Return to Brooklyn Bridge Poems

Author, Richard Haw, with The Brooklyn Bridge Viewed from Brooklyn

Excerpts from THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE: A Cultural History
[Rutgers U. Press, (C) 2005]
by Richard Haw

Richard Haw is the author of The Brooklyn Bridge: A Cultural History (2005) and Art of the Brooklyn Bridge: A Visual History (2008). He teaches English and Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and lives in Brooklyn, just a short walk away from his favorite bridge. Currently, he is working on a cultural biography of John and Washington Roebling.


….Appearing at every level of culture, The Brooklyn Bridge is a national obsession. For specialized historians and the general public alike, the bridge is the nineteenth century’s most important and defining work of engineering. The Library of Congress’ archives hold more images of the Brooklyn Bridge than of any other manmade structure, and more images of the bridge than of anything other than Niagara Falls.

The bridge’s international fame has been sustained by the arts. In film, the bridge is as familiar as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. The bridge has found its celebrants. In the visual and literary arts, the bridge has made innumerable appearances. Visual representations of the span have been the subject of exhibitions all over the U.S., and the original design drawings have been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Smithsonian Institution. At the library of the Brooklyn Historical Society, “Brooklyn Bridge poetry” has merited a file of its own. No other structure has a similar dossier. Arthur Miller captured the essence of this cultural prominence in The New York Times Magazine, March 27th, 1983 when he said: “I doubt that anything manmade has entered the American imagination in quite as forceful and prominent a way.”

Miller’s quote is revealing. Despite its sheer physicality, the cultural history of the Brooklyn Bridge owes as much to the imagination— the record as much a process of creation and invention— as it does to historical events. A broad range of advertising executives, artists, filmmakers, historians, intellectuals, musicians, politicians, writers, and other participants in the to-and-fro of cultural commentary have helped develop the bridge’s image, which has subsequently taken its place among other canonized American icons: the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building, and The Grand Canyon to name a few. As an American monument, somehow symbolic of the national mind, the bridge has been discussed and debated, characterized and represented, from its inception until the present. With each new voice, the bridge’s image has grown, its cultural lexicon incorporating new concerns and new interpretations. The history of the Brooklyn Bridge has shown a capacity for cultural and symbolic metamorphosis.

As the bridge’s physical construction was begun in 1869, a parallel process of cultural construction was also begun. This has resulted in two quite distinct Brooklyn Bridges: the physical bridge that stands astride the East River, linking Brooklyn with Manhattan, and the cultural bridge of the mind and the imagination. The first is arguably the world’s most impressive and inspiring public structure, a dazzling monument to the public good, the common path and the necessity of municipal fellowship; the second is a vast tapestry of representations, all subject to the vagaries of individual perception. Needless to say, fundamental tensions exist between these two Brooklyn Bridges, but also between the various, competing assessments that constitute the second, cultural bridge.

By tracing dominant modes of perception and representation, we note some jarring trends and patterns that constitute the cultural history of the Brooklyn Bridge. Since The Bridge has been adopted, and interpreted as a dominant American icon; it is a history not of the bridge per se, but of the representation of the Brooklyn Bridge from its opening ceremonies in 1883 to the blackout of 2003. In trying to understand the relationship between the Brooklyn Bridge and the its representational history, we might usefully begin with Walt Whitman, the public figure most closely associated with the cities of New York and Brooklyn during the period in which the Brooklyn Bridge was conceived. Whitman and the Brooklyn Bridge have long been conjoined in the public and private imagination….

If we pause to consider Whitman’s relationship with Brooklyn itself, the poet and the bridge would seem natural companions. “If there ever existed a city whose resources were undeveloped, whose capabilities were misunderstood, and undervalued,” wrote Walt Whitman (in The Future of Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Daily Times, July 14, 1858, “it is Brooklyn. And less than five years later, certain achievement had taken the place of “undervalued” potential. Taking aim at a period “twenty-five or thirty years ahead,” Whitman extolled in The Brooklyn Standard, April 5, 1862: “The child is already born, and is now living, stout and hearty, who will see Brooklyn numbering one million inhabitants! Its situation for grandeur, beauty and salubrity is unsurpassed probably on the whole surface of the globe; and its destiny is to be among the most famed and choice of the half dozen of the leading cities of the world. And all this, doubtless, before the close of the present century.” The poet’s predictions were on target. While perhaps not ranking among “the half dozen of the leading cities of the world,”

