Beginning my Studies
BEGINNING my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness—these forms—the power of motion,
The least insect or animal—the senses—eyesight—love;
The first step, I say, aw’d me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone, and hardly wish’d to go, any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time, to sing it in extatic songs.
It is an easy, and perhaps a dangerous thing to indulge in this joyful vice of Walt Whitman’s, in which he captures the ecstasy inherent in the new. That would be new to the observer, for the most part, as the thing learned, the newness experienced, had usually lain in wait for that discoverer, possibly still glistening from birth, but more likely in wait an untold age. Easy, because it pleases the eye, the soul, the imagination, to learn, to see the new and to see the familiar, anew. The danger is the highwayman of piqued interest, robbing our currency of attention and diverting it down myriad unexpected paths. Literary Brooklyn, as it must, begins with Walt Whitman, a literary lion king, with the mane to prove it.
It offers glimpses of some of the many who have put pen or pencil to paper, or converted their notions into reality via keyboards, mechanical and electronic. The organization is chronological, and offers the side benefit of a look at the history of the place. Many more are excluded than are to be found here. But that is the nature of the creatively fertile land that has again become, arguably, the literary capital of the country.
You might drop in on Bartleby’s if you do not have handy a copy of Leaves of Grass, perhaps the greatest indie-publishing effort ever. It is a touchstone for this collection of essays. Whitman presumed to speak for the multitudes, the common men and women of his time and into the future. Evan Hughes notes how the authors he subsequently profiles reflect the common people of their times.
The list is, of course, a who’s who, even for those of us who managed to get through our education with only minimal inconvenience from English/Literature classes. The primary focus is on the 20th century. Whitman, of course, anchors the 19th, and the 21st is offered some consideration as well. There are thirteen chapters in all. You may recognize some of these names from chapter headings: Henry Miller, Thomas Wolfe, Bernard Malamud, Richard Wright, Truman Capote, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Pete Hamill and Paul Auster. At least these were the ones known to me. There are others whose names, if not necessarily their work, was new. Their stories are definitely worth the time to stop and loiter.
“In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.”
Thus opens William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and it tells the tale of why many of us have settled here.
I am extremely proud to be a Brooklynite, and would be even were the place not so rich in history. I came here in 1980, for the same reason most of these writers did, those who were not raised here, anyway, namely Manhattan was prohibitively expensive. Although it is not the case today that Brooklyn rent is manageable, at least in neighborhoods closer to Manhattan, (I know mine isn’t, and I do not live in one of those frou-frou neighborhoods you might have heard of) the cost of buying or renting a place in Manhattan is enough to induce a cardiac event or a sudden compulsion to either rob banks or, less dramatically, reverse Horace Greeley’s (another transplant to NYC, although not Brooklyn) advice and “go east.” Jimmy McMillan would have been right in any era.
Here is a brief summary of my sojourn from Manhattan to Brooklyn, but really, who cares? So, please feel free to skip it. I began my less than global journey in Da Bronx, with a considerable stay in 1970s Manhattan during my twenties. The Upper West Side then was less economically daunting than it is now. My block, 81st Street, featured Davey’s Tavern, notable for the reliable accumulation of pimp-mobiles lined up on the block. One time some friends and I followed a trail of blood from Davey’s into Central Park only a few blocks east before coming to our senses and returning to our less thrill-seeking lives. The other end of the block featured an SRO of low repute, supposedly owned, at least in part, by one of New York’s senators. I paid a hundred bucks a month for a room in someone else’s apartment while working nights at the Post Office and going to school by day. I loved living in Manhattan. I went to college and studied for my masters there. It was possible to walk across Central Park from home to grad school, and back again, if the weather was agreeable. The American Museum of Natural History was a block away. Lincoln Center was a manageable walk south. When my then girlfriend and I moved in together in 1976, it was to a modern one bedroom apartment in the mid-70s between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues. But it was also a time of rapid change. Even though Brooklyn was considered the boonies to many of us living in “the city,” landlords were paying torches to clear their properties. The West Side of Manhattan had already been undergoing massive redevelopment and the push was on. Unless one was in one of the higher-paying lines of work, it became difficult, and ultimately impossible, to remain. For what it would have cost us to hang on to our one-bedroom when it was time to renew our lease, we were steered by an interested family member to a relatively massive three bedroom rental in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood. Gentrification was pushing us to that outer borough. Married now, and knowing that we would be starting a family, reality set in. There really was no choice. As it was for so many before us, we had to adapt to economic reality.
While Hughes does dip into earlier times (The Revolutionary War “Battle of Long Island” took place in Brooklyn, only a few miles from home. Abolitionist activity in the mid 19th century was significant) mostly he tracks some of the development of Brooklyn over a century or so with each piece of his story, showing how the writing of each particular era reflects what was going on at that time. From Whitman’s pre-bridge days, when Brooklyn was its own city, through the construction of one of the true marvels of its time, The Brooklyn Bridge, in 1883, through 1898, when Brooklyn merged with and became subsumed under New York City (in what many called the “Great Mistake of 1898”). He touches on the boom era of the 20s, the Depression, World War II and its aftermath, (Brooklyn Navy Yard ring a bell?) suburbanization and the national abandonment of cities in the 50s, and not just by the Dodgers, a bit of the decline of the city in the 60s and 70s, and then the revival from the 80s onward. He even takes note of the more recent real estate gentrification, and the blossoming of Brooklyn, again, as an artistic and literary capital.
