Literary Brooklyn by Evan HughesAisles

In the Margins of Myth:

Nostalgia, Admiration,

and "Literary Brooklyn"

Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life
by Evan Hughes
Review by Sarah Kruse

Mythology reflects its region. Here
In Connecticut, we never lived in a time
When mythology was possible—But if we had—
That raises the question of the image’s truth.
– Wallace Stevens

n a plane between Portland, Oregon, and Providence, Rhode Island, with a stop in Chicago, a man in my row reads a French phrase book and a Paris guidebook. A list that reads “Rue Saint Germaine” at the top sits in the empty seat between us, someone behind me peels a pungent orange, and already I have lost the mountains. How is it possible, I think, that last night I sat in the window of the Stumptown Coffee on Belmont in Portland and watched cyclists with playing cards in their spokes pedal through the rain? I fantasize about returning, about coming back to what now feels like a lost home, a place in time where I remember “true happiness.” And yet, after ten years of living there, Portland had lost its mystical qualities, and felt more like stagnation. Perhaps what we don’t have always signifies most. But why? Why should that which we’ve lost or never possessed speak louder than anything?

Human beings are marked by loss, and the passage of time leaves us desiring not a specific person or place, but lost eras. (Proust, of course, knew this well.) What memory signifies is the vanishing present—it is, at least, the mind’s manifestation of a presence we believe we would like to regain—and often, what we come to associate with the vanishing present is place. Places become markers of time, because where reality slips away with vanishing time, place remains, to some extent, a constant. Desire leads to myth: if only we could get back to that place, return to that familiar apartment on that particular street, we would be happy. Maybe.

It seems for writers—or perhaps more accurately, aspiring writers—the myth of a place becomes a tonic: “If only I were there.” Evan Hughes’s Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life attempts to draw out the connections between numerous writers who lived in Brooklyn and, simply put, how Brooklyn affected them. Carefully researched and historically constructed, what Hughes crafts is essentially an argument suggesting that Brooklyn-as-place almost created these writers. The emphasis is also on the hip and the cool, with Hughes noting that “Walt Whitman dressed in disheveled workingman’s clothes” was “Brooklyn’s first literary hipster,” and citing how for Norman Mailer, “a new breed of person had arisen, ‘the American existentialist—the hipster.’” The chapter on Henry Miller closes with a quote from Miller’s Book of Friends that states, “We did not come into our world ready made; we invented our world.” Miller’s reference is to the street world he knew, but this statement might apply to Hughes’s book itself. What appears as a “literary Brooklyn” is created through the story that is told, and Hughes chooses to contextualize the development of this literary Brooklyn through the borough’s economic rise, fall, and urban development, as if the real movement of history tethers a more ephemeral world of the literary.

Recounted exploits of Henry Miller, Hart Crane, and Thomas Wolfe carry with them a romanticized tone. The fascination with the gritty and real makes one believe, This is where it’s at. This is what’s real. Of course, pointing out the truth of something brings its antithesis into play. Hughes quotes Crane describing that in Brooklyn, “It is particularly fine to feel the greatest city in the world from enough distance, as I do here, to see its larger proportions. When you are actually in it you are often too distracted to realize its better and more imposing aspects.” That “greatest city” is Manhattan, not Brooklyn. Similarly, in the chapter on Truman Capote, Hughes comments that “Even while in Brooklyn, Capote and the storied residents of 7 Middagh Street appear to have shared a point of view that originated toward Manhattan.” So while these authors were using the space between Brooklyn and “the city” to give them a better perspective on Manhattan, memories of them in Brooklyn create the “literary Brooklyn” that Hughes is interested in.

Eventually, one can’t help but wonder if the project of the book isn’t largely nostalgia for a “better time.” Golden eras can only be created retrospectively. While we may be tantalized by accounts of Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller passing each other on the stairs to get the mail, and Miller living close to where “Bernard Malamud was then growing up above his father’s store, listening longingly at the window to a piano in a nearby apartment,” such passages are tinged with nostalgia. At the time, Mailer and Miller had no idea whom the other was, or whom each would become. Bringing these figures into conversation is the work of Hughes’s book—nothing exists without a narrative. In the last chapter, Hughes announces that “If you’re a writer, even if you’re unaware of the Brooklyn roots of many of the authors in this book, you know that there’s an American mythology about the borough.” Hughes plays into that myth by adding a literary prism to the existing mythology, suggesting that “Someday, though, a Brooklyn writer of today might well write a book in the manner of Hemingway’s Paris memoirs, A Moveable Feast.” Hughes makes several other comparisons to the literary Paris of the 1920s, but one should remember that A Movable Feast wasn’t published until 1964—after Hemingway’s death, and long after the 1920s had vanished. Woody Allen’s recent Midnight In Paris expresses the same nostalgia for the past, while also finding ironic enjoyment in its depiction of inhabitants of the 1920s as bored and wanting to return the fin de siècle.

What nostalgia creates is a kind of operatic exaggeration. Mundane business fades into the wings, and we use threads of memory to weave a myth of what seems the truth of the matter. Roland Barthes, in his preface to Mythologies, expresses his “impatience” with “the ‘naturalness’ with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up a reality.” Because we can’t see the reality in which we live—we simply don’t know if the person we pass in the hall each day will become the next great author or simply an office clerk—we fabricate a world in which we imagine a reality we can see. The mythologizing of place is a distancing act that opens an imaginative space: a spectacle of reality, like a world created on a stage. Iconic cities fall under this spell. With so many films set in places like New York or Paris, when we encounter the real Central Park or Champs Elysees, they hardly seem real. What myth does is mark our own absence, but this absence also arises in our inability to see the vanishing present in which we already live.

In the absence of home or a familiar place—while dragging a suitcase up Pike Street in Seattle at 7am, for instance—the margin we live in while traveling animates the world differently, or rather, our perception of the world. Space found on a train, the cramped bed in a hostel, or morning coffee on an unfamiliar street become everything. What we lose when we are not traveling—when we have become steadfastly rooted to a place—is the perspective of the admirer. So is Hughes’ admiration of literary Brooklyn “accurate”? In Time Regained, Proust writes “that old buildings and pictures appear to us not as they originally were but beneath a perceptible veil woven for them over the centuries by the love and contemplation of millions of admirers.” Perhaps this is why we mythologize a place: removing it from the commonplace lends it a quality of being more than itself, and it’s through this process—through exaggeration and nostalgia—that we hope finally to recognize it.

Sarah Kruse is a writer and critic. In the fall 2011 issue, she interviewed Mary Cappello about Chevalier Jackson's "Cabinet of Curiosities."