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Book Review: Literary Brooklyn by Evan Hughes

Posted By Julia Braun Kessler On November 8, 2011 @ 10:00 am In Books,History,Non-Fiction Reviews,Writers | No Comments

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn And the Story of American City Life
by Evan Hughes
Holt Paperbacks, 352 pp.
CLR Rating:


Keeping Manhattan at Bay

When, in one of his early stories, Thomas Wolfe told us “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” we native New Yorkers were more than ready to accept his judgment. Now, here’s Evan Hughes to convince us that the phrase of yet another Brooklyn dweller, Arthur Miller, about how “attention must be paid” could prove even more apropos!

In his new history of the borough’s development you can virtually trace the emergence of America most talented writers, among them figures like Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Bernard Malamud, Richard Wright, Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller. They, among many other notables, were residents in that “outlandish place,” and, it would seem, most often by choice!

For one thing, Brooklyn rents cost far less than Manhattan and were a good bet for starving writers. Better still, it could assure any talent in search of an escape from the furious competition engulfing such young arrivals in its Greenwich Village (or, later still, on the lower East Side and several other trendy Bohemian communities emerging on the Island). Moreover, it appears that through the years, the borough had developed its own enclaves, its literary hangouts, together with a unique atmosphere. Its old brownstones, stately mansions stood as fine living spaces, and if deteriorating would soon be cut into many tiny dwellings for those seeking such accommodation.

Clearly when Walt Whitman touted it, his was another world indeed. Altogether separated from the “the mainland” then, since as yet there were no bridges, travelers needed merely a ferry to cross over the East River to Manhattan. The Brooklyn Bridge was in process for years and was to be completed only in 1883. Meanwhile, we heard Walt sing of such voyages on the river:

I too many and many a time cross’d the river of old,
Watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls, saw them high in the air
floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
Saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies and left
the rest in strong shadow,
Saw the slow-wheeling circles and the gradual edging toward the south,
Saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my
head in the sunlit water….

Yet even during Whitman’s day there emerged around him some intellectual ferment as Brooklyn turned commercial and urbanized. For example, there he made friends with several activists in the women’s movement, speaking out against injustices to them and embracing them as equals in poetry as well. As he put it: “I am the poet of the woman the same as man. And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.”

The atmosphere was then charged with anti-slavery talk, given the presence of fiery Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother) in a Brooklyn pulpit, and though the poet was hardly a churchgoer, he “became Whitman’s favorite minister.” And, as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman was in a perfect position to shout out his own views, and, he was to prove influential in his role as a savvy Brooklynite who also knew the world and could broadcast those “populist views.”

Perhaps for us contemporaries, it does seem worth noting, as Hughes does, that withal, there remained a distinct tone, “an undeniable strain of racism” about Whitman’s attitudes, and while espousing phrases in his newspaper like “”We must plant ourselves firmly on the side of freedom …” he still supported the “Wilmot Proviso,” which was the position proposing a ban on slavery in the new territories of the West while viewing as extreme the freeing of those already in captivity. Despite that, as we know, he refused to back down when contested on his stand, and before long, his “defiance of his boss’s views resulted in his losing his job at the paper.

With the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, there commenced yet another era where a different place was to emerge. Hughes calls that bridge “the bridge to modernity,” its “two towers, the arc of the enormous cables that linked them, the crisscross of the thinner cables below that dazzled from all angles,” the connection which made the Brooklyn Whitman knew and loved as a child, a mere memory!

Then, as the century turned, along came a native such as Henry Miller, with his hot-headed brawler’s manner. Any disrespectful mention of his literary hero, Whitman could move him to rage. So when some of the New York literati made a “stupid remark” about him, Miller boasts that he “was at him hammer and tongs.” And, as the group continued to laugh at his fury, he accused them of being “drunken sots” “sons of bitches”, and “the product of good-for-nothing whoremongers.” But that’s just early in the game for him. In his championship of Whitman, there was something of his identification with the Brooklyn of his early years and his roots. With it came his own pronunciation, a touting of the ordinary, the “man lost in the shuffle,” the somebody whose “presence is not even noticed.” At least, so went his spiel until his entry into the greater world of art began, his Paris years, and his daring, openly defiant works like The Tropic of Cancer, The Tropic of Capricorn, which were sex-obsessed, and too scandalous for his times, thus, remaining unpublished in his native land until much later on!

