For the first time, here is Brooklyn's story through the eyes of its greatest storytellers.
Like Paris in the twenties or postwar Greenwich Village, Brooklyn today is experiencing an extraordinary cultural boom. In recent years, writers of all stripes―from Jhumpa Lahiri, Jennifer Egan, and Colson Whitehead to Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer―have flocked to its patchwork of distinctive neighborhoods. But as literary critic and journalist Evan Hughes reveals, the rich literary life now flourishing in Brooklyn is part of a larger, fascinating history. With a dynamic mix of literary biography and urban history, Hughes takes us on a tour of Brooklyn past and present and reveals that hiding in Walt Whitman's Fort Greene Park, Hart Crane's Brooklyn Bridge, the raw Williamsburg of Henry Miller's youth, Truman Capote's famed house on Willow Street, and the contested streets of Jonathan Lethem's Boerum Hill is the story of more than a century of life in America's cities.
Literary Brooklyn is a prismatic investigation into a rich literary inheritance, but most of all it's a deep look into the beloved borough, a place as diverse and captivating as the people who walk its streets and write its stories.
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Evan Hughes has written articles about literature for such publications as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, n + 1, and the London Review of Books. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Grandfather of Literary Brooklyn
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.
—"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," WALT WHITMAN
When Walt Whitman was in his early thirties, he had already lived out the first act of his life. The son of a failing carpenter, he had been a grammar school dropout; an office boy for a law firm; an apprentice to various printers; and, disastrously, a schoolteacher. Eventually he found a calling in journalism, moving upstairs from the printing room to the editorial office. And at the age of twenty-six, in 1846, he was named the editor of booming Brooklyn's leading newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where his office window looked out on the foot of Fulton Street, by the glinting, well-traveled East River and the Fulton Ferry. He became a prominent and eccentric man about town. To entertain people he would shout out lines from Shakespeare and Homer from a stagecoach or at the seashore, and he would hum arias as he walked down the street. He was talked about. He was known.
Then, in 1848, he was fired from the Eagle after clashing with his boss over politics. His next newspaper jobs were short-lived, and he began to slip out of view. He took on the look of a social dropout, with shaggy hair, a gray beard, and overalls. In the ensuing half decade he was a sometime freelance journalist, a sometime bookseller at a store he operated out of his house on a lot he'd bought for a hundred dollars, and a sometime carpenter. And sometimes he was plain unemployed. "There was a great boom in Brooklyn in the early fifties, and he had his chance then," his brother George later said, "but you know he made nothing of that chance." Strange and a bit rough around the edges, Whitman didn't make it easy for others to reach out to him. Things were not looking good.
But something powerful was taking hold of him from within: "I found myself remaining possess'd, at the age of thirty-one to thirty-two, with a special desire and conviction ... that had been flitting through my previous life, or hovering on the flanks, [that] finally dominated everything else." He began composing a series of very long, unstructured poems, of a kind not yet seen by the world. Each day, he took them into the Rome Brothers print shop at the corner of Cranberry Street and Fulton Street, where he and the owners set them into type during off-hours. He would sleep late, write more, return to the print shop. It was the nineteenth-century equivalent of self-publishing out of a Kinko's. And the result was Leaves of Grass. "No other book in the history of American letters," Malcolm Cowley has written, "was so completely an individual or do-it-yourself project."
Where Leaves of Grass came from no one will know. But as Whitman said, his masterpiece drew breath from the people of Brooklyn, his literal and spiritual home. Walt Whitman, as much as he was "one of a crowd," was America's first great bard and the keystone of Brooklyn's literary tradition.
It requires a considerable feat of imagination today to picture Brooklyn as it was when Whitman first arrived as a child of three, in 1823. It was a place so different from the huge urban mass of today, with its population of 2.5 million, that it is scarcely possible to hold it in the mind's eye. Then a separate entity from the city of New York, which was restricted to the island of Manhattan, Brooklyn was a placid little town of low-slung houses topped with billowing chimney smoke, tucked in close to the shore of the East River; the surrounding area later incorporated into Brooklyn consisted of large farms of rolling hills and a handful of even smaller hamlets. What is now the borough of Brooklyn boasted about as many residents as today's Wasilla, Alaska.
Across the water, Manhattan was beginning to become a central place in American commerce and in the American imagination, but its tallest building was only four stories high. You could stand in Brooklyn Heights and see clear across Manhattan and the Hudson and well into New Jersey. From that spot you could watch a great crowd of high-masted ships carrying goods up and down the East River and especially the Hudson.
