In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World
  • In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World
  • In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World

In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World

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by Peter Golenbock

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One of every seven people in the United States can trace their family back to Brooklyn, New York—all seventy-one square miles of it; home to millions of people from every corner of the globe over the last 150 years. Now Peter Golenbock, the author of the acclaimed book Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, returns to Kings County to collect the

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One of every seven people in the United States can trace their family back to Brooklyn, New York—all seventy-one square miles of it; home to millions of people from every corner of the globe over the last 150 years. Now Peter Golenbock, the author of the acclaimed book Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, returns to Kings County to collect the firsthand stories of the life and times of the people of Brooklyn—and how they changed the world.

The nostalgic myth that is Brooklyn is all about egg creams and stickball, and, of course, the Dodgers. The Dodgers left fifty years ago, but Brooklyn is still here—transformed by waves of suburban flight, new immigrants, urban homesteaders, and gentrification. Deep down, Brooklyn has always been about new ideas—freedom and tolerance paramount among them—that have changed the world, all the way back to Lady Deborah Moody, who escaped religious persecution in both Old and New England, and founded Coney Island and the town of Gravesend in the 1600s.

So why was Jackie Robinson embraced by Brooklynites of all colors, and so despised everywhere else? Why was Brooklyn one of the first urban areas to decay into slums—and one of the first to be reborn? And what was it that made Brooklynites fight for their rights, for their country, for their ideas—sometimes to the detriment of their own well-being? In the Country of Brooklyn, filled with rare photos, is history at its very best—engaging, personal, fascinating—a social history and a history of social justice; an oral history of a land and its people spanning the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; a microcosm of how Americans there faced and defeated discrimination, oppression, and unjust laws, and fought for what was right. And the voices and stories are as amazing as they are varied.

Meet: Daily Worker sportswriter Lester Rodney • rock and roll DJ "Cousin Brucie" Morrow • labor leader Henry Foner • Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa • journalist and author Pete Hamill • Black Panther–turned-politician Charles Barron • Hall of Fame baseball player Monte Irvin • Spanish Civil War veteran Abe Smorodin • borough president Marty Markowitz • real estate developer Joseph Sitt • jujitsu world champion Robert Crosson • songwriter Neil Sedaka • NYPD officer John Mackie • ACLU president Ira Glasser • and many others!

It's Brooklyn as we've never seen it before, a place of social activism, political energy, and creative thinking—a place whose vitality has spread around the world for more than 350 years. And a place where you can still get a decent egg cream.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Brooklynites of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds tell their stories in this oral history of the newly hip New York borough of Brooklyn. Boxer Peter Spanakos, son of Greek immigrants, tells how his brother caught Peter's Olympic teammate Muhammad Ali drinking out of a bidet in their Rome hotel room. Newspaper columnist Pete Hamill talks about the optimism that defined working-class Brooklyn after WWII. Dave Radens's Muslim mother never spoke to him again after he married a Jew, and when the eminent black scholar John Hope Franklin became head of Brooklyn College's history department in 1956. he faced white hostility while looking for a house near campus. Golenbock wrote Bums, an oral history of the Dodgers, and several of his interviewees rhapsodize over the team and Jackie Robinson. Locals will notice that Golenbock lets politicians and developers cheerlead for the controversial Atlantic Yards development while giving short shrift to the opposition. Many of these stories are engrossing and authentic, but also unfocused and rambling. The dearth of female interviewees and younger Brooklynites may limit the book's appeal. Photos. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In this reviewer's opinion, to call Brooklyn a country is no misnomer. New York City's most populous borough has specialized in exporting American ideals in their purest form for nearly 100 years. Inspired by the acceptance of baseball great Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, Golenbock (Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers) crafted this mesmerizing valentine to some 40 Brooklyn-born men and women who have furthered the cause of free speech and equal rights. Notables like Neil Sedaka and Pete Hamill tell their stories, but the most captivating narratives come from the mainly unknown writers, teachers, soldiers, and activists who took a stand against bigotry in the United States and abroad. Says Lester Rodney, who broke ground with his coverage of the Negro Leagues in the Communist Party USA paper, The Daily Worker, "One of the first things we tried to do was shoot down the notion that white players wouldn't stand [for integration]." Golenbock makes no secret of his disdain for the current Bush administration, but his book isn't partisan in the blindly allegiant sense-it's just a passionate reminder of what has historically made this country beautiful. Read it and weep, kiddies. [See "Fall Editors' Picks," LJ9/1/08; McCormack was born in the Midwest but is now a Brooklynite.-Ed.]
—Heather McCormack

Kirkus Reviews
Oddly structured yet satisfying oral history from sportswriter Golenbock (7, 2007, etc.). The inspiration for his book, the author explains, came when he asked himself, "Why did Brooklynites love Jackie Robinson when everyone else hated him?" Trying to find out what makes Brooklyn so tolerant, so special, Golenbock produces a portrait of the borough that is often fascinating, wholeheartedly adoring and entirely lopsided in its political views. He begins in the 1640s, when a small group of Anabaptists fled Puritan New England to found a more tolerant religious society on Coney Island. According to the author, their leader, Lady Deborah Moody, "displayed an idealistic socialist bent," dividing the land equally among all the settlers. How this tiny utopia became first a freewheeling Sin City for the wealthy, then a summer pleasure palace for the immigrant masses, then a run-down beachfront slum, is a story unto itself. But Golenbock mostly uses it to establish two major themes: socialist tendencies and political corruption in Brooklyn. After the first few chapters, which outline the history of Jewish immigration to the States and the subsequent political persecution of Bolsheviks and radicals, the author turns to the meandering personal histories of various Brooklynites. They range from idealistic young Jews who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the man who was almost the first black player in the National League, to the Irish who settled Windsor Terrace and Brill Building singer/songwriter Neil Sedaka. Loosely organized by decades, ethnicity and sometimes by neighborhood, the individual oral histories are frequently meandering and sometimes repetitive, but many of the narrators arecompelling storytellers. Colorful individual tales, woven together to paint a collective portrait of an extremely liberal, vibrant, exciting and deeply beloved borough.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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7.70(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.70(d)

