Q&A With Evan Hughes
In the introduction for Literary Brooklyn, you mention that one of the framing ideas for this book was that literature is uniquely able to re-create a particular place and time. Can you explain a bit more of what you mean and how it's an important guiding principle of your book?
When I'm about to travel, I like to read up on where I'm headed, and often I find that while learning the facts about the place and its history is enriching, reading its literature is even more revealing. A great novel can tell you so much about how a place shapes people's lives, what it looks like from the inside, what a place is like—these are things that Google can't really tell you.
You trace Brooklyn's literary inheritance to the literary "grandfather" of the borough, Walt Whitman. How did this lineage take shape as you were writing and researching the book?
I don't think that there's a "Brooklyn school" of writing, either now or in the past. The borough is too large and its neighborhoods and writers are too varied. But one aspect of Brooklyn that I think has shaped its identity—including its literary identity—is that even though Brooklyn is a huge and urban place, it is not central in the way that Manhattan is. It's an "outer borough," without its own government, major newspaper, or tourist center. That leads to both an outsider's resentment and an outsider's pride, an amplified version of the way the rest of the country feels about Manhattan—a rich mixture of envy and resentment, awe and bitterness. And I think that feeling runs through a strain of Brooklyn writing that begins with Whitman and continues, for example, with Henry Miller, Bernard Malamud, and Arthur Miller, and that still exists in some form. Despite Brooklyn's current hip prestige and literary renaissance, it still represents a getaway and an alternative of sorts, a not-Manhattan. Brooklynites wear T-shirts with the local area code written on them, 718. The glamour zip code is Manhattan's 212, but no one feels a need to wear a 212 shirt.
When did you move to Brooklyn? Were you interested in its literary inheritance before you settled there?
I moved to Brooklyn in 1998, just after college. I certainly knew about New York City's literary pedigree, and I was attracted to the fact that Brooklyn connoted Whitman, Hart Crane, and the Brooklyn Bridge, a great artistic and literary icon, but I didn't know much more than that. I also didn't know that writers, editors, literary agents, and the like—people like me—had begun piling into Brooklyn, and that was a happy development. I began noticing over time not only how much literary cachet Brooklyn has been acquiring but also how much history there is, often hidden away, in a place that has been somewhat neglected by historians because of Manhattan's long shadow.
There's an impressive amount of research here and so many rich anecdotes and stories about beloved writers like Walt Whitman, Truman Capote, Richard Wright, Paula Fox, Norman Mailer. Would you tell us a story that didn't make it into the book?
There are a lot to choose from, and I'm going to relay some great outtakes on my Twitter feed, but here's one. The great love of Thomas Wolfe's life was an older woman, married and privileged, named Aline Bernstein. During their troubled affair, a kind of tug-of-war emerged between Aline and Wolfe's rather ferocious mother. Julia Wolfe was very thrifty while she was sinking all she could into real estate in Asheville, North Carolina, in the twenties, when it was all the rage. Like many others, she prospered initially but took a big loss when the Depression hit. When she later visited her son in Brooklyn Heights, she threw Aline out of the apartment. That day Aline wrote Wolfe one of the great pieces of hate mail I've ever read, laying into Asheville's senseless ways and lambasting his mother for her foolish penny-pinching and greed. Aline revealed that she had brought five hundred-dollar bills to give him that morning when she was turned away, and that she later threw one off the bridge. She added, "The next four days I am going to throw a hundred dollar bill over the bridge into the river, just to show God I don't come from Asheville."
The chapters are organized by the work of a writer or group of writers, but they also delineate eras in the borough's history. How did you select the writers for the book? What do you think the next chapter for Brooklyn writers might be?
There's an embarrassment of riches, and there are several writers of the past that I wish I could have included, like H. P. Lovecraft and Betty Smith. And that's not to mention the current crowd of writers, who had to collectively get short shrift simply because there are so many of them. Any other reader would select different ones to feature. If someone were to write their own, completely different version of this book, I'd be thrilled, even if they wanted to pick some fights.
It's hard to predict, thankfully, the next chapter for Brooklyn writers, but I think there's a lot about the place that hasn't been explored. There hasn't been quite the same explosion of books about contemporary Brooklyn to go along with the growing number of writers who've settled there in the last two decades. I sense a hesitance to engage with certain elements of the new, more privileged Brooklyn and the tensions it creates, as if the terrain is too familiar or insular or boringly comfortable, but I think that's an instinct worth questioning.
Who do you recommend reading?
I think my perspective right now is a bit skewed because I'm tempted to name writers who were a lot of fun to write about, even if I wouldn't exactly jump to recommend all their work. Thomas Wolfe, an outsize person in every sense who lived in Brooklyn for four crucial years in his career, falls into this category. As I say in the book, his writing is often overblown and overlong, but reading him can be invigorating; it's about the wild and deep longing that we all had when we were young and hadn't learned how to hide it. By his own admission, Norman Mailer, too, wrote some bad books, and he behaved very badly, but he's great fun to read and read about, and The Armies of the Night, for one, is essential reading about the American century just past. One recommendation that has nothing to do with outrageousness would be Alfred Kazin. Often great criticism does not outlive the writer the way novels can, but everyone should pick up a Kazin book and be reminded of how largehearted and devastating literary history and criticism can be. His work was a model for me in writing this book.
What do you think sets Brooklyn apart as such an epicenter of literary culture? Why has this intellectual environment flourished in Brooklyn, as opposed to other American cities? Where else do you think it's flourishing?
I think my best attempt to answer this question is in my book, particularly in the last chapter. My short answer would be that the physical environment of the place, of any place, is perhaps more integral to its intellectual and cultural life than we commonly realize, even if we live there. I have seen or read about a lot of literary vitality in the Bay Area; New Orleans; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; several small cities in Montana; overseas in Berlin; and in sections within countless cities. Literary communities are small in terms of pure numbers, even in New York or London or Paris, so in some cases it makes more sense to talk about particular neighborhoods rather than cities at large. I notice, too, that places that have a kind of subsidiary relationship to larger nearby cities, as Brooklyn does to the borough of Manhattan, often have a special intellectual vibrancy. A few examples are Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island ("second cities" to Boston); Baltimore (Washington, D.C.); and Oakland and Berkeley (San Francisco).