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Behind the Article: Taking a Closer look at “Literary Brooklyn Heights”

August 18, 2012 in Behind The Article, Literary Festivals, New York Travel


Join Literary Traveler as we go ‘behind the article’ with Norm Goldstein, author of our August 13th article, “Literary Brooklyn Heights.”  After reading about the wealth of literary history in Brooklyn, we were very excited to learn more about the past, present and future of the borough and all it has to offer the literary traveler.

 Literary Traveler:  So much is written about city life at the turn of the century.  Do you think more attention needs to be paid to Brooklyn?

Norm Goldstein:  Brooklyn, I’m pleased to say, certainly is getting its share of attention these days. It’s the new “in” place; Brooklyn is cool. And it is deserving of the attention. It’s changed dramatically for the better, especially in the last dozen years or so. Its history is fascinating, from the days of the early Dutch settlers through the Revolutionary War to its growth after the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, then the subway extension.  And it all started in Brooklyn Heights, called Breukelen by the Dutch.

LT:  You mention a few books on the topic in your article.  Is there one book on the subject that you would recommend to those interested in reading more?

NG:  I recommend February House  by Sherill Tippins for those interested in more about that unique gathering of talent in one Brooklyn Heights house in the pre-World War II years and Literary Brooklyn  by Evan Hughes for the broader picture.

LT:  How do you feel Brooklyn influenced the work of the writers who have lived there?  Do you think this has changed over the years?

NG:  In earlier times, there’s no question that the lure was cheaper rents. In 1939, W.H. Auden was talked into moving to the so-called February House from his apartment a few blocks away because he’d save money.

This has certainly changed over the years; rents in Brooklyn Heights are far from cheap today. But there is the lure of a quieter space than the usually frenetic Manhattan, the peaceful views from the waterfront, and, of course, Brooklyn’s unique idiosyncrasies — and characters — enough literary fodder for a lifetime of novels.

LT:  Who is your personal favorite writer who lived and worked in Brooklyn in the 19th or early 20th century?  Tell us a little about your choice.

NG:  For that period, I’d have to choose the poets, Whitman and Hart Crane. The latter is a personal favorite for his poem about the Brooklyn Bridge.  I often walk to the Promenade overlooking the bridge and the East River for substantially the same view he had when he described the fusion of “harp and altar” and feel his passion.

LT:  For those unfamiliar with Brooklyn, what is the best way for a new visitor to experience the area?

NG:  Brooklyn is a huge borough, a conglomeration of hundreds of distinct neighborhoods; it’s impossible to see it all. There are bus tours for an overview of some of it, but I suggest a walking tour of Brooklyn Heights, beginning with a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get there.

LT:  For Literary Travelers visiting Brooklyn, do you have any off the beaten path suggestions of things they should see and do?

NG:  Plan a visit during the Brooklyn Book Festival.

(Editor’s note: The year the  Brooklyn Book Festival  is taking place Sunday, September 23rd, with preliminary events beginning on September 17th.  According to the Festival’s  website, “The Brooklyn Book Festival is the largest free literary event in New York Citypresenting an array of literary stars and emerging authors who represent the exciting world of literature today. One of America’s premier book festivals, this hip, smart, diverse gathering attracts thousands of book lovers of all ages.”  This year’s festival boasts appearances by Dennis Lehane, Mary Higgins Clark and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.)

LT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.  I look forward to exploring Brooklyn in more depth, and I have a feeling that our readers will be similarly inspired.

Behind the Article: A Further Look at Sir Philip Sidney, Penshurst Place and the Study of the English Renaissance

August 3, 2012 in Behind The Article, English Renaissance, Travel to England

Take a glance ‘behind the article’ as Literary Traveler  speaks with Ann-Maureen Owens, author of our July 16th article, “Rediscovering Sir Philip Sidney at Penshurst Place.”  After reading about Shakespeare’s brilliant and yet largely unexamined contemporary, we couldn’t wait to dig a little deeper into the writer’s history, his family home and what accounts for his absence from academia.

Literary Traveler:  How did you first become interested in Sidney?  What drew you to him?

Ann-Maureen Owens: As an undergraduate in the late 70s, I was introduced to Sidney as a man of action: diplomat, politician, and soldier, maybe even a spy!  He had planned to accompany Francis Drake on an adventurous expedition to America when Elizabeth I required his services in Europe. He was also a patron of other writers and had a finely tuned artistic sense and eloquent writing style but wrote for himself, his family and friends. He packed all this into a short life, Only two of his poems were published before he died, gallantly, at age 32, but he was so well regarded in literary circles so as to be considered “a poet’s poet” and the posthumously published Arcadia, An Apology for Poetry and Astrophel and Stella were held in high regard.

I considered Sidney to be an exciting figure of the English Renaissance, but as the title of my article suggests, I had not paid particular attention to him – Shakespeare dominates our idea of that period now – until a country walk outside London brought me to Penshurst Place.

LT:  What do you think accounts for Sidney’s absence from the majority of college curriculums?

AO:  There are many writers and works vying for inclusion in the current undergraduate curriculum and it may well come down to the preferences of professors or their need to attract students in the postmodern era. My son, Kevin, just completed an English degree that, except for a few foundation courses, concentrated on works of the last two centuries. Another son, David, certainly did not meet Sidney on his English survey course in college.

LT:  If you had to suggest one of his works for an undergraduate English Renaissance literature class, which would you choose?  Tell us a little about your choice.

AO:  The sonnet cycle, Astrophel and Stella, is my favorite and it is perhaps the most accessible to younger readers. It is an unfulfilled love story about the one that got away, modeled on Sidney’s own experience. It show’s Astrophel’s discovery of what it is like to fall in love with the immediacy of the present tense, and previews the dramatic speech of the Elizabethan stage.

LT: Penshurst Place seems like an incredible site to experience first hand.  Do you think reading Sidney prior to touring the property enhances the experience?

AO:  It is a beautiful place with extensive grounds, well-tended gardens and an amazing house that anyone can enjoy in many different ways. However, it certainly helps to appreciate the history of the writer’s home, which is still owned by the Sidney family, if one is familiar with the man and his work.

LT:  Besides Penshurst Place, do you have any off the beaten path suggestions for literary travelers visiting the London area?

AO:  I have written another piece that is to be published by Literary Traveler about Down House in the village of Downe, Kent, where Charles Darwin wrote most of his scientific books. It is within the London circular M25 and buses run from South Bromley rail station.

I can also recommend the recently refurbished William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, North-east London. Once the childhood home of this writer and artist, it is situated in the grounds of Lloyd Park and can be reached by way of the Victoria Line on the London Underground.

LT:  You are an author of non-fiction children’s books about Canada.  Do you have any books in the works right now?

AO:  Besides a children’s picture book that is currently under consideration by a British publisher, I am working on two at the moment. One is a biography of Frances Ann Hopkins, whose paintings of fur-trading voyageurs are so iconic and the other is about bird science, co-authored with my wildlife biologist son, Luke.

LT:  Would you ever consider writing about Renaissance England?

AO:  Yes, I would, as it was a fascinating time in England, a place close to my heart where I lived for three years and continue to visit my eldest son, Brian, his wife, Abby, and my granddaughter, Ivy.

The Tudors were on the throne, politics revolved around exploration and sea power, and then there were the writers: Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne and Ben Jonson – who wrote an “Ode to Penshurst Place” – as well as Sidney. Quite a gold mine for a writer interested in history and literature!

LT:  So, on the subject of the chivalrous knights and courtly love, is chivalry dead?

AO:  Not dead just transformed to reflect the realities of our current age. Now it means being kind and courteous to anyone, whether there is a romantic interest involved or not. Romantically, it can be practiced by men and women, and works best as a two-way street. Chivalry occurs when we reject self-centeredness to put another’s comfort and wishes ahead of our own, showing appreciation when someone treats us in this way.

LT:  Beautifully stated. I agree that there is far more to the concept than having doors held open.  Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.  I know that our Literary Traveler  readers look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

Behind the Article: Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and the Groundling Experience

July 27, 2012 in Behind The Article, Travel to England, William Shakespeare

Globe TheatreTake a peek “behind the article” as Literary Traveler talks with Michael Hartigan, the author of our July 23rd article, “I am Not an Original Groundling.”  We had a few more questions for the writer concerning his love of Shakespeare, his advice for literary travelers taking a jaunt across the pond and his fascination with the Globe Theatre groundling experience.

Literary Traveler: Have you always been an avid Shakespeare devotee?  When did your enthusiasm for his works begin?

Michael Hartigan: When my high school English teacher had our class memorize Marc Antony’s, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” speech from Julius Caesar, I, unlike most of my classmates, was hooked. I was infatuated by Shakespeare’s devotion to the word and enjoyed peeling away the layers to reveal the complex themes, symbolism and humor laced throughout his works. I took my enthusiasm to college and as an English major, dove head first into the folios. I have Dr. Stephen Lynch, professor at Providence College, to thank for teaching me the finer points of the Bard. It all led to me writing my senior thesis about honor and gender roles in Shakespeare’s works.

LT: As you mention in your article Shakespeare wrote for the people, but other playwrights of the day such as Ben Jonson were not so accepting of the groundlings. Making a derogatory reference to them in one of his plays, Jonson refers to them as offering “popular applause / or foamy praise, that drops from common jaws.”  What do you think accounted for these varying impressions of the groundlings?

MH: I think the groundlings may have been caught up in a little bit of class warfare. Going to the theater was an activity on the wrong side of the Thames, so to speak. Artists need to eat and perhaps some other playwrights of the day knew that they needed to lure in a different, wealthier, more aristocratic audience in order to keep their inkwells full.

LT: Can you share with us any more “behind the scenes Elizabethan gossip” or fun facts about the Globe Theatre that you learned either on your tour or elsewhere?

MH: The tour and our tour guide at the current incarnation of the Globe were both fantastic. Our guide was more than willing to share his extensive knowledge and did it with a flourish that only stage actors possess. One of the more interesting things I remember him mentioning was that Shakespeare himself was a shareholder in the original theater, which actually began its life across the Thames before being moved. And also that the fire that burned down the Globe was reportedly caused by a canon used during production of Henry VIII. I also enjoyed the story about how some of the more upper class patrons were allowed to sit onstage, at the rear.  It didn’t provide for the best view, but perhaps it was necessary to stroke a few egos.

LT: Your wife seems to have taken one for the team by donning the period costume.  If she asked you to reciprocate by dressing in the garb of one of Shakespeare’s characters, which would you choose? Tell us a little bit about your choice.

MH: I’ve always been partial to Iago from Othello, mainly because he is such a complex character. I’d be interested to see the wardrobe choice of an evil mastermind. If not him, it would of course be fun to wear a donkey head a la Bottom from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

LT: Aside from the Globe Theatre, do you have any suggestions for Literary Travelers visiting London?

MH: It’s hard to go anywhere in London and not experience some historic or literarily significant person, place or thing. Everything is interconnected – someone did something great in one location, his or her portrait is hanging in a museum down the road and the person is buried across the river.

I would recommend a stop at Westminster Abbey (and not just because of Will & Kate). Some of literature’s heavy hitters and history’s great philosophical, musical and scientific minds are buried here. Standing in Poet’s Corner, there truly is a feeling of awe as you’re in the presence of Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, composer George Handel and so many more.

After a long day of running around London, I’d stop in for a pint at Ye Olde Mitre Tavern located in Ely Court. It’s almost hidden down tight alleys and definitely keeps with the traditional British Pub feel. It is on the grounds of what used to be Ely Palace. For the literary traveler, Shakespeare references the location in Richard II and Richard III, via his mentions of the Bishop of Ely and Ely Palace. There are quirky tales about this pub and some of the things in and around it (some legend and some fact).

LT: If you could take a time machine back to sixteenth century England and experience for yourself a play at the Globe Theatre, which play would you choose?  Tell us about your choice.

MH: This is a tough question because I’d be happy seeing any. If I got to choose, I’d probably pick Macbeth. To watch such confident characters unravel onstage, played by the people Shakespeare originally intended, would be incredible. I’ve always been intrigued by how Shakespeare manipulated and exposed the flippancy of gender roles, all while using a totally male cast. It adds layers of complexity to any character, and Lady Macbeth is a perfect example. Besides, any story with conspiracy, murder and witches is something I want to watch.

LT: Given the opportunity, would you want the full groundling experience?

MH: Absolutely. It may not have been the most sanitary of ways to watch a play, but to have front row seats for the cheapest price is something you usually can’t get these days. Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed in that kind of atmosphere. It would be refreshing and unique to experience it as it was originally intended, with the wall between stage and audience broken down.

LT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, and we agree that lax hygiene is a small price to pay for the up close and personal experience of literary greatness!


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