Literary Love Letters to Brooklyn


This week marked the release of Literary Brooklyn by Evan Hughes, a new chronicle of the borough’s literary history and author residents, which is getting some serious buzz. We’re excited to read it, but to tide ourselves over we thought we’d continue our literary love letters series with a collections of odes to the “rougher” side of the river. We’ve pulled from fiction and essays by residents and non-residents, but Brooklyn lovers all. Add your own favorite passages about Brooklyn in the comments, or feel free to make up your own odes to our fair city. How many words rhyme with ‘hipster?’

The very first lines of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn , Betty Smith:

Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York. Especially in the summer of 1912. Somber, as a word, was better. But it did not apply to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Prairie was lovely and Shenandoah had a beautiful sound, but you couldn’t fit those words into Brooklyn. Serene was the only word for it; especially on a Saturday afternoon in summer.

The Fortress of Solitude , Jonathan Lethem:

Something in Pintchik’s unmistakable age and specificity, its indifference, made Dylan ache. Apparently Brooklyn needn’t always push itself to be something else, something conscious and anxious, something pointed toward Manhattan, as on Dean Street, on Bergen, on Pacific. Brooklyn might sometimes also be pleased, as here on Flatbush, to be its grubby, enduring self. Pintchik pointed only into Pintchik for provenance.

Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes , James Agee:

It differs from most cities in this: that though it has perhaps a “center,” and hands, and eyes, and feet, it is chiefly no whole or recognizable animal but an exorbitant pulsing mass of scarcely discriminable cellular jellies and tissues; a place where people merely “live.” A few American cities, Manhattan chief among them, have some mad magnetic energy which sucks all others into “provincialism”; and Brooklyn of all great cities is nearest the magnet, and is indeed “provincial”: it is provincial as a land of rich earth and of this earth is an enormous farm, whose crop is far less “industrial” or “financial” or “notable” or in any way “distinguished” or “definable” than it is of human flesh and being. And this fact alone, which of itself makes Brooklyn so featureless, so little known, to many so laughable, or so ripe for patronage, this fact, that two million human beings are alive and living there, invests the city in an extraordinarily high, piteous and inviolable dignity, well beyond touch of laughter, defense, or need of notice.

“Brooklyn is my Neighborhood,” Carson McCullers:

“Miss Kate is a good woman,” this competitor said to me. “But she dislikes washing herself. So she only bathes once a year, when it is summer. I expect she’s just abut the dirties woman in Brooklyn.” His voice as he said this was not at all malicious; rather, there was in it a quality of wondering pride. That is one of the things I love best about Brooklyn. Every one is not expected to be exactly like every one else.”

Only the Dead Know Brooklyn, Thomas Wolfe:

Jesus! I’ve t’ought about dat guy a t’ousand times since den an’ wondered what eveh happened to ‘m goin’ out to look at Bensonhoist because he liked duh name! Walkin’ aroun’ t’roo Red Hook by himself at night an’ lookin’ at his map! How many people did I see get drowned out heah in Brooklyn! How long would it take a guy wit a good map to know all deh was to know about Brooklyn! Jesus! What a nut he was! I wondeh what eveh happened to ‘im, anyway! I wondeh if some one knocked him on duh head, or if he’s still wanderin’ aroun’ in duh subway in duh middle of duh night wit his little map! Duh poor guy! Say, I’ve got to laugh, at dat, when I t’ink about him! Maybe he’s found out by now dat he’ll neveh live long enough to know duh whole of Brooklyn. It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Walt Whitman:

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide! Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves! Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me; Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers! Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn! Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers! Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution! Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly! Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name! Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress! Play the old role, the role that is great or small, according as one makes it!

Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you; Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current; Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air; Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you; Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sun-lit water; Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters! Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset; Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses; Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are; You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul; About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas; Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers; Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual; Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.

Parnassus on Wheels , Christopher Morley:

New York is Babylon; Brooklyn is the true Holy City. New York is the city of envy, office work, and hustle; Brooklyn is the refion of homes and happiness. It is extraordinary: poor, harassed New Yorkers presume to look down on low-lying, home-loving Brooklyn, when as a matter of fact it is the precious jewel their souls are thirsting for and they never know it. Broadway: think how symbolic the name is. Broad is the way that leadeth to destruction! But in Brooklyn the ways are narrow, and they lead to the Heavenly City of content. Central Park: there you are — the centre of things, hemmed in by walls of pride. Now how much better is Prospect Park, giving a fair view over the hills of humility! There is no hope for New Yorkers, for their glory in their skyscraping sins; but in Brooklyn there is the wisdom of the lowly.

A House on the Heights , Truman Capote:

I live in Brooklyn. By choice.

Those ignorant of its allures are entitled to wonder why. For, taken as a whole, it is an uninviting community. A veritable veldt of tawdriness where even the noms de quartiers aggravate: Flatbush and Flushing Avenue, Bushwick, Brownsville, Red Hook. Yet, in the greenless grime-gray, oases do occur, splendid contradictions, hearty echoes of healthier days. Of these seeming mirages, the purest example is the neighborhood in which I am situated, an area known as Brooklyn Heights. Heights, because it stands atop a cliff that secures a sea-gull’s view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges, of lower Manhattan’s tall dazzle and the ship-lane waters, breeding river to pay to ocean, that encircle and seethe past posturing Miss Liberty.

Man Gone Down , Michael Thomas:

I cut across the shadow realm because I cannot stand it right now. I walk in lightless Brooklyn, where the sun never seems to reach, between the jail and Fulton Mall, where strays run, miscreants, gypsy cabs, nannies released from bondage, fry joints, usury shops — they will never “fix” this part of Brooklyn. And of course my response is dichotomized, but I’ll take a petty criminal over a suck-ass any day.

The Gift , Pete Hamill:

But the subways were a part of home to me, and I loved the sense of penetration they gave me, the roaring jamming slide into the blackness of the tunnels, the knowledge you had that you were deep below other life, that there in the tunnel you were being hurled under salesmen and millionaires, great stores and glittering mansions. I loved the charging rhythm of the train, its sense of plunge and blur, its violent race to Brooklyn. At Jay Street-Borough Hall, I crossed the platform to the D train, waiting there for our arrival, the odd muted golden color of its incandescent lights a signal of warmth. That was our train, the one that serviced the neighborhood, the one that took the young guys to their first jobs as messengers on Wall Street, the one where you might see a familiar face.