Brooklyn’s Renaissance: Commerce, Culture, and Community in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

Reviewed by Jocelyn A Wills

Brooklyn’s Renaissance: Commerce, Culture, and Community in the  Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World  By Melissa Meriam Bullard Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 Xvi + 458 pp. Notes, index. Cloth, $99.99

Brooklyn’s Renaissance: Commerce, Culture, and Community in the
Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World

By Melissa Meriam Bullard
Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Xvi + 458 pp. Notes, index.
Cloth, $99.99

One never knows where a family heirloom will lead. Brooklyn’s Renaissance began with a cultural artifact that Italian Renaissance scholar Melissa Meriam Bullard’s mother inherited from a distant cousin: a portrait of Luther Boynton Wyman (1804-79), a forgotten shipping merchant for Liverpool’s Black Ball Line, long-time resident of Brooklyn Heights, and “guiding hand” in the founding of the “arts-friendly community” along Montague Street during the 1850s and 1860s (with the Academy of Music, now “BAM,” as Brooklyn’s cultural center).

Bullard argues that Wyman and other members of Brooklyn’s business elite, inspired by William Roscoe, the "Lorenzo de' Medici of Liverpool," exemplify the ways in which “Atlantic commercial networks [facilitated] collaborative patronage of culture, and civic pride [that] flowed together around the arts.” She suggests that noblesse oblige as much as competition with Manhattan motivated Brooklyn’s “haut-bourgeois families” to employ their private wealth to sustain the arts as Brooklyn emerged as the third-largest independent city in the United States. Rather than proposing the creation of public institutions, Brooklyn’s elite employed the Medici merchant patronage model to found the city’s first reading rooms and musical, artistic, and horticultural societies to “serve as uplifting examples to their grubby and untutored urban neighbors.” Unfortunately, the Civil War disrupted Brooklyn’s Renaissance; and early success could not withstand the changes and divisions that the Gilded Age engendered. As a result, Brooklyn’s rapid but short-lived cultural renaissance remained lost to history — until Bullard followed Luther Wyman’s trail from rural Massachusetts to Brooklyn.

Divided into 10 chapters, and based upon Bullard’s expertise in the Medici family’s influence on 15th-century Florence, as well as research into London’s Baring Archive, Liverpool’s Public Records Office, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and especially Brooklyn- and New York City-based archival holdings and newspapers (where she searched for traces of Luther Wyman’s life), Brooklyn’s Renaissance will appeal to music and art historians as well as a general audience interested in the mid-nineteenth-century genesis of some of Brooklyn’s most iconic institutions, including BAM, the Brooklyn Arts Association, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Although the book’s sub-title suggests a much larger cultural and commercial history of the Atlantic World, Brooklyn’s Renaissance is largely a biography of Luther Wyman, a talented singer and cello player who became the musical director of Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Congregational Society, president of both the Brooklyn Sacred Music Society and Brooklyn Philharmonic Society, and “cultural entrepreneur” involved in the founding of BAM to house the Philharmonic and serve as a cultural venue to highlight the accomplishments of the wealthy, raise money for philanthropic purposes, commemorate cultural society anniversaries, and bring the public together in common cause, particularly during the Civil War. But Bullard also employs Wyman’s forty-year career (1834-75) with the Black Ball Line packet ships to trace the social-capital networks that allowed Wyman to ascend in Brooklyn, where he and other parvenus mingled with wealthier neighbors in Brooklyn Heights, including those he met through his affiliation with the Unitarian Church and membership in the exclusive Brooklyn Club over which Henry E. Pierrepont presided. Bullard additionally traces Wyman’s participation in the founding of Brooklyn’s Mercantile Library, the site selection of Prospect Park, the organization of the Soldiers’ Home Association that provided relief to sick and disabled Civil War soldiers, and the success of the 1864 Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair that raised funds for the Union cause. She has, moreover, bequeathed to future researchers a useful appendix containing Brooklyn’s principal patrons of the arts during the mid-nineteenth century, most of whom had New England roots, familial-religious connections, mercantile backgrounds, residences in Brooklyn Heights, and ownership in businesses in Lower Manhattan and along Brooklyn’s waterfront when riverboats, commuter ferries, and sailing vessels connected the two cities to each other and the wider Atlantic World.

Chapters 2 through 4 provide the contexts for Wyman’s career in Brooklyn, including the “parallel renaissances” taking place in urban enclaves throughout the Atlantic World. According to Bullard, the Medici family’s influence on Florence provided the private patronage model that others in England and then the United States would follow, beginning in Liverpool, the center of the Atlantic World’s cotton exchange. There, William Roscoe (1753-1831) invested his wealth in the fine arts and educational endeavors as “part of a larger civic enterprise” that made Liverpool the first “'modern’ renaissance to blossom in the Atlantic World.” Bullard focuses on Roscoe’s role as Medici biographer, Unitarian dissenter, abolitionist, supporter of the American Revolution, collector of books and paintings, and founding member of Liverpool’s Athenaeum, Lyceum, Botanic Gardens, and other institutions that provided the stimuli for the “associational culture” that developed in American seaports.

