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Brooklyn’s Earliest, Secret Enclaves of Queer Life

By the mid-1800s, Brooklyn was one of the leading manufacturers in the country for a wide range of products, from sugar, to rope, to white lead, to whiskey.

This new industrial waterfront created the conditions that allowed queer lives to flourish in Brooklyn. As America transitioned away from a primarily farming economy, the extended family—once the main economic unit in the country— began to lose importance. New urban jobs allowed (some) people in Brooklyn to carve out separate space for themselves, far from their parents or anyone who knew them. Victorian culture mandated strict separations between men and women, meaning that most of these jobs were either all-male or all-female. Huge numbers of immigrants, mostly unaccompanied men, came to New York to meet this demand for laborers, creating large working-class bachelor subcultures where heterosexual sex (outside of prostitution) could be hard to find. The trading routes that created these jobs didn’t just move goods, however; they also moved people and ideas—meaning that the average Brooklyn laborer had much greater exposure to other cultures (and their sexual mores) than did most other Americans. Many of these new Brooklyn residents were transient, living in the city only seasonally or for a few years at a time, enabling them to settle in these raucous neighborhoods with relative anonymity. Finally, since shipping and manufacturing were dirty endeavors, waterfront neighborhoods were often undesirable, inexpensive, and only lightly policed. One of the few drawbacks to Brooklyn cited by Mayor Hall in 1855 was that its police lacked the “qualifications and fitness for office.” Thus, Brooklyn’s waterfront offered the density, privacy, diversity, and economic possibility that would allow queer people to find one another in ever-increasing numbers (though these freedoms would not be enjoyed equally by all queer people). The waterfront was no monolith, however, and different parts of it offered different opportunities, to different communities, in different eras. But by the time Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass, the areas that offered the most support to the earliest queer communities in Brooklyn were already established neighborhoods drawing new residents from around the world.

A visitor to Brooklyn in 1855 would step of the ferry onto Old Fulton Street, which roughly bisected the city. To the east was low-lying Vinegar Hill, a working-class, dockside neighborhood with a large Irish population. The area was a warren of poorly constructed, tightly packed row houses and dirty businesses, filled with the sharp smells of varnish being manufactured and iron being smelted. Bootlegging was a major business in Vinegar Hill, from small-scale home distilleries making poteen, or Irish moonshine, to industrial-size whiskey and rum operations. These illegal establishments were so prominent that when the federal government tried to clamp down on them for tax purposes in 1870, it had to flood the neighborhood with more than two thousand soldiers, in a series of pitched battles known as the Whiskey Wars.

Vinegar Hill was bordered to the south by Sands Street, an important thoroughfare that connected Old Fulton Street with the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which sat on the western edge of Vinegar Hill. The yard was the city’s most important military base and the largest navy yard in the country, a sprawling complex that was home to innumerable sailors. Inaugurated in 1801 by President John Adams, the yard was a center for early American shipbuilding, military education, and technological innovation. In 1815, the first steam-powered warship, the USS Fulton, was built here, and the Naval Lyceum (the precursor to the US Naval Academy) was founded here in 1833. By Whitman’s time, some six thousand men were employed in the Navy Yard’s nearly two-hundred-acre campus.

If a visitor continued east, a few miles farther out was Weeksville, a small town that was the only majority-black community in Brooklyn. By all accounts, Weeksville was a semirural enclave of “steep hills, deep valleys, and woodlands,” which was about ten minutes from the ferry via the Long Island Rail Road. Founded in 1838, by 1855 Weeksville had over five hundred residents (about 20 percent of the entire black population of Brooklyn at the time). It served as “the center of organized recreational activities for African-Americans from the entire region,” according to Judith Wellman, author of Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York. Weeksville was “one of the two largest independent free Black communities in the United States,” a place where “people generally lived in safety, supported themselves financially, educated their children . . . and set up their own churches.” As one of the few majority-black areas in all of New York City, it served as an incubator for black political and religious organizing and a needed refuge in times of racial unrest and antiblack rioting. After a visitor passed Weeksville, the rest of eastern Brooklyn was lightly settled farmland, still crisscrossed with pastoral streams and woods, until one reached the newly incorporated town of Bushwick (formerly the Dutch town Boswjick).

If, on the other hand, a visitor disembarked from the ferry and followed Old Fulton Street to the south, they would find the land quickly rising beneath them to create high bluffs with panoramic Manhattan views. Just a few blocks into town they would encounter the Rome brothers’ print shop, one of the bustling businesses where the working waterfront edged into the more residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. A few blocks farther south, wealthy families were already building the Greek Revival–style town houses that earned the Heights the label “America’s first suburb.” The area on the other side of Old Fulton Street, opposite Brooklyn Heights, would eventually be downtown Brooklyn, the city’s civic center.

For as long as these waterfront areas were economically successful (or until about the early 1950s), they enabled working-class people to create enclaves of queer life.

