Wondrous Brooklyn
Maureen E. Mulvihill & June Harrison

Untitled Document



Recovering James Agee's New York Classic


James Agee
(born, Knoxville, TN 1909; died, New York City, 1955)


Brooklyn Is Southeast of the Island: Travel Notes
by James Agee
Published by Esquire Magazine, 1968.
Republished by Fordham University Press, 2005,
with a Preface by Brooklyn author, Jonathan Lethem.
ISBN 9780823224920. Hardcover, with jacket. 64pp. $16.95

Reviewed for Today In Literature, 16th May 2007,
by Maureen E. Mulvihill (Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York)

For three Park Slope neighbors who launched the Brooklyn Brownstone Revival:
 Evelyn Ortner (1924-2006), Everett Ortner, and Clem Labine


With contemporary photos and photo-tiles of Brooklyn

by NYC photographer June Harrison


JAMES AGEE's jottings on Brooklyn are quite a saga. This is a story framed by literary failure and literary recovery. Every writer should be so lucky.   

In 1939, Fortune magazine planned a special issue on New York City; it commissioned an up-and-coming Southern writer, James Agee, newly graduated from Harvard (1932) and now on the literary prowl in Manhattan, to write an extended essay on the city's most colorful and literary borough – Brooklyn. Agee, spotting the potential of the moment and eager for notoriety, seized the moment. Moving swiftly, he set up in a cheap apartment on St James Place, off of Flatbush Avenue; his task, not unlike that of a New York City immigrant of yore, was fairly simple: learn the land, build content by knowing one's material. This meant engaging the natives. So, Agee asked, he listened, he looked, and he reflected. In Brooklyn, young Agee was a guest and a visitor in a strange, even awesome, terrain of multiple cultures and ethnic types; he successfully immersed himself in the life of the borough, eager to grasp its bustling character, history, and promise. To Agee's deep disappointment, his Brooklyn piece was rejected by the suits at Fortune on the ground of irreconcilable creative differences ("it's too strong to print"). Some 20 years later, in 1968, his Brooklyn musings were not at all objectionable; his jazzy, hip, be-bop prose style was appreciated, and his Brooklyn text was recovered and promptly published by Esquire magazine. But it wasn't until 66 years after its original drafting in 1939 that Agee's Brooklyn piece saw a second life and finally received its due. Thanks to Brooklyn author, Jonathan Lethem, Agee's "travel notes" on Brooklyn were republished in 2005 in a small booklet format by Fordham University Press.


Agee was no newcomer to Fortune magazine when he undertook the Brooklyn assignment in 1939. He already had earned his stripes as a documentary journalist in 1936 with vivid reportage on poor tenement sharecroppers in Alabama and Tennessee, with superb documentary photographs by Walker Evans. Agee's approach was verité: second-hand was never his style, not in anything he did. Agee entered his material entirely first-hand. He spent time with his subject (about six weeks); he lived with the rural poor; he heard their stories and their language; he ate their food; he watched their faces and their hands; and he joined them on their daily rounds. Agee published his modest oral and visual history in Fortune magazine in 1936; in 1941, he and Walker collaborated on an extended treatment of the material, under the title Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. When Fortune magazine selected Agee for a sketch of Brooklyn in 1939, the publisher had wisely selected an experienced documentarist. Agee had a good eye and a good ear, and the noisy, jumbling streets of Brooklyn, New York would be just the match for such a hands-on writer.

The obvious first achievement of Agee's Brooklyn is its stunning economy: in about 10,000 words Agee does what only a master wordsmith can do – he reconstructs in measured phrases the external and internal essence of a very big subject. In a mere clutch of pages (fewer than 75), the reader is supplied with a feast of pitch-perfect images, sounds, and regional textures. Agee's observations include the full and zany theatre of all the Brooklyn neighborhoods: there is Brooklyn Heights and Clinton Hill and Williamsburg; there is Crown Heights and Greenpoint and Park Slope; there is Midwood and Sheepshead Bay and Bayridge – if you hail from Brooklyn or live there now, you will find your neighborhood in these pages. But it is not merely the breadth of coverage which distinguishes the book, it is also the craft and power of descriptive detail. Here, for example, is Agee writing on the borough's burgeoning neighborhoods of the late 1930s, Irish and Jewish families mostly, rich in old-world tradition and children galore:  

