Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life
From Walt Whitman to Jonathan Safran Foer, Brooklyn holds a unique place in America’s literary history.
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Hughes is good at forging connections between the many Brooklyn authors whose stories he tells – everyone from Henry Miller to Marianne Moore to Jonathan Lethem – even as he gives the arcs of their careers fresh context by setting them against the dramatic ups and downs of the borough they all called home.Skip to next paragraph
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The subtitle on “Literary Brooklyn” may be a bit of an exaggeration (his book is really the unique story of Brooklyn and not the story of Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, or any other American city) but he does engagingly track the dramatic shifts in social history and demographics – from the Depression to the Great Migration to suburban flight to the urban renaissance – that have made and remade Brooklyn so many times over the decades.
In fact for readers most familiar with the Brooklyn of today – the Brooklyn of “Baby and Me swim classes ... Pilates [and] the Food Coop” – Hughes’s depiction of the much bleaker Brooklyn of the not-so-distant 1960s and '70s (18 methadone clinics in Fort Greene alone) may come as a shock.
Hughes finishes with the Brooklyn of today and – inevitably – asks whether a borough already crowded with the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jennifer Egan, and many other of today’s best-known writers is a stimulating or a suffocating environment for a young talent.
In other words, has Brooklyn gotten too cool for its own good? Nah. As novelist Paula Fox noted when she left Manhattan’s Upper West Side to make a new home in Brooklyn: “Here you are in America.” Not really, some of us would argue. But, as Auden hinted, it’s a very awesome approximation.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.