Legendary Writer Henry Miller Recalls Williamsburg of The 1890s
Henry Miller is not only one of the greatest writers Brooklyn ever produced, but also a chronicler of the now vanished North Brooklyn before the building of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. Honestly, there are times when I do not like Miller’s writing: it can be macho, self-obsessed, vain and highly egotistical, but when writing about old Williamsburg he approaches literary genius.
In 1971, the New York Times (PDF) invited the then 80-year-old Miller back to Williamsburg to recollect on his childhood. Though he had been away for five decades, Miller had a crystal clear memory, recalling many fascinating stories from that vanished world of his childhood. Miller was born of German-American parents in Manhattan in 1891, but moved to the area as an infant, living at 662 Driggs Avenue, a house that still stands.
His fondest memories, which occupy much of his writing, concern his boyhood friends from the neighborhood. He said, “As I walked the streets the names of my boyhood companions, or better said, my idols, came back to me: Johnny Paul, Eddie Carney, Lester Reardon, Jimmy Short, Tim Buckley; Matt Owen, Gus Fowler, and last but not least, my first real chum, Stanley Borowski. With Stanley I maintained a friendship until I left for France in 1930. Like myself, he wanted to be a writer; I doubt that he ever made it however.”
Reading Miller’s writings, the neighborhood comes into focus through the eyes of a mischievous young lad who would later be censored by the United States Post Office for his shocking prose. Miller recalled first being rebuked for his language at the police station at Bedford Avenue where he was dragged by the arm one afternoon by a babysitter at the age of 6 or 7 years old; the crime he had committed was to use dirty language in her presence – the first of many times Miller would shock people with his language.
Miller’s writing later shocked another, more prominent Williamsburger, Presbyterian Minister John D. Wells. Today John D. Wells Middle School on S. 3rd St. is named for the preacher Miller knew as a child. He recalled, “Later, on some crazy impulse, I sent this rather pompous and aristocratic minister one of my first pieces of writing from Paris. He replied that he had thrown it in the garbage can; he wondered, he said, how one of ‘his boys’ could ever have conceived such filth.” At 7 years of age, Wells had presented Miller with a handsome little New Testament, his name inscribed in gold letters, for reciting by heart the 23rd Psalm.
Miller loved the theater as a boy and recalled a lewd local vaudeville theater with racy fare aptly called “The Bum.” He also recalled the Novelty Theater on Driggs before it became a Yiddish theater:
“Two blocks farther down on Driggs Avenue was the Novelty Theater, a vaudeville house. My mother gave me 10 cents every Saturday for the matinee performance; the dime entitled me to sit in the gallery. At the entrance to the gallery stood a formidable looking, broad‐shouldered man in uniform called Bob Maloney; he carried a stout rattan stick and inspired us with fear and dread.”
Miller moved away to Bushwick, but he returned to Williamsburg to attend Eastern District High School. He recalled wistfully a youthful romance. While in high school he was so smitten by a beautiful young girl that each night he would stroll the considerable distance from his Bushwick home to her house on Devoe Street, merely hoping to catch a glimpse of the young beauty, but he never succeeded in his quest.
In the article are three paragraphs in which Miller shows us his true genius as a writer in an eloquent recollection of the world of his childhood and they are worth reproducing verbatim:
It’s strange what a little boy remembers of his early life, what impressed him or terrified him. First of all, I think, are people, individuals, men and women of character, whether good or bad. And of course his playmates, whom he will part with all too soon. Then the streets, the look of them, whether warm and inviting or chill and gloomy. And perhaps above all kindnesses shown to him by unexpected people. Even climate, or weather conditions.
For instance, I can never forget the bright colored awnings of summertime, or the beautiful warmth inside the ferryboat in winter. Then, too, one’s domain is rather limited; one has only to travel a half-mile or so and one is in strange territory. For me this hinterland contained hospitals, factories, orphan asylums and such like places. One only went there on rare occasions to visit some unfortunate relative.
But there were also what I call dream streets, that is, streets which I only imagine I knew, and the memory of which was so strong, so vivid, that years later when was fully grown, I would return and try to find these streets which never existed except in my dreams.
Miller left Williamsburg after graduating high school and never returned, but he kept the memories of his childhood neighborhood in his mind and they became integral to his writing. The Williamsburg of his childhood lived on in Miller’s writings long after the place had vanished. We are lucky to have Miller’s great memory and great talent to preserve this bygone world for us.