Review and Comment: Into the Past
The other day I was trying to slip a book back onto its shelf when something blocked it. The obstacle, hidden at the back of the shelf and long forgotten, was James H. Callender’s Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights, published in 1927 by the Dorland Press that was at 101 Park Avenue, Manhattan. From the flyleaf I saw that the 296-page volume had belonged to my uncle Henrik Antell, who lived on the Heights (you didn’t then live “in” the Heights).
Callender’s book took a reader back to when “No matron would think of introducing her daughter to Society, other than from her own home.”
Part of Callender’s method of gathering information for his book was to write to a hundred present or former Heights residents asking for their memories. A number of the letters he got back he then published in full. “Some of the Pierrepont Street houses had gardens running through to Montague Street and ours ran through to Remsen Street. There we had two grape arbors, a cherry tree, box-bordered flower beds, grass plots, and a row of tomato bushes which yielded a goodly supply of fruit,” Clara H. Fincke wrote from Riverside, Conn. The former president of Mrs. Field’s Literary Club, Mrs. Thomas B. Hewitt, who made the remark about introducing daughters to Society, further wrote from North Stonington, Conn., about Lenten meetings “conducted by those mental and spiritual giants, Dr. [Richard] Storrs, Dr. [Henry] van Dyke and Dr. Charles Cuthbert Hall [who said] that Brooklyn Heights had produced a splendid race of men and women …” Mrs. Hewitt wrote of “neighborliness … beautiful refinement … splendid homes … loyal friendships …”
Dr. Storrs and his fellow Protestant ministers are pictured in insets of full-page photographs of their churches. Henry Ward Beecher (who is treated reverentially, no mention of scandal) was not the only influential Heights cleric in that late 19th, early 20th century time of diligent church attendance. The Catholic churches of the Assumption and St. Charles Borromeo get only fleeting references, no pictures, and if there was a Jewish congregation on the Heights, it gets no mention. Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Plymouth Church before he became president is recounted, as is the questionable later secret visit by him as president to ask Beecher to go to England and plead the cause of the North. Callender quotes one Sidney V. Lowell, who said he saw “a battered old phaeton — two horse” outside the Columbia Heights home of Peter C. Cornell. “The man in the carriage then arose — a tall, rugged figure,” whom Lowell recognized as Lincoln, and he claimed hearing the president say, “There may be finer views in the world, but I don’t believe it!”
“Probably no district of similar size is less indebted to public education that Brooklyn Heights [emphasis in the original],” Callender writes in a chapter on schools, which concentrates chiefly on Polytechnic (Poly) in its original form, for boys, and Packer for girls, but also mentions several smaller schools of private instruction. Callender is also much interested in the club life of the Heights, with a chapter devoted largely to the now defunct Brooklyn and Hamilton clubs. The Rembrandt Club and Mrs. Field’s get nods, but the Heights Casino is mentioned only as a place hosting balls.
What is striking is that Callender rarely mentions a church, school, club, cultural institution, social event or charitable endeavor without listing many names of persons associated with it. And, lest he left out any name in the process, he appends thirteen pages of names in small type at the end of the book. (One wonders how many sales of the book those won him.) The names are all but exclusively WASP. There are an O’Brien and a dozen-odd Mc’s but no Cohens, Kaplans or Levines (one Levy did make it), and Italian and Hispanic names are absent.
Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights is history of a sort. It tells in rather casual manner of early settlement in Brooklyn, describing the Dutch houses and manners of dress, and the shift from Dutch to English presence by the time of the Revolutionary War. But Callender was writing less a history in any currently accepted sense of the term than an elegy to a place he loved, and which he saw losing much of the charm he treasured. He rued the coming of apartment buildings and the telephone, which “began to curtail the running in and out of each other’s [sic] houses at all hours. … And one morning we woke up to realize that our Golden Age had vanished, never to return.”
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News
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