On December 10, 1929, while his wife, his mother, and banker J.P. Morgan waited impatiently for him to keep a dinner engagement, Harry Crosby lay dead in a New York hotel room. He still held the .25 caliber automatic with which he had put a bullet through his right temple and into his brain. Facing him on the bed and also dead was Josephine Bigelow, Crosby’s last mistress as well as the new wife of Albert Bigelow, a prominent former Harvard athlete. There was no suicide note.
Five years later, Malcolm Cowley ended his literary history of the 1920’s, Exile’s Return, with a long chapter on Harry Crosby. Cowley used Crosby to epitomize what had gone wrong with the war generation of writers who had exiled themselves to France and who were forced by the Depression to return to America. Superficially, Crosby seemed to illustrate Cowley’s thesis. Like so many young men of his generation, Harry Crosby had rushed to the Great War as an ambulance driver, had made Art into a religion in Paris where he lived a riotous life through the 1920’s, and had finally come home demoralized. Cowley saw his suicide as one of the logical conclusions to an exile’s return.
In 1968, Crosby’s wife, Caresse (née, Polly), published her somewhat inaccurate and self-serving version of the story as The Passionate Years. By that time everyone else connected with the suicide and its prelude was dead. Crosby was remembered, if at all, as a footnote to the literary history of the period. E.E. Cummings had written a nasty little poem about him which now requires numerous footnotes, and he appeared in passim in most of the American in Paris memoirs. In publishing history, he and Caresse were remembered as the beneficent founders of The Black Sun Press, where they had printed handsome limited editions of D.H. Lawrence’s “Sun” and “The Escaped Cock.” After Harry’s death, Caresse honored their contract with Hart Crane by publishing the first edition of The Bridge. But mostly, The Black Sun Press printed Harry Crosby: Shadows of the Sun 1, 2 and 3; Transit of Venus; Mad Queen; The Sun; Sleeping Together; Torch Bearer; War Letters. As a memorial to Harry, Caresse issued a four-volume collected edition of his work in 1931. She paid D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Stuart Gilbert, and Ezra Pound to write the introductions; and she paid well.
But as a poet, Harry Crosby was an amateur, as a publisher, a dilettante, and as an exile, a failure. He may have lived in Paris, but he never really left the very proper Boston that nurtured him. In Black Sun, Geoffrey Wolff has written what will probably be Crosby’s definitive biography, exploring deeply those Boston roots. Wolff’s enthusiasm for his subject, his very readable style, and his wealth of primary research make this book a reader’s delight. Using the recently opened Black Sun Press Archives at Southern Illinois University and Crosby’s unpublished holograph notebooks at Brown University, as well as published and unpublished letters and memoirs from the period, Wolff has given a minor figure from the 1920’s the sort of treatment deserved by a major figure.
The book opens on the evening of Harry Crosby’s suicide. After documenting the insensitive press coverage, Wolff examines the question that the police and newspapers were unable to answer: why did Crosby kill himself? As much as Wolff disagrees with Cowley’s treatment of Crosby as the epitome of the Lost Generation, his own explanation does not radically differ from Cowley’s Exile’s Return. Wolff concludes: “Harry’s writing was no more or less than a prolonged suicide note. . . . Death was a goal he ran toward full tilt.” Thirty-four years earlier, Cowley reached a similar conclusion: Crosby’s suicide “was the last term of a syllogism; it was like the signature on a second-rate but honest and exciting poem.”
For all his disagreement with Cowley, Wolff’s analysis, albeit more detailed and thorough, is not exactly revisionist. What keeps both the author and the reader fascinated with the book is not the question: why did Crosby commit suicide, but why at that time and that place? The notebooks and letters are filled with Crosby’s various plans for a ritual suicide, carried out in the spirit of the sun worship he had developed. December 10, 1929, was not part of any plan. The only answer that Wolff can suggest is Harry’s favorite passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself.” Harry Crosby could not stand being bored with life, and only the young in the 1920’s seemed to be alive.
Wolff relies heavily on Harry’s suicide to give meaning to his chaotic, self-indulgent life in Paris. Like Hemingway and Dos Passos, Crosby went to the war young. On July 19, 1917, he landed in France as a driver in the American Field Service Ambulance Corps. He hauled dead and dying from the Battles of the Somme, Second Verdun, and Orme. With prep school glee he wrote in his diary: “Oh Boy!!!!! won the CROIX DE GUERRE. Thank God.” But he had also seen his ambulance literally blown up beneath him, seen a good friend seriously wounded, and seen more dead bodies than a teenage boy should have to see. From that point on in his diaries, in his poems, and in his life, death is always present. Later in Paris he would pin to his door a photograph of an unknown French soldier’s corpse, giving it a name. Crosby became a man in love with death.
As with so many of Harry’s experiences, the war was intense, but he learned little from it. He was not interested in politics, or history, or social causes. He was not interested in understanding broader...
(The entire section is 2370 words.)