Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Erica Wagner's "Chief Engineer"

Erica Wagner is the author of Gravity: Stories; Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters; and Seizure: A Novel. Pas de Deux/A Concert of Stories, co-written with storyteller Abbi Patrix and musician and composer Linda Edsjö, tours around the world. Twice a judge of the Man Booker Prize, she was literary editor of The Times (London) for seventeen years, and she is now a contributing writer for New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper's Bazaar, as well as writing for many publications in Britain and the United States.

Wagner applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Chief Engineer: Washington Roebling, The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge, and reported the following:
When Washington Roebling undertook the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge following his father's death in 1869, he was beginning a task which would test him severely; the job would take 14 years and would break his health, though never his spirit. But Washington already knew what it was to be tested. He had joined the Union Army in 1861 as a private; when he left the army in early 1865, he had risen through the ranks to colonel, and would be known as Col. Roebling for the rest of his long life. Three quarters of a million Americans died in that terrible war, and Washington took part in a great many of its most deadly battles. Page 99 of Chief Engineer finds him at the most deadly of them all, the Battle of Antietam, in September, 1862. When it was over, nearly 6,000 men lay dead, another 17,000 wounded.

Washington fought near the Dunker church which still stands on that Maryland field: a plain, whitewashed structure built by a pacifist German sect who believed in full-immersion baptism. Washington's vivid recollections bring the dreadful scenes vividly to the reader's mind; and bluntly dispel any notion of war's romance. “The appearance of the battlefield was horrible," he wrote. "The hot… sun changed a corpse into a swollen mass of putridity in a few hours — too rotten to be moved. Long trenches were dug, wide and deep, into which bodies, thousands of them, were tumbled pell mell, carried on fence rails or yanked with ropes, unknown, unnamed, unrecognised. This is the kind of glory most people get who go to war."

Certainly Washington's years in the Union Army were a critical part of his life: not least because, a couple of years later, he would meet his remarkable wife thanks to his service: Emily Warren was the daughter of his commanding officer in 1864, General G. K. Warren. So page 99 is not unrepresentative of a very important period in Washington's -- and the nation's -- life.

But there's another reason that page 99 stands out for me. For on it is mentioned a map which Washington made of the battlefield, just a day after the fighting ended. He drew it on a sheet of yellow paper which measures twenty by twenty-five inches; on the map each detail of the battlefield is carefully delineated: Washington was a master draughtsman, and this drawing is an extraordinary example of his skill. On the right of the map is marked the ford by which Major General "Fighting Joe" Hooker's men crossed Antietam creek, and the line of his advance round to the right, over the top of the map. In the middle, just south of a little cornfield, is marked in Washington’s tiny writing "place where Hooker was shot in the foot". The map has the purity of an abstraction, for all its precision: yet Washington would have drawn it when those bodies he described so dreadfully — and which can be seen in Alexander Gardner’s famous photographs of the battlefield — would still have been lying where they fell.

The map itself is in the archive of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and was recently and painstakingly restored. It isn't reproduced in Chief Engineer, because it would have been impossible to do it justice; but holding it in my hands was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my research for this book.
Visit Erica Wagner's website.

Writers Read: Erica Wagner.

--Marshal Zeringue