Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Urban Literary Lives

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

“Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime.”  -   Isaac Asimov 

Urban connections is a theme that runs through the mini-biographies that make up this interesting but flawed literary history. Using Brooklyn as the focal point Evan Hughes chronicles the lives, briefly told, of authors from Whitman to Auster. Along the way we meet authors who were Brooklyn natives like Whitman, Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, and those that migrated to Brooklyn and stayed for a while like Hart Crane, W. H. Auden and William Styron. I was reminded of a favorite book, February House by Sherill Tippins that with a bit more focus does a better job of communicating the spirit of Brooklyn from a special era. That episode is included here as "The Birth of Brooklyn Cool", but pales as do most of the brief lives with the attempt to catalog every conceivable author and keep the book under three hundred pages. One example of the trivia that may appeal to some readers is the aside that notes that Norman Mailer went to the same high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant that also graduated Aaron Copland, Norman Podhoretz and Isaac Asimov.  There is an excellent bibliography, plus notes and an index which makes the book great for browsing. Hughes claims as his "guiding principle" that "literature has a special ability to offer an intimate view of a very particular place and time." He succeeds partially in relating this special ability, but too often merely shares anecdotes about authors that, while interesting, did not rise to that level. Perhaps the grand sweep of years combined with the impressive quantity of admittedly high quality writers was too much to allow this approach in one volume. Nevertheless this is a fascinating book about a city and its writers.

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