Late in "Literary Brooklyn," Evan Hughes quotes the opening words of a Paul Auster novel: "The address is unimportant. But let’s say Brooklyn Heights, for the sake of argument." For Hughes, the address is terrifically important, as he charts New York's most-populated but (his description) "less exceptional" borough. We learn which writers lived where, which were neighbors or enemies; which houses no longer stand and which are now worth $18 million. Meanwhile, the argument that emerges, recedes, rallies and falters throughout is that Brooklyn, because more human in scale, is more American than Manhattan and has particular stories to tell about the rest of the land.
It is probably no fault of Hughes, but of our age, that this argument is rather more convincing when one travels back in time. The book begins with Walt Whitman, proclaimed the "grandfather of literary Brooklyn," and ends with novels published just last year. Organized by both chronology and theme, the book takes in more than 30 writers and 150 years. Itching to fit it all in, Hughes rides a current of unbridled enthusiasm for his subject matter.
The lively chapter on Whitman shows the simultaneous creation of an experimental city and an experimental literature. This is handled so deftly one can forgive Hughes’s coronation of the raffish Whitman as "Brooklyn's first literary hipster." Urban history and literary history often brush up against each other to profound effect, as when we learn how Hart Crane, in 1928, began composing "The Bridge" while living in the very same apartment with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge from which a convalescing Washington Roebling, in 1883, had supervised its completion.
Sometimes the past and the present meet in unsatisfying comparisons. We are informed that Richard Wright's marriage was "a very early progenitor of the many interracial couples now living in Fort Greene," and that the industrial waterfront of Williamsburg, where Henry Miller grew up on Driggs Street, is now an area "lined with bars, restaurants and the college-educated classes." But these fleeting movements across time tell us almost nothing at all.
The fraught journeys of Bernard Malamud, Alfred Kazin and Daniel Fuchs from Brooklyn impoverishment to Manhattan establishment are movingly told, full of yearning and conflict. Hughes forcefully captures how Brooklyn was a badge of (somewhat exaggerated) authenticity for the self-inventions of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, but with William Styron and Richard Wright, he escapes into extended passages of literary analysis. Perhaps the most important story is what happened once the writer got down to business in his room and the particular significance of Brooklyn to the work is less precise.
Regarding gentrification — one topic about which Brooklyn might offer very precise lessons — Hughes is vague, but not for lack of trying. He devotes a chapter to the arrival, in the mid-1960s, of the novelists L. J. Davis and Paula Fox, as well as the retrospective view of Jonathan Lethem, whose semi-autobiographical novel "The Fortress of Solitude" explains, among other things, how homely Gowanus was rechristened Boerum Hill. Left unanswered by Hughes is the question posed by a conflicted brownstone newcomer in Fox's “Desperate Characters”: “What happens to the people in them when the houses are bought? Where do they go?”
The beginnings of that displacement might be traced to the house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights once shared by Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, and W. H. Auden, among others, for a brief moment in the 1940s. That domestic experiment produced an idea of Brooklyn as offbeat and fashionable, if lacking amenities. Hughes notes bluntly, “It offered cheap rent.” He devotes some time to the origins and consequences of cheap rent, but is also rapturous about the current renaissance of “bookish people” and "literary types" made possible by the so-called "brownstone movement" of the 1960s and ’70s. A brief section about the black bohemia that flowered in Fort Greene during the 1980s and ’90s is shoehorned in, but is too insubstantial, and uncritical, to be anything but a token.
Despite his efforts to tell, through Brooklyn, "the story of American city life," Hughes might have been happy with a less grand aim. He is best when exploring what it means to write, to think, to wander and to strive in close proximity to others similarly inclined, and yet remain alone.
Throughout the book, the physical landscape most vividly evoked is Brooklyn's celebrated view of the Manhattan skyline, which is to say, a landscape of ambition. It is that inner terrain, rather than Brooklyn itself, that Hughes conquers with greatest force.
Tags: literary brooklyn