Farther south still, the city gave way to the industrial basin of Red Hook and the Gowanus Creek, an as-of-yet-unimportant inlet of the New York City harbor. Nearby were the gentle hills, streams, and farmland that would one day be the neighborhoods of Park Slope and Sunset Park. Finally, a long carriage ride south from Fulton Ferry would bring you to the oceanfront resorts of Coney Island, which was primarily an escape for the middle class and the wealthy. Here, hotels dotted the sandy ocean shores, giving the impression of a distant seaside holiday just a few miles from the bustle of downtown Brooklyn.

For as long as these waterfront areas were economically successful (or until about the early 1950s), they enabled working-class people to create enclaves of queer life. These groupings were often small, sub rosa, isolated, and temporary, but they formed the nucleus for the later emergence of what we would recognize as gay communities. In the queer history of these areas, five waterfront jobs reoccur again and again: sailor, artist, sex worker, entertainer, and female factory worker. Each of these jobs had particular conditions that made them more available or desirable to queer people. Sailors have always been a symbol of escape from small towns, and their long voyages, marked by single-sex isolation and exposure to different cultures around the world, provided great opportunity for sexual and gender experimentation. Artists were often given leeway to be “eccentric,” and the Brooklyn waterfront drew them with its cheap rents (and—to be honest— with its cheap sailors). Sex workers (male, female, and transgender) had ready clients, and few observers, in the dockside alleys and waterfront brothels of Vinegar Hill and Red Hook. Freaks and entertainers, particularly those who were gender nonconforming, found lucrative (if often exploitative) work in the vaudeville theaters of downtown Brooklyn and the sideshows of Coney Island. Finally, in the lead-up to World War II, female factory workers broke gender stereotypes and provided lesbians with previously unimaginable freedoms.

Given the prevalence of these jobs in mid-nineteenth-century Brooklyn, it’s unlikely that Walt Whitman was the first person to develop a queer community there. However, unlike those in the other jobs listed above, artists are often given a greater level of respect—and place in our cultural memory—than their incomes would otherwise generally afford them. Also, at a time when few people were inclined or encouraged to record their innermost thoughts, artists such as Whitman were pushed to do so. Additionally, your average artist’s behavior was (somewhat) less policed than that of your average businessman, who had both customers and coworkers to worry about. In other words, artists had a slightly better chance of being able to live a queer life, a slightly better chance of recording that life, and a slightly better chance of having that record preserved. For all of these reasons, Whitman provides a good access point to the beginnings of queer life in Brooklyn.

One of the great things about Whitman is the tantalizing hints he left behind pointing to the existence of a subculture of working-class white men who loved other men. Many of these were laborers that he met while walking along the docks, or taking the ferry, or going for a bracing swim in the ocean. In his daybook, Whitman kept lists of these men, mostly single-line entries commenting on their looks, personalities, and family relationships. A typical snippet from one such catalog, written around the time of Leaves of Grass, reads:

Gus White (25) at Ferry with skeleton boat with Walt Baulsir—(5 ft 9 round—well built)
Timothy Meighan (30) Irish, oranges, Fulton & Concord James Dalton (Engine-Williamsburgh)
Charley Fisher (26) 5th av. (hurt, diseased, deprived)
Ike (5th av.) 28—fat, drinks, rode “Fashion” in the great race Jack (4th av) tall slender, had the French pox [syphilis]

This particular list goes on for over fifteen pages, with almost no women included (and those that are mentioned are never physically described). It’s impossible to know how many of these men were receptive to advances Whitman made, but some of the entries certainly suggest they were, such as this one: “David Wilson night of Oct 11, ’62, walking up from Middagh—slept with me— works in a blacksmith shop in Navy Yard.”

Foremost among the “new experiences” that Whitman would chaunt and yawp into the American literary canon was the urban life of a man who loved other men.

These were the “young men and the illiterate” whom Whitman was beloved by. They embodied his twin virtues of health and manly comradeship. Leaves of Grass was inspired by them, written for them, and often talked directly about them. Or as Whitman put it in “Song of Myself”:

The young mechanic is closest to me, he knows me well,
The woodman that takes his axe and jug with him shall take me with him all day, The farm-boy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice,
In vessels that sail my words sail, I go with fishermen and seamen and love them.

That love was not just platonic. Foremost among the “new experiences” that Whitman would chaunt and yawp into the American literary canon was the urban life of a man who loved other men, and who was able to bring together those similarly inclined. Men loving men was not something new, as Whitman was well aware from his studies in ancient Greek. But the idea that these men constituted a specific type of person, that they could define themselves by this love and carve out space to gather together as lovers of other men—what we would today call the idea of “being gay”—didn’t yet exist in Whitman’s world. The word homosexual wouldn’t even be coined until 1868.

