When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest. Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, investigates a very specific slice of history all but erased by prejudice and the passing of time.

The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents, but Ryan cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.

The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront lead to what Ryan calls “the great erasure” of queer community and history.

When Brooklyn Was Queer considers the lives and contributions of well-known artists like Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote, and numerous lesser-known performers, businesspeople and blue-collar workers. Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research. During many of the years covered here, homosexuality as a concept was unknown: a man could have sex with men but be “normal,” or he could be a “pervert,” based solely on appearance or mannerism. Vocabularies for such identities were at first nonexistent and varied over time. And much of the information collected about queer people in history is deeply problematic, recorded by hostile and prejudiced organizations, and presumably with limited cooperation by the people being studied. Finally, Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color.

Only in his introduction and epilogue does Ryan share his personal connection to these stories, his own history in Brooklyn and his heartfelt desire for this history to be told. While the rest of his book takes the style of traditional history writings (no “I” pronoun), he reaches out in the final lines: “I look forward to having a future where we can also have a past, and I look forward to creating it with you.” Having been engrossed in these pages, his reader feels that same connection and hopefulness.


This review originally ran in the January 31, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 windows.

A Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner (audio)

To write about this essay collection, I must first tell you about the format.

From my research, it looks to me like the collection exists only on audio, and only on audiocassette. I bought the set of two cassette tapes some years ago, and have had them all this time, waiting for a way to listen to them. The only cassette player I could locate in my friends-and-family circle was a desktop item my father dug out of the attic for me; but its volume only goes so high, and Stegner came out of the machine so low that I could only hear him if I pressed my ear against the tape player, which I quickly tired of. (Thanks anyway, though, Pops.)

Then finally a friend bought me this outstanding gift: a cassette-to-MP3 converter! Who knew! Thank you so much, Margaret; it was a shame to use it for just the two tapes, but hopefully the guy I passed it on to gets some use out of it with his old rock tapes. Anyway, I was finally, after years of ownership, ready to listen to my Stegner as I drove north across west Texas.

And it is Stegner himself reading, which I think is a nice bonus, although he does have a bit of a somnolent monotone. The essays are not titled; he simply rolls from one into another, so that I was rarely clear on when one ended and another began, although changes of subject serve as loose guides. It’s an intriguing problem, the format of these essays and their absence from the world otherwise. I am a bit interested in transcribing them myself for posterity, if I could find the appropriate person to work with on that project. Hmm.

Now on to the essays, yes? I enjoyed listening. Stegner has a lot to offer: he has known several corners of this country very well at several times in particular, and he specializes in detail and color (literally and figuratively, as in “local color”). He can be relied upon for commentary about conservation issues, and although his positions sound a little obvious in 2019, coming from 1989. His storytelling style is soothing, especially read aloud in that drowsy voice of his. I do wish I had these on paper to read and look at; as it was, I had to let the stories and reflections wash over me, which was pleasurable, but leaves me with less to say for this review.

I made a few short recordings of lines that appealed to me. I have no idea what essays they are from.

The Wasatch in Utah… taught me the feel of safety… A man can tuck back in against mountains, the way Hemingway used to tuck back into the corner stool at Sloppy Joe’s, his back covered and all danger in front of him.

(Guess why I like that one. That would be Sloppy Joe’s in Key West; I’ve been there.)

We manage to breed saints, brutes, barbarians, and mudheads in all sorts of topographies and climates, but what country does to our way of seeing is another matter, at least for me. By and larger I do not know what I like, I like what I know.

I wish I had the line that came just before, too: his point was that topographies and climates don’t make people who are smart or stupid, moral or evil. It’s a point that’s important to me. People judged for their geographies is becoming a pet peeve of mine. And that last line: “I do not know what I like but I like what I know.” It makes sense somehow.

Every night in season [the frogs] conducted love concerts that could drown out conversation even inside the house. Stamp on the patio bricks and they fell silent so suddenly from such a crescendo of noise that the silence rang like quinine in the ears, the sort of silence I’ve heard nowhere else except in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

Silence rang like quinine! What an unexpected simile; and I’m not sure exactly what it means, not knowing what quinine sounds like in one’s ears; this is a line that I think would get picked apart by certain creative writing professors I’ve known, but I appreciate it. I don’t know what quinine rings like, but the surprise pleases me, and I’m willing to take it on faith that that was some silence, whew. Now, the Amazon jungle as a place of silence I trust a little less: I imagine a jungle being rather a noisy place, what with all the life going on there, the peeps and rustles and dripping that surely must be going on. But perhaps Stegner has been to the Amazon. I have not.

