James Agee’s Brooklyn Is

179–183 St. James Place, Clinton Hill. The top floor of 179 (left) was home to James Agee, his wife, and a goat (apparently) from 1938 to 1939.

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Although best known as the author of A Death in the Family, for which he won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, in 1955, James Agee also penned one of the most beautiful essays about Brooklyn ever written, what has since been published as Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes.

Originally written for Fortune magazine, the piece was rejected, and forgotten until 1968, 13 years after Agee died of a heart attack, in the back of a taxi cab. Fordham University Press republished the essay in 2005, with the title Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel NotesAgee lived (for free, at the house of a friend’s in-laws, with a goat) at 179 St. James Place, in Clinton Hill, for a few months in 1938–39, while at work on Brooklyn Is. The result is a lyrical, wandering essay of observational prose. He begins:

Watching them in the trolleys, or along the inexhaustible reduplications of the streets of their small tradings and their sleep, one comes to notice, even in the most urgently poor, a curious quality in the eyes and at the corners of the mouths, relative to what is seen on Manhattan Island: a kind of drugged softness or narcotic relaxation. The same look may be seen in monasteries and in the lawns of sanitariums, and there must have been some similar look among soldiers convalescent of shell shock in institutionalized British gardens where, in a late summer dusk, a young man could mistake heat lightnings and the crumpling of hidden thunder for what he has left in France, and must return to. If there were not Manhattan, there could not be this Brooklyn look; for to truly appreciate what one escapes, it must be not only distant but near at hand. Only: all escapes are relative, and bestow their own peculiar forms of bondage.

The small volume (50 pages, plus 11 of intro by Jonathan Lethem) is full of beautiful descriptions of the borough that resonate even now, almost 80 years later.

Manhattan is large, yet all its distances seem quick and available. Brooklyn is larger, seventy-one square miles as against twenty-two, but here you enter the paradoxes of the relative. You know, here: only a few miles from wherever I stand, Brooklyn ends; one a few miles away is Manhattan; Brooklyn is walled with world-traveled wetness on west and south and on north and east is the young beaverboard frontier of Queens; Brooklyn comes to an end: but actually, that is, in the conviction of the body, there seems almost no conceivable end to Brooklyn; it seems, on land as flat and huge as Kansas, horizon beyond horizon forever unfolded, an immeasurable proliferation of house on house and street by street; or seems as China does, infinite in time in patience and in population as in space.

He names Eastern Parkway “The Central Park West of Brooklyn,” and writes of “the view, from the Fulton Street Elevated, of the low-swung and convolved sea of the living, as much green as roofs.” On Flatbush:

I leave the trolley avenue and walk up a residential street: I have not gone a block before I recognize a silence so powerful and so specialized it has almost a fragrance of its own: it is the silence of having left a street of the open world and of having entered an empty church.

In parts, it seems as though Agee was short on periods, meting them out sparingly among the commas and semicolons of his rushing prose, and the effect is not unlike riding in an elevated train car at dusk, the world of Brooklyn rushing past.

Though it was written a decade earlier, Brooklyn Is appears to the modern reader to follow in the tradition of E.B. White’s Here is New York, a more punctuated piece at the very minimum, but one that is no less delicate, no less honest and resonating about the moment-to-moment truths of this city, even more than sixty years later. Others in what is now a veritable canon are Truman Capote’s A House on the Heights, written from Brooklyn Heights, and Colson Whitehead’s extended prose poem, The Colossus of New York. Each one is a love letter to the city, and together make a collection of little volumes perfect for keeping high up on a small shelf, within reach for days when you wonder what’s so special about it here, anyway.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.



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