"More homes are owned in Brooklyn than in any other Borough; there are more children per adult head; it is a great savings-bank town; there are fewer divorces; it is by and large as profoundly domesticated, docile, and 'stable' a population as one could conceive of, outside England. There is a horror of 'unsuccessful' marriages – unsuccessful, that is, as shown by an open or legal break ...." (p 8)

And when changing his lens to glance at the physical plant of the borough, Agee displays his flair for a different sort of descriptive detail:

Park Slope: the big Manhattan-style apartment buildings which hem Prospect Park, and on the streets of the upward Slope, and on 8th Avenue, the bland powerful regiments of graystone bays and the big single-homes, standing with a locked look among mature, great trees and the curious quietudes of bourgeois Paris; and these confused among apartment buildings and among loud parochial schools, and the yellow bricks of post-tenements, and the huge subway noises of those many 'rough' children abounding. (p 10)

And here is Agee capturing the character of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in just a few evocative phrases:

Or [consider] that great range of brick and brownstone north of Fulton which in two blocks fall more and more bad fortune: one last place, east of Fort Greene Park, the utmost magnificence of the brownstone style: and beyond death at length is the Navy Yard district, the hardest in Brooklyn, harder even than Red Book: (this hardest neighborhood in Brooklyn was a pinched labyrinth of brick and frame within a jump of Borough Hall, but the WPA cleaned that one up). (p 11).

It is often said in good reviews that readers will find pleasure and information on any one page of the book being reviewed; in this case, the claim holds. Indeed, the challenge for the reviewer is selecting from so many quotable offerings. 

And then there's the writing itself – lyrical, episodic, elliptical, very Agee. The book is not so much "travel notes" as it is Agee's song to Brooklyn, in the tradition of Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. Form follows function, style follows content: Agee's ramblings, his musings, and his idiosyncratic punctuation and sentence structure reflect the rough rhythms and surprise of Brooklyn streets. Indeed, reading his long essay in 2007, one appreciates the decision made by conservative city publishers in 1939: Agee didn't write like a travel writer, he wrote like a poet. Consider:

Or [there is] a loud concrete playground in East New York, and sitting nearby in the kind sun on his...lawn in a kitchen rocker, his dirty brocaded bathrobe drawn tight, is the wasted workman of forty whose face still wears the alien touch of death: his chin is drawn in as far as it will go and he is staring with eyes like diamonds upon the vitalities of the schoolboys, frowning with furious sorrow, his mouth caught up in one cheek, in a kicking smile....Or in Bay Ridge, [there is] a sweet quiet of distance from the city, a flag staff in the water breeze, the many apartment buildings ornate but in the self-playing Nordic taste; the young woman waiting in the maroon roadster; the mother and child who stand at the subway mouth; and each five minutes, in a walking noise of dry leaves, the rising from underground of the gently or complacently docile: the young woman loses patience and drives away; the mother and her husband do not kiss when they meet; two middle-aged men come up talking together, but most of those who rise thus from the dead give no appearance of knowing one another, but walk along toward their suppers; and the unimaginable chaos yet solitude of family begins to suggest itself. (pp 38, 39).

Agee's Brooklyn "notes" are those of a hurried 'traveler' in 1939, eager to represent a challenging canvas with stylish variety and also veracity. While Brooklyn has changed a great deal since Agee's musings of the late 1930s, his fast phrases still hold up today because they capture the myriad colors and ethnic density of the borough. The book is a delightful read, and it certainly is required reading for historians of Brooklyn and early-20th-century New York City. Those who remember the Brooklyn Dodgers ("when Brooklyn was the world") will have a special attachment to Agee's affectionate vignettes.


For the title of this essay, the author is happy to acknowledge the online newsletter of a Park Slope, Brooklyn neighbor, Neil Feldman: Not Only Brooklyn: Wondrous/free arts & events (Arbrunr@aol.com). The author is also grateful to Neil for mentioning James Agee's son, Joel Agee, also of Park Slope, Brooklyn, whose literary output (1981-2006, 8 books and counting) includes autobiographical novels, translations of German writers, etc. (See web matches for "Joel Agee.")


Intro to June goes here..........


caption to above
Park Slope capiton
Brooklyn Heights caption
caption for the two flats...

In the dugout

at the Botanical Gardens

The Wonder Wheel by day...
...Brooklyn Bridge by night

June Harrison's photo-tiles are part of a tradition....

More photos and tiles can be found at .......................


Maureen E. Mulvihill & June Harrison
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