In his new book, Literary Brooklyn, Evan Hughes takes a close look at a handful of writers who have defined the borough, from (naturally) Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Paula Fox, Paul Auster, and more. Brooklyn’s current status as a literary hub has made it an attractive target for jokes, but Hughes resists both overhyping the place or indulging its critics. “[A] lot of people living in Brooklyn now might look back with nostalgia at the current era of creative ferment,” he writes, and the book’s mix of urban and literary history goes a long way toward explaining why the city has been so consistently attractive to novelists and poets.
If you happen to be in or near Brooklyn, there are a few upcoming events connected to the book. The launch party is August 16 (tomorrow night) at powerHouse Arena, and on August 26 Hughes and Nelson George will host a walking tour of literary spots in Brooklyn followed by a discussion of the book at Greenlight Bookstore. (More dates are on the book’s events page.)
Hughes answered questions about the book via email.
What is your personal relationship with Brooklyn, and how did it lead you to write this book?
I live in Brooklyn now, in Fort Greene, and I first moved there in 1998, after college. When I arrived, I knew only a little about its literary tradition and culture. It was a happy accident that Brooklyn is where I found a cheap apartment. (My own ugly place in Carroll Gardens for $750 a month—those were the days.) The discount from Manhattan is a common first impulse for writers to move to Brooklyn, and it has been for a long time, though the gap in expense has narrowed. But then, so often, a deeper relationship with the place takes hold. And when I get curious about a place, which I quickly did about Brooklyn, I want to know, What are the great novels or poems or memoirs about this place? Who are the key writers? And what portrait of the place have they created over time? Given not only Brooklyn’s rise to literary prominence but also its rich literary past, I was surprised to see that no one had written a book to address those questions about Brooklyn, to trace its history through its literature.
Literary Brooklyn seems to argue that the collected work of Brooklyn writers serves as a kind of imperfect but representative sample of the whole of American literature—Brooklyn is less like Manhattan and “more like America,” as you put it. Certainly there’s plenty about urban life, race, and assimilation in the books you discuss. But are there larger literary trends that Brooklyn doesn’t attend to?
That’s a good question. I can think of a couple examples. Brooklyn has more breathing room than Manhattan, crucially, but it’s still an urban place. Although Marianne Moore, say, wrote marvelously precise poems about animals and plants, Brooklyn lit as a whole is less focused on the natural world than is the literature of the plains states or the South or Texas, for instance. Also, Brooklyn fiction doesn’t have much in the vein of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton; it’s longer on grit and shorter on the society novel. Then again, you could say the same a number of major American cities, like Chicago; perhaps Manhattan is again more the exception than the rule (Washington Square, The Age of Innocence).
The first chapter of the book focuses on Walt Whitman, who wrote in the mid- to late 1800s, and chapter two leaps ahead to Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer wasn’t published in the United States until 1961. What was happening on Brooklyn’s literary front from the beginning of the 20th Century through the World War I era, when Miller began writing in earnest? Or is it more correct to ask about what wasn’t happening?
Not much of note was being published, but that’s not to say that nothing was being written, and it’s not to say that no books arose, indirectly, from that period. There were pockets of wealth, largely in manufacturing, but there wasn’t much of a leisure class with the time to pursue the arts and the connections that were often needed to get published. But that era saw a massive influx of immigrants from Europe, particularly Jewish immigration, that reshaped Brooklyn’s demographics and gave rise to important literature. Alfred Kazin, Daniel Fuchs, and Bernard Malamud were children of that immigrant wave, and in their work they often wrote about the experience of their own families of origin.
You mention a couple of Brooklyn writers in passing, including Gilbert Sorrentino and John Dos Passos, who didn’t quite rise to the level of his own chapter or chapter section. What criteria did an author need to meet to merit a fuller treatment? Were there writers who almost but didn’t quite make the cut?
You just mentioned two I would have liked to discuss at more length. There were tough choices, as probably there always are in writing a book. I focused mostly on authors who have not only lived in Brooklyn but also written about it, giving evidence of their relationship with the place. The book is urban history as well as literary biography, so part of my aim was to tell a story that captures the major trends that have shaped the place, and shaped the rest of urban America. So in some cases if I felt a certain theme or historical development was well-covered by discussing the life of work of one author, I would cover another similar writer more briefly.
The overall arc of the book suggests that Brooklyn’s literary culture slowly shifted from a proudly unschooled, outsiderish tribe—you point out that “Walt Whitman, Henry Miller, and Hart Crane together had not one semester of college”—to one more connected with “liberal brownstoners” and the Manhattan publishing world. How has that changed the tone and style of Brooklyn-based fiction? Is it now a more whitebread, “classy” creature that would exclude the likes of a Hubert Selby Jr.?
I think Selby might have a hard time getting published now; it wasn’t easy then, either. Last Exit to Brooklyn’s publication owed a lot to the bravery of Barney Rosset of Grove Press, who also endured censorship battles to bring Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s work to American readers. And there are writers in Brooklyn today who consider themselves autodidacts and outsiders—and the hard time many of them are having breaking through to larger audiences is the same hard time that Whitman had. It’s part of what we mean when we say “outsiders,” right? When we talk in a decade or five about the Brooklyn writers of today, we might be talking about a different cast than we talk about now. Also, in certain respects Brooklyn’s literary culture is much more inclusive than it was in the past. You have many more women being published now than in the past, and more non-white writers as well.
If it’s true that Brooklyn was a sanctuary for artists looking for cheap rent, how likely do you think it is that we’ll see the ascendance of a literary Staten Island or a literary Queens (something that’s already happening, on the evidence of recent books by Sam Lipsyte and Ha Jin)? What is Brooklyn’s expense doing to its status as a literary hub?
It’s certainly possible we’ll continue to see more literary activity in the other “outer boroughs,” but I think Brooklyn has the advantage of a century and a half of a storied literary past. That attracts literary types. And so do Brooklyn’s trademark brownstone streetscapes where, as L. J. Davis observed, “the 19th century city is surprisingly intact.” But the rising cost of living in Brooklyn is a threat when it comes to drawing writers, no doubt about it. A place that a lot of people want to be is a place that’s more expensive, and writers, as you may have heard, do not typically make a lot of money. I don’t think, however, that the vitality of Brooklyn as a subject is going anywhere. Whether Brooklyn is becoming a better or worse place to live is a matter of spirited and sometimes acrimonious debate, but I think it’s more a question for the newspaper than a question for the novel. Literature can thrive on prosperity and it can thrive on terrible struggle—and on the tension between the two.