Brooklyn’s growth in the late nineteenth century was remarkable. The city would grow out of Brooklyn Heights to include Williamsburg to the north, Coney Island and Gravesend to the south, and Canarsie and New Lots to the east. Its population, a mere 20,000 in Whitman’s youth, would become the third-largest in the union, and it would top one million by the time New York City was consolidated in 1898, a five-fold increase from 1862, when Whitman was making his predictions. Fuelled by sixty-five miles of natural shoreline, trade flourished in the city, and by 1880 Brooklyn was the forth-largest industrial city in the U.S. Various history books on the development of Brooklyn explain that to this was added significant municipal and cultural improvement. Brooklyn was home to the U.S.’s first modern sewerage system (1858), urban redevelopment and civic pride were welded in the designs for Prospect Park (1867) and Eastern Parkway (1868), and transportation was improved through the construction of an elevated railroad (1885) and an electric trolley system (1890). By the century’s end, Brooklyn was home to a Philharmonic Society (1857), an Academy of Music (1859), a Historical Society (1863), a free library (1896, at the Pratt Institute), and an Institute of Arts and Sciences (1897, now the Brooklyn Museum).

Despite these significant advances, Brooklyn remained in the shadows of its illustrious neighbor over the East River for much of Whitman’s life. Where New York had its Central Park and Trinity Church, the archetypal bustling Broadway, and the aristocratic Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn was known by the more sedate epithet, “the city of homes and churches.” The municipality’s most famous icon was neither a place nor a thing, but a preacher. Few traveled to Brooklyn to see Brooklyn itself, but to hear the words of Henry Ward Beecher, America’s preeminent religious orator. All this though was destined to change.

On May 24, 1883, the Great East River Bridge— The Brooklyn Bridge— was dedicated and declared opened to the public. The opening of the bridge confirmed and announced what Whitman had long predicted. With an authentic world icon— the largest suspension bridge in existence and one of the most talked about engineering feats in an era obsessed with new technology— Brooklyn had finally come of age. In its own right, it was now an eminent and distinguished city, a legitimate destination for global and national travelers. Similarly, it should have been the crowning moment in Whitman’s career as a Brooklyn booster. Unfortunately it was not. And the answer to Whitman’s complex relationship with the Brooklyn Bridge lies more in the realities of New York history and the poet’s own writings than in the imagination that presumes Whitman’s love for all things Brooklyn.
In 1944, the city decided to remove the railroad tracks that ran across the bridge and to raze the transport terminals that stood at either end. The following year the bridge was reopened to pedestrians and automobile traffic at a grand ceremony. As Stanley Edgar Hyman subsequently reported in“This Alluring Roadway,” The New Yorker, May 17, 1952, “the sponsors of the bridge’s ‘reunveiling’ in 1945 were so certain Whitman must have written something about [the] Brooklyn Bridge that they recklessly announced that a poem by him would be read at the ceremony. They were unable to produce.” The sponsors, however, upheld their promise. Sandwiched between the addresses of Manhattan Borough President Edgar Nathan Jr., and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a public reading of Whitman’s “historic verse,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” (See Brooklyn Bridge Re-Unveiling Celebration, Sunday, December 2, 1945 Pictorial Souvenir Program, Roebling Collection, Rutgers University.)

Written thirteen years before the bridge construction began— a full twenty-seven years before it opened— “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” makes no reference to a bridge between New York and Brooklyn, and neither does it envision one. Nevertheless, public recitals of his “historic verse” have become a standard commemorative practice. The poem again enjoyed public readings at the bridge’s rededication in 1954, at the span’s seventy-fifth anniversary, and again at the centennial in 1983. In addition, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” was the only poem included in Daniela Gioseffi’s much-publicized Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk of June 25, 1972 that made no reference to the bridge. The same can be said for the New York-based Poets’ House’s Annual Poetry Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge, which has featured “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” since its inauguration in 1995 [in imitation of Gioseffi’s initial walk, the first widely publicized one of 1972.]

As the organizers of the 1945 re-unveiling celebrations realized, Whitman wrote no poetry that celebrated the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, he barely wrote about the bridge at all. The span appears only twice in Whitman’s voluminous literary output, and on both occasions the reference is fleeting. In “Song of the Exposition” (1876), the bridge is included with the Atlantic Cable, the Pacific Railroad, the Suez Canal, the Mont Cenis, the Gothard, and Hoosac tunnels as an example of the “latest connections, works, the inter-transportation of the world.” In the short prose piece, “Manhattan from the Bay” (1878), Whitman briefly diverts his attention from “the broad water-spread” of life on the bay— “magnificent in size and power, fill’d with their incalculable value of human life”— to describe “the grand obelisk-like towers of the bridge, one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defin’d, giant brothers twain, throwing free graceful interlinking loops high across the tumbled current below.” This reference, written a full five years before the bridge was completed, represents the last time Whitman referred to the bridge in his writing. (“Song of the Exposition” was revised from an earlier poem, “After All, Not to Create Only” (1871), which was read by Whitman at the Fortieth National Industrial Exposition in New York on September 7 1871. Originally, no mention was made of the Brooklyn Bridge; the reference to the structure was added during rewriting and first published in 1876. (For “Song of the Exposition” see Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1996), 341-350. For “Manhattan from the Bay” see Specimen Days, 116-117.)

