“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”
The mid-sentence pause for effect in this opening line from Truman Capote’s 1959 essay “A House on the Heights” suggests just how unlikely that choice might sound to readers of the time. A little more than a half century later, so many writers have chosen to live in Brooklyn that it can be hard to get a cup of coffee in the borough without tripping over two or three would-be Colson Whiteheads or Jhumpa Lahiris, earbuds in, tapping away on their latest magnum opus.
Why Brooklyn? This is the question at the heart of Evan Hughes’ new book, Literary Brooklyn, which traces the history of New York City’s most populous borough through its writers, from Walt Whitman to Park Slope’s own dynamic duo, the married literary wunderkinds, Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer. In truth, Hughes doesn’t have a good answer to the question he has posed for himself. “We shouldn’t mistake a massive place for an aesthetic camp,” he writes.
One experience Brooklyn’s writers have shared, however, is living just outside the colossal, churning center of the metropolis – across the river from what is still often referred to as “the city.” Some have used all their might to make the escape from impoverished Brooklyn neighborhoods to the urbane quarters of Manhattan… but in their work they have often returned to the scene of their early Brooklyn struggles. Other writers have chosen Brooklyn as an escape from the commercial clamor of Manhattan, seeking a retreat where the rent is lower, the pulse runs slower, and the buildings don’t crowd out the sky.
Give Hughes points for honesty. This is as close as he comes to offering a unifying thesis or theme, and you don’t have to read that closely to see that he doesn’t really have one. A dozen or so of the writers in the book grew up in Brooklyn and wrote about it, directly or indirectly, the rest of their lives; others moved to Brooklyn at some point or else, in a number of cases, were simply passing through. In other words, what we have here is a grab bag of literary criticism and social analysis trying – albeit not very hard – to stand as a work of social history. Despite some deft writing and a G train full of literary gossip, the best that can be said for Hughes’ book is that it makes no grand promises that it can’t keep.
This is unfortunate because anyone who lives and writes in Brooklyn today has to feel the winds of literary history at his or her back. On my one street in Brooklyn Heights, I live half a block from the 1829 row house where Arthur Miller was living when he met Marilyn Monroe and a block and a half from the Greek Revival mansion where Truman Capote read the New York Times squib describing the brutal murder of a Kansas farming family that got him started on In Cold Blood. Another block or so to the east is the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets where, in 1855, Walt Whitman helped hand set into type the first edition of Leaves of Grass. There is something about Brooklyn and writers, but I’ll be damned if I know much more now about why that might be than I did before I read Literary Brooklyn.
Hughes is best when his subjects know Brooklyn well and work that knowledge into the fabric of their books. In a chapter on Brooklyn’s rough pre-gentrification years in the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, Hughes nicely contrasts how the middle-aged novelist Paula Fox responded to the racial and class tensions in the neighborhood of Boerum Hill with how the much younger Jonathan Lethem, who grew up down the street from Fox, reveled in the grittiness of the same atmosphere. The white married couple at the center of Fox’s best-known novel Desperate Characters view the streets around them, in Hughes’ words, as “a landscape where they feel unwelcome and embattled, where they grimly contend with garbage dumped out on the streets, dogs tormented nearby, rocks thrown through friends’ windows.” To Lethem, whose autobiographical novel The Fortress of Solitude and his earlier breakout novel Motherless Brooklyn are set largely in Boerum Hill, the neighborhood and its denizens are frightening, but also fascinating – less dangerous antagonists, Hughes suggests, than “neighbors and potential allies in a new social order.”
Too often, though, Hughes builds chapters around writers like Thomas Wolfe, W.H. Auden, and Richard Wright, who spent most of their lives elsewhere and stopped off in Brooklyn only briefly to write about those other places. Hughes also gets sidetracked by oft-told tales like that of February House, a shared house in Brooklyn Heights that, at different times, hosted Auden, Wright, Jane and Paul Bowles, Carson McCullers, and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who was writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. This menagerie is so odd it all but demands a book of its own – and of course, one has already been written by Sherill Tippins, whose February House Hughes admits plundering for his own version of the tale.
In the case of February House, Hughes is open about his debt to an earlier author, but in several instances when I knew something about the topic, such as Walt Whitman or the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, I found myself troubled by the thinness of Hughes’ scholarship. As I wrote in an essay in July for The Millions, I go way back with Whitman, so I was disappointed to find that in his chapter devoted to the poet, Hughes has essentially stitched together, sophomore-term-paper style, two of the better-known recent biographies of Whitman, David Reynolds’ Walt Whitman’s America and Jerome Loving’s Walt Whitman: Song of Himself.
The stitching isn’t inartful, but it doesn’t add much to the conversation. Hughes gets off a good line about Whitman’s personally setting much of the type for the first edition of his poems – “the nineteenth century equivalent of self-publishing out of a Kinko’s” – but he has little new to say about Whitman or to add to the voluminous commentary on the poems. One senses that Whitman isn’t in the book because Hughes feels a deep connection to him as a poet, or because Hughes has something burning to say about him, but simply because Whitman happened to live in Brooklyn. Too much of this book is built around such accidents of geography.
So, then, what is it with writers and Brooklyn? Like Hughes, I’m not sure I know. Lower rent does have a lot to do with it, though as Hughes points out, New Yorkers looking for cheaper apartments in the five boroughs could just as well live in Queens or the Bronx. After reading Literary Brooklyn and living in the real literary Brooklyn for nearly eight years, my own sense is that the attraction of writers to Brooklyn is an accident of history that, over time, has become a full-blown phenomenon. From Whitman’s time onward, writers have flocked to Brooklyn because it was close to but cheaper than Manhattan, but now that gentrification has opened up whole neighborhoods to the creative classes, Brooklyn has blossomed into a genuine literary scene replete with its own literary gatherings (the Brooklyn Book Festival), top-quality literary magazines (One Story, Slice), indie publishing houses (Akashic, Melville House), and scads of literary stars (Lahiri, Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, etc.). Someday, some smart someone will write about how that happened, but as yet that book remains unwritten.