The Span: Haw’s The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History

The media of 1883 is not much different from the media of today.  The difference is the internet and rampant tabloids.  The similarity is the ability to inflate and skew public perception, and to create a brighter picture of any situation.  This idea ties into the human way of telling and retelling history.  In the media, however, sometimes a purposeful bias is at work.  Two main misconceptions emerge about the Brooklyn Bridge in Richard Haw’s book:  

(1) the opening of the bridge was a joyous occasion that came about after years of fanfare and anticipation of the good kind

(2) Walt Whitman love love loved the Brooklyn Bridge

Let’s begin with the first one first.  Here are several truths: the Library of Congress houses a colossal collection of images of the span; many movies have seen the bridge (Manahatta, Docks of NY, The Bowery, The Siege, Godzilla, 8 mm, Kate and Leopold, these are the ones Haw lists–I’ll add Uncertainty, a film that begins on the bridge and ends in two very different places after embarking on two very different plotlines), The Brooklyn Society houses a file of poetry devoted to it, late-day news reports about The People’s Day, May 24, boast the many people who came to celebrate in sunny skies.

These are the follow-up truths as reported by Haw and other historians: John Roebling, the designer, died two days into construction; 30 more workers died because of hazardous conditions; financing involved fraud; May 24 is also Queen Victoria’s birthday celebration, which was an insult to Irish workers, and so the Irish boycotted the opening of the bridge though they were a big part of the 14 year labor force; so many people did show up because there was nothing else to do that day since Brooklyn shut down for the “public holiday;” only the elite were allowed to walk across the bridge right after it was open to the public, and the non-elite public was allowed to finally cross at midnight for a fee; the weather?  was not that great.

The sensationalism of the building of an iconic structure and its opening and meaning to the people of its home offers a false history that encourages nostalgia to build.  Now, the Brooklyn Bridge stands for not only the boroughs it connects, but also for the entire city itself as well as its surrounding areas.  It stands as a symbol of ingenuity, creativity, and aspirations achieved.  Despite or because of the mis-perceptions, the bridge that connects Brooklyn and Manhattan became THE Brooklyn Bridge.

Now onto Whitman.  He loved Brooklyn and Manhattan and Long Island.  He wrote about hills, leaves, roads, boats, grass, lakes, trains, war, and anonymous strangers.  Never did  he write specifically focusing on The Brooklyn Bridge.  That’s not to say he didn’t like the bridge.  It’s simply to point out a fact–nowhere in the Whitman catalog does he create an ode to, a song about, a poem for The Brooklyn Bridge.

Many other artists did focus on it.  Joshua H. Beal created a five plate panorama from the Brooklyn tower.

William Louis Sonntag, Jr. painted it.  George Hall took “Bridge Promenade” (1892), a photo that documents the “reverential gaze” many people had and have.  I took the photo at the top.  Because it was pretty.

While Whitman did not focus on the bridge as a main subject, many other writers did: H. G. Wells, Sergei Esenin, Charles Reznkoff, Marrion Wilcox, Don Marquis, and of course Hart Crane in The Bridge, an epic poem that shows the entanglement of the structure and its surrounding culture, much like Haw’s book does.  Contemporary poet Sujata Bhatti wrote “Walking Across the Brooklyn Bridge, July 1990.”  From the 1800s to today, the bridge offers inspiration.

Haw, Richard. The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005. Print.


About Christina M. Rau

Poet, blogger, writer, editor, professor
This entry was posted in Brooklyn Bridge and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Span: Haw’s The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History

  1. Pingback: Personal Life Is Life: Hershon’s “Bridges” | Rediscovering Brooklyn: A Local Tour De Force

  2. Pingback: Now I Could Sell Anyone The Brooklyn Bridge | Rediscovering Brooklyn: A Local Tour De Force

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