Leaves of Grass was written at the height of the Victorian era, which lasted from approximately 1840 to 1900. Socially, this was a relatively conservative time, but one that saw huge advances in industry and urbanization. During his life, Whitman witnessed the invention of everything from the telephone, to the photograph, to the flushing indoor toilet, to ice cream. Advances in farming, manufacturing, communication, and transportation enabled a vast population flux into cities around the country. In 1840, barely 10 percent of Americans lived in urban places; by 1900 that number had skyrocketed to 40 percent.

According to Victorian morality, women and men inhabited complementary but separate worlds. Men were rational, active, and in the public eye; women were emotional, passive, and limited to the domestic sphere of family and home. Proper women were asexual and acted as a limiting force on the “animal instincts” of men. White Victorians saw all black men and women as inherently lesser; although New York State had abolished slavery by 1855, it was still the law of the land in many places. And even in free states such as New York, black people lived under tremendous constraints (legal and extralegal) on whom they could love, what jobs they could have, and where they could live. When Leaves of Grass was first printed, New York City’s entire black population was around twelve thousand people. Few whites—even those who opposed slavery, such as Whitman—believed in true racial equality.

Due to these divisions, New York was “an intensely homosocial city,” according to the epic city history Gotham—a place where white men “clubbed, ate, drank, rioted, whored, paraded, and politicked together, clustered together in boardinghouses and boards of directors, [and] even slept together.” Aside from time with your own family, interactions between men and women were limited (particularly among the middle and upper classes). People of color lived mostly in small, segregated, and remote neighborhoods such as Weeksville, far from the economic and social centers of town. For Whitman, this meant that he lived in rooming houses that were full of white men; worked in print shops and newsrooms that were entirely stafed by white men; ate lunch in cheap oyster houses where the majority of patrons were white men; and in the evenings did his drinking and reveling in saloons that rarely admitted women or people of color.

It almost goes without saying that in a world so divided by sex (the identity), that sex (the act) was treated as a dangerous mystery. Sex education was mostly limited to what a child might observe among livestock or glean from older children (as it still is in many places today). Although Victorians are often remembered solely as prudes, they spent huge amounts of time considering and classifying kinds of sex. Sexual attraction to a person of the same sex was considered a disorder of gender, closer to what we today think of as “being transgender” than “being gay.” Sexual acts between members of the same sex were stigmatized and lumped together with other nonprocreative forms of sex under the name sodomy, which could include anything from masturbation, to bestiality, to hetero or homosexual oral sex. Legally, however, sodomy charges (sometimes called the crime against nature) were primarily used in cases of sexual assault, and not against consensual sex acts. At the time of the 1880 census, only sixty-three people were imprisoned on sodomy charges in the entire country, and only five of those in New York. The idea that people had a fixed, inborn set of sexual desires that were permanent and could be used to classify humanity into groups was only just emerging among theorists in Europe. There was little agreed-upon language to even discuss those feelings.

Leaves of Grass was not only a proclamation, it was an invitation: a love letter set afloat in the world to see who understood it and answered its call.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out in his essay, the job of the poet is that of language-maker, the person who documents and names the new experiences of the times. What makes Whitman so memorable isn’t his private desires, but his realization that those desires were shared by others, and his attempt to create or memorialize words, rituals, and experiences that these men shared—something he certainly could not have done in isolation. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman called these men his “comrades” or “camerados.” Their affection for one another he dubbed “adhesiveness.” To symbolize that love, he chose the simple calamus plant, a sturdy river reed with long vertical leaves and a protruding, phallic flower cone. Whitman wrote forty-five “Calamus poems” celebrating the love between men. He explicitly urged others to use the plant as a queer love token in Calamus #4, writing:

And here what I now draw from the water, wading in the pond-side,
(O here I last saw him that tenderly loves me—and returns again, never to separate from me,
And this, O this shall henceforth be the token of comrades—this calamus-root shall,
Interchange it, youths, with each other! Let none render it back!)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But what I drew from the water by the pond-side, that I reserve,
I will give of it—but only to them that love, as I myself am capable of loving.

Why did Whitman choose the calamus as his gift to “them that love, as I myself am capable of loving”? Calamus was wild in Brooklyn, appearing in the very places where Whitman met his camerados. It grew on the banks of the streams where young farmers brought their livestock to drink; it dotted the marshy coast where sailors hunted for duck in between stints at sea; and it lined the secluded watering holes where salt-crusted stevedores went to wash of the day’s labor. Its phallic shape was suggestive, but so were ears of corn, were it just a matter of form. But the calamus had an added bonus: its name was an allusion to the ancient Greek myth of a pair of young male lovers, Kalamos and Karpos, who died during a swimming competition. Whitman’s Calamus poems comprise some of his most sensual and personal poetry. Over the next hundred years, this inclination to find “them that love, as I myself am capable of loving,” was a consistent hallmark of early queer pioneers.

