Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes

Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes

Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes

Brooklyn Is: Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes

Synopsis

For the first time in book form—a great writer’s classic celebration of the essence of Brooklyn. In 1939, James Agee was assigned to write an article on Brooklyn for a special issue of Fortune on New York City. The draft was rejected for “creative differences,” and remained unpublished until it appeared in Esquire in 1968 under the title “Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes.” Crossing the borough from the brownstone heights over the Brooklyn Bridge out through backstreet neighborhoods like Flatbush, Midwood, and Sheepshead Bay that roll silently to the sea, Agee captured in 10,000 remarkable words, the essence of a place and its people. Propulsive, lyrical, jazzy, and tender, its pitch-perfect descriptions endure even as Brooklyn changes; Agee’s essay is a New York classic. Resonant with the rhythms of Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, and Thomas Wolfe, it takes its place alongside Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City as a great writer’s love-song to Brooklyn and alongside E. B. White’s Here Is New York as an essential statement of the place so many call home.

Excerpt

I want to try and sing back at James Agee’s astonishing song of Brooklyn, this astonishing secret text which like the heart of the borough itself throbs in raw shambolic splendor, never completely discovered, impossible to mistake. Agee is such a loving, explosive, and mournful singer; his prose aims the methods of Walt Whitman like a loving bullet toward the next century, brings that greatest singer of American identity smash up against the midcentury’s grubby, boundless polyglot accumulation of successive immigrant hordes, and predicts the outerborough songs to come, the ones that could only have been written by immigrant sons and daughters themselves—Malamud, Fuchs, Paley, Gornick, Marshall—though Agee, much like Whitman, can seem to encompass and predict any author who ever tried to touch Brooklyn since: Henry Miller, Paula Fox, myself. Agee’s breath and voice come cresting at us out of the past yet keenly modern, and engaged in every syllable with the tides of the past that rush under the craft of his words—Agee can seem to be surfing the past, always in danger of being swallowed by the high punishing curl of time, always somehow riding atop it instead. Yet if he’s a singer he’s also a painter, brushstroking with his language the sunbleached brownstone facades of Slope and Heights and Hill, the shingles and stucco of Flatbush and Greenpoint, the graffiti and commercial signage left like clues for future archeologists—the brush of his prose is as fond and melancholy as Mark Rothko’s in his subway paintings or Philip Guston’s in his street scenes, before both painters sank their feeling for the city in abstraction. He writes as though drunk on matters of space and geometry and distance, always seeing the life of the city whole and in microscopic miniature at once, and persistently smashing together architecture and emotion, conveying in the grain of a “scornful cornice” or a “blasted mansion” or a “half-made park with the odd pubescent nudity of all new public efforts” or “drawn breathing shades” or an “asphaltic shingle” (his neologism suggesting “asthmatic,” “exalted,” “sephardic,” and who knows what else) his sense that the archipelago of islands settled by the mad invaders of this continent and the refugees who followed, and the nature of the buildings and the streets and the signs the arrivistes constructed everywhere upon these New York islands, are in every way implicated in the experience of any given life lived even temporarily within their bounds, including his own. The shape of the land, in other words—and of the houses and trees and roadways, and the subways now running underneath them—has, in Agee’s view, subdued and civilized and corrupted those who had arrived to subdue and civilize and corrupt this place; they made it strange and were made strange by it in turn. Agee tackles head-on Brooklyn’s doubleness, the paradox of the borough’s weird preening inferiority complex at its proximity to Manhattan and its simultaneous bovine oblivious hugeness . . .

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