When Evan Hughes moved to Carroll Gardens in 1998, he was on the leading edge of a soon-to-be-torrential flood of writers who would make Brooklyn, once known for its "dese, dem and dose" accent, a thriving literary community. But Hughes' generation of artists wasn't the first to discover the borough's low rents and low-key charm. His engaging history, "Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life" (Henry Holt, $16 paper), begins with Walt Whitman in the 1840s and follows those who trod in Whitman's footsteps, from Henry Miller and Marianne Moore to Jonathan Lethem and Jennifer Egan.
Why a book about Brooklyn's literary tradition?
I think literature gives you a window into the history of a place, a very fine-grained portrait that tells you what it felt like to live there at a given time. That's hard to just look up on the Internet. But a novel doesn't only spring from the mind of an author, it arises from a very specific time and place, and I think the story of these writers' work and lives really tells you the story of Brooklyn and of urban life.
There's a chapter about Alfred Kazin and two other Jewish writers who came of age during the Depression; they were the children of the immigrant generation that came in great waves around the turn of the century. And Richard Wright is not just the guy who wrote "Native Son" and "Black Boy"; he participated in the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to Chicago and then Brooklyn. They also epitomize two principal trends. Writers like Wright came to Brooklyn as a Not-Manhattan, an alternative that was quieter and more manageable. But the Depression-era writers struggled to get out of Brooklyn; Manhattan represented achievement, something they wanted to cross the bridge to.
You write that "Brooklyn is more like America." As opposed to Manhattan?
I don't want to put down Manhattan; I love Manhattan. But it's like America on steroids: taller, faster-moving, richer and poorer; it's driven by the clamor of capitalism and the churning machine of ambition. When you emerge from the subway in Brooklyn, you take a breath, maybe your pulse slows down a little, you suddenly see more of the sky, you might take more of an interest in your surroundings. William Styron wrote to his father in 1949 describing the quiet in Prospect Park, which felt good to him because it was reminiscent of his hometown in Virginia.
Do you agree with borough president Marty Markowitz that Brooklyn is now "New York's Left Bank," a creative capital for the whole city?
I think there is truth to that. I think Brooklyn has become a real artistic center, and not just for literature; there are all these bands and chefs here as well. I know that a lot of writers and editors who still live in Manhattan sometimes get asked why they're still there, why they haven't moved to Brooklyn!