Employed by the U.S. Customs Service in New York City, under the by-then forgotten novelist Herman Melville, Shelby Ross is narrating his story to Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, as it is seen nearing completion from Roebling’s second-floor room on Brooklyn Heights.
The Brooklyn Bridge’s Manhattan Tower, May 9, 1882
I awoke at the Brooklyn Bridge, or so it seemed to me. I’d left Gansevoort Pier at the end of the day, only to find myself transported to the bottom of Fulton Street, in sight of the East River. By what conveyance I had arrived there—whether an omnibus, elevated train, or aeronaut’s balloon—I could not have said. Like a man coming out of a mesmeric trance or an ether sleep, I looked about me in dismay at the iron doors leading to the stone vault inside the Manhattan anchorage, where wine merchants lay down expensive bottles of European vintage as if it were the niter-encrusted crypt in which Poe caused Fortunato to be walled up. The “Amontillado” that had lured me against my will—no, my will was in abeyance—was the impulse that had also caused Melville’s Ishmael to “pause before coffin warehouses,” and, from what I know of his life’s story, had brought Melville himself to the brink of annihilation.
You must’ve contemplated it, as well. Sometime during your own entombment while you struggled with the intractable materials of granite, steel, and human flesh, you must have thought and thrilled to the idea of suicide. I prefer Hamlet’s word: self-slaughter. I picture—forgive a ghoulish imagination alien to your own—a man, as might be you, me, or Melville, cutting his own throat and then the ardent blood pumping into a basin, or, say, eviscerating and roasting his own bowels. Nothing surpasses the medieval mind for ingenious tortures. Modern man, prosaic to the last, contents himself with a rope end or drop of arsenic. Roebling, it’s butchery that I think of when I whisper that grisly compound noun from Hamlet’s soliloquy, which—each in his own way—we all will utter.
I raised my eyes to the bridge, your monument to human ambition and resolve, and saw, in its granite towers, which soared into air once ruled by eagles, not cathedrals, but guillotines awaiting the heads of giants to lop off. Thus can the meaning of symbols change according to the mind’s well-being or disease. I gazed at your bridge and imagined, in years to come, bodies dropping like stones into the river below. If the time comes when life cannot be endured a moment longer, I think that such a dying fall would be…I have no word to say what it would be. But it is better to jump from a sublime height than put a bullet through one’s brain or nibble poison like cheese. I think that to jump from one element into another—there to have one’s fire put out—is a more pleasing end than any offered by knife, rope, or rat’s bane. It was the death reserved for fallen angels, though the infernal lake was one of fire instead of the kindly water—kindly to accept us without demur, as a mother does the child at her breast.
My father took his own life. I rarely speak of it. When the panic and depression ruined him, the fire went out, and nothing I could say or do rekindled it. Like most men of business, he couldn’t conceive of himself without one. I found him in his study, his Colt Walker in a lifeless hand, his finger caught in the trigger guard. He left no note behind him except for an ironic gibe on the frontispiece of his first edition of Barrett’s The Old Merchants of New York City: “Gone to sell ice to the damned.”
What would you be, Roebling, without your stones and cables, your tables and diagrams, formulae and the mathematics of your trade? Nothing. And it is in protest against this nothing that you’ve suffered martyrdom in this room to see the work completed. Melville, too, fears the nothing a man can become when his work is taken from him. He writes like a man possessed—desperately throwing his voice into the abyss and waiting to hear its echo.
I almost wish that I could walk onto the bridge and, stopping midway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, above the river belonging to them both, step off into eternity like a man poised on the gallows between heaven and earth, neither of which belong to him any longer. At the cost of a moment’s terror, I’d be washed clean by the everlasting water instead of by strangers arrived to wash my corpse. I would die without the shame of a second infancy. If only I could give myself to the river, and, later, if my body be not found, to the ocean, where I would circumnavigate the globe, rolling in the deeps, at play with the calves, until my atoms merged with the water’s and with theirs! What stays my hand? Is it the Dane’s fear of violating “the canon ’gainst self-slaughter”? I doubt my reason is as pure as that. No, I’m afraid of the instant of pain, which, like the shattering of a stained-glass window, would admit me to an oft-imagined realm, where my damnation awaits. (According to the Calvinists, my end was determined long before my beginning.)
I’m not Hamlet or Ahab or even Melville. My passions are sized to the dimensions of a stock exchange, a trading pit, or a customs office on West Street, near the North River, where fraudulent men are exposed with the jubilation of Shylock sharpening his knife to take from bankrupt Antonio a pound of flesh. Once upon a time, I was a businessman in New York who hoped to become a merchant prince. The ambition having been a tawdry one, the failure cannot be considered tragic.
Do you really think I judge myself too harshly?
You’re right, of course. A person is neither all one thing nor another. For an artist to claim he has caught his subject is a lie: The human essence eludes delineation and description. You might as well attempt to coax a cloud of smoke into a bottle as capture a person in words or paint. I suspect that my tale has not done Melville justice in the telling. To try to tell the story of a man is inevitably to fail and to make him smaller than life, which is, and must be, always larger than any one person’s comprehension of it. Humans are not cattle to be shown and judged at a county fair. And yet, knowing this, we still pretend it is otherwise.
I foresee an unintended use for your bridge: a jumping-off point between this world and the next, at a place where two cities will either claim or deny jurisdiction, according to the fame or notoriety of the deceased. I agree that such an eventuality lies outside geometry, catenary curves, and structural analysis. I’d like to see an arithmetic that could account for it as well as other instances of passion and unreason. Such formulae, which rule over exceptions and singularities, nightmares and the dark motives of the heart, have yet to be devised. We can only shudder to think what might be done with them by the unscrupulous. Neither you nor your father is in any way to blame, Roebling, for the suicides that will surely come. Ideas once conceived cannot be unconceived. The Brooklyn Bridge exists not only in the space it occupies but also in the minds of men and women and—perhaps even more tenaciously and ineradicably—in their imaginations. Just so do Ahab and the White Whale exist beyond anyone’s power to annul them.
—from Feast Day of the Cannibals (6th book in the American Novels series, due in July 2019 from Bellevue Literary Press)