Literary Brooklyn: A Living Inspiration

While browsing in the Greenlight Bookstore on Fulton Street, I encountered this recent book about Brooklyn writers. The author, Evan Hughes, landed not one but two book reviews in The New York Times, one by Dwight Garner and another by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Both are worth reading. And the book, if you live in Brooklyn or plan to make a pilgrimage here, is worth buying.

If you don’t have time to read the book, read this essay by Colson Whitehead: “I Write in Brooklyn. Get Over It,” the best short piece about Brooklyn I’ve ever read. It’s real subject is writing, not place.

Inspired by learning about my new environment, I have tried to open my eyes and my heart to the very land above which I am perched as I write these words–in this high-rise condo building. Somehow it doesn’t seem right to be talking about land when you are sitting twelve stories above it!

I can imagine the land first of all before European settlement. Wooded, grassy, swampy, planted in maize. The various branches of the Canarsie Indian tribe left few signs of themselves as they were pushed by settlers east into Long Island or west into what is now New Jersey. I learned a smattering of facts about these first dwellers in the land by reading broken land: Poems of Brooklyn, edited by Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Michael Tyrell, and I look forward to hearing the editors of this book speak in person next Saturday at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

With only ten months to live in Brooklyn (and three of them already behind me), I feel the hot breath of time on my neck, and I realize how little one can learn about a place as complex and rich as Brooklyn in so short a span. However, I am nothing if not adventurous, and when it comes to the combination of literature, history, and place, I’m all in. (My children still roll their eyes at the thought of all the author places I dragged them to over the years. They express no regret at not being able to join me in my current visits and flights of imagination.)

Brooklyn today is a living literary reality. Not only is it filled with authors, bloggers, agents, publishers, and readers (thriving independent bookstores being one of the signs), but under this current hip scene, lie layers of literary history as deep as the bones in the Martyr’s Monument just a few blocks from here on the pinnacle of Ft. Greene Park.

In fact, if you had been a city mouse in 1937, and trotted into the park at this entrance across from Washington Park and Willoughby, you might have bumped into Richard Wright as he entered here:

Brownstones on Washington Park St. across from Ft. Greene Park

All of the buildings around the park would have stories to tell. Some of them housed writers who would become very famous. The Hughes book, Literary Brooklyn, contains several maps of multiple places where a dozen or more well-known authors lived from the time of Whitman to the mid twentieth century.

While Wright sat on a bench near the Martyr Monument (there’s a small sign indicating which bench now in the park), he could have been writing what would become Native Son in longhand while poet Marianne Moore was playing tennis in the courts just a few hundred feet away. That thought delights me.

But the granddaddy of all inspirations in Brooklyn has to be Walt Whitman. The Hughes book starts with an excellent chapter on Whitman, and the Kasdorf/Tyrell anthology begins with Whitman also.

A Ft. Greene Park ranger today pointed to the place where Walt supposedly sat as he composed Leaves of Grass–and looked across the East River to Manhattan. The ferry offered the poet a jumping off point for a great poem, the one we know as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or “Sun-down Poem.” This poem has come alive for me in a way it never could as I read it as a college student in Virginia or even a professor in Texas and Indiana, even though I loved it then also.

The hill in the park 108 feet above sea level--Whitman's hill.

What changes when one begins to know a place might be described as empathic imagination. Sometimes that imagination is all on the part of the reader — who, for example, visits the places where great works were written and where great poets bestrode the world like a colossus. There the reader senses one truth–the poet was like me. Whitman knows this and he catalogs all the ways it is true: “I too saw the reflection of the summer-sky in the water, . . .I too . . . I too . . . .”

But Whitman is the prince of empathic imagination–from the writer’s perspective. “I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.” He has seen me, little country girl Shirley Hershey come to the big city at last as a grandma. And he has seen this vast city of Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, blacks, browns, whites, Buddhists, Hindus, protestors, magnates, people from all parts of the earth and all stages of life living together, striving: “The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun -set.”

Whitman’s power as a poet derives from using the reality of the present moment — the December sea gulls high in the air, for example — not as the only reality but as a connecting hub to both past and future. He can see what others see but recognizes that the sensory perceptions of the present moment are not enough — he must break through the boundaries of time: “others who look back on me, because I looked forward to them.”

As I write my memoir, casting my eyes to the past, I have no desire to go back. What I am learning from the ghosts of Whitman, Wright, and Moore and all others who lived just blocks away from this present location, is to think of the centuries ahead and of the others who will come to all the places so dear to me now. And once again I think of Wordsworth: “they will love what we have loved/and we will teach them how.”

Today, I sat on a bench across from an amazing piece of public art on the Fulton Mall called “Before I Die” which I first photographed three days ago. I watched as a young father pushing a stroller, picked up a piece of chalk and finished the sentence “Before I die–I want to hold my son’s child.” Whitman knew that about him and about his son and about his son and his daughter and her daughter after him.

I know most of my readers are not Brooklynites, but I hope you have found a connection to the ideas of this post. I’ve been thinking of you before you were born :-). Do you think beyond the present time as you write? Do you visit writer’s places? How has a particular place inspired you?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Personal Reflections and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Literary Brooklyn: A Living Inspiration

  1. I often think beyond the present when I write. As a family historian, I often visit ancestral sites; Brooklyn is one of those places. My parents were born in Brooklyn, as were two of my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents. I am drawn by their spirit. They’re everywhere. In the graveyards, on the sidewalks, in the empty spaces where buildings stood and on the hillsides of the cemeteries. I am the sum of all their stories and all their wisdom, a descendant mapping my ancestors’ spirits and emotions with words.
    Wonderful story, Shirley.

  2. Tom DeWolf says:

    I LOVE this post, Shirley! Though I’ve never lived in Brooklyn, I’ve stayed there with friends for extended periods. Your words take me right back. I’m particularly inspired since I presently sit just 75 miles north of you in a small rural NY community with my writing partner as we tap away on our separate laptops finishing up our manuscript. I enjoy both the spiritual and physical connection. Thank you, and enjoy Brooklyn!

    • shirleyhs says:

      As you wrote those words, Tom, I was in Asheville, NC. But now I’m back. Hope you and Sharon have had a great time finishing you mss. I’m so impressed at your dedication — to writing and to racial reconciliation. Blessings!

  3. Gutsy Living says:

    Very thoughtful and educational post. It brings me back to strolling the streets in Paris when I visit my father. As you know, Orange County, California is not as stimulating from the architectural perspective, so fortunately I get back to Europe once a year. I did have the pleasure of asking Marla Miller ti present to the SCWA (Southern California Writers Association) yesterday and she mentioned your wonderful blog. So I had to say, “I know Shirley too.”
    As far as writing, I do think of the future, and especially travels to poorer parts of the world to study people.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi Sonia, thanks for this comment and for the plug at the SCWA. I’m honored.

      You are fortunate to have such deep roots abroad. You definitely have empathic imagination.

  4. I would love to hold my daughter’s son’s child, but that day would be far off. At nearly seventy, I’ll settle for hugging my grandson at his graduation from secondary school or college and feel I am exceptionally lucky.

    Ah, I love New York and all you can see and experience!

    Susan Neufeldt

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi, Susan. Glad to see you here again!

      Ah yes, neither of us has a good chance of holding great grandchildren (my mother now has nine!). But they will continue the cycle of life nonetheless!

      Sent from my iPhone

  5. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler says:

    Hello Shirley, I’m enjoying your revelations about your lifetime obsession with place, and in particular, the urgency you feel about relating to the place you currently are living. To me, you are “redeeming the time,” a phrase from my Mennonite upbringing and the Bible. Dolores

  6. friesengroup says:

    Thank you for an intense reflection from 12 stories above the earth. I have meaningful memories of traveling with my parents to where they grew up – western New York and Nebraska – and hearing the stories of family and place. And now I often meet my younger self in places that I go, knowing that my life is forever changed by the place and by the presence and absence of those who are part of history and part of me.

    My father’s avocation is history and family history. My brother and I have great memories (eye rolling, laughter, and stories included) of tramping through graveyards looking for a missing date and visiting courthouses from Nebraska to Pennsylvannia in search of a missing Will. Family misadventures and adventures are all part of life!
    Kathleen

    • shirleyhs says:

      Kathleen, I knew there must be a reason you take such beautiful photos of places and resonate with memoirs and memoir ideas — and now I know — your father and all those trips to graveyards and courthouses.

      Thanks for this vibrant comment and for your empathic imagination!

      Sent from my iPhone

  7. Hi Shirley,
    I just came home from teaching an Environmental Writing class and boom—the empathic imagination. Nice.
    On one of my next trips to NYC, I MUST make it over to Brooklyn. I shall print your piece for that day. Thank you!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Christin, so good to have your comment here. It would be fun to connect when and if you get to Brooklyn. Hope you will be working with agents and publishers often. 🙂

  8. Shirley, I think it is so neat and inspiring the way you are immersing in your new city! I have admired ex-Brooklynite Jonathan Lethem’s work and especially his Brooklyn-infused collection of essays “The Disappointment Artist.” His essay “The Beards,” about the death of his mother and his old male friends, is quite amazing. It is set, as I recall, in Brooklyn as well. He was hired away by Pomona College to fill DFW’s chair there.

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