From then on, the span’s troubled construction elicited no response from the Whitman. He made no mention of the opening ceremonies— a truly national event— even though he was in good health and loved the raw spectacle of great public occasions.19 In addition, Whitman was remarkably silent about the early years of the bridge’s construction. From 1869, when the bridge project was begun, to 1873, Whitman undertook five long trips to Brooklyn— ranging from five weeks to almost three months--yet he failed to mention the bridge even once. This is particularly puzzling since, by his own admission, Whitman regularly traversed the East River from Brooklyn to New York. As he wrote on June 29, 1871, “I am daily on the water here.” It is possible that Whitman might have been preoccupied around this time. The eve of the bridge’s opening marked the ten-year anniversary of the death of the poet’s mother, an event that caused him immeasurable sadness. As he wrote shortly after her death: “I feel that the blank in life and heart left by the death of my mother is what will never to me be filled.” (We find this in a letter of The Correspondence, edited by Edwin Haviland Miller, New York University Press, 1964.)

Equally, his move to Camden in 1873 hardly accounts for his continued silence on the subject of the bridge. As “Manhattan from the Bay” suggests and his letters confirm, he subsequently visited New York on many occasions, continued to write of it and corresponded with numerous friends in the area. From the completion of the bridge in 1883 until the poet’s death in 1892, there is no evidence that Whitman ever set foot upon the structure.
Despite the historical record, why has Whitman become so closely linked with the Brooklyn Bridge? There are numerous answers to this question, the most persuasive of which concerns the idealized nature of public memory as it relates to cultural history. Throughout the twentieth century, those who have voiced Whitman’s unadulterated approval and concomitant love of the bridge have relied heavily on flawed precedent, assumption, misreading and specious evidence. Quotes used to support Whitman’s affection for the bridge have been taken from poems and prose pieces that had nothing to do with the bridge. On other occasions history has simply been invented. Although Whitman’s expressed interest in the bridge is at best marginal, his place in the bridge’s cultural history has become central…. As the foremost poet of democratic, progressive, optimistic, and exuberant nineteenth-century New York— also of course, the artist most closely associated with celebrating the rhapsodic American ideal of progress, union, and democracy— Whitman has become the “ideal” official spokesman for the Brooklyn Bridge. That his written statements about the bridge produce an image at once “complex” and “ambiguous”— more “antipathy” than “advocacy”— has often seemed irrelevant. For writers wishing to provide direct evidence of Whitman’s approval, such quotes as “The shapes arise!” (from “Song of the Broad-Axe,” and used by Kenneth Clark, David McCullough amongst many others) have often proved irresistible. Yet this line first appeared in 1856 when it was included in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. Although pre-dating the legislation that established the New York and Brooklyn Bridge Company by eleven years, and pre-dating the beginning of construction by thirteen years, the phrase fits the parameters of official cultural expression: if the quote fits the “ideal,” print it.

…. Whitman’s legacy shows that strong tensions exist in our archive of responses to the bridge. At no time was this more obvious than in the forms, practices, and rhetoric of the bridge’s opening day. The bridge’s dedication ceremony was a glaring attempt to direct and define the terms through which the bridge would be discussed and represented. And it was a major success. As an event, it consecrated a language and a set of perceptions that continue to dominate cultural interpretations of the Brooklyn Bridge. From the opening day this study proceeds through the bridge’s representational history utilizing a wide range of cultural media: commemorative practices, oratory, visual arts, guidebooks and travelogues, film, journalism, autobiography, imaginative literature, and structural, popular, and critical history. Such important themes as national ideology, immigration and tourism, technological iconography and urban perception, historical memory and commemorative ritual, and rededication and revisionism are considered in relation to the bridge. It concludes with a brief assessment of the period from 9/11 to the blackout of 2003, two events with deep implications for the Brooklyn Bridge. …

In presenting the tensions in the bridge’s cultural history, one can focus on two broad forms of response. …. expressions of assent and of dissent. By glorifying the Brooklyn Bridge as an exemplary American icon, assenting voices have affirmed Filler’s claim. Yet this assent has often involved a studied avoidance of physical, social, and economic context. Under the assenting gaze, the bridge is transformed: from a bustling city spot to a depopulated, aestheticized showcase for American technological and economic progress; in effect, a perfect art object, an American version of Keats’ “well-wrought urn.” As Bodnar explained in Remaking America, dissenting voices on the other hand have criticized this approach and sought to contextualize the bridge as a profoundly public, communal place. By prioritizing the city’s vast humanity over its technological iconography, they have fashioned a “vernacular” image of the bridge that is essentially anthropocentric [as does the Russian poet, Vladimere Mayakowsky when he calls it a giant monster or dinosaur of the harbor. Many poets, like Gioseffi, have chosen to address the bridge as an anthropomorphic entity, using the third person “you.”] Yet in the same vein, these dissenters have perhaps proved themselves more faithful to the spirit of the bridge, and most especially to its unique central walkway. For it is only when we relate our public monuments to the human life that teems around them, that we can approximate the raw optimism and happy acceptance of difference that has so often defined the promise of New York….

