I mean to say that mere romantic speculation on the power and beauty of machinery keeps it at a continual remove; it can not act creatively in our lives until, like the unconscious nervous responses of our bodies, its connotations emanate from within—forming as spontaneous a terminology of poetic reference as the bucolic world of pasture, plow, and barn.
—Hart Crane, “Modern Poetry” (1930)
Emily Barton has written two remarkable novels in which advances in technology threaten the delicate equilibrium of a community. In The Testament of Yves Gundron (2000), Barton imagined a pre-industrial society on an island off the coast of Scotland, mysteriously untouched by modern civilization. In the village of Mandragora, “a man used a sharp stick to dig a hole for each seed, and furrowed his fields by dragging his fingernails through them and picking out each small stone.” Horses died young, asphyxiated when cords around their necks tightened as they pulled heavily laden carts balanced on a single wheel. Then a farmer named Yves Gundron, inspired by a dream in which he himself is dragging a cart, invents a harness, thus ushering in what he calls in his testament “the coming of the new world.” “Had I known then what terrors my invention would bring us along with its joys, perhaps I would have allowed the idea to drift off like a thousand other daydreams.” An anthropologist from Boston arrives in Mandragora followed by other inquisitive visitors. “Our newfound brethren are mad with questions,” Gundron ruefully concludes, “and everywhere they travel they send beams of light tearing through the countryside and our homes, which brightness strikes terror into my heart. I am done my inventing.”
Like The Testament of Yves Gundron, Barton’s splendid new novel, Brookland, has elements of fantasy, but the narrative sticks more closely to the historical record. Barton doesn’t specify her sources, but the germ of the novel is apparently a note jotted in a scrapbook in 1800 in which Jeremiah Johnson, a prominent citizen of Brooklyn—the village originally settled by Dutch emigrants and variously known as Breukelen, Breukland, Brookline, Brookland, and Brooklandia—reported an intriguing proposal:
It has been suggested that a bridge should be constructed from this village across the East River to New York. This idea has been treated as chimerical, from the magnitude of the design; but whosoever takes it into their serious consideration, will find more weight in the practicability of the scheme than at first view is imagined.1
The passive phrasing conceals the identity of the designer, but it has long been suspected that the visionary bridge was the brainchild of Thomas Pope, a craftsman from New York and a friend of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the US Capitol. In 1811, Pope proposed to build what he called a “rainbow bridge” across the tidal surge of the East River; the evocative drawing that accompanied his proposal, with sailing ships rocking in the roiling waters below the graceful cantilevered arch, is…
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