Article abstract: As a visionary artist with an intense, challenging literary style, Crane was the creator of a unique poetic idiom that expressed a personal view of the cultural conditions that fascinated him during the time when the United States was emerging as a technologically advanced world power.
Harold Hart Crane was born in the small town of Garrettsville in Ohio in the last year of the nineteenth century, the only child of Clarence Arthur Crane, a candy manufacturer in Cleveland who made a fortune from his invention of the Life Saver, and Grace Hart, who encouraged her son’s artistic inclinations while depending on him for advice, consolation, and support during and after the marriage failed. Anxious to please both parents, neither of whom ever relinquished their claims to their son during his short life, Crane made an effort to accept his father’s offers of positions in the business world and to give his mother the emotional reassurance that was absent in her life, but his determination to follow his inclinations as a writer were evident in a letter he wrote to a friend when he was twenty in which he insisted that commercial endeavors would not lead to “our complete surrender of everything else.”
By the age of fourteen, Crane was already publishing poems with what has been described as “an exquisite pre-Raphaelite tone.” He moved from Cleveland to New York in 1916, determined to “view the countless multitudes” of a country whose destiny he felt he could convey, even direct, in an aesthetic endeavor that he felt to be the noblest of callings. As he wrote to high school classmate William Wright, “I believe I have it in me to become the greatest singer of our generation.” Ostensibly preparing for admission to Columbia University, Crane immediately introduced himself to the progressive literary community in New York by submitting poems to journals such as The Little Review and Poetry and becoming friends with noted contemporaries such as Allen Tate, Malcolm Cowley, and Kenneth Burke.
At the same time, in an effort to maintain civil relations with his father, Crane alternated between jobs requiring physical labor and short stints writing advertising copy while hoping to explain his deepest needs and desires. “Try to imagine,” he wrote to his father, “working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful—something that maybe can’t be sold or used to sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between man and man, a bond of understanding and human enlightenment—which is what a real work of art is.” Crane understood that the monetary assistance his father provided was connected to an ability to succeed in a corporate domain, but he was so enthralled by literary achievement—he read James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) with enthusiasm when it appeared and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) three times—that, as he wrote to his mother in 1923, “If I can’t continue to create the sort of poetry that is my interest and deepest component in life—then it all means very little to me.”
The work upon which Crane’s reputation was built and that accounts for the enduring interest in him as a significant American writer was essentially written between 1922 and 1927. Critical responses to his first collection, White Buildings (1926), was very enthusiastic, including the comment from the influential critic Yvor Winters that the author was “among the five or six greatest poets writing in English.” Although Crane’s poetry was challenging and unlikely to reach a public beyond serious readers, its amalgam of French Symbolist techniques and modern American subjects lent itself to a vocal presentation that the discerning critic Alan Williamson compares to “the surge and grandeur of Elizabethan drama.” Poems such as “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” (which initially appeared in the magazine Secession in 1924), with its exposition of the clash between the mythical and the mechanistic; the well-known “Chaplinesque,” which Crane wrote as an affectionate tribute to the spirit of Charlie Chaplin after seeing the film The Kid (1921); and the six-poem sequence called “Voyages,” a meditation on love and separation written with “tremendous erotic intensity” and drawn from Crane’s relationship with Emil Opffer, were unlike anything previously written in the United States and retain their power decades later.
While Crane’s reputation as a gifted young artist was growing, his reputation as a debauched devotee of saloons, harbor dives, and other vulgar settings threatened to overshadow the seriousness of his efforts as a...
(The entire section is 1954 words.)