There were other startling lines, and worthwhile observations. I wish I could share the text of these essays with you. Barring that, take my word for it, unless you have a tape deck and $16.48 (which will buy you the tapes right now on that other Amazon; more from AbeBooks).

Even with all the hassles it took me to listen to A Sense of Place: worth it.


Rating: 7 names.

I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell

It has been a long while since I read a book given me by Fil (three years!), but I remain grateful. I’ve been recently traveling in the Big Bend region (and you can check out my travels here), and so I packed this one along.

Hallie Stillwell was born in Waco, but when she was a year old the family moved to West Texas, and (aside from three years in New Mexico) she would live the rest of her life there. The towns she knows best and describes here – Alpine, Marathon, San Angelo, Ozona – are familiar to me from my visits to the region, and there is always a warm fuzzy feeling when I recognize the places I encounter in books.

Hallie moved to Presidio in 1916 at age 18 to teach school, leaving at 20 to marry a rancher, Roy, in the borderlands. She would be by his side until his death in 1948. She was born in 1897 and died in 1997, just shy of her 100th birthday: that fact alone would make her memoir significant – just think of all the changes she’d seen. As Hallie briefly catalogs in her preface, she lived through Pancho Villa’s revolution; the Spanish influenza epidemic; the 1929 crash and the Depression; two world wars; and countless technological advances. This is her memoir.

The title is explained: her father thought, when she headed to bordertown Presidio (where I ate lunch just the other day) as a teenager to work, that she was chasing wild geese. She told him that she’d gather them then. This is a phrase that recurs, and shows the early strength of character that would mark her life. This book has a style I recognize: the writing is uncomplicated, straightforward, not a work of fine art but of reportage. I did note some fun colloquialisms: “not worth a tinker’s dam,” “so upset that I could have fought a circle of saws.” But the point is the stories, not the writing.

I also noted Hallie’s habit to sum up her feelings. Often sections of text end with a remark about how contended and happy her family was; or, conversely, about how frustrating Roy could be, with his taciturn nature and resistance to change. However Roy irritates her, though, or however often she bemoans her own inexperience and ignorance of ranching operations, she always returns to the refrain: “I remember thinking… ‘I hope our lives will always be this way.'” “I felt that my life was complete… I often wondered what more I could want.” The overall effect is of a woman pleased with her lot, through the unbelievably hard times and Roy’s often obnoxious (though often funny) behavior. This kind of refrain could get tiresome, as Pollyanna as it is. But it felt authentic here. Perhaps Hallie is trying to convince herself as much as she is us, in looking back at a life that was hard but worthwhile. It feels real. It also feels in line with the untutored, amateur, honest memoir style.

I was a bit disappointed to see this book end with Roy’s death, as she lived almost another 50 years after that point. The “In Memoriam” epilogue to my memorial printing says, “Roy’s death in 1948 at the beginning of the longest drought of the century impelled Hallie to diversify. Having already mastered the roles of teacher, rancher, marksman, and mother, she became a justice of the peace, barber, journalist, author, storekeeper, RV innkeeper, and celebrity.” (Markswoman, please!) But none of these stories are told in this volume. I think that’s a loss.

But what is here is fine reading, and I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 head of cattle.

Women Warriors: An Unexpected History by Pamela D. Toler

This entertaining and informative history of women warriors briskly covers huge swathes of time and place, arguing for the significance of a phenomenon as old as warfare itself.

With Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, Pamela Toler (The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War) reveals a history many readers will meet with surprise as well as fascination. By the end of this brisk accounting of just some of the many women warriors Toler found in her research, she makes it clear that while little known, this phenomenon is neither new nor unusual.

Women Warriors is a broad examination that spans history from the second millennium BCE through the present, and across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Toler details dozens of examples, from the better-known (Matilda of Tuscany, Njinga, Begum Sahib and, of course, Joan of Arc) to the obscure (Ani Pachen, Mawiyya, Bouboulina), in two- or three-page summaries. She notes primary sources in each case and questions “facts” where appropriate (for example, numbers of troops are notoriously dubious), often presenting a fact in the main body and then questioning it in a footnote. Chapters organize women warriors into mothers, daughters, queens, widows; besieged defenders and leaders of attacks; women disguised as men and women undisguised.

