes, I telephoned his home, to see if he was there. He was still at the station, waiting. Then I saw him. It was easy to recognize this handsome man in the snow, wearing a scarf around his neck, which—in that it hid the wrinkles you see on other photos on book covers—left the impression of a man 50. He did not say, or imply, that he was young. He had told me on the phone he was "an old man now." Nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I took two, as it turned out, showpiece photos; from them, anyone can see this is a beautiful person: in one, he is smiling; in another, looking reflectively, or introspectively, down, at nowhere in focus.

            He was recovering from cancer, he told me; that he was going to be all right, but that he had a cold (even so, he had waited in the snow); and so he invited me to a light, informal lunch. Remembering him from the late 60s, I would have expected nothing else, though he didn't know it. He said he was writing his memoirs on the 1960s ("People are interested in the 60s"), currently "collecting Milton stories." As his Kafka never reached the 60s, this now looks extremely poignant. He said to me "You were an important person in Milton's life." (He had the plan of contacting other people as well; I say this, in case they never found out.) He also showed no judgment at my choices in life. He said, "You seem to have found the formula for happiness." I have to admit that in such a situation, I could not remember the stories I can now, stories partly prompted by reading Kafka Was the Rage. As the book ended, and I knew that he had died only nine months after this meeting, that I had seen him hopeful, artistically energized, and that this had all been reversed,  then playing out conversation, I realized (or interpreted) that the book did not end where it was intended to, at least on that January day in Cambridge. I searched my memory for what I had not brought to mind then. I would have reminded him about one of Milton's favorite stories—how much Delmore Schwartz loved the Giants. That one day when Delmore's[6] radio broke, he listened to the rest of the game on Milton's radio—telephoning to ask him to put the receiver by the radio and let him listen till the end, which he did. Or I could have noted that Milton said that Delmore and Anatole were so handsome that when they used to walk down a Village street together, a whole street of heads turned to look at them.

            I also remembered—per the end of Kafka, which implies the opposite (at the end of Kafka, Anatole is finding solace in feminine beauty, in pointed contrast to Klonsky, who is not; and Anatole uses the situation to hold forth on a seemingly philosophical value of his), how "What the Cystoscope Said" came into being:

             Anatole's father was dying, in very great pain. The son thought his father would appreciate if he offered to put him "out of pain," by bringing extra medicine. The father did not appreciate the suggestion. He misunderstood. Milton suggested they go on a double date, to take his mind off it. To get the full impact of this requires reading the closing implication in the final chapter in Anatole's posthumous publication. In an exact reverse of the last paragraph there (of the manuscript as it stood at Anatole's death), as if it were a dichotomy laid out with a ruler, in this turning point in his career, so far as achieving skyrocketing fame for it, it is Anatole who rejects all prospect of diluting the pain or deflection. And sits down in solitude at his typewriter, to produce the monument to the memory of the incident concerning his father's death. Thus becoming anthologized in short story collections—in fact giving him a certain fame. It was partly in remembering this that I felt a no, at the end of his book. The structure of the prior chapters practiced the technique of impression reversal. The next chapter, I felt sure, would have reversed—or shown the contrary side—as he recaptured his masterful decision, the day he began "What the Cystoscope Said." How could it end, short of showing this reverse facet, as prior chapters had—in the technique he handled so gracefully: to convince the reader of a stated situation, then follow that buildup (that uncontrovertible impression) with a total 180-degree shift, even what the reader thought engraved in solid rock. So what impressions of himself would he, the writer, reverse, had he gone on? Even some impressions that he himself had not seen through the pattern of; Milton had called writing "heuristic." It was a place where you learned, about yourself also.

            As Anatole and Milton conversed daily at the end of Milton's life, so Anatole told me, he added that "After Milton died, no one talked to me as an equal." It was a stunning moment.

            "Cystoscope" showed himself in the act of understanding that his father did not want to be spared even excruciating physical pain; in biographical life. Remembering the surprise due to his father's shock—bringing great energy to the task first in the writing and parallel to that, in the life situation—he might, had he lived, have tackled the corners where the race issue lurked. Writing induces virtually simultaneous shifts in consciousness and priority, when a topic creates a breakthrough, in the act of writing on it.  We see this in the memoirs of Carl Jung, where he comments that he picked up, for his autobiographical reflections, only places still holding energy—that is, saved till then to be dealt with. Those situations already dealt with had no energy and were ignored in his autobiography. That is, it is sometimes the very structure of a writer's life that subjects s/he is intended to deal with, in the writing, hold the energy until used in that way. This block—being opened, at the time of death—left "open" what he would then have done about it. He died, knowing full well that this so-called secret would not "die" with him.