On May 24, 1883, after fourteen years of arduous work, the Great East River Bridge between the independent cities of New York and Brooklyn was dedicated and declared open to the public. Given the auspicious nature of the event, the city celebrated in grand style. A parade was staged, speeches were given and the day ended with an hour-long fireworks display. U.S. President Chester Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland attended the festivities and the event was widely reported in the local, national and international press. On the whole, these press reports stressed the visible and voluble assent of the people; everywhere was found joy and celebration, veneration and approval. Subsequent commentators have echoed these sentiments. For historians, the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge was a seminal event. The structure represented an unparalleled technological achievement and embodied a remarkable municipal consensus. After the ravages of the Civil War, the divisions of the resultant economy, the political malfeasance of Tammany Hall, and the conflicts occasioned by new mass immigration, the bridge seemed to unite the two cities’ diverse peoples and heal their open wounds.

In truth, the bridge’s dedication was a tightly controlled municipal event saturated with ideological considerations. While it is not unusual for an urban population to celebrate and commend the completion of public works, the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge had been highly controversial. From the onset, alarm, criticism, and protest accompanied the bridge project. During construction, hazardous working conditions accounted for over thirty lives, while scores more suffered permanent disability. In the political and financial arenas, the bridge’s construction history was littered with fraud, delay, uncertainty, and mistrust. In the months leading up to the opening, criticism was widespread and, just days before the opening, many of the city’s newspapers reported that public confidence was very low. An unveiling ceremony might have reversed such doubts. Yet the bridge had emerged over the course of fourteen years and its appearance was new to nobody. In retrospect, the rate with which commendation replaced denigration was almost instantaneous, and in this context, universal approval would seem more than a little unusual.

…. It is impossible to separate the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge from the context of its times. Begun in the aftermath of the Civil War, and continued through Reconstruction and the beginnings of the Gilded Age, the bridge’s construction and dedication spanned an era of fluctuating cultural power. Debates raged over the meaning of America, the management of social order was both honed and refined. … As a civic occasion, the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge stands in the same historical tradition as the Federal Procession in 1788 and the opening ceremonies of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Croton Aqueduct in 1842. Although occasions marking genuine civic improvement, these civic rituals were framed by concerns over municipal definition and display. The Federal Procession was over a mile and a half long and showcased many of the city’s trades and occupations. Likewise, at the celebrations for the Erie Canal and the Croton Aqueduct, parades were mounted that were both long and inclusive. (The best descriptions of the parades attending the Federal Procession, the Erie Canal and the Croton Aqueduct can be found in Brooks McNamara, Day of Jubilee: The Great Age of Public Celebrations in New York, 1788 – 1909 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.)

By comparison, the Brooklyn Bridge parade was extremely short. Composed of President Arthur, Governor Cleveland, their respective staffs, and two branches of the New York state militia, the parade highlighted only the government and its military wing. Unlike in 1788, 1825, or 1842, no workers--from engineers, through craftsmen to manual laborers— were included in the parade. Moreover, they were not invited to either the formal ceremonies or the official speeches. …. At the time of optimum publicity, those who had built the bridge were excluded from view. Consequently, they received none of the limelight and no direct acclaim….

At the opening of the bridge, only the military and the government took part, while most onlookers were relegated to peripheral locations offering poor views. In addition, some of the day’s most important events were witnessed only by a select few: the day’s orations, the experience of walking the bridge and the exclusive receptions at the houses of Washington Roebling and Seth Low. Whether President Arthur even wished to make contact with those at the exclusive receptions is debatable. With derision, The Daily Graphic noted: “Mayor Low urges upon the citizens at the reception not to shake hands with the President. The power of the right arm of the Chief Executive is limited, and he desires to return to Washington whole and sound with all his members intact,” reported The Daily Graphic, May 23, 1883.

As many papers pointed out, direct experience of the day’s events would only be available through the newspapers….. In formulating and presenting opinion, the orators and the press failed to canvas the public. Although championed as leading actors in the bridge’s construction and celebration, the general population instead served as the day’s audience. Their job was to do the listening, not the talking; to take note, not to spell out. While references to democracy abounded, the active participation of the people— the defining ideal of democracy— was denied.

