Evan Hughes on Literary Brooklyn

“There is no ‘Brooklyn School’ of literature and there never has been,” writes Evan Hughes in his deeply researched and appealingly conversational new book Literary Brooklyn:  The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life.  But there’s no denying the longstanding connection between this New York  borough and the poets, novelists, and essayists who have chronicled its life, from the loading docks of its once-bustling commercial waterfront, to conversations in brownstone parlors and on tenement rooftops.  The author calls his approach to this special place, which gave birth to the careers of Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, Bernard Malamud, and many others since, “a hybrid of literary biography, literary analysis, and urban history.”   The effect  created by wandering through its pages reveals it for what it really is: a time machine that peels back layers of change,  revealing Brooklyn in all of its transformations over the past hundred and fifty years – and bringing some of its most fascinating denizens, some famous and some nearly forgotten, to life.   We spoke with Evan Hughes about his journey into Brooklyn’s back pages.

The Barnes & Noble Review: You begin, as we might expect, with Walt Whitman — Brooklyn’s first literary hipster, as you call him.  But what we see in him is arrestingly complicated, in that when he begins writing Leaves of Grass it’s, as you say, as a journeyman journalist whose career has run aground.   He s a Brooklyn booster, who eventually left the city for Camden, N.J., and a celebrator of life among the roughs who became critical of the rise of the mobs.  The career of Hipster No. 1 is just as fraught with contradictions as any of his literary descendants.

Evan Hughes: That’s an interesting observation. I would add that Whitman himself famously wrote, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The last line is perhaps the most instructive. Whitman can be faulted for self-contradiction, but I think the contradictions come from his expansiveness, his ebullience, his refusal to be pinned down. I’m reminded of Emerson (who praised Whitman in a fateful letter that helped launch him as a poet): “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

BNR: Whitman’s early stomping grounds were near Brooklyn Heights – which isn’t currently a place we associate with such literary hell-raising.  But for such a venerable and somewhat staid neighborhood, gazing across the East River at the Financial District – it has a surprisingly rich literary legacy.  In particular, Middagh Street’s February House seems to have been a meeting place for many of the great writers of the midcentury, from Richard Wright to Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden to Paul and Jane Bowles, with Truman Capote dropping in.  Gypsy Rose Lee too!  Do you think its history is unfairly neglected next to, say, Greenwich Village?

EH: Yes, Brooklyn Heights has a truly remarkable concentration of notable literary addresses, with 7 Middagh being one of the standouts. (I’ll be leading a walking tour of literary Brooklyn Heights Sat. Sep. 24 at 4 p.m.) The street called Columbia Heights is particularly jam-packed, as I recently wrote. I would say that yes, the neighborhood’s literary cachet has been given short shrift in comparison to Greenwich Village. That may be partly because in the Village there are more non-residential literary sights to see; you can have a drink at the White Horse Tavern, for example, where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. It also may simply be another instance of the way that Brooklyn has long been cast in Manhattan’s shadow.

BNR: To be fair, the place does cast its own shadows —  you celebrate Brooklyn’s literary heritage, but this book makes it clear: the place has historically been tough on writers as much as it’s nurtured them. 

EH: I think you have that right. Writing is hard everywhere, of course, but being in Brooklyn, historically, has often meant being in some sense estranged from the levers of power and success. Henry Miller lived in Brooklyn for nearly all of the first 40 years of his life, and during that period he couldn’t manage to get anything published and was often desperately poor. (And in fact, even when he was able to break through and make a splash in Paris with Tropic of Cancer, obscenity laws meant he couldn’t publish the book in the U.S. for another quarter century.) In my book I also write about some of the Jewish writers who came of age in Brooklyn in the Depression, particularly Bernard Malamud, Daniel Fuchs, and Alfred Kazin, and they came from families with little wealth and little learning, a world where becoming a writer seemed a very foreign goal. Achieving what they achieved exacted its price, both practical and emotional. Malamud once wrote, “I beat myself into shape with a terrible will.”

BNR: Literarily, the Brooklyn sensibility would seem to be the long game, rather than the overnight sensation — as typified by Whitman, or Henry Miller, or Paul Auster.  Is that part of its appeal for writers, the sense that Brooklynites take their time to develop?

EH: I don’t know that this is part of Brooklyn’s appeal for writers, but I think you’re right to identify this historical pattern. The arc you’re describing obviously does not apply to every Brooklyn writer, but I think your observation is on target. As I say, many Brooklyn writers have faced an uphill climb because they did not come from privilege and/or had no desire to adapt themselves and their writing to what publishing wanted. That has meant publishing has had to come around to them.

BNR: The discussion in Literary Brooklyn of the author L.J. Davis and his 1971 novel A Meaningful Life is eye-opening.  You call his book – which follows on the decision of a Manhattanite to come across the river, buy up a once-grand Brooklyn mansion turned rooming house, and evict the tenants in order to restore it — “uncomfortable reading.”  This vision of Brooklyn as a nightmare both of poverty and exploitation stands in real contrast to some of the lofty visions we tend to focus on when we imagine Whitman’s legacy.

EH: Brooklyn has gone through some very hard times, and Davis was writing that novel at a rather bleak hour of the historical day. (Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, set in Brooklyn and similarly dark , was published the year before.) Davis also had a caustic sensibility, as well as a kind of humor that you sometimes judge yourself for finding funny. Some books about Brooklyn have indulged in nostalgia about the Brooklyn Dodgers, Coney Island and its hot dogs, stickball in the streets, etc. A Meaningful Life is not one of them. But one of my goals in this book was to get the whole picture, to do honest history.

BNR:  You cite Nelson George’s description of pre-gentrification Fort Greene – a neighborhood of 19th-century brownstones that became a center of black culture in the mid-1980s — as a kind of golden age of bohemian Brooklyn grit.  It seems like we’re always looking back now — is Brooklyn a myth that we get to have our neighborhoods in?  Does it have the same resources for writers now as it did when it was Manhattan’s neglected residential sibling?

EH: I think writers everywhere tend to be nostalgic about the past, but I do think part of Brooklyn’s draw in particular is the fact that its long history is so legible today. The central icons of Brooklyn to this day, the Brooklyn Bridge and the brownstone, are from the 19th century. Also, as Phillip Lopate has pointed out, the whole ideal we all have in our heads of “the neighborhood”—where human interaction plays out in the street and fosters a shared microhistory—seems to be under threat in the age of the automobile, the sprawling exurb, and the Internet (which lets us interact extensively from indoors), and Brooklyn has proven somewhat exceptional in its capacity to hold on to some semblance of that neighborhood ideal. Perhaps that lends itself to looking back with some romance to an earlier time. That’s a natural human impulse and I wouldn’t want to scold anyone too much for doing it.

BNR: Do you see Brooklyn differently than when you started?  Is it a more romantic place?  Or less so?

EH: I do look at Brooklyn differently now. I think we—or at least I—spend a lot of time consuming the news, and thinking about the news. There’s a hunger to ask the question, What’s the latest? And the Internet is very good at answering that question. Too good, maybe. Researching and writing this book meant unhooking from that feedback loop and looking at books and events that are not news and people that are long gone and in some cases forgotten. You end up looking at a place differently—and I think more deeply—when you don’t learn about it only through the media coverage of the media-friendly new developments. In some respects a fuller look into things dispelled some of the aura of myth around Brooklyn; I saw more of the warts. But don’t we want to see the warts? Who wants to look at a blurry photograph?