            So I didn't come up with valuable Milton stories for Anatole that day. I could bring up many now.

            I also remembered how Milton had finished that conversation the day when he told me "When the time comes to finish—just finish." He had exclaimed, "They were waiting for me." That is, his friends. Was it true? This was no an arrogant statement, but something almost gasped, as if wrenched out. The conversation was on the subject of his advice about writing ("I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did." Pause. "Though in many ways, they weren't mistakes.") By his friends waiting for him, I took it to mean that it was a group, blocked in a force field; and that they were waiting, as it were, for the first step forward of one—at which point as a group they would have all begun to race onto the literary (perhaps world) scene. This was the impression in Krim's portrait, when he pictured Klonsky as having the potential to be an Einstein or other great pioneer. In the coterie around Krim in the fifties, such predictions could seem reasonable, as they routinely had what Krim called almost illegally high ambitions. A New York intellectual environment that did not produce in literature this imagined result, but was virtually unreported on, in the figures that one by one dropped out.

            Cyril Connolly had written of Milton Klonsky, in a London publication, that there were people who were friends of very famous people, who were quoted by them and sometimes turned into characters. But who were less-famous themselves. He said that perhaps they were "too proud to compete." He said Milton Klonsky was such a person for his generation.  I had thought that he didn't do enough. When I approached Anatole, reflecting this idea of Krim's and of myself, Anatole said that he thought Milton did rather a lot. He began to list what he thought were the important works. This unarrogant, generous judgment, I felt, was evidently the way he saw ambition, and his own seasoned choices in his life. As we know, writing can be a great healer and self-interpreter. In the end, approaching this chapter, on the 60s, something stopped the writer. And I, having seen how intent he was, on going forward, find it a more intriguing question than the one of race; for after all, I knew about that for 24 years beforehand, and could have myself "blown the whistle" at any second. But I thought everyone knew. I encountered the reference from the moment of having an appointment with him one night in 1966, set up by Milton Klonsky, who was there too. The Harlem story, in Kafka, makes the information on his birth certificate, as C, transparently probable. He fit in down there in Harlem. Why? But he also had the manners of a gentleman. He went to great lengths to honor Klonsky's memory, which he thought deserved, in a shared story as a Times Obituary for Klonsky. That, to him, was important. Really important. He made dead-sure that it got done.

            I somehow feel, having listened in 1990 as he told me, at the end of his life, the value he put on being "talked to ... as an equal," the time had come to turn the tables and be very very sure that slant was mentioned, along with the other information.

            It gives extraordinarily profound precision, to say of someone that he "wanted to be a writer, not a black writer. So he chose to live a lie rather than be trapped by the truth." I found this indefensible. What I did find defensible, on the other hand, was the perceptive comment: "Broyard had confessed enough in his time to know that confession did nothing for the soul. He preferred to communicate his truths on higher frequencies." On the other hand, while I am sure it is true he "preferred to communicate his truths on higher frequencies," I am not sure about the first part—based on a quotation I took down, in which MK said precisely that he (himself) liked to "beat upon my breast"; i.e., his graphic picture, with its ancient references, to confession. If, as Anatole graciously said of Milton (in print), one could not "presume" to say anything about him, it's seems "ironic"—that's it—that one can say everything about himself, seizing on a facet, his Birth Certificate, penned down by people who (as Gates helpfully documented) did so, the very next year after "close to" 100 blacks were "lynched." (This would be a good place to take a look at a dream Anatole reported.) In the new century, we will not confine people to one single frame of references—as here. Though this material on race should not have to be excluded. But we will multiply and make combinations, diagonals—as he, I believe, already did.


 

[1] See the March 7 obituary of Klonsky written by Broyard for The New York Times Book Review Supplement (1982), in which he uses this phrase ("His originality was such that though he was my closest friend for many years, he would suddenly strike me as a total stranger," a phrase perhaps instructive in the present circumstances). As a sidelight of this sentence, he was defining originality—that it might include the ability to totally surprise. If it did so, it could be looked at from that point of view, though it could also be put into other lists of motivations and value (or psychological or sociological) systems. Which was it, ultimately and primarily?? Was it originality, and thus organic in the total personality or soul level, or was it primarily an escape or complex of some sort. The answer was all-important if a judgment were to be reached.

