Duke University Alumni Magazine

Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America

By Henry Petroski. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. 479 pp. $30

ome years back, Henry Petroski and his family toured England, taking a number of odd jogs off the more familiar tourist routes to look at England's much-documented array of bridges that span rivers, bogs, and highland gorges to carry trains, automobiles, cyclists, and pedestrians to new destinations. The Petroski children were not thrilled. Dad's obsession with bridges became something of a family joke.

     Fifteen years later, his fascination with bridges and their builders has turned into his sixth and most ambitious book, Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America. Petroski, who is Aleksander S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering, chairman of the department of civil and environmental engineering, and professor of history at Duke, says he wrote Engineers of Dreams because he could not find a book about America's bridges and their builders comparable to the volumes written about England's achievements in the field.

     Among his previous works are the remarkably successful account of the history of a most common object, The Pencil, and his more expansive The Evolution of the Useful Things. In the fiercely competitive and unforgiving market of trade-book publishing, he has managed to carve out a literary niche that is almost his alone--namely, rendering the technical accessible to the lay reader while maintaining enough scientific substance for his books to be quite popular as texts in engineering courses around the country.

     In his latest book, his considerable talents as a writer and historical researcher are tested in a new form for the author. While his other works have been peopled with interesting characters--both engineers and entrepreneurs--the books were more essay-like and stylistically variable. Engineers of Dreams is, most fundamentally, biography. "The subject is so convoluted, complex and long," says Petroski. "I needed some way to organize the story of bridge building in the United States besides the evolution of technology."

     He devotes a chapter to each of five distinguished engineers, along with their competitors and colleagues: James Eads, who finally connected Illinois and Missouri by spanning the Mississippi River at St. Louis in 1874 with the bridge that still bears his name; Theodore Cooper, whom Eads mentored and who would go on to design the ill-fated Quebec Bridge across the St. Lawrence River in Canada; the cautious Gustav Lindenthal, one-time commissioner of bridges for New York City, who designed spans across the Monongahela and the Allegheny in Pennsylvania but is most revered for his masterpiece, the Hell's Gate Bridge, a railway link across the East River in New York; the quiet Othmar Ammann, chief designer of the George Washington and Verrazano-Narrows bridges in New York City; and David Steinman, who grew up in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, who worked closely with both Lindenthal and Ammann, argued prolifically in print for better professional standards in the field of engineering, and ultimately designed the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, his masterpiece.

     Most notable in all these stories is the complexity of the building process itself. Petroski describes the technical challenge of spanning great distances over water and gorges while anticipating the effects of local weather, river currents, and other load stresses. He also gives due to the political, financial, social, and aesthetic issues inherent in bridge construction.

     Bridge building in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was often a tragic story, costing many laborers' lives and leading to several spectacular failures. Petroski manages these dramas with as much tension as the cables that held together the ill-fated bridges in suspension for only so long. He also suggests much about the disruption of historic neighborhoods and the changes wrought by the "communication" bridges immediately provided between what had been two separate and distinct communities. In this way, Engineers of Dreams is an anthropological study.

     Today, America's bridges--those monuments to the pioneering spirit of American industrial and (mostly) urban development-- are often taken for granted by travelers and government officials. "Barring accidents," Petroski writes, "bridges, like health, are most appreciated when they begin to deteriorate and fail. Thus, politicians seemed to become interested in bridges when they found that so many of them were structurally deficient. In 1992, for example, this included about one out of every five of the half-million or so bridges in the United States--an improvement over some previous years."

     But Petroski urges us to see these grand structures anew, to appreciate the daring and the human cost that went into their designs. Demonstrating his gift for sensuous detail, he explains: "...unless these bridges are approached with a proper perspective, whether by the armchair traveler from behind a book or the actual traveler from behind a steering wheel, their greatness and achievement can hardly be appreciated. The right of way that approaches a massive cantilever head-on affords no view of the bridge to speak of, and the way across can appear from a train window to be little more than a series of slanted steel obstructions to the view of a majestic river. The whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of relative motion gives no hint of the human dreams and drama that began over a blank and silent drawing board."

     By his own monumental project, Engineers of Dreams, Petroski himself has built a sturdy bridge--between past and present, between engineer and layperson, and between literature and technology. For the reader, there is great pleasure in the crossing.

--Georgann Eubanks

Eubanks '76 is assistant director of Duke's Office of Continuing Education and Summer Session.

