© The Nobel Foundation
Joseph Brodsky


American Jewish Recipients of the Nobel Prize


Joseph Brodsky: Nobel Prize
in Literature Recipient-1987

by Seymour “Sy” Brody

Joseph Brodsky was an American Jewish recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987. He was the Poet Laureate of the United States, 1991-1992.

He wrote his poems in Russian and his prose in English. He wrote his poems in the classical and traditional styles. He dealt with themes that were moral, religious and historical.

He was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on May 24, 1940. His father was a professional photographer in the Soviet Russia Navy. When he was young, he survived the Siege of Leningrad in World War II.

When he was in the first grade, he began to despise Lenin, not because of political philosophy, because his pictures were everywhere in school. His experiences with anti-Semitism, in school by his classmates, occurred quite often.

Brodsky dropped out of school when he was fifteen. He had problems staying on a job. Between 1956 and 1962, he had 13 jobs.

In 1957, Brodsky engaged in a program of self education. He learned English and Polish so that he could read the works of others and also translate them. He was an avid reader and he picked up books wherever he could find them, even in a garbage dump.

One of his favorite quotes about reading books was: “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

He started writing poetry when he was 17 years old. His poetry was not political. He was encouraged by the poet Anna Akhmatova, who was enchanted with his writing.

Brodsky was convicted of being a “social parasite” by a Soviet court. He was sentenced to five years of internal exile. Many writers came to his defense and he was finally released without finishing his sentence.

Joseph Brodsky went into self-exile in 1972 and finally came to the United States. He became a citizen in 1980 and he started teaching literature and poetry in the colleges. His first position was at the University of Michigan. He was a visiting professor at Queens College, Smith College. Columbia University and Cambridge University in England.

In 1978, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at Yale University. In 1979, he was inducted as a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

When he was at the Stockholm Airport, on his way to receive the Nobel Prize, in 1978, an interviewer asked him, “You are an American receiving the Prize for Russian language poetry. “Who are you; an American or a Russian?” He replied, “I am Jewish.”

Joseph Brodsky died of a heart attack in his Apartment in New York City on January 28, 1996 and was buried in Italy

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