What is it about Brooklyn that has made it a magnet for so many literary figures. From the great poet Walt Whitman, who lived in Brooklyn for 40 years and edited its great newspaper, The Brooklyn Eagle, to Norman Mailer, giant of 20th century fiction and non-fiction, and Paul Auster, surrealist novelist and writer of the recent hit films Smoke and Blue in the Face, both populated with wild Brooklyn characters, writers have often chosen to make their homes in the complex borough of Brooklyn.
The 19th century brownstones of Brooklyn have been home to some of the most illustrious literary figures in American history. Perhaps it is Brooklyn’s unique vantage point, just across the river from the intensity of civilization that is Manhattan, but with enough quietude and space for writers to pursue their craft without constant distraction.
Novelists Bernard Malamud and Joseph Heller were both born in Brooklyn and poet Marianne Moore lived there most of her adult life. Theodore Dreiser, Hart Crane and Thomas Wolfe each spent productive years in the borough.
A literary stroll around Brooklyn Heights, the community with the strongest connections to literary history, can begin at Cadman Plaza, a park right at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Where now stand high-rise apartment towers, W.H. Auden served as a sort of den father to a communal living experiment in 1940 and 1941 that included Christopher Isherwood, Carson McCullers, Richard Wright and Paul Bowles. Their house at 7 Middagh Street was part of a block now torn down, but the rest of the block, with its charming Federal period houses, remains.
Around the corner on tree-lined Willow Place, Truman Capote lived in a basement apartment while writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Norman Mailer’s house is on Columbia Heights, the gold coast of the neighborhood, he and his family live there still.
Hart Crane conceived his masterpiece, The Bridge, in a building at 110 Columbia Heights. In the 1930s, Henry Miller lived at 91 Remsen Street and set parts of his novel Tropic of Capricorn in the neighborhood. Thomas Wolfe worked on Of Time and the River while living in a series of apartments on Montague Terrace and Columbia Heights. Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, his Pulitzer prize winning play, around the corner at 31 Grace Court.
Buildings associated with Walt Whitman, including the 30 Front street offices of the Brooklyn Eagle, and 98 Cranberry Street, where he set Leaves of Grass in type himself at the premises of a printing shop, are mostly gone now.
But one can stand at the Fulton Ferry landing at the foot of Fulton Street and contemplate the spot from which, in the 1850s, Whitman took the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back nearly every day. The ride inspired one of his best-known poems, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.
A hundred years hence, others will see them, he wrote, referring to the river, the landscape and the city itself. It gives one quite a chill to realize that we are among those others.
How to Get There
Walk over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan in fine weather; it is just under a mile over a smooth wooden walkway. Or take the A train to High Street, which puts you in starting position for the sites described above. Or a taxi ride from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights.
Where to Eat
River Cafe, virtually underneath the dramatic pylons of the Brooklyn Bridge, is one of Brooklyn’s outstanding restaurants. For a more casual meal, Montague Street, the charming high street of Brooklyn Heights, is filled with restaurants and cafes. The new Heights Cafe, just a block from the riverfront Promenade, offers trendy pasta, pizza and salads. Theresa’s next door is a good choice for inexpensive Polish home cooking, and Pete’s Downtown Restaurant, features Italian food in a warm, relaxed atmosphere. Noodle Pudding, a northern Italian restaurant in the north Heights, is new but already a local favorite, where families celebrate occasions at long candlelit tables. Wolf and Wolfe, is a charming bakery and espresso bar in a quaint 1800’s building near Fulton Ferry.