Richard Haw is Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. This interview is based on his new book, Engineering America: The Life and Times of John A. Roebling (Oxford University Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Engineering America?
RH: The simple answer would be that I wanted to understand the person who envisioned and then designed the Brooklyn Bridge, about which I’d written a couple of books. And I wanted more broadly to understand the world in which that bridge could come into being.
The more complex answer is that I wanted to understand a person who thought deeply about a host of different things—about science, politics, religion, national culture, philosophy, immigration, commerce, race, medicine, economics—and yet seemed to be composed almost wholly of contradictions. Roebling was a man of science who also attended séances and believed in spiritualism; he was capable of designing and erecting great works of engineering but he also wrapped himself up in a wet sheet most nights and ate charcoal on a daily basis; he was a man of great self-certainty but also quick to seize on a whole host of fads; he held deep religious beliefs yet loathed the established church; he read widely in Hegel, Emerson, and Channing, but also in Andrew Jackson Davis, Swedenborg, Baron Carol von Reichenbach. I wanted to explore how one person could be naive and fallible while also brilliant and visionary.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Engineering America?
RH: That John Roebling was a thinker, a seeker, and an ideas man. He had thousands of ideas during his lifetime and while most of them missed the mark in one form or another, some didn’t, and those ideas helped change the face of a nation.
JF: Why do we need to read Engineering America?
RH: John Roebling hasn’t fared well in the hands of historians. The last biography written about him was published over 70 years ago and since then our understanding of him—not helped by his son’s rather harsh memoir of his father, long available to researchers but only recently published—has ossified into something both unfair and unflattering. His genius has always been acknowledged but our sense of him as a person has become stuck in realms usually reserved for Hollywood Germans: overly formal, unbending, authoritarian, dispassionate, devoid of humor or humanism and prone to violence. The real John Roebling was a far cry from this.
In addition, we tend not to write about engineers outside of the narrow confines of … well … engineering. We write about politicians and soldiers and writers all the time but engineers are arguably just as central to our world although we rarely ask what they thought they were doing, outside of simply solving mechanical problems. To put it another way: engineering is central to our world, but engineers are rarely central to the writing of history. And even less central to the writing of biography.
But engineers are often deeply engaged people who think of themselves as performing a social or political role. Raymond Merritt once referred to engineers as “functional intellectuals” and that’s certainly how I think of Roebling. He believed in the moral application of technology, that bridges, railroads and the Atlantic Cable would band people together, heal divisions, make neighbors out of rivals, and free people out the oppressed or enslaved. He thought that railroads would help bring democracy to Russia, for example. And he believed and said all these things over two decades before Walt Whitman was writing about “the strong light works of engineers” and their unifying, ethical potential.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
RH: I grew up in the north of England and I wasn’t at all interested in history. Or school or going to college. Until that is I’d had some experience of trying to get along without either ‘A’ levels (the British equivalent of a High School Diploma) or a college degree. When I did finally go to college in my mid-20s I didn’t really have any sense of disciplines. I was interested in periods—Victorian Britain, for example—but I couldn’t find a program that allowed you to look at a thing or a period from lots of different perspectives. The only degree that let you do that was American Studies, so I took American Studies, not really knowing the first thing about America! And I loved it. I loved thinking about Film Noir movies and the Cold War; I loved discovering the Hudson River School during a class on Jacksonian America; I enjoyed reading Virgin Land and The Machine in the Garden; and most of all I loved interdisciplinary thinking.
From there, I think I slowly made myself into a historian, albeit a rather ill-defined one. As an undergraduate, I think most of my interests were in the arts but that changed through my graduate training and my career at John Jay College. Over many years, I’ve come to think of most intellectual work (in the Humanities at least) as being about texts or about people. It’s a simplification of course, but broadly true in my understanding. And while I love teaching and talking about texts, I’m not terribly interested in writing about them. I’d much rather write about people and events.
JF: What is your next project?
RH: I’m writing a book about a somewhat forgotten New York artist called Leon Bibel who was very active during the late 1930s thanks to the New Deal. (Most people encounter Bibel as the first man in the breadline at the FDR memorial in Washington, DC. He was molded by his great friend George Segal, the sculptor commissioned for the memorial.) Like many New Deal artists, Bibel was deeply committed to social justice and he produced lots of great art attacking racism, fascism, political hypocrisy, war, and injustice of all stripes. If not for the New Deal, Bibel might have spent his life working as a carpenter like his brother. But he didn’t. He enjoyed a brief, precious moment when a government program enabled a person to be an artist. And because of that, Bibel’s art is housed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, among other prestigious museums. I find those aspects of history fascinating.
JF: Thanks, Richard!