In Brooklyn in 1823 there was no regular police force, no public transportation, and flickering gas lamps were just being introduced to help light the eerily quiet, unpopulated nighttime streets. Families had to gather round the fireplace to cook or stay warm. Some had horses and a carriage, but they contended with rutted, narrow dirt roads, and there was no organized stagecoach service. Residents kept pigs and chickens that roamed in the streets in daytime, rooting through the garbage alongside open sewers. Water was drawn from street wells and carried home. Taverns and stables stood among houses and shanties. The odors were rank. To the east of the village—on land now densely packed with multistory apartment buildings—were sprawling green fields still owned mostly by the Dutch. They kept a firm hold on their properties, assured of a market for their produce and livestock in the village of Brooklyn and in Manhattan.
Many slaves worked the land and tended to houses. 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. The nationwide battle over slavery would shadow Whitman's life as it grew to be the foremost threat to the country.
But America was a young nation in Whitman's childhood, and the Civil War was still far off. Whitman's father, also named Walter, was born the same year as the federal government, in 1789. Whitman's great-uncle fought and died in the Revolutionary War's first major battle, the Battle of Brooklyn, in 1776. That rout by the English cost twelve hundred American lives in a matter of hours, with at least another fifteen hundred wounded, captured, or missing. With defeat clearly at hand, George Washington, standing where Court Street now crosses Atlantic Avenue, is said to have cried, "Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!" But acts of valor on the American side would live on—particularly in the story of the Maryland forces who sacrificed themselves almost to a one in challenging and delaying the much larger British contingent at the Old Stone House, near today's Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in Brooklyn. That stand allowed Washington and his men to make an overnight escape across the East River to Manhattan, whispering to one another in the fog to avoid alerting the British. If it weren't for this getaway, the war could easily have ended in a brutally swift British victory. According to the historian Kenneth Jackson, one observer later said, "The Declaration of Independence that was signed in ink in Philadelphia was signed in blood in Brooklyn." Both the heroism and the tragedy of the Battle of Brooklyn and its aftermath would become a touchstone of Whitman's work.
Between 1790 and 1810, Brooklyn's population nearly tripled, as Irish, Yankee, and Manhattanite new arrivals crowded out the Dutch. The Brooklyn Navy Yard gave rise to other shipyards and maritime trades, providing work for carpenters and craftsmen. Wooden market stalls stood by the water, and small manufacture spread out from the river. Whitman's father moved to Brooklyn to be a carpenter and builder, in the hopes of capitalizing on the town's population boom. Although the boom continued, he didn't succeed, perhaps because he favored old ways of building and because he lacked the gift for self-promotion, though his son would soon possess it in spades. The Whitmans moved at least ten times in the space of a decade.* Walt attended Brooklyn's single elementary school, District School No. 1, which had been established in 1816 on Concord and Adams Streets, for about five years. That would remain the only formal education for the man about whom the venerated critic Harold Bloom has written, "No comparable figure in the arts has emerged from the last four centuries in the Americas." Before Whitman, American literature was largely for Harvard men, like Emerson, Thoreau, and Henry James. It called to mind men of leisure, with crisp white collars and hired help. Then Whitman barged in.
Walt's family's finances forced him to leave school at age eleven and go to work, and for the decades to follow he would have the kind of extraordinarily varied and checkered work history shared by many writers since. In his childhood and adolescence, Brooklyn offered very little in the way of literary and cultural life. Few residents wanted to give money for a proposed Apprentices' Library in 1824, so library representatives took a wheelbarrow door to door to collect cast-off pamphlets and books. The literacy rate was low and the media hadn't extended a very meaningful reach into Brooklyn, or indeed much of the nation. The stodgy and relatively expensive political newspapers had not yet met with the competition of the mass-oriented "penny press," whose pioneers were the New York Sun (founded in 1833) and the New York Herald (1835).
Soon Whitman would enter the burgeoning journalism trade, beginning his apprenticeship in the laborious work of typesetting and printing at the Brooklyn-based Long Island Patriot. He bounced from publications of one political stripe or another in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Long Island, picking up writing and editing skills along with the craft of printing. In the 1830s, as New York slid toward a depression, the newspaper business ran into trouble, and Whitman fled to Long Island and became (at about seventeen) a schoolteacher. An itinerant and miserably unhappy five years followed. "O, damnation, damnation!" he wrote, "thy other name is school-teaching." He also attempted, with little success, to publish his own Long Island paper, but he moved to Manhattan in 1841 and joined its revived journalism industry. Tired of livin...
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