The rich history of literary life in “America’s first suburb” is very enjoyably explored in Evan Hughes’s Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. Even if you think you already know this story – and yes, yes, you may know all about the Brooklyn-ness of Whitman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, and Jonathan Ames – intriguing surprises remain to be discovered in Hughes’s book. (For starters, who knew that would-be novelist Gypsy Rose Lee was part of a tightknit Brooklyn Heights literary crowd that also included Auden, Carson McCullers and Richard Wright?)
Hughes is good at forging connections between the many Brooklyn authors whose stories he tells – everyone from Henry Miller to Marianne Moore to Jonathan Lethem – even as he gives the arcs of their careers fresh context by setting them against the dramatic ups and downs of the borough they all called home.
The subtitle on “Literary Brooklyn” may be a bit of an exaggeration (his book is really the unique story of Brooklyn and not the story of Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, or any other American city) but he does engagingly track the dramatic shifts in social history and demographics – from the Depression to the Great Migration to suburban flight to the urban renaissance – that have made and remade Brooklyn so many times over the decades.