However, cruising the waterfront wasn’t the only way that Whitman met other men. Leaves of Grass was not only a proclamation, it was an invitation: a love letter set afloat in the world to see who understood it and answered its call. The third poem in the book—“In Cabin’d Ships at Sea”—explicitly says this in its last stanza:

Then falter not, O book! Fulfil your destiny! You, not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too, as a lone bark, cleaving the ether—purpos’d I know not whither—yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails—sail you!
Bear forth to them, folded, my love—(Dear mariners! For you I fold it here, in every leaf;)
Speed on, my Book! Spread your white sails, my little bark, athwart the imperious waves!
Chant on—sail on—bear o’er the boundless blue, from me, to every shore, This song for mariners and all their ships.

The ability to gather people to him with his words was one of the other qualities that Emerson enumerated a genius poet would possess, writing that “by truth and by his art . . . [he] will draw all men sooner or later.” This was certainly true for Whitman. In his lifetime, men such as Oscar Wilde and Edward Carpenter (an early English proponent of gay rights) flocked to Whitman’s door, asking questions about the poet’s sexuality, which he was loath to answer. Many later queer artists would be drawn to Brooklyn because of the city’s association with Whitman. Hart Crane, the 1920s poet whose foremost muse was the Brooklyn Bridge, addressed Whitman and his legacy of “adhesiveness” directly in his poem “Cape Hatteras,” writing, “O Walt!—Ascensions of thee hover in me now / Thou bringest tally, and a pact, new bound / Of living brotherhood!”


From When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan. Used with permission of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2019 by Hugh Ryan.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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Thankfulness, Praise, and Ross Gay

Odes are songs of praise, to a person or an event or an object—a wedding poem, or epithalmium, is a kind of ode, as are a lot of nature poems. Often, an ode can be a way to meditate on what makes the subject worth praising, so the topic can be less direct than the title implies. For example, the way I read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale,” the real subject of praise is how we lose ourselves (briefly, fleetingly) when encountering something truly beautiful. You could say the nightingale is a vehicle for the poet’s praise of that feeling of losing oneself.

The great 20th-century Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a series of odes in the early 1950s that are some of his most plain-spoken and accessible poems. If you’ve had trouble getting past the lush surrealism of Neruda’s love sonnets or the more epic scope of his Canto General, the odes are a great place to start. Partly motivated by a political desire to speak to (and on behalf of) common people, Neruda wrote odes to mundane things like “Ode to My Socks,” “Ode to Broken Things,” and “Ode to the Tomato,” praising their usefulness and lack of pretention but also elevating their commonness by focusing his lyrical attention on them. The poems are also full of whimsy and joy and often a bit of nostalgia. He expresses regret that we have to “assassinate” the tomato to enjoy its freshness, and wonders at how his clothes “make me what I am” and vice versa. A teacher of mine once remarked that Neruda wanted to eat the world, and there’s something boldly loving in these poems that is only matched in my reading experience by Walt Whitman.

I mention Neruda because he’s clearly one of the presiding spirits for Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, the book from which this poem is drawn, and which contains a number of odes and praise-songs. The impulse to praise the simple and straightforward, even perhaps a socio-political desire to elevate the mundane by focusing poetic attention on it, is similar in both poets. But there are also some interesting points of departure. For one thing, Gay’s odes are mostly about actions rather than things. Neruda’s tomato, clothes, and yellow bird become Gay’s “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” and here, drinking water with his hands. I want to explore this difference, but first here’s the poem:

Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands

which today, in the garden,
I’d forgotten
I’d known and more
I’d learned and was taught this
by my grandfather
who, in the midst of arranging
and watering
the small bouquets
on mostly the freshest graves
saw my thirst
and cranked the rusty red pump
bringing forth
from what sounded like the gravelly throat
of an animal
a frigid torrent
and with his hands made a lagoon
from which he drank
and then I drank
before he cranked again
making of my hands, now,
a fountain in which I can see
the silty bottom
drifting while I drink
and drink and
my grandfather waters the flowers
on the graves
among which are his
and his wife’s
unfinished and patient, glistening
after he rinses the bird shit
from his wife’s
and the pump exhales
and I drink
to the bottom of my fountain
and join him
in his work.
— from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)

If you’ve perused any of Neruda’s odes, you can see right away that the form here is a direct imitation/homage—the short lines, the straightforward language. The form forces us to slow down, but not in a way that feels pretentious. To me it reads more like the deliberate, present-tense wandering of the imagination as it connects back to memory. The act of drinking from his hands, which the speaker does “today, in the garden,” reminds him of his childhood when he first learned this skill from his grandfather.

A little side note about those first few lines: he’s telling us he’s forgotten these things (drinking from his hands, being taught how) as a way of telling us that he’s now remembered them. Just a neat little reversal as we go along, especially because it’s not only the skill that he’s now remembering.

By focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers.

So back to the question of actions versus things. In this poem, and in the other odes I’ve seen by Gay, the action being praised isn’t significant in and of itself. This is in contrast to Neruda, who seems to want to elevate the subjects of his attention, in part just by virtue of his attention. This is a little unfair to Neruda, but I get a vision when reading his odes of all the little items of the world—marbles, pieces of string, dead mice—waiting outside his study hoping for him to bestow his poetic attention upon them. And that he would make time for them all if he could. Neruda’s vision (like Whitman’s) is all-embracing, and a little self-important.

