“There Isn’t Any Such Thing As The Past”

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The Johnstown flood is a fascinating subject. You wondered if I consider the darker aspects of history. Well, the Johnstown flood is really a lesson, a morality lesson about our pathetic human inclination to think that because people are in positions of responsibility, they are therefore behaving responsibly. The Johnstown flood is largely a story of human shortsightedness. After I wrote it, I was looking for a symbol of affirmation. I had two publishers come to me; one wanted me to write about the Chicago fire, and the other wanted me to do the San Francisco earthquake. And I said to myself, “I’m going to be typecast as ‘Calamity’ McCullough.”

So I was looking for a subject where human beings in a cooperative, concerted effort did something right. It was not easy finding one. And because of some remarks by friends at lunch one day, I knew it would be the Brooklyn Bridge, that wonderful American triumph, that great achievement, which was possible only because of corruption and the bad people who were mixed up in it. You know, nobody wants to write about saints. I was thrilled every time I could write about Boss Tweed, because he’s rotten, and he’s charming, and he’s effective, and he’s human. But out of all this amalgam of idealism and ambition and greed and political corruption and courage—I think more than anything it’s a story of courage—out of that comes that superlative work: great work of art, great work of engineering, great event in the history of the American city. The bridge was the beginning of heroic New York—highrise New York—and there it stands today still. It was built in the horse-and-buggy days, built when all those rivets were hand thrown.

And they didn’t know they were going to succeed. Of course, nor did the Founding Fathers, who were at Philadelphia in 1776, know they were going to succeed. In fact there was every reason to believe they weren’t going to succeed. That’s why it’s so important to put yourself in their place, in their time, to perceive reality as they saw it. That makes what they did seem all the more extraordinary. When you think of what these people did and what they were, it can make you feel as if you’re a pygmy in comparison, because of how much they accomplished in a single life.

You said that just looking at the Brooklyn Bridge made you feel good.

It still does. It is this triumphant structure, rising up out of those cities, rising up out of that distant time, telling us that we can build, we can do things well that will have a long life, that are enduring. Bridges were falling down all over the place then. What the Brooklyn Bridge is saying is that if you really care about who you are and what you do, about what your work is, you will want it to stand the test of time. That civilization is saying to us, “This is the best we can do, and it is very good.”

The bridge represents a collective effort drawing on ideas and ideology and aspirations that come from elsewhere, built by immigrants who did the hard labor at the risk of their lives, and designed by a German immigrant, John Roebling, but carried on by his son. The father, the old man, who was a tyrannical, humorless, and sometimes abusive man, was the great suspension-bridge genius of the nineteenth century. He died in 1869, just as the bridge was about to begin. He was killed as a consequence of an accident—died of lockjaw, a terrible way to die, an awful death. And his son took over. His son was then in his thirties, and most of the engineers who worked on that bridge were young men. The average age was about thirty-two. In a way, that’s a metaphor for our society, our country. The founders, if you will, created the plan, the ideal concept. But then they went away, and it’s been up to us to try to make it work, to build a nation.

Did you have a particular interest in engineering when you began that book?

I had no interest in engineering or mathematics. But I did find out that if you’re motivated, if you want to know how something was done, if you want to understand physics and mathematics and civil engineering, you can do it. When you learn things that way—by doing it yourself, figuring it out yourself—you learn it in a way that you never forget.

The Panama Canal book and the Brooklyn Bridge book were exciting adventures for me because I got to know those people. One of the advantages is that unlike politicians and military heroes, they didn’t have the sense that, “Oh, I’m going to be a figure in history. So I’m going to write this letter. I’m going to keep this diary, so some future historian will admire me for what I’m saying and how I’m behaving.” So their letters, their diaries, their stories are often much more genuine, not so self-conscious.

What’s the cultural significance of the Panama Canal? I know it saved a lot of shipping time, but what did it mean for America to have built that?

Well, the fact that the French had failed, I think, was a very powerful motivating force, because we were going to pick up where Europe had not done the job, and we were going to show them that we could do it.