It’s no secret that Brooklyn teams with writers of every stripe. In fact, it’s almost become so cliche that Colson Whitehead found the need to defend the phenomenon in his essay, “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over it.” In Evan Hughes’ legacy-filled Literary Brooklyn, we see that the borough has long been home to writer types, from “The Grandfather,” Walt Whitman, through Henry Miller, Richard Wright, William Styron and Norman Mailer, to Paul Auster, Paula Fox and Jonathan Lethem. As you might suspect, the lives of those literary minds are filled with all kinds of juicy anecdotes. Here, after the jump, lies five of them.
Once Whitman was fired as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Hughes writes, “after clashing with his boss over politics… he took on the look of a social dropout, with shaggy hair, gray beard and overalls.” He also “began composing a series of very long, unstructured poems, of a kind not yet seen in the world.” Every day Whitman “took [those poems] into the Rome Brothers print shop on the corner of Cranberry and Fulton, where he and the owners set them into type during off-hours.” Hughes writes that this move was “the 19th century equivalent of self-publishing out of Kinko’s.” The result, of course, was Leaves of Grass. Whitman was raised in Brooklyn, and lived all over the then city; unfortunately the only remaining residence is at 91½ Classon Avenue in Fort Greene. (No, he had nothing to do with Walt Whitman Houses.)
Miller spent his early years in Williamsburg on 662 Driggs Avenue and in Bushwick on 1062 Decatur Street — which he would continually refer to as “the street of early sorrows.” His first digs as a married adult were on 244 Sixth Avenue in Park Slope, but after ditching his wife for a dancer named June, Henry became a man of many residences. Among those was an apartment on Henry Street near the corner of Love Lane (really), where he, June, and her lover Jean Kronski all lived together. After June and Jean sailed for Paris, Henry “broke every piece of furniture in the apartment,” then he started writing in earnest. Miller penned three novels during those early years in Brooklyn, including Crazy Cock (first called Lovely Lesbians). But it wasn’t until June sent him off to Paris, alone, and he struck up an affair with Anais Nin, that he came up with something someone would publish. That book was Tropic of Cancer. In 1935 Miller returned to Brooklyn and took Nin on snowy night tour of his now “tremendously” changed Fourteenth Ward. He would rarely visit again.
Wolfe, author of the story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” lived first in a ground floor apartment at 40 Verandah Place in Cobble Hill, then in a succession of rooms on and around Columbia Heights. And though “the quaint old town of Brooklyn” was “closer to Manhattan’s ‘little sneering Futility People’ than was ideal,” Wolfe believed “[y]ou couldn’t find a better place to work.” And work he did, delivering the two-million-plus words that would become Of Time and the River, as well as the posthumous The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond. Many of his neighbors remember seeing a bear of a man, “six feet six, ‘or maybe a little more’ in his estimation, and no dieter either… sweat[ing] the days away half-dressed” and “standing up, using the top of an old Frigidaire as a desk.”
Crane’s relationship with merchant seaman Emil Oppfer, Jr., “the great affair of his life,” led him to Columbia Heights, where Oppfer, Sr. owned three adjacent buildings. In one of those buildings lived John Dos Passos; in another once lived Washington Roebling, the engineer behind the Brooklyn Bridge. Crane “eventually took over the same room Roebling had occupied, positioning his writing desk beside the very same window Roebling had positioned his telescope [so he could supervise the Bridge’s building] forty-odd years before.” It was there where Crane began work on his own epic, entitled simply The Bridge. While Emil was away at sea however, Crane also cruised the saloons along Sands Street, in what was then called “Hell’s Half Acre.” And “[m]ore than once he came home beaten and bloodied.”
McCullers lived at 7 Middagh Street, in “a strange, old three-story house whose wedding cake architecture resembled nothing else on the short narrow lane.” Named February House for the predominance of its residents’ birthdays and rented out by flamboyant Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis, McCullers was but the first of a long list of the era’s infamous to live in “the kooky commune.” Others included W.H. Auden, who “liked to stick to routines” and pretty much kept the House in order, and Gypsy Rose Lee, “a whirlwind of laughter and sex.” One Thanksgiving night, at the end of a boisterous dinner party, “the sound of sirens came from a fire station, and Gypsy and McCullers ran shrieking outside, hand in hand, to chase the bright red trucks.” Then at once “[s]omething broke free inside McCullers, who had been struggling with her work, and she grabbed Gypsy’s arm and, out of breath, said, ‘Frankie is in love with her brother and his bride and wants to become a member of the wedding!’” The rest, as they say, is literary history.