Those responsible for the day engineered an image of the bridge as the American symbol par excellence. Public opinion was neutralized, and the organizers wove an exemplary narrative of the American errand that “naturally” culminated in the towering icon of the bridge. This image did not conform to the state of American society, but posited an ulterior, almost mythic, state-of-the-union address. Its message was that through commerce and a belief in the existing forms of American polity, the nation would continue from glory to glory. As union and completion were stressed, divisive recent history and individual dissent were both dispelled. Concomitantly, the traumatic and suspicious, not to mention corrupt, process through which the bridge, and American society, had recently traveled became subsumed into the structure’s marvelous sublimity. America had arrived at this historical point with this visual image, and the character of the country was reduced to a form of single-issue binary politics. ….

The unity proclaimed at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge was not a spontaneous expression of assent, but formulated, shaped, and staged by a group of influential New Yorkers. Tirelessly repeated by the press and sanctioned by subsequent historians, it has found its way into our shared cultural memory. With each new addition to our historical understanding, the manufactured assent of the opening day has become canonized as the dominant interpretation. What we witness at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge follows Albert Boime in The Unveiling of the National Icons observs that “the history of each [U.S.] icon reveals that privileged members of the American hierarchy, bent on maintaining their economic and social class advantages, attempted to appropriate the symbols of America almost from their inception and use them to stimulate an illusion of inclusivity.”…. The grand style urban vision flourished outside the visual realm as well as within it. Writers also transformed the bridge into a purely aesthetic icon….. On the rare occasions that the city’s human context found its way into literary renditions of the bridge, it was accompanied by a profound ambivalence. While gazing out at the span, H.G. Wells concluded that the “unmeaning faces” of “the individuals [he saw] count[ed] for nothing.” In Impressions of America 1923, Sergei Esenin felt no regret “that wild Hiawatha no longer hunts his deer here. And … that the hand of the builders of this culture was sometimes cruel.” Charles Reznikoff’s poetry in Rhythms (New York:1918) provides the logical extension of this:

On Brooklyn Bridge I saw a man drop dead.
It meant no more than if he were a sparrow;
For tower on tower behind the bridge arose
The buildings on Manhattan, tall white towers
Agleam with lights; below, the wide blue bay
Stretched out to meet the high blue sky
and the first white star.

…. The lives and deaths of the city’s population become insignificant when placed against the backdrop of the built environment. These responses are salient, yet for others ambivalence developed into active distaste. In Marrion Wilcox’s 1894 poem “North and South from the Brooklyn Bridge,” the poet is exhilarated by the view from the bridge, yet revolted by the surrounding area: “A poisonous forest of houses as far as he eye can see, / And in their shade / All crime is made.”….

For Don Marquis in “The Almost Perfect State,” from Great Essays of All Nations (edited by F.H Pritchard, London: George G. Harrap, 1929) the city’s “detail” ruins the exemplary image of the city from the bridge.… In “From the Bridge” Marquis raised the thorny question of context, yet finds an easy resolution for the skyline’s inherent contradictions. In Dreams and Dust (New York: Harpers and Bros., 1915, the beauty of the result nullifies the sordid means of creation:

Held and thrilled by the vision
I stood, as the twilight died, …
Built by a lawless breed;
Builded of lust for power,
Builded of gold and greed.
Risen out of the trader’s
Brutal and sordid wars--
And yet, behold! a city
Wonderful under the stars.

In common with “From the Bridge,” Marquis’ “The Towers of Manhattan” from The Book of New York Verse, edited by Hamilton F. Armstrong (New York: Putnam, 1917) unfolds at twilight, stressing the city as a heightened aesthetic experience. While “on the middle arch of the bridge,” Marquis writes: “before me apparelled in splendor, / Banded with loops of light, / Clothed on with purple and magic / Rose the tall towers of Manhattan.” Richard Le Gallienne’s “Brooklyn Bridge at Dawn” strikes a similar chord. Le Gallienne’s bridge has “not yet a soul” upon it. Equally, he reconfigures the bridge’s relation to context; the realism of creation is cast as the stuff of dreams: “Who, seeing thus the bridge a-slumber there, / Would dream such softness, like a picture hung, / Is wrought of human thunder, iron and blood?”71….

The publication of Le Gallienne’s poem in Metropolitan Magazine 23 (1905) set a cultural precedent. Published alongside two photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn, it represents one of the first attempts to describe the bridge simultaneously through poetry and photography. In this respect it anticipated the text that would most influence the image of the bridge for historians of American culture, Hart Crane’s use of Walker Evans’ photographs in his epic poem The Bridge (1930)….

The Brooklyn Bridge is and was an integral part of American history for poets [such as Hart Crane, Garcia Lorca or more recently, Harvey Shapiro, Daniela Gioseffi, Alfred Corn, Cynthia Hogue, and Grace Shulman, as well as many others.] Unlike those responsible for official commemoration, poets articulated complex, vernacular responses to the bridge. By no means “stripped … of its ties with American life,” the bridge stands as its center. Both “renovated and thoroughly ventilated,” it is refreshed and ready to synthesize the nation’s historical detritus. Hnery Miller’s evocation of the bridge, however, surrounds the bridge with “debris,” not symbols of achievement and progress as was the political sloganeering of the time. . Rubbish and wreckage mark out Miller’s “American life,” and they all “flowed into” the Brooklyn Bridge.