Poets continued as well being represented in the area. Marianne Moore spent many years there and this, when her reputation and influence already ran high. As editor of the primary magazine of that era, The Dial, she had introduced several whose names are still familiar to us. Among them, figuring large was Hart Crane, one of Brooklyn greatest lyricists. The Ohio-born and raised Crane wrote as any Brooklyn native might have about the building of the great bridge, and of his feelings of connection to Whitman as he wrote the lines:

Yes, Walt
Afoot again, and onward without halt —
Not soon, not suddenly — never to let go
My hand in yours
Walt Whitman —
So —

only to add:

“The more I think about my Bridge poem the more thrilling its symbolic possibilities become, and… I begin to feel myself directly connected with Whitman… I feel myself in currents that are positively awesome in their extent and possibilities.”

New York City would, to be sure, persist in attracting young artists, and those who “never fit inside the confines of their hometowns” would inevitably find their way to Brooklyn.” As Hughes observes:

…Whitman had no business self-publishing a lewd ‘barbaric yawp’ and sending it around to dignified men of letter. Henry Miller, raised among the rabble on the filthy streets of Brooklyn, had no business crashing the gates with sexually graphic autobiographical romps. Hart Crane had something a bit nearer to the right pedigree, but by all rights he should have become a Cleveland company man with a nice wife and a nice car. Instead he became a Gay New York City poet, forever short of money, writing verses that even many of his close friends found hopelessly out of fashion ….

And so it went during the long years, as Hughes records the lives of such as Thomas Wolfe, who worked in Brooklyn and appeared a figure he regards as perhaps “the very image of the artist,”

… this giant who worked deep into the night, who paid no attention to personal comfort or social decorum, who drank sludgy coffee and lit cigarettes off the burning butt of the one before …

Then too, the historian hardly ignores the fortunes of native writers of Brooklyn, like the Jewish natives in the borough, who had been clamoring to get out. They scorned the poor, filthy neighborhoods they had grown up in, and wanted to get across the Bridge to life in literary Manhattan. Among these are such natives as Daniel Fuchs, Bernard Malamud and the critic Alfred Kazin.

A particularly striking display of such feelings was to be seen in a more recently published work of Norman Podhoretz (1967), called Making It. That book gives us some notion of the frenzy he felt about getting out of the borough of his birth to find another way of life. Moreover, his desperation arrived well after the miseries and deprivations suffered there during The Great Depression years.

Yet there were too those natives who, after leaving it had sought out Brooklyn living once more. It was their solution for managing their creative years that they came back towards it. Among those were Norman Mailer (who’d grown up there and gotten out well before service in the Army). Still others from all parts of America found it, among them, Arthur Miller and Truman Capote. Their stories make for page after page of lively talk, brilliant exchange and, better even, terrific gossip.

The experience there of Richard Wright is important too. The great black writer had come to live in Brooklyn with his white wife in 1938. At the time, the percentage of black population in that borough was at less than 4%, which even for the period, Hughes calls a “strikingly low number.” So his appearance caused curiosity and consternation among his neighbors, as this uppity “Negro” fellow, a professed member of the Communist Party, “strolled in Fort Greene Park, entering it at the intersection of Willoughby Avenue and “tony Washington Park.” Often, was he seen scribbling away in his notepad to record what he observed as he went along.

The area certainly was still “lily white,” and if any black people were ever seen there at all, it was in the context of their menial jobs. They were identifiably uniformed, porters, chauffeurs, or domestic servants. Ironically, however, as Hughes notes, in that same park today, there is a bench dedicated in Wright’s honor. Indeed, his work was to cause waves, even furor during his time. Among these were books such as Native Son and Black Boy.

But amid all the turmoil, and the many incidents cited here, this reviewer found the endless variety of big name writers Hughes discusses in a section called “February House,” stand out most vividly my mind. It was a site Hughes refers to as “Brooklyn Cool”, and given the period it occurred in, along with the various permutations, combinations, even shenanigans of the experiment, must be remembered. The new environment entailed the rental of a house at 7 Middagh Street, just off the corner of Columbia Heights.