Wyman’s life-long association with sacred music and the Unitarian Church, as well as his employment in shipping, also helps to frame the book. Moving from rural Massachusetts to Boston during 1824 (at the age of 20), Wyman joined an older brother who had already established himself as a music professor and member of Harvard’s cultural elite. Once in Boston, Wyman gained employment as a clerk and received an education in the synergies between business and cultural networks, meeting people who had solidified overlapping business and religious networks through marriage, employment, and cultural institutions. As Boston’s shipping dominance began to wane during the late 1820s, Wyman then followed the Erie Canal to Troy, New York, where he opened a music school, bathing house, and strolling garden. By 1831, he had also joined the Troy Towboat Company, a shipping operation connecting the Erie and Champlain Canals to the Port of New York. Transferring to Manhattan in 1833, to run the line’s New York office, Wyman quickly switched from the management of riverboat shipping to the trans-Atlantic cotton trade. During 1834, he joined the Black Ball Line, where he ascended to merchant shipper, and eventually part owner. With Baring Brothers and Company investing in American expansion and the Black Ball Line through its Liverpool branch, Wyman thus entered a world of personal, commercial, theological, and intellectual networks linked to the risky business of the global cotton economy.

During the 1840s, despite competition and risk, and as Manhattan’s cultural institutions moved uptown, Brooklyn’s business elite, already “well networked and secure in their professional standing, found it relatively easy to collaborate with one another in cultural enterprises” centered on a rapidly expanding Brooklyn. In a flurry of activity, Brooklyn’s “haut bourgeois” thus plowed their business profits into cultural institutions, with sacred music (and Wyman as president of the Brooklyn Sacred Music Society), as well as educational and philanthropic impulses catalyzing a rapid albeit late-comer Renaissance in Brooklyn (pages 108 and 126 list the major cultural initiatives they undertook between 1848 and 1864).

Chapter 5, “Symphony of the Arts,” anchors the book, providing rich details about how Brooklyn elites collaborated to build the Brooklyn Academy of Music (“the jewel in the Crown of the Brooklyn Renaissance”), Horticultural Society, Athenaeum, and other cultural institutions centered on Brooklyn Heights. Indeed, one of Bullard’s major themes is the ways in which Brooklyn’s elite used their private wealth rather than encouraging taxation to support the arts. She also makes distinctions between artist- and business-run organizations. For example, whereas musicians founded and ran New York’s Philharmonic as an employee cooperative, Wyman organized an association of business elites to direct Brooklyn’s Philharmonic Society and its benefit concerts for Brooklyn’s Horticultural Society and various charitable causes. The success of the Philharmonic’s corporate model, complete with expectations of a sizeable return on investment, then guided the building of the BAM (founded in 1857, incorporated by the State in 1859, and completed in 1861 as the country’s first multi-purpose performing arts center). That, Bullard argues, launched larger efforts to create tax-funded parks that could compete with Manhattan’s Central Park. Brooklyn’s wealthy businessmen dominated the BAM’s board, authorized stock subscriptions, and promised a debt-free opening. Alas, cost overruns and the Panic of 1857 forced Brooklyn’s elite to raise more money to finish the project. As a result, elite women embarked upon a fund-raising project, selling it on civic pride and promises of future profits. Ultimately, their efforts not only allowed BAM to open on 21 January 1861, but also widened the circle of subscription holders to other social strata, which quickly paved the way for performances and space uses the elite abhorred, particularly what they considered bawdier theatrical productions.

With the “visionary” phase complete during the 1850s, Bullard’s Chapters 6 and 7 then turn to institutionalization and the building of a larger arts district centered on Montague Street, including the Brooklyn Arts Association (incorporated in 1864), and Brooklyn and Long Island Historical Society (built on Pierrepont Street in 1881). That process began with the BAM, but Bullard argues that the Civil War “diverted” Brooklyn’s Renaissance in ways that “loosened the parameters of polite culture formerly set by Brooklyn’s elite,” fractured Brooklyn’s wealthy patrons, and made political topics more conspicuous. One of the strengths of these chapters is Bullard’s description of the 1864 Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, and the prominent role that elite women played in its success. Inspired by London’s Crystal Palace (1851), and with BAM the central venue, the Fair paved the way for the exhibition of art collections (particularly portraits of Wyman and other Brooklyn elites), plants, and especially the technological innovations, war souvenirs Wyman and others collected, and historical oddities that drew a mass audience from Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Jersey, and elsewhere. According to Bullard, the Sanitary Fair also foreshadowed the rise of Coney Island and other low-brow cultural venues throughout Brooklyn. Increasingly, broader subscriptions also led to contentious debates over the privileges Brooklyn’s elite possessed as BAM directors, including private entrances, privileged seating, and special keys to luxury boxes. Those debates also coalesced with increasing corruption and profiteering charges against the Brooklyn business magnates who had increased their wealth and influence on Civil War government contracts.

