As a people, Americans have been absorbed in “making it,” in their own success story, in the making of Americans. To be an American is itself a career, as so many Americans, old stock as well as new, have testified. We are a legend to ourselves, and though the rest of the world has believed in this legend and has contributed to it, only we have lived it with the absorption that makes it necessary for us constantly to note our progress.
By now there must be a book for every day of American history—and the universities and the mass media are joined in incessantly producing still more documentation of “just what makes us tick” and “our American heritage.” Nothing “American” is alien to our incessant cultural analysts, many of them of recent immigrant stock and endlessly fascinated by the wealth of material to which they feel happily related by their newfound status. This material—often perilously thin—they comb over and over for ideas, perspectives, approaches, that are usually based on facts that genuine historians have dug up for them. Everything in American experience is worthy of study, and every “approach” in this “area” is “unexpected,” “provocative,” “noteworthy.” There is no one to contradict us when the “area of interest” is, simply, our interest in ourselves. Who is to deny us Custer’s Last Stand, the Greek Revival, Concord families, slavery in the cities, Long Island painting, Scott Fitzgerald’s college stories, W.P.A. art, Italians in California, old Charleston literati, pro-Franco sentiment in New England, William Jennings Bryan’s voice, pro-British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, the agrarian radicalism of Mary Ellen Lease? Who is to say that there is not “something to be learned” from the myth of America as a garden, the pastoral image, the American Adam, Warren Harding’s sex life, Abraham Lincoln’s trouble with his wife, Freud’s theory of the instincts, Geoffrey Gorer’s theory of the American character, David Riesman’s inner-outer character formula? Whom and what dare we reject for our intellectual enlightenment when the object of these studies, called “American civilization,” is really our society as ourselves, our lives, our wish to get hold of every possible problem and do something about it now? Anything goes in this collective autoanalysis, and everything goes into it—any borrowing from sociology and esthetics, and enforced joining of the unjoinable; any political nostalgia or irritable political reflex. There are no intellectual checks on the production of “American studies,” for there can be no genuine demonstrations of causation; the “field” is never social history, economic history, literary history, intellectual history, but the number of relationships that we can make between facts that we have not discovered for ourselves and which therefore are used as symbols.
“America” itself is always the greatest, the inexhaustible, symbol. After all, we are Americans engaged in the adventure of making ourselves Americans or understanding what unmade the Americans we used to be; we have fulfilled desires that 90 per cent of the human race has never heard of; ourselves the products of many genuine revolutions and unending social transformation, we want the best values for ourselves as we want the best kitchens, and where shall we apply them but in the field of “American civilization”? What Socrates attributed to the passions and Montaigne to human vanity, Dostoevsky to spiritual servility and Kirkegaard to the fear of self-contradiction, we attribute to the American character, the American economic system, American nursery schools, American sexuality, American breast-fetishism—and at a pinch, if we are of the right sort. Calvinism along the old Southwest frontier. The cultural synthesizers never feel that any fact is out of place any more than the psychoanalysts do, for we all want to do right by ourselves, to make our lives right, to get on with the improvements.
Behind “American studies” is not so much the intellectually standardless careerism now become a mass phenomenon in the universities, though this certainly explains the junkheaps of unnecessary and even cynical publication, as the common frustration of the utopianism, liberalism, radicalism that are so marked in our intellectual history. No one of any real intelligence goes into the “American field” without some prophetic instinct; after all, that is its greatest interest; we have no Shakespeares. But we do have this need to record our progress and to make it, seemingly, total. We have an insatiable utopian will, which whether based on what once seemed to be limitless land, or on eighteenth-century rational hopes, or nineteenth-century romantic Protestantism, or immigrants passion, has always sought to marry nature to spirit, democracy to individual perfection, God to his “chosen country.” We have achieved more, we expect more, we believe more in the possibilities of joining together individuals, peoples, religions—yes, and races. What if America had no literary tradition in the early period—what if Henry James in his English-European way was right about the “thinness” of Hawthorne’s world? “We” have a tradition of popular humor, of folklore, of non-literate and brazenly commercial entertainment. Is art so important, or intellectuals, when America itself has been such a “success”? We need to know what the average man thinks, for his life is more real to us than historic Geist. What if beauty, with us, must come out of existing ugliness? This is exactly our opportunity and our mission as Americans—to mate all opposites, to show what can and ought to be, to realize the correspondences that wait in all things between matter and spirit, the real and the ideal, nature and God, America and its cosmic destiny.
