Synopses & Reviews
First published in 1972, The Great Bridge
is the classic account of one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. Winning acclaim for its comprehensive look at the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, this book helped cement David McCullough's reputation as America's preeminent social historian. Now, The Great Bridge
is reissued as a Simon and Schuster Classic Edition with a new introduction by the author.
This monumental book brings back for American readers the heroic vision of the America we once had. It is the enthralling story of one of the greatest events in our nation's history during the Age of Optimism -- a period when Americans were convinced in their hearts that all great things were possible. In the years around 1870, when the project was first undertaken, the concept of building a great bridge to span the East River between the great cities of Manhattan and Brooklyn required a vision and determination comparable to that which went into the building of the pyramids. Throughout the fourteen years of its construction, the odds against the successful completion of the bridge seemed staggering. Bodies were crushed and broken, lives lost, political empires fell, and surges of public emotion constantly threatened the project. But this is not merely the saga of an engineering miracle: it is a sweeping narrative of the social climate of the time and of the heroes and rascals who had a hand in either constructing or obstructing the great enterprise. Amid the flood of praise for the book when it was originally published, Newsday said succinctly "This is the definitive book on the event. Do not wait for a better try: there won't be any."
“After reading David McCullough’s account, you will never look at the old bridge in quite the same way again.”
—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, The New York Times
Los Angeles Times The Great Bridge is a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument...McCullough has written that sort of work which brings us to the human center of the past.
“The impact of the soaring structure upon the American imagination and American life has now been measured with sagacity and style by David McCullough. . . . The Great Bridge
is a book so compelling and complete as to be a literary monument, one of the best books I have read in years. McCullough has written that sort of work which brings us to the human center of the past.”
—Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times
“The Great Bridge
is a great book. . . . What David McCullough has written is a stupendous narrative about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a cast of thousands (give or take 100), whose major characters come alive on the page as authentically, as creatively, as would their fictional counterparts if one had the imagination to dream up such a yarn. Once again, truth is not only stranger than fiction but a hell of a lot more entertaining. Get your hands on The Great Bridge
. . . . This is the definitive book on the event. Do not wait for a better try: there won't be any.”
—Norman Rosten, Newsday
“David McCullough has taken a dramatic and colorful episode out of the American past and described it in such a way that he sheds fresh light on a whole era in American history.”
“McCullough is one of our most gifted living writers.”
—Marie Arana, The Washington Post
A collection of bestselling and award-winning books from our first seventy-five years. These titles are handsomely redesigned to combine original artwork with contemporary packaging. Many editions feature new introductions by the authors.
Published on the fortieth anniversary of its initial publication, this edition of the classic book contains a new Preface by David McCullough, “one of our most gifted living writers” (The Washington Post).
Built to join the rapidly expanding cities of New York and Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Bridge was thought by many at the start to be an impossibility destined to fail if not from insurmountable technical problems then from political corruption. (It was the heyday of Boss Tweed in New York.)
But the Brooklyn Bridge was at once the greatest engineering triumph of the age, a surpassing work of art, a proud American icon, and a story like no other in our history. Courage, chicanery, unprecedented ingenuity and plain blundering, heroes, rascals, all the best and worst in human nature played a part. At the center of the drama were the stricken chief engineer, Washington Roebling and his remarkable wife, Emily Warren Roebling, neither of whom ever gave up in the face of one heartbreaking setback after another.
The Great Bridge is a sweeping narrative of a stupendous American achievement that rose up out of its era like a cathedral, a symbol of affirmation then and still in our time.
This monumental book tells the enthralling story of one of the greatest accomplishments in our nations history, the building of what was then the longest suspension bridge in the world. The Brooklyn Bridge rose out of the expansive era following the Civil War, when Americans believed all things were possible.
So daring a concept as spanning the East River to join two great cities required vision and dedication of the kind that went into building Europes great cathedrals. During fourteen years of construction, the odds against success seemed overwhelming. Thousands of people were put to work. Bodies were crushed and broken, lives lost, notorious political empires fell, and surges of public doubt constantly threatened the project. But the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge is not just the saga of an engineering miracle; it is a sweeping narrative of the social climate of the time, replete with heroes and rascals who helped either to construct or to exploit the great enterprise.
The Great Bridge is also the story of a remarkable family, the Roeblings, who conceived and executed the audacious engineering plan at great personal cost. Without John Roeblings vision, his son Washingtons skill and courage, and Washingtons wife Emilys dedication, the bridge we know and cherish would never have been built.
Like the engineering marvel it describes, The Great Bridge, republished on the fortieth anniversary of its initial publication, has stood the test of time.
About the Author
David McCullough has been called a "master of the art of narrative history." His books have been praised for their exceptional narrative sweep, their scholarship and insight into American life, and for their literary distinction.
In the words of the citation accompanying his honorary degree from Yale, "As an historian, he paints with words, giving us pictures of the American people that live, breath, and above all, confront the fundamental issues of courage, achievement, and moral character."
Author of 1776, John Adams, Truman, The Johnstown Flood, The Great Bridge, The Path between the Seas, Mornings on Horseback, and Brave Companions, he has received the Pulitzer Prize twice (in 1993, for Truman, and, in 2001, for John Adams), the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and has twice won the National Book Award.
For his work overall he has been honored by the National Book Foundation Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, the National Humanities Medal, the St. Louis Literary Award, the Carl Sandburg Award, and the New York Public Library's Literary Lion Award. None of his books has ever been out of print.