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In the Country of Brooklyn
Inspiration to the World

Chapter One

Coney Island's Conscience

Lady Deborah and George Tilyou

Coney Island, a wild, isolated spit of land abutting an out-of-the-way beach in the territory of New Amsterdam, was "discovered" in 1609 by Dutch explorer Henry Hudson, sailing his ship, the Half Moon, in a failed voyage to locate the riches of India. Hudson anchored his ship, went ashore, and made another discovery: people were already living there—the native Canarsee tribe.

In an attempt to make a good impression and to score some food, he traded knives and beads to members of the tribe for some corn and tobacco. The red men, whom Hudson called Indians even though India was half a world away, were savvy enough to realize that the coming of the white man did not bode well for their future, and while Hudson's men were fishing the next day, the Indians attacked, and petty officer John Coleman was pierced in the throat by a flint-tipped arrow and killed.

Some experts believe the area was named Coney Island in honor of Coleman, but those experts don't explain why it wasn't called Coleman Island. Others say it wasn't named until the early 1800s, after the Conyn family that lived there. Still others insist the name comes from konijn kok, Dutch for "rabbit hutch" or "breeding place for the rabbits"—or coneys—which were abundant there.

Though Hudson "discovered" the place, the municipality of Coney Island was not founded by the Dutch. It was started in the 1640s by an Englishwoman by the name of Deborah Moody. Born Deborah Dunch in London in 1586, she marriedHenry Moody, who was knighted, and so she became Lady Deborah. Six years after Sir Henry died in 1629, she was hauled in front of King Charles I's Star Chamber. She was accused of not being a good Christian, because she believed a person should be baptized not at birth but when the person is old enough to understand the meaning of the ceremony. To be accepted by the Anglican religious community, it wasn't enough just to be a Protestant. You had to be their type of Protestant. To do otherwise was to risk the wrath of God or, more accurately, the wrath of God's self-appointed representatives.

In her search for religious liberty, Lady Deborah fled England for the New World in 1640. Unfortunately for Lady Deborah, who was in her fifties, her cross-Atlantic journey landed her in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Puritan fire-breathers were just as unyielding.

Sixty percent of the Puritans who fled to the New World came from East Anglia. They had come from a poor, agricultural society, where they fought to tame the meager soil of the region. Because the Puritans conflicted with the Anglican creed, they were viewed as dangerous radicals, and they were persecuted by Anglican bishop William Laud, the Darth Vader of Puritan history.

When the twenty thousand or so Puritans settled in New England, they were defined by their strong religious beliefs. True believers who worked for the Glory of God, they were sure they had all the answers. They believed in the dignity of the individual, but saw order and discipline as "tough love."

The Puritans, similar to the Taliban today, were a joyless lot. Cotton Mather, the psychopath who was in charge, preached that having fun was sinful. His followers weren't allowed to sing, dance, or even celebrate Christmas. Those who defied the anti-Christmas decree "shall pay for every offense five shillings as a fine to the county."

Pessimistic by philosophy, the Puritans saw everyone as sinners. They were tough on themselves. They beat their kids. "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was their credo. Their punishments were cruel, if not draconian. If a child was a bed wetter, they made him eat a rat sandwich. The justification was their desire to get the devil out of the child. What they ended up with was a society of punishers and abusers.

They believed in the "right" behavior, and, with order as the key to the Puritan world, their concept of liberty was to persecute those who didn't toe the line. By 1662 the Puritans almost died out, because the bar they set for membership was too high for most people to clear. The survivors became what we today call "Yankees," with most becoming nose-to-the-grindstone Presbyterians.

Lady Deborah, a headstrong woman who believed in freedom of speech and the freedom to follow whatever religious doctrine she wished, risked bringing down the wrath of the church elders when she announced that she didn't believe in the ritual of baptizing babies. Said Puritan leader John Endicott about Lady Moody: "She is a dangerous woeman [sic]."

Anyone who didn't follow the Puritan creed was subject to severe punishment, including the humiliation of being exhibited in stocks in the public square and being shunned. As history reminds us, the extreme religious intolerance that has reared its ugly head through American history had its low point in the British colony of Puritan Massachusetts when a dozen or so unfortunates from Salem, accused of being witches, were tied to stakes and burned to death. The persecutors cited a line in Exodus. According to God's will, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."

This was America's first Reign of Terror. No one dared protest for fear of becoming the next one put to the devoted, righteous Christian judge's not-so-objective witch test. In one such test, the accused would have rocks tied to her feet. If she sank, she was "proved" to be innocent. Lady Deborah, who lived in Lynn, which was just down the road from Salem, again found herself facing the charge of not being a good Christian.

Probably because she was a baroness, her punishment was relatively light: excommunication. Though her friends begged her to stay, she decided she needed to live in a more tolerant society. She and her group of about forty Anabaptist followers headed south to find religious freedom, first traveling to Manhattan, where she was told by Dutch director general William Kieft that she could choose any area to settle from the unassigned lands of the West India Company. As she had heard, the Dutch proved to be much more tolerant and open-minded. Hoping to attract settlers, the Dutch were happy to accept anyone willing to work for the benefit of New Amsterdam.

In the Country of Brooklyn
Inspiration to the World
. Copyright © by Peter Golenbock. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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