In Tropic of Capricorn,1939, Miller linked the bridge to more significant aspects of American history. While journeying over the bridge with his friend Hymie, Miller states: “For him the skyscrapers had been built, the wilderness cleared, the Indians massacred, the buffaloes exterminated; for him the twin cities had been joined by the Brooklyn Bridge, the caissons sunk, the cables strung from tower to tower; … for him the anesthetic was invented.” Here, Miller revises the era’s dominant ideas about progress and expansion. The values championed at the bridge’s opening are converted into acts of brutality and ruthless imperialism. Furthermore, they all are linked to a tradition of historical anesthesia. ….In his essay “The Brooklyn Bridge,” Miller states that Roebling’s span was “destructive of hope and longing,” and—revising the harp image favored by Hart Crane, Mumford, and, at the 1954 re-opening, by Meyer Berger—called the bridge “the harp of death.”68 …. Miller wrote as a form of anti-commemoration; what he produced was a both a reminder of and a remedy for American anesthesia. In place of the deadening fiction of exemplary progress, Miller positioned the painful legacy of violent expansion.

Harvey Shapiro’s poem “National Cold Storage Company” from Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1997)— written in response to the death of President Kennedy in 1963— links American historical violence to the bridge:

The National Cold Storage Company contains
More things than you can dream of.
Hard by the Brooklyn Bridge it stands
In a litter of freight cars,
Tugs to one side; the other, the traffic
Of the Long Island Expressway.
I myself have dropped into it in seven years
Midnight tossings, plans for escape, the shakes.
Add to this the national total --
Grant’s tomb, the Civil War, Arlington,
The Young President’s dead.
Above the warehouse and beneath the stars
The poets creep on the harp of the Bridge.
But see,
They fall into the National Cold Storage Company
One by one. The wind off the river is too cold,
Or the times too rough, or the Bridge
Is not a harp at all. Or maybe
A monstrous birth inside the warehouse
Must be fed by everything--ships, poems,
Stars, all the years of our lives.

Shapiro’s America resembles a cultural Frankenstein’s monster. In line with James’, Wells’, and Huneker’s depictions, the bridge is “monstrous”; and like Miller, Shapiro revises the familiar harp imagery used to glorify the bridge. Although Shapiro’s bridge is not the center of the nation’s debris, it is the conduit through which everything flows: it is a vital national artery. The title of Shapiro’s American repository is vital. Singularly “National,” the entity is also a corporate venture,“Company”. “Hard by the Brooklyn Bridge,” the National Cold Storage Company is also an American monument. Yet it is an explicitly secretive one. Situated incognito, it represents the national archive as covert culture, more F.B.I. file-center than Smithsonian Institution. Additionally, Shapiro’s “midnight tossings” add a hint of nightmare to the “monstrous birth.” This sense of horror is reflected in “the national total”: death, war, and murder--not progress and prosperity--connote America’s achievement.
At once paradoxical and ironic, Shapiro’s key images are derived from the American commemorative tradition. The company is equally a “Cold Storage” unit and a national furnace. The nation’s symbols, artifacts, and debris are destroyed in order to fuel the larger, “frozen” image of America. Its poets--surely a reference to Hart Crane--are fooled into “creep[ing]” on the bridge. It is a perilous activity, and their paeans to beauty energize only the nation’s self-image while destroying the poet. Molded by the ashes of history, Shapiro’s American ritual of assent begets “a monstrous birth”; important details become a vestige of the petrified, unchanging body of America.

Daniela Gioseffi appears to be making a similar point when she writes, “the American Dream leapt from your cables / and fell down a deep elevator shaft / of the warehouse that hides you from view,” in her poem “To the Brooklyn Bridge,” in Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk: A Souvenir Anthology, edited by her and distributed on the First Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk, June 25, 1972, in the Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.
By situating the bridge within an alternative historical tradition, Miller, Shapiro, and Gioseffi provide a significant counter-narrative to that offered at the opening and at subsequent commemorations. And by doing so, they join an American literary tradition that is similarly imaginative yet more overtly historical. ….