In a crowded, productive career, Mr. McCullough has been an editor, essayist, teacher, lecturer, and familiar presence on public television as host of Smithsonian World, The American Experience, and narrator of numerous documentaries including The Civil War and Napoleon. He is a past president of the Society of American Historians. He has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received 31 honorary degrees.
A gifted speaker, Mr. McCullough has lectured in all parts of the country and abroad, as well as at the White House, as part of the White House presidential lecture series. He is also one of the few private citizens to be asked to speak before a joint session of Congress.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1933, Mr. McCullough was educated there and at Yale, where he was graduated with honors in English literature. An avid reader, traveler, and landscape painter, he lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, with his wife Rosalee Barnes McCullough. They have five children and 15 grandchildren.
Table of Contents
1. The Plan
2. Man of Iron
3. The Genuine Language of America
4. Father and Son
6. The Proper Person to See
7. The Chief Engineer
8. All According to Plan
9. Down in the Caisson
11. The Past Catches Up
12. How Natural, Right, and Proper
13. The Mysterious Disorder
14. The Heroic Mode
15. At the Halfway Mark
16. Spirits of '76
17. A Perfect Pandemonium
18. Number 8, Birmingham Gauge
19. The Gigantic Spinning Machine
20. Wire Fraud
22. The Man in the Window
23. And Yet the Bridge Is Beautiful
24. The People's Day
Reading Group Guide
The Great Bridge by David McCullough
Reader's Group Guide
1. In 1869, conversations about the Brooklyn Bridge took a more serious tone and there was much opposition. "The bridge... was a monumental extravagance, a wild experiment, nothing but an exercise in vanity." If a less expensive medium for transportation, such as a tunnel, would adequately increase transportation between Brooklyn and Manhattan, why build a bridge of this magnitude? Is there something to be said for grandiose monuments and landmarks?
2. John A. Roebling did not practice organized religion. Like many intellectuals of the time his beliefs were based in spiritualism. Why do you think spiritualism appealed to "practical men of learning"? Do you feel that science and religion is mutually exclusive? How does spiritualism relate to Scientology and other alternative forms of spiritual practice?
3. Prior to the completion of the bridge, you get a sense that Brooklyn is a strong, self-sufficient town. "New York [City] employed considerably less than half of Brooklyn's wage earners, perhaps even as few as one in three." If that is the case, what is the strongest argument for building the bridge? What are the pros and cons of further developing Brooklyn into the "biggest city in the world"?
4. William Tweed was arguably the most powerful and influential man in New York politics. His "Tweed Ring" was built on a system that exorbitantly inflated public expenditures on construction contracts. How were Tweed and the Tweed Ring brought to justice? Can you site similar examples of his organized embezzlement in current local and national politics?
5. The "bends", drastically took its toll on the bridge workers who sunk the New York caisson. What explanations of the disease were the most far-fetched? After the New York caisson was dropped, Colonel Roebling claimed that, "just two deaths could be charged directly to the effects of pressure." Why do you think Roebling botched his final report? If you were in Roebling's position would you have interrupted the project until developing a mechanism such as the "hospital lock" to ensure the safety of the bridge workers?
6. In January of 1875, Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Plymouth Church was accused of committing adultery with Theodore Tilton's wife. Although it was clear to the general public that Beecher was guilty, the functions of the church continued as usual, and no one was reported to have abandoned the church. McCullough writes, "a great many people who thought Beecher might be guilty after all would continue to regard him as an extraordinary human being and felt he suffered more than enough." What is your opinion on the sexual misconduct of political and/or religious figures, and the public's treatment of such scandal? Should political and/or religious figures be held to a higher standard of morality? Explain.
7. William Roebling's health began to deteriorate to the extent that he rested at home and conducted his responsibilities as Engineer-in-Chief through correspondence via his wife. With mounting medical and person expenses that outweighed his $10,000 salary, what is Roebling's driving motivation and commitment to the bridge? Have you or anyone you know been so dedicated to a passion that hard work led to the denial of health and personal wellbeing? Share your experience. Is that kind of dedication frowned upon or encouraged by today's culture?
8. After E.F. Farrington was the first to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, his pioneering effort became a huge spectacle and he became a media sensation. Do you think he felt guilty receiving so much attention when Roebling was working from his sickbed? Why did the act of being the first to cross the bridge garner more media attention than the individual whose expertise carried the bridge to fruition?
9. In a dispute over the Bessimer steel contract, why was Hewitt personally invested in discrediting Roebling despite his attempt to remain out of the public arena?
10. When workmen were digging foundations for the Brooklyn approach, the Eagle published an essay on the bridge as "the coming place for the truly artistic suicide." During this time, what did the bridge symbolize in terms of birth, death, triumph, and spectacle?
11. In 1882, the bridge was just about complete. McCullough writes, "for the first time since his father's death... Roebling could relax a little... his services were no longer vital." At this point, why didn't Roebling step down from his position as Engineer-in-Chief, and name a successor to complete the bridge? What did he have to loose?
12. In 1883, the bridge was finally complete. As a response to Hewitt's presentation of the bridge as a great symbol of progress, Roebling writes, "the advantages of modern engineering are in many ways balanced by the disadvantages of modern civilization." What are those disadvantages? Do you agree with this statement? Explain.