Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Decatur: The Street Of Early Sorrows

Henry Miller was not quite nine years old when his family moved to their new home at 1063 Decatur Street, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. It was the start of winter in 1900. Young Henry was not happy about this relocation away from Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, where he’d spent his first years, and of which he would always write a fond word in his memoirs. Decatur, on the other hand, became the “Street of Early Sorrows,” at which he would suffer for years. It was while living on Decatur that Henry reached puberty, made life-long friends with people like Emil Schnellock, graduated from high school, and got his first job. After Henry moved out, his parents continued living at 1063 Decatur Street. With diminished pride, he would return to his childhood home on Decatur as a grown man and ask for room and board from his parents.

The 1910 census of this neighbourhood reveals that Henry lived here with his parents, his sister Lauretta (who was mentally disabled), and an aunt, Amelia. “The house wherein I passed the most important years of my life had only three rooms,” begins Miller in the “Third Or Fourth Day Of Spring” chapter of Black Spring (p.21). He tells us that his grandfather [Valentin Nieting] died in one of these rooms on Decatur; it happened in 1905 [1-13]. In the alcove room, Henry suffered all of the childhood diseases. Within the four green walls of the third, an aunt gave birth to twins [2-21]. There was a cellar as well, stocked with coal: “a frightening place filled with unknown treasures,” such as wine bottles covered with cobwebs. [3-79].

Henry Miller and his family on the steps of 1063 Decatur Street, probably c. 1905.
(Photo from Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive; credited to Masters and Masterworks/ Robert Snyder).

1063 Decatur Street was situated between the avenues of Bushwick and Evergreen. On Decatur, “[the] flats string out like railroad cars” [2-172]. The Millers were nestled in the familiarity of a German-American community with a German grocery store on the corner (at which young Miller was once “horse-whipped” [3-66]). Miller considered the neighborhood “bourgeois” [4- 31] with their “stiff, starched curtains” [5-82]; “everyone was normal, matter of fact, unspectacular” [6-232]. Down the street, however, in an old farmhouse which had seen better days, were crammed three families (“anomalies” to the neighborhood) with an odd assortment of offspring, which he describes in Plexus (p.229-233). At the corner of Decatur and Bushwick stood a large vacant lot with a high fence on which were plastered an ever-changing array of theatre posters: “sometimes just the title of the play stuck in my crop for years” [7-71].

Out front was a gate [3-66] and a "little grass plot" [8-13]. Inside the house, Henry had a desk at his disposal, but he never used it for writing [5-158]. Out back, there was a “dismal back yard” in which his mother planted chrysanthemums and maintained a lilac bush. [9- 294]. The floral scents must have been a welcome relief for those sitting in the “storm shed” toilet, which was a “sub-zero cubicle” in the winter [10-277].

When he first coined this as “the street of early sorrows” (in Black Spring, several times in the chapter “Third Or Fourth Day of Spring”), Decatur was simply the landscape associated with the displeasures of his life at home. Although he described the years before age 12 as “not too unhappy” [4-37], his mother became increasingly hard to please as good little Henry entered his less obedient (and hormone-crazy) adolescence; this seems to have been a major source of his “sorrow.” But deeper clues may be found in the delirious prose in Black Spring, in which a visit to the street provokes imagery of death and destruction (p.172-179); the home on Decatur was also fodder for a free-form passage in Tropic Of Capricorn, in which Miller recalls his mother throwing water over him for what she spitefully perceived as laziness, as he lay on his “bed of ferroconcrete” on which “I waited and waited to be born.” (p.196). In both passages, Miller displays an acute awareness of the Evergreen Cemetery, which was not far from his home and obvisouly made some impression.

When he first moved to Decatur, Henry felt it held “little appeal” and that the local boys lacked the character of those in the 14th Ward he’d been forced to leave [4-31]. Soon enough, on the streets as at his new school at PS 85, Henry made friends with kids like Jack Lawton, who taught him the “secrets of life” such as the stupidity of elders [9-116]; another Decatur buddy was Otto Kunst [6-229]. With the onset of puberty, Henry took to walking along Bushwick Avenue on Sundays, “hoping to catch a glimpse of the shy young girls we were in love with.” [6-379, with elaboration]. His PS 85 pal Emil Schnellock would sometimes make this walk with him, and would later become one of his greatest life-long friends.

This section of a Brooklyn map from 1907 shows Decatur Street, with #1063 located on the north side. The full version of this map may be found at the NYPL Digital Gallery.

Although Miller says he lived here for “ten years or so” [11-21], he seems to have lived here, off and on, until he was married in 1917. Perhaps by “ten years” he was referring to the initial block of time, from childhood to adulthood, before he temporarily moved in with his lover, Pauline, around 1909.

Throughout his 30’s, Henry more than once found himself begging his parents to allow him to return to Decatur Street, when he hit rough times while trying to live as a writer. One such situation is described in “Reunion In Brooklyn” [3-88], when the speakeasy went under and Henry returned from a failed venture in Florida. Henry wrote throughout the day from atop a sewing table facing the front window. Embarrassed by her son, Louise Miller had Henry hide in a closet when neighbours came round [3-88]. From this address he appears to have written his Florida story, Gliding Into The Everglades [PBA Galleries - Item 35]. He returned again to Deactur when June had took off to Europe without him [5-158]. June had been to the house before, for a Christmas dinner [5-82].

“The thought walking down this street again has always been a nightmare to me,” wrote Miller about his return to his parents’ home after a decade of being in Europe, in “Reunion In Brooklyn” [3-64]. Henry felt “infuriated” that the neighbourhood had not changed with time, except that the grocery store at which he was once whipped was now a funeral parlor [3-66]. This return to his family and childhood home was an emotional one. Ten years earlier, on the eve of his fateful departure for Paris, he’d been filled with joy at the thought of abandoning Decatur Street and all of the feelings associated with it: “Goodbye, Street of Early Sorrows, and may I never set eyes on you again!” [5-316].

I haven't been able to find any contemporary photographs of 1063 Decatur Street. According to Robert Ferguson, the house no longer exists, and, in 1991, a school stood (stands?) there instead [1-10]. Here is a Google satellite map of the street as it appears from a bird's eye view today. If any New Yorkers feel like sending me a ground-level snapshot, I'm sure all readers of this blog would appreciate it.



[1] Ferguson, Robert. Henry Miller: A Life; [2] Miller, Henry. Black Spring; [3] Miller, Henry. Sunday After The War; [4] Miller, Henry. Book Of Friends I; [5] Miller, Henry. Nexus; [6] Miller, Henry. Plexus; [7] Miller, Henry. Joey (Book Of Friends III); [8] Martin, Jay. Henry Miller: Always Merry And Bright; [9] Miller, Henry. Big Sur And The Oranges of Hiermonymus Bosch; [10] Miller, Henry. Books In My Life; [11] Miller, Henry. From Your Capricorn Friend.


Blogger Bundyhill Recording said...

I was just wondering what the "street of early sorrows" looked like and wandered on this page. Great info. Thanks!

12:49 am  
Anonymous Kim Davis said...

I actually walked over there today. Still either the school or its playground on the site of 1063. It's a narrow, shady side street. Hard to imagine the German community - not a trace left. Solidly Puerto Rican now.

3:55 pm  
Anonymous Yuri Vieira said...

Yes, there is a school now:
(Google Street View....)

1:22 pm  
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