The Master Builder

“The atrocity site, which one would have expected to become sacred or at least inspire a little respect, swiftly becomes occasion instead for open-ended sagas of wheeling and dealing, bickering and badmouthing over its future as real estate, all dutifully celebrated as “news” in the Newspaper of Record. Some notice a strange underground rumbling from the direction of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which is eventually identified as Robert Moses spinning in his grave.” (Bleeding Edge, 328)

This passage occurs about 12 pages after Pynchon depicts the events of 11 September and contextually occurs a couple of days after the events. I found this passage very interesting especially regarding the metaphor used in the final sentence. For people to be feeling the ground rumble from this man, Robert Moses, spinning in his grave, led me to believe that this man was obviously a very important figure in history but I was unsure how it was connected to Ground Zero. There was no mention of this reference in the Bleeding Edge Wiki page. Further research was required to determine who Robert Moses was and why Pynchon chose to reference him in this passage.


Robert Moses with a model of NYC

Robert Moses was a controversial urban planner that was responsible for the shaping of modern New York City during the twentieth century. He lived December 18th, 1888 to July 29th, 1981 and the work he completed throughout his lifetime continuously affects millions of peoples’ lives every day. His civil servant career began in the administration of NY Governor Al Smith in 1919 where he created and simultaneously became chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission and the State Council of Parks. His first major public works project was the creation of Jones Beach State Park in 1930. In order for people to reach his new park, Moses created a network of 5 parkways throughout Long Island from 1927 – 1934. These were cleverly called “parkways” because he had carefully written his commission’s enabling statute to include the authority to build paths and access roads within parks. Otherwise it would not have been in his jurisdiction to build highways or roads to his parks. The success of these projects led him to be known as a man who could get things done.

With the onset of the Great Depression, Robert Moses was put in charge of New York’s Emergency Public Works Commission and City Parks Commission in 1933. As a result of the New Deal federal work-relief grants and the state and local parks funds, Moses led a building spree in New York City and the rest of the state. This included the erection of hundreds of parks and playgrounds in the five boroughs as well as many parkways, highways, bridges and tunnels, which he installed tollbooths on in order to create additional revenue. With his continued success, Moses was named New York City’s World Fair Commissioner in 1936 and was responsible to build the infrastructure that would host the World Fair in 1939. After World War II, Moses was still gaining power as his tollbooths continually increased in revenue and he claimed the positions of Mayor’s Committee for a Permanent World Capital Chairman, City Construction Coordinator, Emergency Committee on Housing Chairman, and Slum Clearance Committee Chairman. He was simultaneously in charge of twelve different agencies and he had successfully made himself indispensable. He then used his great power to clear the slums of NYC and build 28,000 units in public housing projects as well as civic and educational institutions so quickly that opposition did not have any time to act against it.

Eventually, he was losing his great image in the public eye and opposition against his projects was growing stronger. In 1960, he relinquished most of his positions of power in exchange for a 7-year contract as head of the 1964 World Fair. He used the 1939 World Fair site but greatly renovated and expanded upon it. In 1968, Governor Nelson Rockefeller completely removed Robert Moses from power. Moses had a very strong 50-year career in which he gained much power and capital and although some of his projects did not favor the public opinion then, they are still positively affecting millions of people today.

With this new knowledge, it now makes much greater sense as to why Thomas Pynchon chose to reference Robert Moses at this specific moment in Bleeding Edge. Robert Moses was a fast acting, powerful capitalist that was known as the “Master Builder” of NYC. When the prime real estate location of the World Trade Center was seen as “available”, Moses would had surely wanted to have been there amongst the wheeling and dealing, bickering and badmouthing for the future of the plot. Moses would had found the loop holes in the system and cut through the red tape like he had on so many of the projects he headed in his lifetime.

I believe Pynchon used this moment to strengthen the theme of capitalism and neoliberalism throughout Bleeding Edge. Instead of grieving and paying their respects at the site of Ground Zero, they are scheming to determine the best way to make money off of this tragedy and the prime real estate that has been left behind. This is the result of the current capitalist economy and the deregulated market in the US. This was the same attitude that resulted in the DotCom bubble bursting. Everyone was out to make a quick buck without considering the outcomes of their actions. It is also interesting to note that this was in 2001 before the real estate market crashed and the recession occurred around 2008.

This was a very interesting passage to me. It reinforces Pynchon’s underlying themes of Bleeding Edge while making a very well planned historical reference to Robert Moses. This short reference could easily be overlooked in such a long novel but if the time is taken to read it closely and perhaps do some additional research, it can greatly enhance the themes and interpretations present in the novel.

Works Cited

Chiarella, John T. “Robert Moses.” Find A Grave. n.p. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2015. <;.

Gutfreund, Owen D. “Moses, Robert.” Encyclopedia of Urban Studies. Ed. Ray Hutchison. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010. 522-26. SAGE knowledge. Web. 23 Feb. 2015

“Robert Moses.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015. <;.

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6 Responses to The Master Builder

  1. trafalgarlaw9 says:

    I completely agree that this is a subtle way for Pynchon to emphasize the overwhelming presence of capitalism and neoliberalism intertwined with the aftermath of 9/11. This is one of the infinite references in the text that I unfortunately passed over without realizing the true implication of the allusions that Pynchon was making. I think it is worthy noting that without the emotional impact of the event, entrepreneurs like Moses would have been readily encouraged to flip yet another “useless” space into something “productive”. This reflects back on the image that Maxine describes of the relationship between the city and the mountains of refuse that are hidden away but not completely abolished. Ground Zero is an example of physical refuse/ruin that we choose to keep within the city because of its emotional value.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. newtonscradle7 says:

    In terms of capitalism and neoliberalism, it is crazy to think about how quick after a disaster, the world stops for a second, but then after that it picks right back up and people are out there finding a way to work off of what just happened. So many people were affected by both 9/11 and the DotCom Bubble, but the world did not stop, even though September 11th got pretty close. The world was back turning again and although some people were hurt, others were continuing their road at the top. Especially with the DotCom Bubble, few got richer and richer while the majority were just trying to recover. I think you comparison with Moses moving quickly is quite fitting, nowadays you get left behind in the dust if you take too long or trip up. There is always going to be someone who’d be willing to keep going.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. burgleyourturts says:

    I had no idea who Robert Moses was and quickly glanced over this part my first time through the novel. After reading the little history lesson you gave about Moses, I am inclined to agree with you that he would have been right in there amidst the talks of future of the “prime real estate,” despite the horror that it came from. Really says a lot like you said about Pynchon’s theme of capitalism which recurs frequently throughout the novel. This was a small reference that I definitely overlooked but really adds to the interpretation of what Pynchon was trying to say. Good eye.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’ve done some very interesting work here, but I’m not quite following your conclusion. From what I’m reading of your research, it seems like Robert Moses was primarily interested in developing public land. Wouldn’t he be rolling over in his grave because of the capitalist speculation on the land? Wouldn’t he rather want to turn it into a park, or use it for some public use in NYC?


    • spelunkingseahorse says:

      @bradfest I understand your confusion. The reason that I made the conclusion that I did was because in his early years he was very much, like you mentioned, interested in developing public land. However, in his later years when he had become very powerful, he was doing whatever he could in order to make money and lost his interest in the public good. One of his big proposed projects in his later years that contributed to his demise was when he wanted to convert part of Central Park into a parking lot for one of his new nearby buildings. So he may have thought otherwise in the beginning of his career but by the end he was so powerful that he thought he could do anything he wanted. He soon found out that he could not. However this is why I made the conclusion that I did.


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