Gay’s odes, on the other hand, don’t presume any kind of universalism. When he praises “drinking water with my hands,” there’s no presumption that this activity is as meaningful for everyone else as it is for him. (Notice how all of the titles of the Ross Gay odes I mentioned above include the word “my.” They are intended, without apology, to be specific to his own experience.) Drinking water with his hands today, in his own garden, reminds the speaker of his own grandfather watering graves—“mostly the freshest,” but also his own—and it’s that reminder that makes the action worthy of praise. The action calls forth a whole host of feelings of grief and love, not to mention the sensual memories that get brought up with it—the sound of water coming up the pipe “like the gravelly throat / of an animal,” or the “lagoon” that appears in his grandfather’s hands. I love that word “lagoon,” how it evokes the massive size (in the speaker’s childhood memory) of his grandfather’s hands. These memories and feelings are what’s really being praised.

Weirdly, by focusing on an activity that is meaningful in his individual way, Gay’s efforts feel welcoming, open to participation by us as readers. Instead of a line of little items waiting for Neruda’s attention, I get an invitation: “This is how drinking water from my hands is meaningful for me; what simple actions are meaningful in this way for you?” I don’t personally have any strong memories connected to drinking water out of my hands, but reading this poem I’m reminded of cracking my knuckles with my own grandfather, holding up my hand to his to measure its size, and am tempted to write my own “Ode to Cracking My Knuckles,” to participate in a dialogue with Ross Gay. So the poem evokes not just his own memories, but summons similar ones in a total stranger—no small feat for a praise song. What might your memory be?


Excerpted from How A Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry by Adam Sol. © 2019 by Adam Sol. All rights reserved. Published by ECW Press Ltd. “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands” from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay, © 2015. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

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Frederic Tuten: On My Youthful Dreams of the Parisian Writer’s Life


Manhattan and the Bronx, circa 1946

When I was ten my grandmother and I went to the city—that’s what we called Manhattan—to pick up a cake from De Robertis Pasticceria, between Tenth and Eleventh on First Avenue. My mother had ordered the cake for my aunt Sadie’s birthday. There were many Italian pastry shops on Arthur Avenue, a swift 20-minute bus ride from where we lived, but none, in my family’s judgment, was as good as DeRobertis, where they would stop for baba au rhum or a cannoli when they lived on East Twelfth.

We got off at Union Square, as usual, but instead of walking across Fourteenth Street as always, we took a turn and found ourselves on Fourth Avenue, where we had never been. It took us along Book Row, the area between Eighth and Fourteenth Streets, packed with used-book stores with their outdoor stalls. I knew right away that I would go back when I was old enough to travel alone.

I seldom left my neighborhood or traveled to Manhattan, but after I turned thirteen I started taking the subway down to Book Row. The ride from Pelham Parkway to Union Square Fourteenth Street was direct, no changes or transfers, so I was not too afraid of getting lost. On early Saturday afternoons it was easy to find an empty seat and be left quietly to read a book during the hour-long ride. The subway cost a dime each way, and for another dollar or even less I could find wonderful books to haul back to the Bronx. My mother complained, “Where are we going to keep all these books?” My one bookcase made of boards held up on bricks was already overpacked and verging on collapse.

“Under my cot, Mom.” Where I had stashed the books my shelves could not hold.

One afternoon, drawn by the title, I bought George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man from a bookstall for a dime. It had a worn, leathery green cover and distinguished gold title impressed on the spine. I read the opening pages out there in the street, and in moments I knew the book was addressed to me. It was about a young man (like me) who wanted to be an artist (like me) and yearned (like me) to find his way to become one.

I promised myself that one day I would follow him to Paris, where art and beauty counted for everything.

On the subway back to the Bronx, I continued reading, and as we ascended from the underground to the elevated tracks after 149th Street, passing the littered streets below and the brown rows of sullen apartment buildings, I felt I had met myself in a past life. Not only because young Moore had wanted to be an artist, but because he wanted to live the life of one. His Confessions teemed with names of famous Impressionist painters, of mysterious narrow streets and smoke-filled cafés, under a Paris sky thick with artistic aspiration.

I promised myself that one day I would follow him to Paris, where art and beauty counted for everything, and where extraordinary women—as I found in a book of artists photographed in their studios and on their picnics and in sexy cafés—also came with the freedom of bohemian life.