Bullard devotes the final three chapters of the book to the post-Civil War era through New York City’s consolidation in 1898, a period tainted by “a weakening of Brooklyn’s proud civic spirit as the trust-based culture of the old commercial elite shrank into the great self-absorption characteristic of the Gilded Age.” With Brooklyn’s population swelling on new immigration, the Brooklyn Bridge under construction, and some of Brooklyn’s most prominent elite (including Wyman) swept up in scandal, financial embarrassments, social unrest, and even death, several cultural institutions failed, including the Philharmonic and Horticultural societies. And, by the time he died in 1879, Wyman no longer lived in Brooklyn Heights; reduced circumstances had forced him to the periphery. He, along with Brooklyn’s Renaissance, slipped into obscurity until Bullard rediscovered both. In addition, the elite of Brooklyn Heights increasingly walled themselves off, preferring private, exclusive events and clubs over public ones, and consolidation over an independent Brooklyn, Bullard argues. When a fire destroyed the BAM and its archives in 1903 as well, banks and insurance companies replaced the cultural institutions that had dominated Montague Street. Thereafter, Brooklyn’s cultural institutions found a home under a municipal framework rather than through merchant patronage.

Although Chapters 5-7 provide a fascinating cultural history of Brooklyn during the 1850s and 1860s, those interested in Brooklyn’s place within a larger history of capitalism will find the framing and concluding chapters disappointing. Indeed, no historian writing about Brooklyn during the twenty-first century can afford to ignore Craig Steven Wilder’s powerful Covenant with Color (2000), but Bullard does. Instead, most of her Brooklyn-based narrative relies on the free-soil newspaper, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as well as Henry Stiles’ history of Brooklyn (published between 1867 and 1870). In the latter’s three volumes, she ultimately finds little mention of Wyman, perhaps because he died in reduced circumstances and under the aegis of the financial scandals that Stiles did not deem worthy of his hagiographical account. Had she consulted Wilder, Bullard would have learned that most of Brooklyn’s elite amassed their wealth on slave labor until New York State abolished the system in 1827. Thereafter, merchants working the docks of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn’s waterfront expanded their wealth and political influence on the cotton economy that linked Brooklyn to Southern slavery and Liverpool’s famous Cotton Exchange.[1]

Indeed, Brooklyn’s merchant elite followed more than a patronage model: by following Roscoe and the Baring Brothers into Liverpool’s Cotton Exchange, they engaged in dangerous speculation and toxic debt securitized by Southern property in land and slaves. That speculation helps to explain Roscoe’s connections to the 1820 bank failure that nearly resulted in his arrest and prompted the liquidation of his assets (including his art collection), Baring’s contribution to the global economy’s instability and Panic of 1837, and the dwindling profits of cotton that played no small part in the Financial Panic of 1857. As a result, Bullard only mentions, then drops rather than interrogates both the topic of slavery as well as the speculative bubbles that led to business failure, wealth destruction and the collapse of Brooklyn’s privately organized cultural institutions. These slights matter, for most American historians have now reached the consensus that the Civil War lifted the north out of its economic woes, on the very government contracts and subsidies that allowed Brooklyn’s elite to complete their renaissance, speculate in railroads and continental expansion (that ultimately led to the Panic of 1873, Great Depression of 1893-7, and consolidation of Greater New York City), and build monuments to themselves rather than “uplift” those below them. Moreover, in her conclusion, Bullard is forced to concede that Brooklyn’s Renaissance “dealt more sparingly with connections to the larger Atlantic World in which Brooklyn remained deeply imbedded.” As a result, she forewent the opportunity to explore Wyman as member in the vanguard rather than as victim of the Gilded Age. That progressive politicians ultimately subsumed Brooklyn’s cultural institutions under a municipal framework reflects their understanding of the limits of private charity, that politicians have an obligation to protect public institutions from the ravages of the market economy and corporate corruption. At the current moment, that lesson is well worth remembering.[2]

Beyond Brooklyn’s commercial connections to the larger Atlantic World, and despite the recognition that social-capital networks mattered to the role that Wyman eventually played in Brooklyn’s cultural history, Bullard’s narrative gets ensnared in the myth of the “self-made” capitalist. As Pamela Walker Laird’s Pull exposes, there are no self-made Americans. Religious affiliations, ethnic identity, and familial connections matter to our understanding of who succeeds and who fails, who gets pulled into networks and who gets shunned. This does not negate Wyman’s contribution to Brooklyn’s Renaissance. Instead, it serves as another reminder: that he followed an already established brother to Boston, and made religious and New England connections in Troy and Brooklyn that allowed him to enjoy a long career with the Black Ball Line as well as cultural standing among Brooklyn’s elite even if he never amassed the sorts of wealth and privilege that many of his Brooklyn neighbors, including Henry Stiles, had inherited.[3]

These shortcomings aside, Bullard’s book — especially her chapters on the evolution of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Sanitary Fair — make an important contribution to Brooklyn’s history during the middle years of the 19th century.

Jocelyn A. Wills is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.


[1] Craig Steven Wilder, A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn (Columbia University Press, 2000), 1-41.

[2] See, for example, Edward E. Baptist, “Toxic Debt, Liar Loans, and Securitized Human Beings,” in Michael Zakin and Gary Kornblith, eds., Capitalism Takes Command (Chicago University Press, 2011), 69-92.

[3] Pamela Walker Laird, Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin (Harvard University Press, 2006).