Their contributions help to assess how cultural memory plays against national history.
….the bridge enjoyed something of a renaissance in the 1970s. Throughout the decade, the structure was subject to remarkable commemoration. In 1971, the city held a three-day celebration to mark the bridge’s 88th birthday which led The New York Times to wonder “why an 88th anniversary should have touched off so heavy a municipal extravagance?” The following year, Daniela Gioseffi inaugurated the Brooklyn Bridge Poetry Walk, an event now produced annually by the New York-based Poet’s House, and in 1973, The Municipal Engineers Journal devoted an entire issue to the bridge. In 1976, the bridge was lovingly re-imagined by the artist Red Grooms in his madcap installation Ruckus Manhattan. The following year, the bridge was an integral part of the box-office phenomena Saturday Night Fever. Juxtaposed with the darkly menacing Verrazano Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge represented an avenue of escape: from gritty, working-class Brooklyn to the Promised Land of Manhattan. By 1978, the bridge’s revival reached something of an apotheosis. In Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz, the bridge was reconfigured as a section of L. Frank Baum’s yellow brick road.

America’s historical imagination has consistently revisited the significance of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Commemorative events, journalism, and certain historical fictions have enacted a collective ritual of assent. They have adopted the consensus interpretation of technological progress and confirmed the essential soundness of the national venture. Through the theme of bridge building, these cultural artifacts have fashioned a unified vision of historical order while eliding the complexities of social context. Discussing the nature of national traditions, M.J. Bowen could equally be describing Steve Brodie’s leap or the building of the Brooklyn Bridge: “The people of regions and the nation itself tended to congratulate and glorify themselves, adopting ennobling self-images and embarking upon legend-building campaigns. The dearth of eyewitnesses to the real past often produced an increasingly sharp curve of erasure of memory of the original actual … conditions, giving rise to an … invented tradition … so deeply internalized by a nation / group that is practically impervious to scholarship that shows it to be largely factitious.” Carl Rosenstock, Brooklyn Poets, commemorates that Steve Brodie’s leap in his poem titled in part “A Suite of Dances.”
Against the ritualized rhetoric of “legend-building” stands an equally vital tradition. The authors of these counter-narratives have followed the advice offered by Alfred North Whitehead in 1927: “The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision …. Those societies which can not combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.” They have measured American progress by social values and historical complexity, not technological accomplishment. Through the lens of historical rigor and personal identification, these authors have stated that, like Brodie’s jump and the selling of the bridge, the unified vision of technological progress had “little basis in fact.” The essence of this criticism is found in the national propensity to elide the conflicts of context. Those working in the consensus tradition have constructed their histories around such assertions as Clarke’s “all modern, all heroic New York started with Brooklyn Bridge.” Others have taken the era’s nefarious alliance of politics, finance, and industry as their “prehistory”; staggering levels of public corruption and the rise of the economic titan defined the Gilded Age. For these authors, the building of the bridge brought into vivid relief the gulf between historical memory and historical fact, and dispelled the opening day’s claims of unity and brotherhood. They have taken the unified vision of historical order, the exemplary image of American progress, and by restating its complexities have shown it for the historical mischief it is. Dissatisfied with printing the legend, a number of writers have sought “to enrich historical understanding” by first imagining, then interpreting the facts. [Throughout the century since it’s opening, many poets have done the same portraying both the positive and negative aspects of The Great Bridge with its cargo of historical change. ]

America’s historical continuity has dominated cultural arguments--and cultural wars--for the past twenty years. The debate clarifies what relationship, if any, can be said to exist between nineteenth-century America and its twentieth-century incarnation? Is the passage from one to the other a seamless, linear tale of continued national progress, or a complex tale of rupture and entropy? As regards the Brooklyn Bridge, the centennial unsurprisingly stressed the former, as have a number of recent critics. In 1997, Robert Hughes asserted that “the bridge summed up the whole burgeoning imagery of benign industrial capitalism shedding its benefits on society.” Such claims correspond to a specific American self-image. In the nineteenth century, “Canals, steamboats, mechanized power machinery, locomotives, and the telegraph were repeatedly cited as evidence that the human mind could penetrate the surface of nature, unlock its secrets, and therefore put more and more natural processes to use for human purposes.”

In Underworld, released the same year as Hughes’ American Visions, Don DeLillo disagreed. Discussing the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island, the largest base-to-summit rubbish dump in the world, and the highest point on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, DeLillo proclaimed that New York’s various “bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade and linkage were directed in the end to this great culminating structure.” Here, the “benefits” of “benign industrial capitalism” are literally garbage. Where nineteenth-century America put the engineer at the forefront of America’s quest for political and social liberation, DeLillo places him at the rear, responsible not as a social leader, but as its garbage man, charged with overseeing society’s waste. Furthermore, just as “all the great works of [American] transport, trade and linkage” led to the conquest of the West in the nineteenth century, in DeLillo’s twentieth century they lead back to the East Coast’s largest garbage pile. In the nineteenth century, the engineer represented the harbinger of history, in DeLillo the engineer trails behind Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history”: a slave to the litter produced by contemporary consumer society.69 Predating Alexis Rockman, DeLillo signals a break in the continuity of the American ritual of assent: the logical result of Manifest Destiny is a landfill, not a garden.