My friend Arthur, the expert who had explained to me the mysteries of sex, came over to me in the school cafeteria and said, “This is the book for you.” Arthur was the one who had passed around his copy of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, dog-eared to the famous scene of a woman walking into the hero’s room and slowly unbuttoning her blouse—the scene that had inflamed a generation of Bronx youth. Arthur’s parents drove around in a Cadillac and parked it in a garage at night and they never seemed to have to go to work. They had recently returned from Paris and had sneaked through customs Henry Miller’s banned book Tropic of Cancer. Arthur filched it from their bedroom bureau and turned it over to me. “This will make you cream all night,” he said. “But you got to give it back before they find it missing.” I was thrilled to have this mysterious, forbidden book.

The edges of the pages were folded at the supposedly hot passages. The rest of the book seemed untouched. I read the whole book from first sentence to last, and a day after I finished I started over again. It was a key to the cell I lived in and offered a view of the exciting world outside the prison of ordinary life. The book sang the joy of living unshackled by social norms, conventions, the everyday lies; it was a manifesto for my liberty. Nowhere did I find the supposed sexy filth for which it was banned. There was plenty of sex, but none of it pornographic, and even if it had been, so what? What was all the fuss about? Wasn’t sex the stuff of life we lived in and lived for?

I thought it was wonderful to be spiritually lost, especially in Bowles’s world, so far away.

Tropic of Cancer tells the story of Henry, the author himself, who, at 35 and with just a few dollars to his name, sailed from New York to Paris, knowing no one there, speaking not a phrase of French. In Paris he scrounged money from fellow Americans, went hungry, and yet none of that mattered, because he walked the city like a man crazy in love. A single day wandering in Paris was a day richer, deeper, than his whole previous life in New York working at shitty jobs and starved for a woman’s caress that did not require a marriage license. Could I not one day soon do the same as Henry—and young George Moore—and live in Paris a free man?

But first I had to escape from prison. I was bored with my high school classes, with the well-meaning teachers, the students with passion for nothing—except for sex, the only passion we shared. There was nothing in school that opened me to greater poetry or fiction than I had already been reading. I was then in the world of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, with its spiritually lost expatriates wandering through Morocco and its desert outposts.

I thought it was wonderful to be spiritually lost, especially in Bowles’s world, so far away from school, from the butcher shop and even Louie’s Luncheonette, from my crumbling apartment and my sad mother. But better than Bowles’s soulless desert was the glamorous writer’s life in Paris that I had discovered in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Like its protagonist, Jake Barnes, I, too, would sit with other artists and writer friends—and worldly women—in a café where I could linger for hours drawing and reading at a table sur la terrasse, which sounded more heroic than just a table on the sidewalk.

I reread Moore’s Confessions, searching this time for practical information on how young George was able to pay his way to the city of art and light. I soon discovered the answer. He wrote: “Then my father died, and I suddenly found myself heir to considerable property . . . I was free to enjoy life as I pleased. Eighteen, with life and France before me.”

Expecting no estates to be left to me, I was bitter at my bad luck and chastised myself for being such a dreamy fool. I would have to discover my own way to Paris.


From My Young LifeUsed with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Frederic Tuten.

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How the United States Became a Part of Latin America

The drive down Interstate 19 in Arizona from Tucson to Nogales is everything a passenger might expect from a trip through the desert. It is a flat, dusty affair. Craggy mountains seduce from a distance, while scrubby bush blurs past. As the road nears the small city, the flatness gives way to a gentle undulation. Houses appear, dotting one steep hillside in bright pinks, blues, and oranges. Then, when the road rounds a corner, something else comes into view—the sudden shock of it is like seeing a snake in the bushes. It is long and copper-colored, slithering along the hills. It is the United States-Mexico security fence, visible from miles away.

As the presidential election campaign of 2016 made clear, a section of the US public felt this barrier was no longer sufficient. There are in fact two cities called Nogales, one on each side of the border, separated by a fence consisting of giant poles. These allow families to see each other—though the addition of mesh panels along parts of the fence now stop them from reaching through—making it feel like a large outdoor prison. Nogales, Mexico, like many other places along the frontera, has seen the arrival of drug gang–related violence and the departure of tourists, giving it an air of quiet resignation. Even the colorful Mexican tiles and crafts sold in the shops near the border crossing do not banish the gray atmosphere.

For someone standing at the fence, it is difficult to imagine what Nogales was like before the 1880s, when the city was a celebrated connection point between the Sonora Railway and the Arizona and New Mexico Railway, linking the two nations. In some ways Nogales was a victim of its own success. By the turn of the 20th century, there was so much movement back and forth that the town was divided by a 60-foot cleared strip of land which permitted authorities on both sides to better monitor the comings and goings of residents and visitors alike. Those people would have been not just Mexicans or Americans, but an international mix, including people from Europe and China, who came to work on the rails or in nearby mines, as well as Native Americans. Their lives may well have involved crossing the border on a regular, perhaps daily, basis.

Borderlands by their nature are zones of interaction. Some of it is positive—trade, cultural exchange, linguistic innovation—while other aspects are less desirable, not least illicit commerce, racism, and violence. Borders require certain kinds of flexibility, among them the ability to speak multiple languages, calculate more than one currency, or assume different identities. They also, at times, demand demarcation and even militarization. Borders can be a potent reminder of power and possession. These divisions are also, as Juan Poblete has pointed out, something people can carry within as they go about their everyday life, an “internalized border zone.”

