3 Well-Known Writers’ Homes in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene
Brooklyn Creative League members have written a dozen books, across every major genre. Although much of these works were physically written at the coworking space, writing is as much thinking about ideas as it is putting words down on the page. Writers need somewhere to walk. For those seeking literary inspiration with their fresh air, here are three of our favorite historic writers’ homes in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, all a short walk from the coworking space.
Walt Whitman and the Streets of Clinton Hill
Walt Whitman lived and worked all over Brooklyn, but few sites survive. In 1995, a New Yorker article drew on measurements, letters, and property records to pinpoint one home in Clinton Hill, just blocks from Brooklyn Creative League. For part of the momentous year of 1855, Whitman lived at 99 Ryerson Street, between Myrtle and Willoughby. He would sleep in, write, and then go to a printshop at Cranberry and Fulton streets (now Cadman Plaza West) to set type. That summer he brought the first printed copies of Leaves of Grass home to Ryerson Street. It was a small book, as he hoped its size would “induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air.”
The New Yorker article relates how, in Clinton Hill, Whitman’s brother and mother looked over the little book and “did not know what to make of it.” But in Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson was impressed. He sent a friend to Brooklyn, who reported back, “I found by the directory that one Walter Whitman lived fearfully far (out of Brooklyn, nearly), on Ryerton [sic] Street a short way from Myrtle Avenue.” The man took the Fulton Ferry and then a horsecar to “one of a row of small wooden houses with porches.” A later edition of Leaves of Grass included the poem “Crossing Fulton Ferry,” and his well-known line, “Brooklyn of ample hills was mine.”
Marianne Moore’s Brooklyn Legacy
In the 20th century, the “Poet of Brooklyn” referred to someone else. Marianne Moore lived in an apartment at 260 Cumberland Street in Fort Greene for 36 years. (In 1965 she moved to Greenwich Village, reportedly due to a surge of burglaries and other crimes). At age 80, “The Mother of Modernism” threw out the opening pitch at Yankee Stadium for the 1968 season, wearing the tricornered hat she favored.
She had become a Yankee fan only after the Dodgers deserted her. The historic marker at 260 Cumberland notes her Brooklyn Dodgers fandom, as well as this statement: “Brooklyn has given me pleasure, has helped educate me; has afforded me, in fact, the kind of tame excitement on which I thrive.” Another Brooklyn legacy is her support for the then-deteriorating Prospect Park, and for one tree in particular. She helped save the remarkable Camperdown Elm with a poem and with a bequest in her will. She also wrote one of the best poems about a pangolin we know of, which includes the lovely lines:
“…there he sits in his own habitat,
serge-clad, strong-shod. The prey of fear, he, always
curtailed, extinguished, thwarted by the dusk, work
says to the alternating blaze,
“Again the sun!
anew each day; and new and new and new,
that comes into and steadies my soul.”
Richard Wright, a Writer in Fort Greene Park
Richard Wright lived in Fort Greene too, at 175 Carlton, between Myrtle and Willoughby. He typed the groundbreaking novel Native Son at his desk here.
But much of the writing took place on a bench in Fort Greene Park. Early each morning Wright walked to the park to handwrite the story of Bigger Thomas. As he wrote in “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born”, Wright drew upon on his own experiences and emotions “impressions which crystallized and coagulated into clusters and configurations of memory, attitudes, moods, ideas. And these subjective states, in turn, were automatically stored away somewhere in me. I was not even aware of the process.”
He wrote the book this way, with excitement and speed: “my senses would strain and seek for more and more of such relationships; my temperature would rise as I worked. That is writing as I feel it, a kind of significant living.” But Wright felt unable to write the crucial opening and closing scenes, until he found a solution, most likely on Myrtle Avenue: “Then, one night, in desperation — I hope that I’m not disclosing the hidden secrets of my craft! — I sneaked out and got a bottle. With the help of it, I began to remember many things which I could not remember before.”
In 1940 the finished book became a best-seller, the first Book-of-the-Month Club main selection by a black author. The critic Irving Howe said, “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” It made the old lies impossible to repeat and “brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture.” The book remains widely read, and widely challenged in the fight over school libraries.
Writers in the Modern Era
Whether you’re looking for inspiration or trying to cure your writer’s block, a walk in our neighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill just may be the ticket. Explore the grounds of Pratt Institute or the Naval Cemetery Landscape. Have a seat on a bench in Fort Greene Park and take in the sounds. And when you’re ready, head back to Brooklyn Creative League to get writing.