Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
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A Note on “Delaware & Raritan. 1850.”

In 2017 my biography of Washington Roebling, entitled Chief Engineer, was published by Bloomsbury. Washington Roebling was the son of John Roebling, a German-born engineer who made his name in the United States and was about to embark upon his greatest project—the construction of a bridge over New York’s East River—when he died of tetanus in 1869. It was left to his son to build the Brooklyn Bridge, and it remains his extraordinary monument, still going strong over 130 years since its opening in May, 1883.

I have been fascinated by Washington Roebling’s life since I was a girl. I have felt drawn to him in a manner difficult to explain; suffice to say, he has been my companion for decades now. But expressing that fascination through the medium of biography has its limits. In constructing a portrait of a man’s life that will be described as nonfiction, one must be rigorous about not over-interpreting the material one is faced with. Facts may survive the centuries, a moment of emotion will not.

And so, as I wrote, there were moments of Washington’s story that seemed to ask for some other kind of telling. “Delaware & Raritan. 1850.” is one of a series of pieces along these lines (another, entitled “Explosive”, may be found in Boundless, the journal of the British publisher Unbound). This story has its roots in an extraordinary tale from Washington’s youth, one he recounted with acerbic brevity as a much older man. This version of his shocking boyhood adventure, though fictional, is as true as I can make it.  

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