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REVIEWING

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life

by Evan Hughes


Henry Holt | 2011 | 335 pages | $24.00

Reviewed by Fred Beauford


evan hughes

On the Waterfront

I have a confession to make that might just shock some of you old time readers of this magazine, given my ongoing, shameless display of Bronx chauvinism, and my obvious distaste and love of bashing Brooklyn every chance I get.

In the army, as a teenage wise guy from New York City, I strutted about like a young peacock, grabbing my crouch at every chance, and talked much trash and acted like the know-it-all I still am.

I told all the guys I was from Brooklyn, trying my best to talk out of the side of my mouth, as they looked on at me in slightly baffled amusement.

For some reason, Brooklyn just sounded more badass than being from the unsung Bronx, with only the white shoe Yankees to brag about.

There, it’s finally off my chest, and I feel better already.

***

Brooklyn outclassed us rubes in the Bronx in terms of literary output as well, not being satisfied with being the widely acknowledged tough guys of New York City.  In fact, Evan Hughes’ highly entertaining literary history lesson, Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, shows us that Brooklyn also gave Manhattan’s famed Greenwich Village a run for its money as a haven for creative writers.

We touched on this once in the Neworld Review, in Jan Alexander’s groundbreaking essay on Carson McCullers, and her stay at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, made famous in the book, February House by Sherill Tippins, which she shared with, among others, W.H. Auden, Klaus Mann and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Hughes gives us engaging portraits of off and on Brooklyn literary residents like Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, the aforementioned February House, Truman Cupote, William Styron and Norman Mailer, among others.

His concise, well-researched biographic sketches of the writers in Literary Brooklyn are fully brought to life, and are alone well worth the price of the book.

***

Because this is also a book about the physical and economic development of Brooklyn, Hughes provides the proper context for why it became such a magnet for literary types.

When Walt Whitman, “the grandfather of literary Brooklyn,” first arrived as a child of three, in 1823, “it was a place so different from the huge urban mass of today…that it is scarcely possible to hold it in the mind’s eye,” Hughes writes.

One interesting historical tidbit around this time jumped out at me from his book: “In 1800, before slaveholding was abolished in New York State, in 1827, about 60 percent of the white households within Brooklyn’s current borders owned at least one slave, the highest proportion in the north,” he writes.

In the first years of his 30s, Whitman was writing his self-published masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, which Hughes points out, “drew breath from the people of Brooklyn.” A little over ten years later, at the eve of the Civil War, Brooklyn had grown from a quiet little village of five thousand during Whitman’s childhood, to the nation’s third largest city.

“Part of what spurred the growth,” Hughes writes, ”was Brooklyn’s investment in an industrial waterfront that competed with Manhattan’s. By the time that Henry Miller’s family moved to Williamsburg in the early 1890s soon after his birth, this is what Manhattan had become, as Harper’s magazine had noted a few decades earlier: ‘What was then a decent and orderly town of moderate size, has been converted into a huge semi-barbarous metropolis—one half as luxurious and artistic as Paris, the other half as savage as Cairo and Constantinople—not well-governed, but simply not governed at all’.”

Hughes points out that “by the time Miller was born, Brooklyn had become something of a release valve, a place New Yorkers came in search of a haven, but also a place where trouble tended to follow them.”

And come they did. In fact, so many Jews fled the crowded tenements of lower Manhattan that soon over 40 percent of Jews in New York were living in Brooklyn. By this time, Brooklyn was no longer a separate city, but had joined with the rest of New York, much to the dismay of many of its citizens.

Manhattan was becoming a polarized place of lavish townhouses and mansions for the well-off, and dismal tenements for almost everyone else, which eventually led to the building of the famous brownstones that Brooklyn is still famous for, as well as attached houses and roomy apartment buildings, all kept to a smaller scale than Manhattan or the Bronx.

People got to know each other in Brooklyn neighborhoods, which only added to the borough’s charm and rapid growth.

But a seamier side of Brooklyn had also begun to emerge, especially around the docks where most of the creative writers ended up because of the cheap rent (I can still hear Marlon Brando overacting in On the Waterfront: “I could have been a contender, instead of a bum.”).