In Americana (1971)— signifying the very stuff of American culture— DeLillo began his inquiry into the linear version of American historical continuity. His subject was the changes wrought in the post-World War II American landscape: “We wish to blast all the fine old things to oblivion and replace them with tasteless identical structures …. We want to be totally engulfed by all the so-called worst elements of our national life and culture …. We want to come to terms with the false anger we so often display at the increasing signs of sterility and violence in our culture. Kill the old brownstones and ornate railroad terminals. Kill the rotten stinking smalltown courthouses. Blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.”70 As a New Yorker, DeLillo had witnessed entire rows of nineteenth-century brownstones torn down to make way for new commercial development and often poorly planned public housing. The process found its nadir with the destruction of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, described by both Lewis Mumford and Daniel Moynihan as “the greatest act of civic vandalism” in New York history. Such events where clearly on DeLillo’s mind when he began to write his first novel. In Americana, history’s advance brings depreciation, not improvement, and progress is defined by destruction. The observation is aptly summarized in Ada Louise Huxtable’s version of New York’s “civic vandalism”: “Pennsylvania Station succumbed to progress at the age of fifty-six, after a lingering decline.” If “progress” could seal the fate of McKim, Mead, and White’s great railroad terminal, would the Brooklyn Bridge be next? And, more important, would anybody care?

Certainly, Daniela Gioseffi and Harvey Shapiro would. To these poets, cited earlier, the bridge was one of New York’s greatest treasures, precisely because of the contemporary U.S. scene. Written the year after Americana was published, Gioseffi, in 1972, used the bridge to contrast the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries:

you beautiful monster of the harbor,
now a cultural symbol
bridging Whitman’s age of hope
to our age of anxiety and despair …
I walk over you and cough out the thick air
that muffles your “choiring strings”--
the smoke that hazes the beauty Crane knew …
I walk suspended by the ghost of all that could have been
since you were christened by the city
and a country
where Lorca’s worst nightmares
have come true.

And in 1978, Shapiro cast his eye on the history of “Whitman’s crummy fish-shaped island”:
… opening the Bridge!
Fireworks and exultation! Crowds moving
In a mighty congress back and forth.
While we, unmoving on the starry grid of America,
Stare failure in the face, our blazing star.

Gioseffi and Shapiro celebrate the bridge as an icon of nostalgia. As they gaze on the bridge, they honor the memory of what the U.S. once was and mourn what it has become. Both authors explicitly contrast the era of the bridge’s creation and 1970s America; equally, both find no similarities. History is the source of their lament. From “hope” to “anxiety,” “exultation” to “failure,” the course of American history is defined as entropy not improvement…

In Cynthia Hogue’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Bridge” (1994), the idea of help and history are intertwined. Walking home across the bridge, Hogue happens upon a young homeless man intent on ending his life. In many popular histories, the act of leaping from the bridge is treated as folly and remembered as trivia. This is not the case in Hogue’s poem. Like Bud Korpening in Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, the young man seems to have been consumed by the city’s cutthroat environment, and his condition--“I saw how thin he was / and young, and helpless”— is essentially tragic, not trivial. Hogue describes a profound human moment, and her immediate response is sympathy. Accounting no difference with the young man, the narrator invites him home and progress is made. Yet their accord is shattered:

Then the police got me out of the way
and crawled toward him.
He said Leave me alone,
and, You make another move
I’ll Jump. They came on
because they’d heard those words
a thousand times and never
when they were meant.

With a final, defiant gesture, the young man jumps. Hogue’s story is of identification, of sympathy sought and realized. Yet it is also about ascribing difference, and the devastating impact it can have. Hogue’s act of sympathy and identification are thwarted by those meant to protect and serve.

The title of Hogue’s poem is a direct reference to Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Hogue’s narrator and the young man can, in this light, be seen as the embodiment of futurity envisioned in Whitman’s poem: “you that shall cross from shore to shore hence …. The others that are to follow me.”Unfortunately, so can the police. In “Crossing Brooklyn Bridge,” Whitman’s role as adviser, counselor, friend, and helpmate is overrun by the bureaucratic steel of official policing. Where Hogue offers sympathy and identification, the police offer disregard and disinterest. They have the advantage, and the valuable lessons of Whitman’s “metropolitan pantheism” are lost in the modern environment. Within this framework, “Crossing Brooklyn Bridge” is bleak indeed, and it highlights the extent to which Whitman’s nineteenth-century idealism has been debased in the late-twentieth-century urban landscape. Equally, Hogue’s question is the same as Gioseffi’s: how could “Whitman’s age of hope” lead to “our age of anxiety and despair”?

Return to Brooklyn Bridge Poem

Edited by Daniela Gioseffi & Richard Haw