Plentiful footnotes serve an important role, especially evidencing a certain wry humor, as when Toler repeatedly and impatiently points out the tendency to compliment women as behaving like men and to denigrate men as behaving like women (a habit consistent throughout history and common to women as well as men). Double standards are likewise emphasized, as in the way historians and archeologists have examined evidence. For example, the grave known as the “Birka man,” from 834 CE, had long been considered that of a male because of the martial burial items found with him. In 2014, a bioarcheologist determined that the bones were actually that of a female. Despite follow-up DNA testing, scholars, archeologists and historians continue to argue about the identification of the Birka woman. As Toler points out, the scholarly contortions now employed to deny her status as warrior were never mentioned while her skeleton was assumed to be that of a male.

With such copious content, Toler has been careful to keep her book a manageable length: at just over 200 pages, Women Warriors is an easy entry to an expansive topic. Toler found thousands of examples of women warriors in her research–many more than are contained in these pages–and argues that this proliferation deserves to be treated as more than a series of freak anomalies. In conclusion, answering an earlier historian’s claim that women in warfare are “the most insignificant exceptions,” Toler sums up: “Exceptions within the context of their time and place? Yes. Exceptions over the scope of human history? Not so much. Insignificant? Hell, no!”


This review originally ran in the January 17, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 naginata.

Scott Russell Sanders in recent Orion, Brian Doyle, and considering death

A synchronicity: my father sent me a recently published essay by Scott Russell Sanders that coincides with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing lately.

The essay occurred in the Autumn 2018 issue of Orion, which you can purchase here, but cannot read without purchasing – sorry. It’s called “At the Gates of Deep Darkness,” and it is about the dire cancer diagnosis of Sanders’s son, Jesse, who is 40 and has young children. In it, Sanders tries to navigate grief, and the intersection of his religious upbringing with his devotion to science, his love for this world and his sadness & anger at Jesse’s coming end.

It’s an essay I appreciate in many ways: for its language, its attention to detail, its careful plotting of divergent beliefs and feelings, and its place within Sanders’s body of work. I enjoyed his listing of “great pioneers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, and Carson, as well as accomplished contemporaries such as Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Chet Raymo, John Elder, Kathleen Dean Moore, Pattiann Rogers, and David James Duncan” – what a list! – with whom he has some things in common. I really do recommend it.

But, separately, what is interesting about this as synchronicity is my recent reading of Brian Doyle’s short essay “Joyous Voladoras,” which you can read here. It was assigned by Matt Ferrence* for his seminar, and when Matt and I got a chance to talk more later, he told me it’s an excerpt (?) or vastly shortened version (?) of Doyle’s book The Wet Engine, which I have not read but of course want to. It’s about the heart – the hummingbird heart, and Doyle’s own. The book makes it clear, though, that this interest in the heart was inspired by his very young son’s need for open heart surgery.

His son survived, and is now an adult, and Doyle has since died (in 2017). When my father sent me the Sanders essay, he said it “presents us, like Doyle does, with a thoughtful writer wrestling with faith in real time in public.” Pops means Doyle wrestling with his own mortality, as he did while dying very quickly of brain cancer. But fresh off “Joyous Voladoras,” I thought of the even closer parallel, of worrying for one’s child.

Grief, obviously, is one of those universal topics. Sanders acknowledges, “In sharing this personal story, I do not mean to impose my grief on readers, for we all have more than enough griefs to bear, both public and private.” Even grief for a child is common enough. But for artists such as Sanders or Doyle, there is still something to offer. Sanders continues, “I tell of Jesse’s cancer because it has made clear to me the persistence of those questions, intuitions, fears, and longings that inspired my early devotion to church-going and Bible-reading. I still puzzle over the sources of suffering; I still experience wonder and terror and awe; I still yearn for a sense of meaning; I still seek to understand the all-encompassing wholeness to which I belong.” And onward. This is why we read, and this is why we write.

Among the lines that I marked in Sanders’s essay:

My calling of Jesse’s name is timed to the rhythm of my footsteps, my breath, my heartbeat. A mother’s heartbeat is the first sound we hear. Once outside the womb, we respond to that rhythm in the beating of drums, in the bass notes of music, in the iambic pentameter of poetry.