Longshoremen and sailors from all over the world, the marginal, the sex- obsessed and lowlifes of all kinds, ages, shapes, and colors, all crowded the many bars and dives that dotted the landscape.

Unlike the sedate poet Marianne Moore, who lived quietly further inland, in Fort Green with her mother, novelists like Henry Miller and Thomas Wolfe relished the constant two-fisted challenge to self from the docks, and drew much from the dangerous, volatile world of the waterfront.

For gay poets like W. H, Auden and Hart Crane, who often came back to their housing battered and bruised, they had the thrilling adventure of cruising Sands Street, with its many “sailor bars,” seeking that perfect sailor—the one that would most captured their imaginations, and provide the muse they long sought.

***

In time, due to the earlier influx of Jews, as noted, Brooklyn, starting with the depression years of the 30s, started producing an amazing group of Jewish writers. For most of these writers, it wasn’t a tough guy persona, or even writing  the great American novel, filled with the hapless riffraff of Sands Street, they wanted most to write about.

What they wanted to project to the world was raw intelligence, the value of education, knowing things, and deep insights into the human condition. In other words, there was nothing wrong with being an intellectual.

Evan Hughes once again is highly impressive with his portraits of Daniel Fuchs, Bernard Malamud, and Alfred Kazin, among others.

***

Another American mass movement of people also took place, which would soon have a tremendous impact on Brooklyn: the great migration of millions of blacks fleeing the fascist south. Here is where Richard Wright takes center stage in Literary Brooklyn.

Richard Wright is more than just a footnote in American literary history. He was one of the first that held up the unblinking mirror to America, both black and white, that said, this is who you really are.

He wrote his two most famous books, Native Son, and Black Boy in Brooklyn.

***

Literary Brooklyn skillfully brings us up to present day Brooklyn, after taking the reader through the great collapse of the wartime economy, including another interesting historical tidbit: The Brooklyn Navy Yard produced more ships during World War Two than all of Japan!

We start to see rapid urban decline and despair, reflected best by Hubert Selby, Jr.’s grim, in your face Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Arthur Miller’s tale of economic defeat in Death of a Salesman, which had Brooklyn written all over it, but which struck an accord with all of America, most of whom were enduring some of the same change of events, often with the same dismal results that the confused, deeply disappointed Willy Loman faced.

***

In the end, Brooklyn was slowly brought back to life, first by the pioneering “brownstoners,” who bought sturdy, but well-worn dwellings (a special nod should go to those many African American women who have helped maintain this historical housing), when no one with any good sense wanted to come anywhere near certain areas of Brooklyn. Then the artists started coming, led by people like filmmaker Spike Lee, and the Village Voice writer Nelson George.

Suddenly, Brooklyn was cool again.

Again, like in years past, it offered the affordable rent that one could not find in Manhattan, as even the once trashy East Village was now overrun with big pocketed, Wall Street types.

Hughes gives us a passing look at present day Brooklyn creative writers including Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, Rick Moody, Jonathan Safran Foer, Susan Choi, Nathan Englander, Nicole Krauss, Darin Strauss, Kurt Andersen, Arthur Phillips, Julie Orringer, Rivka Galchen, Keith Gessen, Hannah Tinti, Tim McLoughlin and Jonathan Ames.

***

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life is a wonderful literary history lesson, well told, and I was sad that it had to end. I once again thank my friends at Henry Holt for sending me yet another compelling book to review, and thank author Evan Hughes for writing it; and if he would ever like to write for the Neworld Review, he is more than welcome.

It’s books like Literary Brooklyn that cause you to not only walk the streets of Brooklyn, but also Manhattan, my beloved Bronx, Queens, and even lowly Staten Island, all of which have played huge roles in America’s literary history--and hear countless stories, some beyond awful, some beyond wonderful, some beyond belief--and makes one feel proud to have grown up in New York, and to have reached one of the highest honors this great city bestows, that of a literary editor and publisher.



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