Richard Haw’s Brookyn Bridge: A Cultural History sits well next to Walt Whitman’s magnificent “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Haw’s thesis is that the Brooklyn Bridge is more than just a stunning feat of engineering and architecture; it is an icon that has come to mean so many things to so many different people—in responses as varied as postcards, advertisements, and poems. Similarly, Whitman begins his poem focusing first on his own perspective as a ferry passenger but quickly he asks the reader to ponder what others are thinking as they come home from a hard day at work (interestingly, the poem’s original title was “Sun-Down Poem”). By the end of the poem, Whitman demonstrates the multiple ways one can experience an East River commute. He connects it to the ride of life (“life’s ebbs and tides”), he makes connections across time and space (“And you that shall cross from shore to shore”), he expresses feelings and thoughts that are unique to the individual but also shared (“Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river, I was refreshed”), he regularly juxtaposes opposites (Manhattan and Brooklyn, shadow and light)–ideas and images that ultimately serve to present the ferry passengers, readers of the poem, and Whitman himself as disparate yet part of a “well-joined scheme” (“a part” and “apart”).
In the opening chapter of his book, Haw too insists on an understanding of the Brooklyn Bridge from a multiple of perspectives. He describes how city leaders pushed for a celebration of Brooklyn Bridge as an “idealized version of the modern city…a transcendent, democratic space.” Yet, for all the fanfare, it seems that the working classes and the darker side of American society were whitewashed in favor of a magnificently orchestrated “pseudo-event.” Chapter three in turn focuses on how the Brooklyn Bridge was interpreted in early prints as exuding “expansive optimism” or fostering the idea of “mastery, possession, and dominance.” Photographers and artists represented the Bridge in many different ways as well. Most famously, Hart Crane and Walker Evans sought to make the bridge a symbol of connection, science, and human progress, a “mystical synthesis of ‘America” while other artists and critics (Haw among them) associated the Bridge with power, control, and dehumanization.
For the blog, I ask you to convey your perspective on Whitman’s poem. What is your favorite part or line? What do you bring away from this work? Alternately, how do you feel about Haw’s approach to the bridge and history?
——————————————————————————————————————For me, Haw’s book helps me to think about my own students at City Tech, many of who come from low-income backgrounds. I have found that many have never walked the 20 or so yards off campus to experience this world famous attraction for themselves. Certainly, they do not seem to view the Brooklyn Bridge as their bridge. But again, this perspective can and often does change.