[2] Milton Klonsky, described as a Greenwich Village "poet genius," a cult figure to Village literary people, in a book on "New York City in the 50s," and as having "an IQ that could stutter your butter"—by Seymour Krim, in an essay on him, reprinted in his final posthumously published 1991 essay selections—was commissioned to write his memoirs on W. H. Auden, by The New Yorker, but died in the process in 1981. This long essay on Auden was included in his own (Milton Klonsky's) posthumous selected essays, as "Chester, Wystan, Rhoda, and Me: A Fragment" (pp. 89-101, in A Discourse on Hip); it is otherwise-unpublished documentation about Auden, including the one nonhomosexual affair that he had, which was with Klonsky's estranged wife. Klonsky told me, which is nowhere published, that he eventually came to believe that it was Auden's roundabout relationship with him, that caused the deflected affair with his already-distant wife. Klonsky was friends with the other literary notables of the day, including such writers as James Ages. Klonsky begins the essay, walking along "West 4th St.," reading the Times. Having unfortuitously died while writing this commissioned article for The New Yorker, he is probably, for this accidental reason, not known to The New Yorker readers, though he is known to readers (in the past) of Commentary, Partisan Review, Hudson Review, etc. He was a very central figure in the coteries described in "White Like Me," and was featured in the final paragraph of Kafka Was the Rage, in its posthumously published form—which was not as Anatole, had he lived, intended to continue it. He intended to continue, with a chapter of 1960s memoirs, beginning with his "Milton stories"—but ended the book in a broken-off version, cut short by his own death. In the accounts above, information was terminated as these figures of a generation of New York City friends and intellectuals tried to record their memories. Klonsky was the topic Anatole Broyard had reached in his memoirs, when he himself died, in 1990. The brief description, concluding the book, was not what he indicated to me was the note he wanted. Yet again, Klonsky did not go onto the record in any update since Krim's essay in the way he otherwise would have. The comments included here (in the current short essay) come from two sources primarily: Anatole Broyard himself and Milton Klonsky—who at one point talked to him daily, at other points weekly. Anatole himself said it was daily, in the late period. If anyone needs to comment on the record, and cannot himself, it would be this person, whom Anatole described, in print as "my closest friend for many years," a New York City intellectual "poet genius," who was Jewish, white, of Russian ancestry. Published  in 1991, A Discourse on Hip [7], his Selected Writings, was expected by the publisher to take off by word of mouth; therefore, was never publicized. Therefore, this information was virtually unavailable to any researcher. Only by looking in the poet Delmore Schwartz's letters, and in the index finding the reference to a letter Klonsky wrote to the Draft Board, would one have some documentary idea where to start looking for anecdotes. Schwartz said that Klonsky wrote the Draft Board, who drafter him, that being a poet he could not be called away on such short notice. The Draft Board relinquished, and gave him an extension from the Draft of six months—to get his papers readied.

[3] The posthumous Paragon House selected essays, which Krim participated in collecting—among which was the reprint of his 1960 essay, entitled "Milton Klonsky."

[4] The article specifically says, that stepping out on West 4th Street, Anatole Broyard became white, which is, ironically, the very street on which Milton Klonsky had his walk-up Village apartment. Thus, in all Greenwich Village, this is the one street it would be least accurate to cite. 

[5] We had set up the meeting, to recall "Milton stories"–on his part, for his memoirs. I had in fact taken down many of the fabled phrases of Milton Klonsky, that made him a cult figure (verbatim, as he said them). This picked up where Krim's essay, ending at 1960, stopped. I came on the scene in 1965. 

[6] On the very night that Delmore died, he went down to the Village. And he met Milton. I was almost there but had just left. They talked. It was one of the very final moments in Delmore Schwartz's life, and his old friend was there, perhaps representing all the old friends who would have liked to be there. How was his mind? I asked. It went in and out of lucidity, I was told. But at times, it was "completely lucid."

[7] A Discourse on Hip: Selected Writings of Milton Klonsky (T. Solotaroff, Ed.). Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press.

 

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