By the time Richard Wright arrived at Middah Street, it had already been host to many celebrities before him at its dinners and cocktail parties. But now came another kind of plan, as the idea of George Davis, then literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who was as Hughes puts it “armed with an expense account for boozy lunches and a tongue for biting gossip”:

Davis was flagrantly insubordinate and turned his section of the magazine into a fiefdom where he presided over the boldest and riskiest work from talents he expertly identified and wooed. The latest surrealist coup, or an Elizabeth Bishop verse, or a Christopher Isherwood story that sketched life in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis appeared alongside fashion spreads and ads for cosmetics in what was ostensibly a mainstream glossy.

At that moment, he happened to be soliciting the attention of an upcoming writer whose novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter had just made a stir in the literary world. And while he tried to regale Carson McCullers with talk of his life in Paris when “tout le monde was there making art and mischief on the cheap” the tiny lady could but complain of her deteriorating marriage. Even so, the two soon became kindred spirits, an item, and ready to join forces.

McCullers, much in need of new lodgings, promptly engaged with him in his plan to rent the house at 7 Middagh Street and reconvert it from its current broken-down boarding house state to a comfortable, place that writers could work together to make ends meet. Theirs was an odd union, to be sure, since he was gay and she, bisexual. But they’d gotten closer daily from their first encounter, and wanted to make their partnership a success.

This was 1940, and after the brutal 30s, when Thomas Wolfe had worked just a few blocks away, many writers were finding the pleasures of this area again. Alfred Kazin was back, Richard Hofstadter currently working there, and W.H. Auden, newly-arrived in America, was also located nearby. Yes, the Heights was becoming more livable again with a feeling of diversity and change.
Auden soon signed on and invited Benjamin Britten along with his current lover, Peter Pears, to move in as well. Their presence immediately adding a certain cachet to the new venture. Also, applying for space were the then composer Paul Bowles and his wife Jane, who then introduced to the house their surrealist friend, Salvador Dali. And not long after, Auden, brought Klaus, Erica and Golo Mann to Brooklyn to rescue these offspring of Thomas Mann from the perils of Nazi Germany. Anais Nin also appeared, among many others. So things seem to be going well for the group.

But Auden was soon to discover the wildness and disorderliness of the project he’d signed on to. He was indeed “somewhat taken aback” when he learned that the place had no heat, no hot water, and that the plumbing was highly unreliable. Then, together with these inconveniences there came one evening when he entered the sitting room:

“George naked at the piano with a cigarette in his mouth. Carson on the floor with half a gallon of sherry, and Wystan bursting in like a headmaster, announcing, ‘Now then, dinner!’”

So he soon felt the need take charge and look to proprieties. Nominating himself as a kind of “father to the house,” he arranged to collect the monthly rent and see that the utility bills were paid. He even made sure that food got on the table and that meal times were properly scheduled. Above all, he insisted that quiet be enforced during work days.

However, all this had been accomplished as World War II approached the United States. All the news that came daily was ominous for England and the rest of Europe! Tensions mounted and despite Auden’s attempts to impose rules, dinner table arguments erupted frequently and tempers flared. Just then, along came George Davis, to wondrously save the situation. Yet again, he turned the house’s attentions in another direction altogether! He managed to entice into the fold the most unlikely person of all, as he brought in Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen. A friend of his since his teen years in Detroit, she soon came to live at the house.

Gypsy certainly created a sensation! She drew talk wherever she went with “her sassy attitude, her gift for both burlesque and publicity, and her sparkling bon mots.” For example, take her often quoted remark after a police raid at one of her performances: “I wasn’t naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.” Then too, she made a point of her “connections” to the literary and intellectual world, referring to herself as a “Bohemian stripper” who was writing a novel of her own.

So 7 Middagh Street became a successful, functioning entity, a circle, and exactly what had first been envisioned for it. Creative work was going on quietly upstairs while all the crosstalk and ferment remained below! And, one might perhaps even dare suggest that that little “wedding cake of a house” where Hart Crane’s beloved view of the Brooklyn Bridge could be admired from the windows — was itself that bridge to the future of which he spoke. After all, their insouciant style and unrestrained ways came to fruition only some twenty years later, and was to become the out-of–the-closet life we now recognize in every walk of American life.

Hughes has given us here one lively literary history!


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