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Many books have been written about New York City writers. One of the most recent, Ed Margolies' New York and the Literary Imagination (McFarland), captures with consummate clarity and perceptiveness how New York was a magnet for writers from Washington Irving to Ralph Ellison.
Margolies writes that so many New York writers were outsiders who were enveloped in the intense mix of urban experience. And that “here at last, among the myriad identities the city proffered, they would discover their own.” He describes a novelist like Thomas Wolfe arriving in the city from North Carolina with narrow, even bigoted cultural assumptions about race, Jews, and gays, as well as a vision of life shaped by Southern romanticism. And the protagonists of Wolfe's novels, when they come to New York,are ambivalent about the city: “the most homeless home in all the world.” But he also loves the night city's beauty, and despite what he sees as its cruelty, it offers, in his words, a “haven” to “people escaping small town meanness.” For Wolfe, as for many writers who lived here, the city became a subject of his work, and its bounty and intensity served to expand his sense of self, and of America.
But these days we seem to hear “Brooklyn writer” more than New York writer. What does it mean to be a “Brooklyn writer”? Writers have resided in Brooklyn for many years before it turned into a cool and trendy place to live - a magnet for young writers, artists, editors and filmmakers. In the mid-19th century Walt Whitman lived in Brooklyn. According to Evan Hughes in his book The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life (Henry Holt & Company), Whitman's poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry in the Leaves of Grass, was “a work of celebration, not only of the cityscape above and the sparkling water below, but more crucially of the city's men and women.”
Some 20th century writers like the aforementioned Thomas Wolfe moved to Brooklyn Heights in the 30s, after years living in Manhattan. He wrote one famous short story in the Brooklyn vernacular - Only the Dead Know Brooklyn - which concludes: “ It'd take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t'roo an' t'roo. An' even den, yuh wouldn't know it all.”
Other writers who lived in Brooklyn during that time and post WW11 were William Styron, Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Paul Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee (stripper/writer). Except for the younger Styron, the rest all lived between 1940 and 1942 in a house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights. They viewed it as the perfect retreat for a writer who wanted easy access to the city without having to be a part of it. Not that their lives on Middagh Street were ever serene on a personal level.
In contrast to these writers who came from elsewhere in America, Brooklyn-born writers like Daniel Fuchs, Bernard Malamud and Alfred Kazin wanted mostly to escape from it. The neo-con writer and editor, and son of a milkman, Norman Podhoretz, put it aptly: “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” I know that the trip from the parochial, ethnic Bronx to what I viewed as sophisticated, bohemian Manhattan was similarly a big psychological leap for me. Though it was a bit easier a decade or so later when many more people were making the same trek, and freedom to choose from a range of identities was much greater.
But today's Brooklyn is another world from the one the sons of Jewish immigrants like Kazin and Malamud, grew up in. It's filled with writers, independent book stores, literary readings, the Brooklyn Book Festival (the largest free literary event in New York City), and of course, BAM. One young Brooklyn writer writes, “the level of 'mental traffic' in Brooklyn keeps us on a fighting edge.”
However, many writers who live in Brooklyn eschew the hype, and the category of “Brooklyn writer.” When I questioned Brooklyn born and residing, essayist/critic/novelist/poet Phillip Lopate ( his most recent book of poetry is At the End of Day )- if there was such a thing as a “Brooklyn writer,” he said that “there's no over-riding Brooklyn aesthetic, just some shared experiences, based on geography, place, ethnicities.” And when I asked if he thought the whole Brooklyn Literary Renaissance was no more than a promotional gambit, he answered that he felt the reality was that “a lot of writers were obliged by Manhattan real estate prices to relocate in Brooklyn, and then that started feeding on itself and growing, till it became a 'cool' place to live.” Also, Lopate avoids making invidious comparisons with Manhattan. He sees “Brooklyn gazing at Manhattan with hungry provincial eyes, not vice versa.”
Still, there is no question that something is stirring in Brooklyn, and the borough's revitalization is more than PR. Writers abound, and though they rarely set their books on the borough's streets, Brooklyn is no longer merely a place that some writers reside in, but a cultural destination with an artistic life of its own.