Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York City. This past year, more than 200 writers from around the world appeared for readings and panels in and around Downtown Brooklyn. The festival was launched in 2006 by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz to showcase the growing “Brooklyn voice” in literature, as a large number of prominent authors either live or have lived in the borough—among them Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Jhumpa Lahiri, Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Lethem (who grew up in Boerum Hill and resided there before ultimately ending up in Los Angeles).
But this influx of writers is not a current phenomenon. Literary legends stretching as far back as Walt Whitman once called the borough home, too, some of them residing just steps from Brooklyn Borough Hall. It's worth taking a self-guided walking tour through the leafy neighboring blocks to see the sights—it's a one- to two-hour stroll, depending on how many stops you make and how long you linger there.
Starting at Borough Hall, walk west down Remsen Street, where the first stop is the former home of Henry Miller (author of the notoriously banned books Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn). Miller moved into 91 Remsen with his second wife, June, in 1924. In Plexus, book two of the fictionalized account of his early life, he describes searching for and finding the apartment and his worries about paying the rent: “It was a stunning place she had to rent, but far beyond our means…. I was convinced that if we took it, we'd be sunk.” Henry and June were evicted in 1925 for that very reason.
From 91 Remsen, backtrack a bit west to Henry Street and head south to Atlantic Avenue, where you'll take a left, heading east for about one and a half blocks—just past Clinton Street. Make a pit stop at Sahadi's, well-known among NYC foodies as the place to go in Brooklyn for Far- and Middle-Eastern ingredients, cookbooks and specialty canned goods. Assemble a (literary) trail mix from among the bulk bins or grab some prepared dishes for eating later (we have just the spot to enjoy your food, but we'll get to that).
From Sahadi's, walk back toward Clinton, make a right, and walk one block north to State Street. Are you feeling creeped out? What if we told you that H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most influential horror writers of the 20th century, once lived at 169 Clinton Street? It's here he wrote the story “The Horror at Red Hook” while residing at the address from 1925 to 1926.
Continue north along Clinton Street and up six blocks to Pierrepont Street, where on the southwest corner you'll find the Brooklyn Historical Society, housed in a landmark building designed by George Post. But you're probably already familiar with it—it's one of the Brooklyn Book Festival's cultural and programming partners and host to a number of festival events. Have you read Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer? Then you might enjoy the society's current exhibition, Home Base: Memories of the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. And if you're inspired to visit other museums in the neighborhood, the New York Transit Museum is just blocks away.
Continuing west along this street, you'll come to 102 Pierrepont, where Norman Mailer lived briefly with his parents after graduating from Harvard in 1943 and shortly before and after serving in World War II. In fact, Mailer worked on the initial stages of his World War II novel The Naked and the Dead here upon his return. At the time, another writer was living in the building: Arthur Miller, who, like Mailer, occupied a number of addresses in Brooklyn Heights. According to Evan Hughes' recently published Literary Brooklyn, Mailer once said of Miller after having met him near the mailboxes, “I can remember thinking, This guy's never going anywhere. I'm sure he thought the same of me.”
Then go one block south to Montague Street by making a left at Henry. It's the commercial heart of Brooklyn Heights, and if you didn't pick up something to eat at Sahadi's, you can take a leisurely lunch at Heights Cafe. Summer's not quite over, so enjoy your meal on the sizable outside patio.
Just down the block from the café is 62 Montague, another of the many Miller addresses on this self-guided tour and, in fact, his first home in the neighborhood. Though it's obscured by scaffolding as we write this, you can still see the ornate exterior of this 1887 building, with its bay windows and tower facing Manhattan.
Head west toward Montague Terrace and make a left. On the corner is the brownstone where W.H. Auden lived from October 1939 to September 1940. A plaque on the house notes that the poet wrote the long philosophical poem “New Year Letter” there. Just two doors south at 5 Montague Terrace is the home where novelist Thomas Wolfe lived just years earlier than Auden, in two rooms on the fourth floor, from 1933 to 1935. It is here that he wrote Of Time and the River. Look for the plaque commemorating Wolfe between the windows to the left of the door.
South of Wolfe's former residence, on the corner of Montague Terrace and Remsen Street, is the attic studio where Mailer finished The Naked and the Dead. This address was Mailer's writing studio; he lived with his first wife, Beatrice, just across the street and down the block at 49 Remsen, which you'll pass as you make your way to Hicks Street before taking a right and walking one block south to Grace Court.
It was on this quiet dead-end street where Miller finished his renowned 1949 play Death of a Salesman. In 1955, he sold the house to then-octogenarian W.E.B. DuBois. It has since been subdivided into multiple units.
Remember how we said we'd bring you somewhere you could eat your lunch? Double back to Remsen Street and walk west, where you'll find an entrance to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, a pedestrian walkway that offers spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty, Governors Island, Lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. Park benches line the esplanade, which stretches an easy one-third mile and brings you, eventually, to the corner of Columbia Heights and Orange Street.
Broadway set designer Oliver Smith owned the elegant yellow mansion at 70 Willow Street, just one block east of Columbia Heights near Orange Street. Among Smith's friends was Truman Capote, who rented the basement apartment for 10 years, finishing Breakfast at Tiffany's here as well as In Cold Blood and writing the essay “A House on the Heights,” which includes the quote found on a neighborhood guidepost, “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”
Round out your tour by heading back up to Orange Street and walking east toward Henry Street. On the way, you'll pass the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, whose first pastor was abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher (whose sister—Harriet Beecher Stowe, of course—wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin). A stunning lineup of great American authors and thinkers has lectured here, including Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King Jr.
Amazingly, these are only about half of the literarily significant addresses in the neighborhood—though many have vanished as the area has changed. Gone is the legendary February House, at what was once 7 Middagh Street, which editor George Davis rented in 1940 and turned into a rollicking artist commune. At one time, Davis lived there with Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee. Vanished, too, is 110 Columbia Heights, whose sweeping views of the Brooklyn Bridge inspired poet Hart Crane's “The Bridge.”
But these locations and the stories live on in Hughes' Literary Brooklyn, which details the literary history not only of Brooklyn Heights but of the borough at large. Unsurprisingly, he will speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 18 at 1pm at the North Stage (Borough Hall Plaza/Columbus Park). For more information, visit brooklynbookfestival.org.