Brooklyn As Muse: Why So Many Writers?

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A view of the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn, on April 19, 1939 (Credit: Associated Press)

In the beginning there was Walt Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry.” Then came Henry Miller’s Williamsburg. The Brooklyn Bridge was Hart Crane’s, the Brooklyn accent Thomas Wolfe’s.   Truman Capote and Paula Fox wrote their version of the Heights. Jonathan Lethem and L.J. Davis tapped onto 1970s brownstone Brooklyn. Paul Auster owned Park Slope.

Brooklyn isn’t only a place where writers live. It’s a place writers write about.  It has been so for over 150 years. Some say there’s nothing special about that: writers write about many different locations. New York, like many great cities, has been the setting of countless novels, plays, and poems. Yet Brooklyn stands out. The New York Public Library catalogue lists 328 novels labelled “Brooklyn Fiction,” barely less than “Manhattan Fiction” (386 books). Its collection includes only 91 “Bronx Fiction” novels, 50 “Queens Fiction” books, and a mere 12 works of “Staten Island Fiction.”

Though there isn’t a school of Brooklyn literature, there is a “Brooklyn writer” brand. From Miller to Hubert Selby to Pete Hamill, the authors who have lived or live there have contributed to the creation of a Brooklyn writer myth. “Brooklyn is a home for novelists,” says Eric Simonoff, a literary agent from the borough. “For some reason, it’s become a gravitation pole.” So much so, in fact that it stimulates as much fascination from the outside world as it does skepticism from the so-called Brooklyn authors. The title of  Colson Whitehead’s essay, “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It,” feels self-explanatory.

There is no shortage of Manhattan writers: in fact, they are the ones who come to mind at the thought of “New York literature.” Manhattan is a symbol of the City’s promise: new beginnings, success, the American Dream. It is the apotheosis of the American city as Theodore Dreiser pictured it in “Sister Carrie,” a novel about a young country girl making her way up the social ladder in the big city.

The Bronx, on the other hand, has long been known for inspiring Ogden Nosh’s two-liner poem “The Bronx? No thonx!” Though it has been the setting of some praised pieces of literature -Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of Vanities”, Don De Lillo’s “Underworld”- it hasn’t been a recurrent theme in fiction. Brooklyn’s literary tradition is something all its own, both separate from New York/Manhattan fiction, and more established than any writing devoted to the other boroughs.

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Why Brooklyn, then? What is it about the borough that has turned it into a character of fiction? It’s a loaded question: the idea of a muse, like that of inspiration, tends to make authors cringe. “There’s no right pen, no right place,” says Joshua Henkin, the head of the creative writing program at Brooklyn College and author of the novel “Matrimony.” “I’m very suspicious of inspiration: if I didn’t live in Brooklyn, I’d still be writing.”  Still, Henkin’s upcoming novel happens to be partly set in Brooklyn. The only reason for that, he says, is that he has settled there. He’s also written about the Upper West Side (where he grew up), and about California (where he used to live and teach.) Authors are supposed write about what they know, period.

The argument, however, goes only so far. At a recent talk at Columbia University, the British novelist Zadie Smith, whose mother is Jamaican, said that it would be “really boring” if she could only write about half-Jamaican half-British girls raised in London. The same logic applies to a novel’s setting. It would be really boring if authors could roam no further than the places they have lived. Or rather, it would be really boring if they set their works in places where they live, just because they live there. Place isn’t always a pretext for a story, it sometimes is the story. The Brooklyn Bridge, for instance, has become an unofficial poetry landmark  — a place that, like it or not, inspires. It only took a three-month-stay in New York for Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovski to devote some famous verses to the span:

“As a crazed believer enters a church,
retreats into a monastery cell, austere and plain
so I, in graying evening haze
humbly set foot on Brooklyn Bridge.

it stretches on cables of string
to the feet of the stars.

I stare
as an eskimo gapes at a train,
I seize on it
as a tick fastens to an ear.
Brooklyn Bridge—
yes….
That’s quite a thing!»