There does seem to have been a particular concentration of talent in the neighborhood known as Brooklyn Heights. A few of the writers find themselves in digs that were once inhabited by the Roeblings, the family responsible for constructing the bridge. Generations touch each other in such ways. The Heights is economically inaccessible to all but the well-to-do and has been for a long time. But there have been times when less fearsomely expensive accommodations could be found at the fringes of the neighborhood, particularly as one neared the water and descended from the high ground to the lower. Where today there is a lovely park along the water, in days of yore, it was more of a working port, with the associations one could expect with places maritime, boarding houses, rowdy drinking establishments, houses of ill repute, crime. Mother’s milk for the adventurous wordsmith.
[Despite having lived in NYC all my life, and having lived in Brooklyn for over thirty years, I have never, ever heard anyone use this word/expression anywhere outside a commercial or other prepared media.]
By the time Richard Wright moved into a particular Brooklyn Heights house in 1942, the place had already “been home to a rotating ensemble cast of writers and other artists for two years. During that span it hosted not only nightly dinner parties of a kind but frequent all-night parties where the guest list doubled as a Who’s Who of twentieth-century creative and intellectual life.” At one point a group of writers shared this place, which had become known as the ”February House” for the number of residents who had birthdays then. You might recognize some of these names, Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), W.H. Auden (at the time one of the most famous poets in the world), Gypsy Rose Lee (“I wasn’t naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight”), who was writing a novel, Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky), in addition to several of Thomas Mann’s children. The social set included Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya, among others, and a few blocks away Truman Capote was working on his magnum opus, In Cold Blood. Not exactly the stuff of a caricatured, “toid avenue ‘n toidy toid street” accent fame.
The changes to Brooklyn have been considerable. Completion of the bridge was a dramatic leap, allowing access to many more people, increasing demand for housing and other services, and allowing folks to live in relatively inexpensive Brooklyn, while working in Manhattan. Connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan by subway was another great jump in integrating the two cities. For each period, Hughes offers one or several writers, and for more recent times, creative sorts in areas outside the purely written word.
There are many images that will stay with you from this reading. Richard Wright sitting on a bench in Fort Greene park, with pad and pen, (There is a bench there now, dedicated to him) Hart Crane looking through his apartment windows towards the bridge built by Roeblings, who had worked in that very apartment, Gypsy Rose Lee joining a small group of writers sharing a place in the Hts and shaking things up, William Styron hearing the noise of lovemaking upstairs in his Flatbush rooming house, an introduction to the character of Sophie he would write about decades later, Norman Mailer sitting down to eat with his mother every week over the years as he blusters, and occasionally stabs his way through six marriages, a very large Thomas Wolfe pecking away at his typewriter, generating avalanches of paper in his minimally appointed living space.
The books cited in this modest volume could fill a lifetime with superb reading. The bibliography would serve well for required reading for a PhD or three. There is a lot going on here and a lot has gone on before, with or without tiny hats, irony and attitude.
Betty Smith, brought up in Williamsburg, wrote, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, about how life persists, and even thrives in a seemingly difficult place. Maurice Sendak, a Brooklyn born and raised child of immigrants, in Where the Wild Things Are, tells us, “That very night in Max’s room a forest grew…and the walls became the world all around.” And so it is with Brooklyn. It can be difficult to tell the forest from the trees. There are rather a lot of them reaching for the sky here these days, even with the loss from Sandy, a rare unwelcome immigrant, as more and more creative sorts take up residence in New York City’s most populous borough, not only writers but film-makers, musicians, visual artists, dancers. Evan Hughes has offered a framework in which to try to get a handle on how Brooklyn has changed over the decades and on how the premiere literature that has been written and/or was inspired here reflects those changes. It remains to be seen what artistic wonders will emerge in the years to come, but if history is any guide, there will be continuity of greatness with the past, likely to be achieved, ironically, by considering the lives of the ordinary.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more
curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in
my meditations, than you might suppose
From Crossing Brooklyn Ferry – W. Whitman
There is a map at the beginning of the book. It shows the borough, with numbered dots, each number associated with a writer, most writers having more than one entry. If you get the urge, this would help organize any tour you might care to make.
Our most famous film star, one of the most popular film characters of all time, was born under Ebbett’s field, Bug Bunny. And Brooklyn has produced or housed a plentiful supply of other performing artists. Barbra Streisand, Lauren Bacall, Mel Brooks, Neil Diamond, Mae West, Harvey Keitel, Woody Guthrie, Jackie Gleason, Howard Cosell, Mel Brooks, and Steve Buscemi, to name a few. To see a larger selection, you might try here .
A literary map of Brooklyn – this is amazing
A nifty Currier and Ives image of Brooklyn
NY Times review by Dwight Garner
California Literary Review
Famous Brooklynites – there are more than a few