“Really, it’s as quiet here as the country!” marveled Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden upon arriving in Brooklyn in 1939. “For the first time I am leading a life which remotely approximates to the way I think I ought to live.”
Auden was not the first – and certainly not the last – great writer to discover the peculiar charms of New York City’s most populous borough. Quieter than Manhattan, more human in scale, less terrifyingly expensive (in some neighborhoods anyway), Brooklyn has been providing refuge and inspiration for writers at least since Walt Whitman arrived in 1823 as a child of 3.
Today, “Brooklyn cool” has surged to such a degree – taking all the writers with it – that Malcolm Gladwell recently quipped: “Intelligent thought is not dead in New York. It has simply moved to Brooklyn.”
The rich history of literary life in “America’s first suburb” is very enjoyably explored in Evan Hughes’s Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. Even if you think you already know this story – and yes, yes, you may know all about the Brooklyn-ness of Whitman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Jonathan Ames – intriguing surprises remain to be discovered in Hughes’s book. (For starters, who knew that would-be novelist Gypsy Rose Lee was part of a tightknit Brooklyn Heights literary crowd that also included Auden, Carson McCullers and Richard Wright?)
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.
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.