Hart Crane did live in Brooklyn, in a flat overlooking the East River (he said it was “the finest view in all America”) where he composed a long poem to “The Bridge”… But Jack Kerouac was a Manhattan resident, and wrote the “Brooklyn Bridge Blues” while living in Florida. Even Colson Whitehead, who says there’s nothing special about writing in Brooklyn, devoted a passage of his “Colossus of New York” to those “various anchors” that “hold the island together so that it won’t drift away.” The bridge is a first exit to Brooklyn, a sign of the separation from the City, away from its magnitude..

Nor does the bridge stand alone among inspirational Brooklyn icons. Hubert Selby (“Requiem For a Dream”), and Maggie Estep (”Flamethrower”) have imagined stories in Coney Island. The long-gone Dodgers were captured by Mariane Moore’s verses and remembered by Pete Hamill (“Snow in August”).

There are, of course, autobiographical elements in some of the most powerful stories about the borough.  Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude” evoked his childhood in Boerum Hill of the 1970s: Dylan, the main character, is one of three “white kids… in public school” (his mother “believes in public school”) who get regularly “yoked” by the other children from the projects on Wyckoff street. It is a cathartic novel – a rememberance of the foundational period of his life. Paula Fox, who moved to the same neighborhood in 1967, uses her novel “Desperate Characters” to capture the lives of a terrified white childless couple living a little too far from Brooklyn Heights, and a little too close to crime and poverty.

Taken together, the novels speak to what is perhaps the key, beyond nostalgia and iconic settings, to the Brooklyn literary tradition: the tension that comes when two million people of varying ethnicities, races, and classes live close together in an urban landscape that is forever in flux. This is where Brooklyn has provided such rich material time and again.

Evan Hughes, the author of a detailed history of  “Literary Brooklyn,” believes the borough’s urbanism has played a role in establishing it as a place for fiction. Brooklyn, he explains, is the ideal city as envisioned and described by Jane Jacobs, the great writer, thinker whose seminal work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” helped refine how Americans think of cities, how they should look and how they can work.

Her harsh – and at the time, heretical — criticism of “rationalist” planners like Robert Moses led her to establish what she called “four generators of diversity” essential for sustaining a neighborhood’s vibrancy: “mixed uses” (a place that is both commercial and residential), short blocks, buildings of various ages and states of repair, and population density. Hughes says Brooklyn has stayed true to those four criteria. The different levels of income of its residents, the different ethnicities present in the borough, the “human scale” of its buildings has allowed a “miniaturization” of the world.

By contrast, Manhattan is all in length: smaller and crammed, pointing upwards to the sky. It isn’t a place where you take the time to look up, or at the people around you. The island’s density means anonymity. Although Brooklyn is the most populous borough of New York, it looks human scale. Its population spreads across a seemingly endless expanse of three story homes, and apartments on top of small shops. There is more air between the houses, and between the people, too. Brooklyn conveys a sense of neighborhood lacking in Manhattan. People know each other, and each other’s stories. “In Brooklyn,” Hughes says, “you can write about your neighbor.”

Paula Fox’s experience of Brooklyn when she first arrived in Boerum Hill is reflected in a review of L.J. Davis’s “A Meaningful Life:”  

“I discovered something in the passing weeks and months, the singularity, the charm of the borough; its tree-lined streets and gardens, its distinctive neighborhoods that sometimes changed by the block, and then changed in a different way when the old working-class or slum populations moved out and new ones (from all over the US and Europe too) moved in; young people, house-mad, scraping paint off marble fireplaces and mahogany banisters, overjoyed to leave asphalt Manhattan for what was, most importantly for some, a true dwelling, as true as a dwelling can be in a country, in a world, that shifts and slides as if on sand.”

A century earlier, the borough’s diversity was already part of its appeal for Walt Whitman, “the grandfather of literary Brooklyn” according to Hughes. During Whitman’s lifetime, Brooklyn evolved from a rural environment to the third biggest city in the country. It was the home of the “everyman,” a place where you could feel closer to ordinary people. And indeed “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” shows Whitman’s fascination and longing to belong in this micro-society on the other side of the East River:

“I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many
generations hence,

I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…”

