Monday, July 27, 2015


Evening is coming fast, and the great city is blazing there in your vision in its terrific frontal sweep and curtain of star-flung towers, now sown with the diamond pollen of a million lights, and the sun has set behind them, and the red light of fading day is painted upon the river - and you see the boats, the tugs, the barges passing, and the winglike swoop of bridges with exultant joy - and night has some and there are ships there - there are ships - and a wild intolerable longing in you that you cannot utter.

(from the short story No Door by Thomas Wolfe)

This excerpt from No Door seems to take place at a home in Brooklyn Heights on the palisade that faces the old docks on the East River and the skyline of lower Manhattan.  It’s the place where photographers take those panoramic photos of Manhattan for postcards and posters.  There’s a park with a wide sidewalk with benches.  You saw it in the movie Moonstruck when the grandfather took his dogs to howl at the moon. Nannies take children there in strollers and prams during the day.  Lovers patrol at night.

Of course, at the time Wolfe was describing the East River docks, there was still a great deal of manufacturing in Brooklyn, and the waterfront was much different.  There were many ships moving in and out of the docks with longshoremen on the wharves loading and unloading goods stored in the warehouses that are now renovated into condominiums.  

While he was writing the novel, Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe lived at 5 Montague Terrace, directly across the street from the houses that line the palisade (W.H. Auden lived two doors away at 1 Montague Terrace).  These houses were built by Wall Street tycoons who thought it more convenient to take the ferry to the Manhattan Battery in the morning than to drive down to Lower Manhattan from a house on Fifth Avenue. After the 1929 crash, many of the houses were abandoned, boarded up.  Brooklyn itself fell into a decrepit state and didn't recover until the 1980s.

But Wolfe was not living in Brooklyn Heights when he wrote No Door.  At that time Wolfe was living in the basement of a house at 40 Verandah Place.  The area was referred to as South Brooklyn then.  Modern realtors renamed it Cobble Hill.  Here’s what Thomas Wolfe wrote about his basement apartment on Verandah Place:

Well, you say, living alone in South Brooklyn has its drawbacks.  The place you live in is shaped just like a Pullman car, except it is not so long and has only one window at each end.  There are bars over the front window that your landlady has put there to keep the thugs in that sweet neighborhood from breaking in; in the winter the place is cold and dark, and sweats with clammy water; in the summer you do all the sweating yourself, but you do plenty of it, quite enough for anyone; the place gets hot as hell.  (from No Door)

In the photograph, you can see that the basement windows on the homes on Veranda Place are about 8 inches tall.  One hopes that the ceilings are higher because Wolfe was 6’5” and liked to stand as he wrote, using the top of his refrigerator as a desk top.

Thomas Wolfe captured New York more passionately than any writer I can imagine, describing mundane places, like the subway, with such accurate intensity that it can be felt as well as imagined:

Thus we streamed down from the free night into the tunnel’s stale and fetid air again, we swarmed and hurried across the floors of gray cement, we rushed and pushed our way along as furiously as if we ran a race with time, as if some great reward were to be won if we could save two minutes or as if we were hastening onward, as fast as we could go toward some glorious meeting, some happy and fortunate event, some goal of beauty, wealth, or love… (from Death the Proud Brother)

Thus, he engages us in the frenetic pace of the city.

The Parks Department gives literary walking tours about Brooklyn.  You can find more about the tours here:

post by Alana Cash

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