An engaging survey of Brooklyn’s literary tradition from Walt Whitman to Jonathan Lethem.
A pastoral village of 5,000 when Whitman arrived in 1823, Brooklyn was the nation’s third-largest city by the Civil War. In 1898, 15 years after construction of Washington Roebling’s iconic bridge linking it to Manhattan, Brooklyn became a New York City borough. A World War II boomtown, a pocket of depression afterward, a failing community by the ’60s and ’70s and conspicuously gentrified, culturally vital place today, Brooklyn, in all its incarnations, has proven a remarkably fertile ground for literature. In his debut, journalist and critic Hughes charts this tumultuous, two-century urban history through the lives and works of important writers who, for their own reasons and for a time at least, called Brooklyn home. Elegantly, the author slides in and out of eras, identifying the sometimes surprising geographical and spiritual connections among an impressive list of writers: Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Norman Podhoretz, Alfred Kazin, William Styron, Arthur Miller, Paul Auster, Truman Capote, Jonathan Safran Foer and more. Whether they used it as subject, setting, or inspiration, saw it as a refuge, hideout or merely as a patch of relative green convenient to Manhattan, these writers are part of a rich artistic procession Hughes brings vividly to life. Hart Crane looked out the same apartment window from which Roebling oversaw the bridge construction. Prim, church-going Marianne Moore, who edited Crane, spent time in Fort Greene Park, probably unaware of Henry Miller, trying then to publish Crazy Cock, or Richard Wright, composing Native Son, occupying nearby benches. Hughes concludes with a quick scan of today’s thriving scene, every bit worthy, it seems, of the borough’s distinguished literary history.