Aside those crowds, the “Brooklyn microcosm” also works as a narrative backdrop because of the abstraction it allows. The Brooklyn Paul Auster describes, for instance, is often an excuse for a plot focused on introspection and character psychology rather than geography or social issues. As Hughes points out, Auster is open about this – in his novel “Ghosts” he writes: “the address is unimportant. But let’s say Brooklyn Heights for the sake of the argument.”  Likewise, “Sunset Park” takes place in a foreclosed house facing Green-Wood cemetery but is really a story about missed opportunities: it does not have to be set in Sunset Park, it just happens to be. Some details are “Brooklyn-branded” like the “Hospital for Broken Things,” a shop where one of the characters fixes manual typewriters and old radios. It is hipster enough to be a real place, somewhere east of Prospect Park – it works in Brooklyn, but it could be somewhere else. What the borough really brings to the novel is universality: because the story happens in Brooklyn, it could happen anywhere.

In that sense, Brooklyn stands for the prototypical American metropolis. While Manhattan’s gigantism confines its evocative power to the confines of the island, the images Brooklyn brings to mind are transferrable. What happens in Brooklyn doesn’t have to stay in Brooklyn; it could take place in Chicago, Boston, or Philadelphia.  A home to the “everyman,” it also represents “everycity,” though it is only a part of one. And as a symbol, it gains from being Manhattan’s second best — a way into one of the cities that, for generations, has served as a magnet for the ambitious, the creative and the artistic.

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Still, Hughes says he was expecting more current fiction dedicated to the borough when he started researching “Literary Brooklyn.” Some young authors – Haley Tanner (“Vaclav and Lena”), Kate Christensen (“The Astral”)– have recently published novels set here, but Hughes says the volume of Brooklyn literature is decreasing. Part of this may be linked to the fact that in some areas of the borough, the “tension” between people from different ethnicities and levels of income is dissipating. The Jane Jacobs ideal of small buildings inhabited by people from contrasting backgrounds becomes harder to fulfil as the Brooklyn real estate grows more expensive. The borough becomes static as it turns into a place for owners, not renters. When people settle, the tension goes away.

The cultural tradition of the borough, albeit a significant factor of Brooklyn romanticism, can also be overwhelming for aspiring writers. As the Brooklyn-born author Sara Gran put it in a “New York Times” essay sarcastically titled “Call It Booklyn,”

“Most writers get to approach middle age knowing that as they get old and dull and run out of interesting things to write about, at least they can return for inspiration to the halcyon days of childhood. But everyone else has already written about my halcyon days, because everyone has already written about Brooklyn.”

It is hard to create new things when it looks like everybody has arrived – or that the excitement and tension and uncertainty of the new is over. “I’m not seeing young writers discuss Brooklyn as a muse,” says Chad Bunning, the manager BookCourt, a bookstore in Cobble Hill. For him, Brooklyn serves other purposes. It’s necessary to be removed from a place or a situation to write about it.  “There’s something about this place that allows writer’s perspective, and great writing takes perspective,” he adds. Brooklyn, if nothing else, seems to be a good place for writers formulate their thoughts. Partly because its cultural community is emblematic, and partly because it is a comfortable place to live in.

“You can’t untangle Brooklyn from the past 100 years,” says Eric Simonoff, the literary agent. With Brooklyn comes history, culture, and yes, an uncanny amount of writers. There is nothing about the air of the borough that pushes authors to write, but it is rare to have such a concentration of people sharing the same occupation.

“A writer of fiction has a marginalized place in society,” Evan Hughes says. “It’s nice to have a little tribe. There aren’t so many places in the world where that community happens.” The act of writing itself – sitting and putting the words down- does not change because of place: it is draining, it can feel foolish, it doesn’t always pay the bills and it does invite friends and relatives to ask about a real job — wherever it takes place. But Brooklyn offers writers the possibility of feeling less self-conscious, and maybe a little less irrelevant, together. And perhaps that is all inspiration stands for.

As writers (and bankers) fill the borough, a new -richer, hipper- Brooklyn appears. It has a new dynamic: in many parts, it is not the working-class borough it used to be, but it remains a place of creation. A place, away from Manhattan, where art, be it lucrative or not, is still an appeal for many. That alone positions the borough a bridge and a world apart from Wall Street — there is tension still.  But capturing the change may take time. Living in a vibrant cultural community may not feel all that special, Hughes says, but in retrospect the nostalgia may kick in. A few years from now, Brooklyn may well be a new generation’s moveable feast.

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