Three Gospels

By Reynolds Price. New York: Scribner, 1996. 288 pp. $23.

nyone who's taken a course taught by Reynolds Price '55, James B. Duke Professor of English, knows of his maddening habit of answering complicated questions by asking deeper, more complicated questions. Students who hope to sit passively at their desks and feed off Price's knowledge instead find themselves being forced to discern and defend their own conclusions about God and sex, faith and friendship, error and redemption. As he tells his students on the first day of class, if you're not willing to engage in thoughtful dialogue, don't bother coming back for the next session.

     It's not surprising, then, that difficult questions and the promise of extraordinarily complex answers abound in three Gospels. In his latest book, Price translates the Gospels of Mark and John from their original koine Greek and also writes a gospel narrative of his own. A student of koine--a colloquial form of Greek popular in late antiquity--for more than two decades, Price published a translation of Mark in his book A Palpable God in 1978. Nearly twenty years later, the Gospels still seem to stir within him a sense of obligation, a feeling of wonder, and, of course, endless questions. "Reading the Gospels, in whatever language or era," he writes in the general preface to three Gospels, "is the same perilous and incessantly demanding transaction that we conduct by the moment with our nearest kin and loved ones. What do you mean? How have I failed you? What do you demand of me?"

     Price deems Mark and John the two most important Gospels. He chooses Mark not merely because it is thought to be the oldest of the four but because it "single-handedly invents a literary form which has only three other successful companions in history and which constitutes, with them, the most successful known form of narrative." John, meanwhile, merits special attention for being the only gospel that claims to provide an eyewitness account of Jesus' life and furnishes "steady and convincing narrative support to that singular claim."

     Price's goal as a translator is to celebrate the Gospels not as documents of sociological or historical interest but as the remarkable and truthful stories he believes them to be. He concludes that rendering "the great and spare eloquence" of Mark and "the plain but supremely daring verbal strategies" of John in a modern English as faithful as possible to the spirit and style of the original Greek requires taming the lofty language of the King James Version and eschewing the New Revised Standard Version's penchant for liberal paraphrasing.

     In Mark, Price's strategy results in a lean and powerfully abrupt description of Jesus walking across the Sea of Galilee toward his disciples:

     But seeing him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost and cried out--all saw him and were frightened.

     But at once he spoke with them and said "Courage. I am. No fear."

     And he went up to them into the boat and the wind dropped.

     In John, a blunt, colloquial, occasionally humorous edge prevails, such as when Jesus responds to a Samaritan woman who tells him she's "got no husband" with the words, "Well said, 'I've got no husband' since you've had five husbands and the one you've got now isn't your husband. You spoke truly."

     Price, an award-winning novelist, cannot resist constructing his own gospel story, "An Honest Account of a Memorable Life," which he bases on his study of the four Gospels, the early apocryphal gospels, and a number of canonical letters. Following Mark's chronology of Jesus' life and death, Price flavors the narrative drive of Mark with the sometimes mystical, sometimes nearly comic language of John. He describes in the following way Jesus' encounter with a woman in Capernaum who has suffered for years from incurable hemorrhaging:

     So she came up behind him in silence and knowing she only needed to touch him, she reached and touched the hem of his coat. At once the hemorrhage stopped inside her.

     Jesus had felt the power leave him.

     He turned and said "Who touched me then?"

     The pupils said "In all this mob you expect us to know?"

     By now the woman was on her knees in tears of thanks and mingled fear--would he grudge her the health?

     But Jesus only touched her again and said her trust had made her well.

     Though he surely does not intend three Gospels to be as spiritually self-revealing a work as A Whole New Life, the memoir in which he recounts his battle with spinal cancer, Price still evidences his own robust trust in Jesus as he ponders, in the prefatory essays to his translations of Mark and John, exactly what Jesus demands of those who claim to have faith in him.

     More at home with questions than with answers, Price is not about to compose a catechism to answer this ageless enigma. Nevertheless, his astute and at times startling observations on the subject of Jesus as moral teacher promise to surprise at least a few readers who have grown too comfortable in their assumptions about the teachings of Jesus and Christianity. But shaking bedrock assumptions to the core is the very business of Mark and John.

     With his trademark intellectual and artistic agility, Price proves a faithful servant to their mission, recasting two stunning tales and creating his own in graceful but everyday language that beckons, and ultimately dares, believers and nonbelievers alike to listen.

--Stephen Martin

Martin '95 is a freelance writer living in Durham.

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