Crossing the bridge from Whitehead to Mumford

Whitehead and Mumford have drastically different voices. Whitehead’s voice defies all conventions, slips in and out of different perspectives, and has employs a very unique poetic license. On the other hand, Mumford’s remains in first-person throughout and has deep feelings of nostalgia. The first eye-catching aspect of Whitehead’s voice is the visual structure of the piece. Unlike Mumford’s standard paragraph form, Whitehead’s structure is broken into paragraphs that fall somewhere in between the classification of poetic stanzas and separate chapters. He rarely begins with topic sentences or uses transitional phrases; instead, he tends to begin with short phrases to spark your interest, such as “So Squint” (99), “Free Passage” (100), “In The Middle” (105), and “This Spans Water” (107). The strangeness of his beginnings is only magnified as each paragraph progresses. A third motif that is shared by Whitehead and Mumford is the idea that when walking the bridge, we are no longer individuals; rather, we are all part of a higher collective community. For example, Mumford “trod the narrow, resilient boards of the footway with a new confidence that came, not from my isolated self alone but form the collective energies I had confronted and risen to” (844).

Another way that Whitehead keeps you on your toes is by continually shifting the point of view. For example, in the first paragraph he begins in second person – “you can always tell” – and then immediately shifts to third person when writing, “her steps give her away” (99). The subject is constantly changing between the city, the bridge, the reader, tourists, and a vast assortment of other characters. As a result, the piece develops a very ambiguous voice that is open to countless interpretations. This simultaneously allows for an omniscient view of all the characters and an introspective look into their individual psyches. The higher all-knowing voice is displayed in the passage describing “walkers,” “joggers,” and “bikers” (101). Individualized plunges into a character’s private thoughts are exemplified in lines like, “Years ago she picked a window and told herself one days she would live behind that window and watch them walk on the bridge like she walks now” (103). None of these elements are present in Mumford’s voice.

Mumford’s voice is a reflection of the author’s past experiences and thoughts. His discussion begins the “early period of [his] manhood (1914-1919)” (840). It is in this personal manner that he depicts the transformation from ferries to bridges. He focuses on his love for ferries in the first few paragraphs before saying, “But if I loved the ferries, I loved the bridges, too…But it was the Brooklyn Bridge that I loved best” (841). Moreover, he portrays the movement through the stages of New York City transit as a reflection of his own development, fusing the two by relating his thoughts, dreams, and memories. For instance, he reals that the”the Bridge itself [captures] my imagination…for many of my written fantasies have turned out to be gropings, forebodings, formative anticipations of unconscious urgings” (842). In other words, one of the main reasons he loves the bridge it offers him a “contrast with the sober, neatly planned, dutiful routine” (842). Clearly, Mumford’s voice is more focused on his internal relationship to the subject matter, while Whitehead offers a much broader spectrum of perspectives.

There are several motifs that Whitehead and Mumford share in their pieces. One of the most interesting shared motifs is honey. Mumford makes a subtle reference to honey when “across the Bridge [he] saw the skyscrapers in the deepening darkness become slowly honeycombed with light” (844). Whitehead imagines that the “bridge is seduced by honey talk” (100). While the honey themes are introduced in different contexts, I found it very intriguing that they both chose this same image to describe the Brooklyn Bridge. Another motif that is shared between the two is the religious nature of the bridge. Mumford writes, “as I reached the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, the sunlight spread across the sky, forming a halo around the jagged mountain of skyscrapers” (844). Similarly, Whitehead mentions “this rather spectacular leap of faith” that you take on your pilgrimage from one end to the other (100). A third motif that is shared by Whitehead and Mumford is the idea that when walking the bridge, we are no longer individuals; rather, we are part of a higher collective community. For example, Mumford “trod the narrow, resilient boards of the footway with a new confidence that came, not from my isolated self alone but from the collective energies I had confronted and risen to” (844). Whitehead connotes the same motif that we are simply “one speck among many specks” (102).

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    David Rand – Writing New York

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