Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Crane was rather explicit about his intentions for this poem, and although one should generally treat a poet’s stated intentions gingerly, in this instance, one may learn from what Crane said he was hoping to achieve.
Referring to the last stanza’s “mid-kingdom” analogy (the black man “wanders in some mid-kingdom”), he wrote in a letter to his close friend Gorham Munson in the spring of 1921 that the poem was a “bundle of insinuations, suggestions bearing out the Negro’s place somewhere between man and beast.” He stated that his only personal “declaration” in the poem was that he found “the Negro (in the popular mind) sentimentally or brutally ‘placed’ in this midkingdom.” Crane also noted that a “propagandist for either side of the Negro question could find anything he wanted to in it,” insisting that “the value of the poem is only, to me, in what a painter would call its ‘tactile’ quality—an entirely aesthetic feature.”
It is not easy to know what to make of Crane’s statements or, therefore, of the poem itself. What may sound, at the one extreme like the most dispassionate of racist attitudes can also sound, at the opposite, like the most dispassionate of aesthetic detachment. Putting those two ends together, however, one can possibly see what Crane means. He is neither depicting the black man as a generic entity nor portraying a particularized African American so much as depicting perceptions of blacks in America—neither from his perspective, nor from theirs, but from the perspective of the dominant white culture of his day.
Although the poem is filled with concrete socioeconomic details and, as noted earlier, a virtual editorial fervor for elucidating the “Negro question,” the poem is not “about” the so-called “Negro question.” Even that aspect of the poem is a part, not of its theme, but of its texture—its “tactile” quality, as Crane called it.
This is not to say that the poem has no “meaning.” Crane is representing something as elusive as attitudes and values, and by evoking them accurately and authentically, he is exposing them to all. As Crane asserts, he does not want to take sides so much as to show the human element at the heart of the matter.