Take Brooklyn Bridge and its many myths. Alan Trachtenberg has written a good little book about it, sensitively intelligent, which in the end reflects the anxious and rhetorical will-to-meaning that is its real subject. Brooklyn Bridge is in fact the biggest and most useful nineteenth-century structure still standing in New York. The plan was sketched two years after the Civil War by John Augustus Roebling, a German immigrant who had been a favorite student of Hegel’s, who came to this country as a utopian communist and became an Emersonian. Roebling was a great pioneer of suspension bridges in this country, he invented wire rope, he was a brilliantly thorough engineer and at the same time an indefatigable seeker after the single spiritual truth that must, he thought, explain the physical structure of our universe. He was a passionate American patriot who brusquely sent his son Washington off to fight in the Civil War; this son became a famous bridge-builder in the Union Army, and when the father died from lockjaw after a Brooklyn ferry rammed the pier where old Roebling was calculating the bridge that would replace the ferry, the son, who during the war would not communicate with his father, completed the father’s bridge. He developed caisson disease from working on the foundations of the Brooklyn tower, and at the end sat paralyzed in a wheel chair at his window overlooking Columbia Heights, directing the work through a spyglass.
The great towers of Brooklyn Bridge are a memory of a Gothic church in Roebling’s native Muhlhausen in Thuringia; they have also represented, to many architects, writers, painters, poets, pedestrians on the great central promenade, a glorious adaptation of form to function, of masonry to steel, of Brooklyn-New York to the great harbor. John Roebling, founder of the Roebling fortune, sometime Hegelian, Swedenborgian, Emersonian, also devised, for safety’s sake, the system of beautiful diagonal stays which extend from the tops of the towers to the main cables. These stays, he said, would be strong enough to support the roadway if the main cables should be removed or damaged. No one walking Brooklyn Bridge needs to know anything about engineering in order to appreciate the solidity and tension of the diagonals that these stays make as they run from the towers through the roadway; he recognizes as beauty what was designed to be further assurance of support to Roebling’s revolutionary suspension bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge has everything for the student of American culture: the memory of Gothic cathedrals, American engineering and American art, the old utopian communist who became an American power by his faith in wire rope and suspension bridges; directly or by implication, Brooklyn Bridge is the history of American transportation, of New York harbor, of old Dutch Brooklyn in the days when the burghers would not live in Manhattan. Sooner or later many an American power gets into the story, from Boss Tweed, who had to be bribed so that a permit could be obtained, to Hart Crane, who in order to write The Bridge lived in Washington Roebling’s old house on Columbia Heights. Whitman described the towers going up in Specimen Days; Henry James was fascinated in The American Scene by the traffic on Brooklyn Bridge; John Marin and Joseph Stella are only the two most famous of the dozens of gifted painters who have been haunted by all possible images to their eyes of Brooklyn Bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge still represents, in all its massiveness, the American power that was fully to burst upon the consciousness of Americans only in the years after the Civil War. And because it is so beautiful in its power, complex but unadorned, it has become the symbol of the American longing to wrest beauty out of a purely industrial environment, to find in the skills of our native capitalism and the hardness of our cities some hint of a more humane order, even of the spiritual fruition that the churchless individual might yet find in this country; so dreamed the transcendentalists in the nineteenth century, and many a liberal and utopian mind in the twentieth. “Where but here?” the substance of the Emerson-Thoreau-Whitman faith in the individual and the mission of romantic American nationality, was succeeded by Waldo Frank’s faith in “organic wholeness,” which helped to shape Hart Crane’s frantically apocalyptic attempts to make Brooklyn Bridge a road back to old Virginia, the frontier, Cathay, Atlantis itself. “O harp and altar/Of the fury fused /How could mere toil align thy choir-prophet’s pledge/Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry.”