Today the security fence cuts across that old clearing, with Nogales, Arizona, a city of about 20,000, on one side, and its southern Sonoran neighbor, now more than ten times larger, spreading out to the south. This stretch of fence is a physical reminder of the long and often troubled history between the two nations, calling to mind the blunt assessment by the Nobel Prize–winning Mexican author Octavio Paz that the United States and Mexico are “condemned to live alongside each other.” Or, in the more graphic description of the scholar and poet Gloria Anzaldúa, the border is “una herida abierta”—an open wound—and a place set up “to distinguish us from them.”

Given that the entirety of the Americas was shaped by the arrival of Europeans, the demographic demolition of indigenous communities, and the use of African slavery, what constitutes us and them? Lines on a map? Catholicism against Protestantism? The Spanish language instead of English? The myth of “American exceptionalism” has for too long eclipsed other ways of contemplating the trajectory of US history, even down to the use of “American.” As the Spanish historian José Luis Abellán explained in his book La idea de América (The Idea of America), when a Spaniard used the term “America,” it traditionally referred to Latin America—as it also did for people living there—but “when an American speaks of America, he refers to his own country, the United States.” Now that usage of “America” dominates, but a return to its old meaning might be useful.

The myth of “American exceptionalism” has for too long eclipsed other ways of contemplating the trajectory of US history, even down to the use of “American.”

Some historians have long argued that the United States is part of wider Latin America, in studies ranging from Herbert Eugene Bolton’s “Epic of Greater America” in the 1930s to Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s more recent assessment that the United States “is—and has to be—a Latin American country.” Thinking about the United States in this way can help make sense of a past that goes far beyond the boundary markers at the United States–Mexico border and instead focuses on the longer hemispheric connections, from Canada to the tip of Chile.


Even when we accept that the United States is part of a larger Latin American community, this still leaves the question of who is Hispanic and, correspondingly, who is American. The term “Hispanic” is being employed here in part to express a sense of continuity, as the word reaches back to the Roman past (Hispania) and forward to the census-taking present. It is at once a panethnic label—the worlds of Europeans, Africans, Asians, and Amerindians were all transformed by the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas—as well as one that today serves as a marketing category. It has a long past, yet its current incarnation is the product of constant reinvention.

For the most part, people from Latin American countries identify themselves by their nation of birth: Cuban, Colombian, Venezuelan. As soon as they come to the United States, they often find themselves categorized as Hispanic or Latino/a, or the more inclusive Latinx. This modern usage is in large part an identity created in the United States and one that brings a certain uniformity—though also vital political clout—to a diverse group of people. Even the assumption that people in Latin America are Spanish-speakers is misplaced, as there are a wide variety of Amerindian languages spoken across the continent. My use of the term “Hispanic” is a way to pick at, challenge, and understand its meaning, and examine the historical forces that formed its linguistic evolution and social context.

Yet for those of Spanish-American origin who have long been in the United States, a reverse question could be asked: at what point are you allowed to not be Hispanic? People who are identified by the census as “Hispanic” might have a grandparent who arrived from Mexico or Cuba two generations ago, or might speak only a smattering of Spanish, but this is often met with an expectation that as recent arrivals they should be knowledgeable about their “heritage” and “traditions,” which, by implication, are not Anglo-American.

Language, in particular, is no small matter. Are you Hispanic if you don’t speak Spanish? The share of Hispanic people who speak Spanish at home has declined, with 73 percent speaking it in 2015, against 78 percent in 2006, according to a Pew Research Center study. Despite this drop, another poll of Hispanic people in 2015 found that for 71 percent of respondents, it was not necessary to speak Spanish in order to be considered Latino. Despite these shifts, the overall number of Spanish-speakers in the United States remains a source of anxiety to those for whom “becoming American” means speaking English. Some 440 million people are native Spanish-speakers, while around 370 million are native English-speakers, and at least the same number again speak English as a second language.

The United States is now second only to Mexico in the number of its Spanish-speakers, with 41 million speakers and nearly 12 million who say they are bilingual. At the same time, 31 states—including Florida, Arizona, and California—have declared English their official language. There is a great deal of silence about this particular aspect of the Hispanic past, as if prohibiting the use of Castilian will somehow erase that history as well as resolve the contemporary issues. “We are never as steeped in history,” the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in his classic Silencing the Past, “as when we pretend not to be.”


