Literary Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Bridge Cables by Zinetv

Brooklyn Bridge Cables by Zinetvby Norm Goldstein

“I live in Brooklyn,” Truman Capote once wrote. “By choice.”

He described the New York City borough, for the most part, as a “veritable veldt of tawdriness.”  But, he added, there also was an “oasis” of a Brooklyn neighborhood, a “splendid contradiction.”

This “oasis” was–and is–the area known as Brooklyn Heights.

“Heights,” he wrote, “because it stands atop a cliff that secures a sea-gull’s view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, of lower Manhattan’s tall dazzle and the ship-lane waters, breeding river to bay to ocean, that encircle and seethe past posturing Miss Liberty.”

I, too, was lured here by choice and preference, and found a quiet, leafy enclave rich in architecture and history, each protected by landmark designation. And, of course, there’s the iconic Brooklyn Bridge and Promenade.

The area dates back to the Indians who were here to greet Henry Hudson to the land they called Ihpetonga, “the high sandy place,” and the Dutch settlers of the 1600s.

Markers recalling Brooklyn’s place in the Revolutionary War abound at the area’s East River edge. The Fulton Ferry Landing is whence Washington’s troops sneaked away from the British during a stormy night and foggy morning in August 1776, surviving to fight another day (actually another seven years). On top, facing the river, was where Fort Stirling was built to battle the British if they came up the harbor. (They didn’t.) And at the southern end of the world-famous Promenade is a boulder marking the Four Chimneys house that served as Washington’s headquarters.

A short walk from there is the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, where Henry Ward Beecher preached his abolitionist views in the Civil War era and the church (then simply Plymouth Church) served as an Underground Railroad depot.

But the neighborhood has an equally fascinating literary history, one that prompted a recent book by Evan Hughes, Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. Hughes traces the lives and works of writers from the mid-19th century to the present, all with one common tie: Brooklyn. And especially Brooklyn Heights.

Writers were lured by less expensive rentals, especially in the economically depressed decades of the 1920s and ‘30s.

“In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.” This is the opening line in William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” which is set in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.

But cheaper living was only part of the story. Capote wrote that the neighborhood had “a certain appeal that brigades of the gifted –artists, writers–began to discover.” Hughes noted part of that appeal: escape from the commercial clamor of Manhattan, where the  pulse runs slower, and the buildings don’t crowd out the sky.

Intrigued by what I read of my neighborhood as a breeding ground for writers, I began a personal walking tour of the Heights. As a popular tourist site, Brooklyn Heights has its bus tours (day and night) as well as walking tours that key on the area’s architecture. But I charted my own route, author by author.

Virtually next door to where I live are some townhouses, flanked by high-rise apartment houses built in the late 1960s. Around the corner from the Plymouth Church, where Cranberry meets Henry Street, they were erected on a site that once housed the Rome brothers printing plant. It is where Walt Whitman, the Bard of Brooklyn and a resident of several places in the borough, including the Heights, self-published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a collection of his long poems. He even set some of the type for the book. Among the poems he added for the second edition was “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” originally titled “Sun-Down Poem.”

With this in mind, I walked down Henry Street, turning west toward the river at Old Fulton, under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway overpass, past the old Eagle Warehouse, now a condominium apartment house across the street from an overrated pizza place, and on to the Fulton Ferry Landing.

There, part of the poem is inscribed on the railing at the water’s edge:

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide. and ebb with ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendor me,
Or the men and women generations after me!
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! Stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! Throw out questions and answers!

From there, it’s uphill (it is called the Heights for a reason), past the headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, to the street called Columbia Heights.

Coming in from the left as we head south is a four-block dead-end street called Middagh. On that corner at one time was No. 7,  nicknamed (by Anais Nin) February House because several of its residents had birthdays in that month. Here once resided–at the same time just before World War II–George Davis, the fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who arranged the communal living; W.H. Auden, who moved there for the cheaper rent; burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee; composer and writer Paul Bowles and his writer wife Jane; composer Benjamin Britten; the displaced Southerner, Carson McCullers, and, for a while, a chimpanzee.

Sherill Tippins, in her 2005 book, “February House,” described 7 Middagh as a three-floor house, a small, shabby brick and brownstone with a gingerbread-trimmed front porch and a high-ceilinged parlor. It overlooked the dockyards and a busy New York Harbor.

It apparently suited the talents of this eclectic group just fine. Auden finished “New Year Letter,” a long philosophical poem, there in 1940, and included it with other poems in “The Double Man.” Auden and Britten collaborated on an opera, “Paul Bunyan.” McCullers started a story that evolved into the novel “Member of the Wedding” and her experiences there and at the nearby waterfront bars probably served as the basis for her later “Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” though with a different setting. Gypsy Rose Lee, with the help of George Davis and others, began her first book, the “G-String Murders,” a mystery.

The house is gone now, demolished to make way for part of the inaptly named Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the 1950s.

Continuing south on Columbia Heights marks the perhaps the most intriguing stop of all,  No. 110. It too was razed in the name of vehicular progress.

To the Ohio-born poet Hart Crane, who moved there in the 1920s, it was all about the view.

He wrote to his mother and grandmother: “Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the Statue of Liberty, way down the harbour, and the marvelous beauty of Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshaled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sail boats, etc in procession before you on the river! It’s really a magnificent place to live.”

That vantage point inspired his most famous poem, “The Bridge.”