The heartbeat, again, took me back to Doyle and the hummingbird heart, which comes to be everyone’s heart. The unique and the universal.

Do go read Doyle – it will take only minutes, and you’ll feel so much. And consider that issue of Orion, which I imagine contains other gems than this one. Consider too the full-length Doyle book, which I’ve added to my to-do list (Dog help me). Thanks for following me on this winding path today and always.



*Matt Ferrence was a guest faculty member at this most recent residency at my MFA program, at West Virginia Wesleyan College. We really hit it off and had several good conversations; I’m glad to know him and although I haven’t read it yet, I’m confident that I can recommend his book Appalachia North, forthcoming on February 1! (There will be a review here, eventually.)

Galley Love of the Week: The Way Home: Tales From a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

First Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir about a year living without money. That impulse has expanded–Boyle now lives on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland, forgoing electricity, running water, phones and the Internet, and other myriad conveniences the modern world relies upon. Editor Alex Christofi writes, “I think [this lifestyle] takes great courage–he is lighting the way for the rest of us by showing that life begins when you put down your smartphone.” The Way Home is an introspective, heartfelt, practical and often funny chronicle of Boyle’s inaugural year in this new, yet old, lifestyle. Organized as a diary of four seasons, this book will excite the like-minded and jumpstart the unconverted. It is a singular, invigorating read.

Galley Love of the Week or GLOW is a new feature from Shelf Awareness. This edition ran here.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Note: I’m out of pocket during my final residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


I read this little collection of poems and essays for Diane Gilliam’s seminar, “As If the Top of My Head Were Taken Off: Getting More Energy Into Our Poems.” Robert Bly offers his own essays on what he believes poetry should be: that poems should leap, not plod, that they should make wild associations, that they should answer to our animal instincts. He argues that in the Christian world and particularly in “America” (by which I surmise he really means the United States), we have gotten too safe, gotten away from the leap. Alongside his own essays, Bly collects poems he admires (including one of his own), to illustrate his points.

I enjoyed many of the poems, and I found Bly’s commentary interesting, but often problematic. (Here’s where I acknowledge that this book was originally published in 1972, so we can choose to make certain allowances, if we’re so inclined.) For one thing, his assessment of contemporary poetry (more than a generation ago now) is very much defined by national borders. French poets are good; Spanish poets are “much greater”; American poets have “faltered” (in the 1940s and 50s), and are now turning to the South Americans (parse that). I can allow that there is such a thing as a national “school” of poetry or of thought, although I suspect that’s less and less true in the age of swift international communication – which is quite a bit different from 1972, of course, and is still limited by language – one of Bly’s great concerns is that not enough fine Spanish-language poetry has been translated into English (when he says “Spanish,” does he mean coming from Spain? or merely Spanish-language? how concerning). But I think to say that Spanish poets are better than French poets are better than American poets is disturbingly close to racism, or nationalism. It caused me to stumble several times. Was this okay in 1972?

Also, I find myself exasperated that Bly has collected 32 poems (and 2 epigraphs) here, and 31 of those poems (and both epigraphs) were written by men. (Thank you, Marguerite Young, for representing half the world.) I assume that I’m to conclude from this that women just about cannot write good poetry at all… I know, 1970s, but still I’m disgruntled.

As a much smaller point, I wondered at the assertion that “the desert contains almost no mammal images.” This is in the course of a very interesting essay about the “three brains” (reptile, mammal, and ‘new’), and meditation, and accessing different parts of ourselves. This essay was the part of the whole book that I most engaged with. He sets up a desired move from reptile brain to new brain, through the mammal brain, necessitating a journey to “the forest” (he uses quotation marks) and finally to the desert, where an absence of “mammal images” lets us then move to the new brain. Well, I’m intrigued, if not sold. With those quotation marks, “the forest” becomes more archetypal than literal, perhaps, and I can permit that a similarly archetypal desert has fewer mammals than an archetypal forest. But as a lover of a very real desert in particular (that has mammals in it), I stumbled, again.

Leaping Poetry is, at least, an interesting book to engage (and possibly argue) with. I haven’t even touched on his theories of poetry, since I always feel underqualified. As I say every semester about the challenging readings I’m assigned for seminars, I’m looking forward to what Diane Gilliam does with this in her class. I’m sure it will be wonderful.


Rating: 5 stains on a handkerchief.
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