Alongside language is a question that permeates every pore of contemporary American life: race. In this seemingly endless obsession with physiognomy, a toxic hangover from slavery and Jim Crow, is “Hispanic” just another way of saying “not white”? Although scientific notions of “race” have been discredited, as a social force it continues to order society, placing hierarchies in everything from the organization of labor to the distribution of rights. Creating “whiteness” and granting access to it were—and remain—ways to create power and exert social control. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter pointed out in The History of White People, race has no scientific basis and so “is an idea, not a fact, and its question demands answers from the conceptual rather than factual realm.” Race, at its most basic level, as sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant point out, is a way of “making up people.” To them, the social development of the United States had been shaped by what they call “racialization,” a process by which “racial meaning” is extended to “a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group,” in this case, Hispanic people.

Historians, activists, novelists, and people in everyday life are trying to make sense of race, while the practice of putting people into racial categories continues. This is not unique to the United States. All Latin American nations share in the colonial legacy of racism, as, too, does Canada. In some places, including Mexico, it is a question of a person looking more indigenous or European. In others, like the Dominican Republic, it is about “blackness.” Even seemingly positive trends toward multiculturalism, or in Mexico mestizaje, have led to criticism that such color blindness continues to obscure structural inequalities and ongoing racism. A glance across the powerful and wealthy in Latin America shows the lightest-skinned often at the top. These different whitenesses sometimes do not translate, however, and many people find they go from being white in their home nation to being “Hispanic” or “brown” in the United States. “Brown confuses,” Richard Rodriguez wrote in his memoir about race. “Brown forms at the border of contradiction,” though with its mixture of Indian, African, and European, to Rodriguez brown is the true “founding palette.”

Creating “whiteness” and granting access to it were—and remain—ways to create power and exert social control.

Equally muddied is the issue of “ethnicity,” which overlaps with markers such as language or food. There is no clear consensus on where Hispanic people lie on this spectrum, or even how to pinpoint ethnicity. To the historian Alan Gallay, an ethnic identity “becomes apparent only when people are faced with an external threat that draws them together,” a conclusion drawn from his research on Native Americans in the 17th century. For Gallay, ethnicity is “relational and situational” and thus there can be no “pure” ethnicities because even elements like religion or language are mutable. In the context of Mexican-Americans, the historian George J. Sánchez has described ethnicity as being “not a fixed set of customs surviving from life in Mexico, but rather a collective identity that emerged from daily experience in the United States.” For the Californian journalist Carey McWilliams, writing in 1948, the terms “Anglo” and “Hispano” were simply “the heads and tails of a single coin, a single ethnic system; each term has a meaning only as the other is implied.”

Today, ethnicity remains as puzzling as race, and it, too, is often shaped by stereotypes. Are you still “Hispanic” if you speak only English, are Protestant, and don’t care for tacos? Language, race, and ethnicity also overlap with the question of citizenship, and so inform one of the key underlying issues: belonging. This can lead to what the legal historian Mae Ngai has called “alien citizens,” which she defined as “persons who are American citizens by virtue of their birth in the United States but who are presumed to be foreign by the mainstream of American culture and, at times, by the state.” To Ngai, a type of foreignness can exist in one’s own homeland, where one group, such as Hispanics, is deemed “illegitimate, criminal, and unassimilable.” Despite being citizens, they are told they don’t belong.

Now turn this around: who does belong? Who is allowed to be American? Although it is a nation that puts an immigrant narrative at its core—a story that immediately shunted aside the history of black and Native American people—many of the groups who came to the United States in significant numbers have faced some sort of prejudice. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, was wary of the Germans, asking, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanise us?” However, in the earliest days of nationhood—itself a political experiment—the United States needed to craft an identity.

In some ways this was a reaction to Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries, which was a kaleidoscope of often warring kingdoms, city-states, and principalities. For the fledgling United States, identity was also an existential question. Survival apart from the British empire depended on some sort of unity, not least because the strip of 13 colonies along the Atlantic was surrounded by Native American nations and the encroaching Spanish and French. In formulating what the United States would be, one founder, John Jay, had this vision of the nation: “Providence has been pleased to give this one country to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion.”

Like whiteness, being “American” was designed at some level to be exclusionary; it was built on Anglo and northern European ancestry, Protestantism, and, for the most part, speaking English. There was no place for the Indians or the enslaved Africans, or even southern Europeans. To J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French immigrant who arrived in 1759 and was writing around the time of the American Revolution, “Americans” were “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes.” Crèvecœur, whose Letters from an American Farmer enjoyed a wide readership in Europe, considered these people to be “melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

By the 19th century, during a time of widespread Eastern and southern European immigration, southern Mediterraneans such as Italians and Greeks were considered not quite “white.” Yet by the early 20th century, Mexican laborers, who were in demand, were allowed, up to a point, to be “white.” White, it appears, was a gray area. Italians are now considered white, but Mexicans usually are not. Like many of the categories that are bandied about—race, ethnicity, black, white, Latino—“American” is a social construction, supported by a scaffolding of historical precedent, tradition, legal structures, and government legislation. For all the talk of the melting pot or the salad bowl, for all the protests, Twitter feuds, and talking heads, the question of who is allowed to be American remains unresolved.


From El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove. Copyright © 2019 by Carrie Gibson.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub