Nights in the gardens of Brooklyn—yes, that’s just the way it was. The boys came home from the war. They were probably men by then but we tended to say “the boys.” If home was New York they would probably live in Brooklyn, at least until they were sure they didn’t want to go west to San Francisco or south to New Orleans, or to some countryside to become a farmer. As inNights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, the girls were waiting. Of course they were probably women by then, but we referred to ourselves and our friends as girls until the women’s movement told us not to and we happily agreed. Before all of us young women and men lay the amazing GI bill, work, and life.
Harvey Swados was born in Buffalo in 1920. He spent four years in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War. Then, maybe looking for Greenwich Village, he settled in Brooklyn for a few unsettling years. He found a job as a census taker, married, moved, had children, wrote wonderful stories, useful, thoughtful essays and reviews, and novels that took a look at life that was different from many of his contemporaries; he taught at Sarah Lawrence and the University of Massachusetts; he went to Nigeria (not many Americans did) to witness the Biafran War. He brought back reports to a mildly disinterested country and a mildly concerned political left, and brought back a friendship with Chinua Achebe—whose work he introduced to many of us. Then when he was only 52 he died of an aneurysm. We miss those years of work that never happened, the books that he may have been thinking or dreaming or waiting to do. We miss the straightforwardness in his work and in his person, his generosity and dependability as a literary, political, and personal friend and colleague.
I myself owe him a good deal. He wrote one of the first full reviews of my first book. Only two of the stories had been published previously. I know he had something to do with the offer to me of a teaching job at Sarah Lawrence where, with his help and Jane Cooper’s, I learned the unusual, rigorous methods of radical teaching there.
My office was adjacent to his. In all our talks he seemed to me a New Yorker like myself, one of those who could not imagine notliving in New York forever. Therefore I was dismayed when he left the city (I admit my parochial views). I knew I’d miss that open-door collegiality. Still, he needed time and money to write. He did, after all, leave to us New Yorkers Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn, a collection about the excitement, success, and failure of my own young age-mates in that lively and confusing postwar world. He left us these stories, unexcelled in accuracy and sympathy.
Who are some of the people in his garden? A young man and would-be dancer who comes to New York from small-town Ohio and is bewildered by the city’s intensity and fakery, and rediscovers his passion in a tragic act of self-destruction. A young soldier who once idolized his Coney Island uncle but returns from overseas tired and disappointed with the Brooklyn landscape he’d once believed to be paradise; he survives his disappointment by stumbling on empathy. Then there’s the old woman Marya—a holdout on the third floor of a condemned building on the Lower East Side. In the collection’s title story, Harvey’s alter ego, the story’s narrator, visits her again and again. Much more than one of his census statistics, she seems to tell him something of his own life:
There had been a son and a daughter, but she had survived them both. Now she was on welfare, holed up in an old kitchen, seated at the table in the gloom with the teakettle bubbling away on the chipped old stove. I felt as though I were in a place that was going to last forever. I had some difficulty with the interview, since she knew little English, and I could hardly understand her Yiddish. But it didn’t seem to make much difference, we took our time, she shuffled back and forth across the kitchen, getting her glasses, steeping the tea, showing me her second papers.
Marya enriches a story of youthful hopefulness and despair as old people often do in literature.
Another collection of stories, On the Line, was written—or published, in any event—in 1957, before Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn. It is about American working people who labor on the American-invented, Ford-created assembly line, and it is a defining work that declares Harvey Swados’s interest in and (like any young socialist) longing for solidarity, if not identity, with those people. Surely his interest in them, which continues in so much of his later work, began in those years, those long days of the nights in Brooklyn, and in the many four- and five-story tenements he walked up and down.
Harvey thought that kind of knowledge should be available to his students. One of them, Liza Ketchum, remembers that she “studied with a wonderful writing teacher named Harvey Swados. He sent us on strange, exciting assignments in New York City. We went to the fish market at dawn and watched the boats come in. We sat on hard benches in Night Court, where people who had been arrested lined up before the judge. We wandered all over the city, taking notes on conversations and soaking up smells, textures, and tastes. Afterward, we wrote stories about what we had seen and heard.” I was actually not crazy about that assignment, maybe because I was a New York kid and had already been properly soaked.
Finally, Harvey was interested in good or almost good women and men more than most writers—and readers. By good people I don’t mean saints or angels, but people who, for all their complexity, want to do the right thing. Luckily, he was unsentimental. He had too much integrity to allow for the soft lies of sentiment. At some point in his stories the world is going to pick up his characters and drop them down. Their innocence—and ours—is going to take a beating. Irving Howe wrote in, I think, a review of The Will, “Harvey was an unfashionable novelist yet his career has been an exemplary one. He is a writer free of public postures, indifferent to literary fads, and totally devoted to perfection of his craft.” Howe repeated these words when he spoke at the University of Massachusetts in 1979 at the dedication of Swados’s papers when they were deposited in the university archives.
I think it appropriate to accompany this short essay with a list of the books Harvey did get to write—in which idealism struggles with despair and in a harsh century sometimes wins.
Books by Harvey Swados
Out Went the Candle
On the Line
Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn
A Story for Teddy, and Others
NONFICTION AND ANTHOLOGIES
A Radical’s America
Years of Conscience: The Muckrakers
The American Writer and the Great Depression
A Radical at Large: American Essays
Standing Up for the People: The Life and Works of Estes Kefauver
Originally published in the summer 2004 issue of Boston Review.