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.
Reviewed by Jocelyn Wills
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.
Melissa Meriam Bullard's Brooklyn’s Renaissance: Commerce, Culture, and Community in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World
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