“And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” It is a wonder that The Bridge is in sections as good as it is, for rarely has a poet, admittedly of great linguistic cunning, had so much abstract matter in his way. What saved The Bridge (nothing could have saved Crane as a man) is the fact that by the outstretched arms of Brooklyn Bridge, he meant his own outstretched arms, his own longing for love, completion, God: in a word, he meant his own ambiguity. He was the taut cables and the lonely man waiting in the shadows of the pier for sailors; he was the drowning from which the bridge both actually and metaphorically saves us who cross over it—pontus, keeper, father…
Beauty in power, beauty through power: the real American faith, for we are entranced by our power, though not many acknowledge it, and seek beauty and salvation through power, “Save me!” said Crane in the shadows of Brooklyn Bridge. “Save us!” say the new Americanists to American power. “Show us the way to beauty, truth, culture, and salvation through the Pepsi-Cola art contest, the White House arts festival, the corporations, the factories, the foundations, the all-day conference on art in our time! Don’t ask us to give up anything—not a vibration in the mixmaster, not a sale at our art merchants—only show us how to bring together the lion and the lamb, war prosperity and a good conscience, money and beauty, ugliness and beauty, sex and God!”
Oddly enough, Mr. Trachtenberg never talks about the great central promenade of Brooklyn Bridge as a city street, which it is (if not quite the Ponte Vecchio in Florence)—with old street lamps, street benches, street steps, and the old wooden planking to walk. The new Verrazano Bridge makes no provision for walkers at all, and on all other new bridges, if you walk at all, you walk on the side, away from the real business of the bridge. But Brooklyn Bridge is a street, and though it is much harder now to find the entrance to the promenade, crowds of people still walk it to work, walk it all day, sit on it summer afternoons and evenings; magnificently sweeping the river, it affords the most satisfactory views of the great harbor and its islands. Just as a human passageway, Brooklyn Bridge is fabulously interesting, old-fashioned, plain. But inevitably, in the literature that springs from it, all the old American hopes for some possible “completion” through power and prosperity take over—and myth grows from myth, myth dies to reality as it gives birth to a litter of symbols. We love myths and symbols for their own sake in our age of many abstractions, and unlike the romantics of the 1840s or the 1920s, our intellectuals now move them around like so many chesspieces: the myth approach now involves you in “culture” without costing you the risks or penalties of real experience. A good historian like C. Vann Woodward painstakingly writes the history of the South, that everlasting and central battleground; our Americanists write about symbols almost for the fun of argument.
Mr. Trachtenberg’s book is good enough because at least he has a real subject, which is more than you can say about many a recent job of cultural synthesis in this field. But the real passion behind his book is clearly not Brooklyn Bridge itself—a pity!—but his wish to make use of the materials it offers to the student of American culture. In the end, he, too, finds the bridge a symbol of the unity required of our divided instincts, and turns John Augustus Roebling into a figurehead of the practical visionary, of the fruition possible to an aesthetically militant capitalism. Roebling, he says, “seemed to grasp what eluded many of his countrymen: the idea that history was the realm of the possible. Guided by ideals. Roebling transformed stone and steel into a shape that was both practical and symbolic; he found for his Utopia a tangible form…” So Roebling becomes the right measure of both Hart Crane and the American people, who are found wanting in Roebling’s kind of completeness and actuality. Crane “swung from exaltation to jeremiad”; by and large Americans “have alternated between the two extremes: a high-flown idealism, scornful of social goals, and an abject historicism, in which a bridge is ‘nothing but’ an ‘economical approach.”‘ But Roebling is a symbol of the higher synthesis we require because “in his mind the bridge was both fact and ideal: a roadway for traffic below and a structure for poets above. Each required the other: each was incomplete without the other. Thus acknowledged as a fact in all its dimensions, Brooklyn Bridge might still incite dreams of possibility, might yet become a symbol of what ought to be.”
Every word of this is a symbol, and though the author cries “Only connect!” you can’t connect symbols—especially when they’re not your own—into a single living fact. Roebling the genius, the entrepreneur, the visionary, the hard old German, suddenly becomes old Daedelus, that mighty artificer and father, in whom we Americans, with a reach notoriously too much for any grasp, are to find our…what?
July 15, 1965