Literary Brooklyn; The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life

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    Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so

    I felt,

    Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one ofa crowd.

    Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, W W

    W ,

    already lived out the first act o his lie. Te son o a ailing carpen-

    ter, he had been a grammar school dropout; an offi ce boy or a law

    firm; an apprentice to various printers; and, disastrously, a school-

    teacher. Eventually he ound a calling in journalism, moving upstairs

    rom the printing room to the editorial offi ce. And at the age o

    twenty-six, in 1846, he was named the editor o booming Brook-

    lyns leading newspaper, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where his offi ce

    window looked out on the oot o Fulton Street, by the glinting,

    well-traveled East River and the Fulton Ferry. He became a promi-nent and eccentric man about town. o entertain people he would

    shout out lines rom Shakespeare and Homer rom a stagecoach or

    1.

    Te Grandfather of Literary Brooklyn

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    at the seashore, and he would hum arias as he walked down the

    street. He was talked about. He was known.

    Ten, in 1848, he was fired rom the Eagleafer clashing with

    his boss over politics. His next newspaper jobs were short-lived, and

    he began to slip out o view. He took on the look o a social dropout,

    with shaggy hair, a gray beard, and overalls. In the ensuing hal

    decade he was a sometime reelance journalist, a sometime book-

    seller at a store he operated out o his house on a lot hed bought or

    a hundred dollars, and a sometime carpenter. And sometimes he

    was plain unemployed. Tere was a great boom in Brooklyn in the

    early fifies, and he had his chance then, his brother George later

    said, but you know he made nothing o that chance. Strange and a

    bit rough around the edges, Whitman didnt make it easy or others

    to reach out to him. Tings were not looking good.

    But something powerul was taking hold o him rom within:

    I ound mysel remaining possessd, at the age o thirty-one to

    thirty-two, with a special desire and conviction . . . that had been

    itting through my previous lie, or hovering on the anks, [that]

    finally dominated everything else. He began composing a series o

    very long, unstructured poems, o a kind not yet seen by the world.

    Each day, he took them into the Rome Brothers print shop at the

    corner o Cranberry Street and Fulton Street, where he and the

    owners set them into type during off-hours. He would sleep late,

    write more, return to the print shop. It was the nineteenth-century

    equivalent o sel-publishing out o a Kinkos. And the result was

    Leaves of Grass. No other book in the history o American letters,

    Malcolm Cowley has written, was so completely an individual or

    do-it-yoursel project.

    Where Leaves of Grasscame rom no one will know. But as

    Whitman said, his masterpiece drew breath rom the people o

    Brooklyn, his literal and spiritual home. Walt Whitman, as much

    as he was one o a crowd, was Americas first great bard and thekeystone o Brooklyns literary tradition.

    It requires a considerable eat o imagination today to picture

    Brooklyn as it was when Whitman first arrived as a child o three,

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    in 1823. It was a place so different rom the huge urban mass o

    today, with its population o 2.5 million, that it is scarcely possible

    to hold it in the minds eye. Ten a separate entity rom the city o

    New York, which was restricted to the island o Manhattan, Brook-

    lyn was a placid little town o low-slung houses topped with billow-

    ing chimney smoke, tucked in close to the shore o the East River;

    the surrounding area later incorporated into Brooklyn consisted o

    large arms o rolling hills and a handul o even smaller hamlets.

    What is now the borough o Brooklyn boasted about as many resi-

    dents as todays Wasilla, Alaska.

    Across the water, Manhattan was beginning to become a cen-

    tral place in American commerce and in the American imagina-

    tion, but its tallest building was only our stories high. You could

    stand in Brooklyn Heights and see clear across Manhattan and the

    Hudson and well into New Jersey. From that spot you could watch a

    great crowd o high-masted ships carrying goods up and down the

    East River and especially the Hudson.

    In Brooklyn in 1823 there was no regular police orce, no public

    transportation, and ickering gas lamps were just being introduced

    to help light the eerily quiet, unpopulated nighttime streets. Fami-

    lies had to gather round the fireplace to cook or stay warm. Some

    had horses and a carriage, but they contended with rutted, narrow

    dirt roads, and there was no organized stagecoach service. Resi-

    dents kept pigs and chickens that roamed in the streets in daytime,

    rooting through the garbage alongside open sewers. Water was

    drawn rom street wells and carried home. averns and stables

    stood among houses and shanties. Te odors were rank. o the east

    o the villageon land now densely packed with multistory apart-

    ment buildingswere sprawling green fields still owned mostly by

    the Dutch. Tey kept a firm hold on their properties, assured o a

    market or their produce and livestock in the village o Brooklyn

    and in Manhattan.Many slaves worked the land and tended to houses. In 1800,

    beore slaveholding was abolished in New York State, in 1827, about

    60 percent o the white households within Brooklyns current borders

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    owned at least one slave, the highest proportion in the North. Te

    nationwide battle over slavery would shadow Whitmans lie as it

    grew to be the oremost threat to the country.

    But America was a young nation in Whitmans childhood,

    and the Civil War was still ar off. Whitmans ather, also named

    Walter, was born the same year as the ederal government, in 1789.

    Whitmans great-uncle ought and died in the Revolutionary Wars

    first major battle, the Battle o Brooklyn, in 1776. Tat rout by the

    English cost twelve hundred American lives in a matter o hours,

    with at least another fifeen hundred wounded, captured, or miss-

    ing. With deeat clearly at hand, George Washington, standing

    where Court Street now crosses Atlantic Avenue, is said to have

    cried, Good God! What brave ellows I must this day lose! But

    acts o valor on the American side would live onparticularly in

    the story o the Maryland orces who sacrificed themselves almost

    to a one in challenging and delaying the much larger British con-

    tingent at the Old Stone House, near todays Fourth Avenue and

    Ninth Street in Brooklyn. Tat stand allowed Washington and his

    men to make an overnight escape across the East River to Manhat-

    tan, whispering to one another in the og to avoid alerting the Brit-

    ish. I it werent or this getaway, the war could easily have ended in a

    brutally swif British victory. According to the historian Kenneth

    Jackson, one observer later said, Te Declaration o Independence

    that was signed in ink in Philadelphia was signed in blood in Brook-

    lyn. Both the heroism and the tragedy o the Battle o Brooklyn and

    its afermath would become a touchstone o Whitmans work.

    Between 1790 and 1810, Brooklyns population nearly tripled,

    as Irish, Yankee, and Manhattanite new arrivals crowded out the

    Dutch. Te Brooklyn Navy Yard gave rise to other shipyards and

    maritime trades, providing work or carpenters and crafsmen.

    Wooden market stalls stood by the water, and small manuacture

    spread out rom the river. Whitmans ather moved to Brooklyn tobe a carpenter and builder, in the hopes o capitalizing on the

    towns population boom. Although the boom continued, he didnt

    succeed, perhaps because he avored old ways o building and

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    because he lacked the gif or sel-promotion, though his son would

    soon possess it in spades. Te Whitmans moved at least ten times

    in the space o a decade.* Walt attended Brooklyns single elemen-

    tary school, District School No. 1, which had been established in

    1816 on Concord and Adams Streets, or about five years. Tat

    would remain the only ormal education or the man about whom

    the venerated critic Harold Bloom has written, No comparable

    figure in the arts has emerged rom the last our centuries in the

    Americas. Beore Whitman, American literature was largely or

    Harvard men, like Emerson, Toreau, and Henry James. It called

    to mind men o leisure, with crisp white collars and hired help.

    Ten Whitman barged in.

    Walts amilys finances orced him to leave school at age eleven

    and go to work, and or the decades to ollow he would have the kind

    o extraordinarily varied and checkered work history shared by

    many writers since. In his childhood and adolescence, Br