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Author John Dos Passos also enjoyed that view from a room he rented at 110 Columbia Heights, at Orange Street, at the same time as Crane, in 1924 and again in 1927.

Years before them, however, someone else had the same view of the Brooklyn Bridge, from the same room as Crane’s at 110 Columbia Heights. It was Washington Roebling, the son of Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling and the chief engineer on that project after his father’s death. From 1872 to 1883, Washington Roebling oversaw the construction by telescope from that building.

Just down the street, its backyard facing the New York Harbor, is 142 Columbia Heights, where Norman Mailer lived and wrote.

Mailer lived in several places in Brooklyn Heights over the years (almost as many as he had wives). At 102 Pierrepont, where he lived briefly with his parents after graduating from Harvard in 1943 and shortly before and after his military service, Mailer worked on the initial stages of his World War II novel “The Naked and the Dead.” At the time, another writer was living in the building. It was Arthur Miller, who, like Mailer, listed a number of addresses in Brooklyn Heights.

Mailer moved to 142 Columbia Heights in 1961. While there, he broke through the roof and created a three-level crow’s nest of sorts in which to work. When he died in 2007, the apartment sold for more than $2 million.

Three blocks south, the street becomes Montague Terrace. On the corner, at No. 1, is the brownstone where W.H. Auden lived on the top floor, from October 1939 to September 1940. Auden started his long philosophical poem “New Year Letter” there (and finished it at 7 Middagh). The poem was included in “The Double Man,” a 1942  book of miscellaneous notes and short poems. Part III opens in Brooklyn Heights:

Across East River in the night
Manhattan is ablaze with light.
No shadow dares to criticize
The popular festivities,
Hard liquor causes everywhere
A general détente, and Care
For this state function of Good Will
Is diplomatically ill:
The Old Year dies a noisy death.

Just two doors down, at 5 Montague Terrace, is the home where novelist Thomas Wolfe lived, in two rooms on the fourth floor of a five-story brownstone, from 1933 to 1935, soon after the success of “Look Homeward, Angel.” (He paid $45 a month rent.)        Wolfe, “noted prowler of the Brooklyn night,” as Capote described him, “took quarters: an apartment, equipped with the most publicized icebox in literature’s archives, which he maintained until his ‘overgrowed carcass’ was carried home to the hills of Carolina.”

It was here that Wolfe wrote Of Time and the River,” an excerpt of which is on a marker on the front of the house between the windows to the left of the door:

“Great God! the only bridge, the bridge of power, life and joy, the bridge that was a span, a cry, an ecstasy — that was America.”

In the novel, that line is preceded by, “What bridge? The bridge whereon at night he had walked and stood and watched a thousand times, until every fabric of its soaring web was inwrought in his memory, and every stone of its twin terrific arches was in his heart, and every living sinew of its million cabled nerves had throbbed and pulsed in his own spirit like his soul’s anatomy.

“The — the Brooklyn Bridge,” he mumbled.

Continuing down Montague Terrace is No. 62, which housed the attic studio where Mailer finished “The Naked and the Dead.” This address was Mailer’s writing studio; he lived with his first wife, Beatrice, just around the corner at 49 Remsen.

Turning east up Remsen one block to Willow, we can walk to No. 70. This was the house Capote lived in during the 1950s and ‘60s, renting the basement apartment of the yellow brick, 18-room, Greek Revival mansion from Broadway set designer Oliver Smith. Capote finished writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s while he was there as well as In Cold Blood.

His essay on living there, “A House on the Heights,” was originally written for Holiday magazine in February 1959 (with the title “Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir”).

From Willow, it’s one block east to Hicks. Another block south, tucked between Remsen and Joralemon (named for early landowners) is a one-block cul-de-sac called Grace Court. There, at No. 31, Arthur Miller finished “Death of a Salesman.” Miller sold the house to civil rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois in 1955.

Heading back to Remsen, there is No. 91, where a plaque next to the door at the head of the stoop recalls that Henry Miller, controversial author of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, lived there briefly with his new bride, June Mansfield, from 1924 to 1925. But the couple couldn’t afford the rent, so they had to move out after a year and a half.

Miller stayed in the neighborhood, though, moving into another basement apartment, which he called “a lunatic asylum, only worse” (it was here that June brought home her lady friend Jean Kronski.) and then to a basement apartment at the corner of Henry Street and Love Lane (yes, Love Lane). There’s now a CVS store there.

The lure of the cheap rent is surely gone in Brooklyn Heights, but contemporary writers, Evan Hughes says in Literary Brooklyn, continue to come in droves. There are “new independent bookstores, a literary festival, a steady flow of readings and book parties,” especially in neighborhoods adjacent to Brooklyn Heights, like Fort Greene (where Marianne Moore lived and worked for many years). Fort Greene is also called home by fiction Pulitzer Prize-winners Jennifer Egan (“A Visit from the Goon Squad”) and Jhumpa Lahiri (“Interpreter of Maladies”) and Colson Whitehead, best known as the author of the novel “John Henry Days.”

Author Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote, among other novels, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, lives in the nearby Park Slope neighborhood, as do Paul Auster (Travels in the Scriptorium,  Man in the Dark, Sunset Park) and his wife, writer Siri Hustvedt (What I Loved).

The literary tradition, like Betty Smith’s tree, grows in Brooklyn.


For more information on Norm Goldstein’s experience of literary Brooklyn, read our accompanying interview with the author and take a look  “behind the article.”

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