(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The book-length poem The Bridge far surpasses in scope anything else Crane attempted. In “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” he had indicated how the energies of ancient mythic symbols still exist in modern times. In this larger work, he attempts to explain how primary American myths are embedded in current consciousness and, further, how these myths are basically emancipatory, pointing the United States to a future of ethnic harmony and a valuing of artistic achievement.

One thing that spurred Crane to the creation of this work was his reading of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). In looking at the work, Crane was both awed by Eliot’s technical mastery and irritated by his hopelessness. Eliot, too, drew on mythology to create his work, turning to agrarian cultures for his theme. In those cultures, there was often a myth of a king or hero who died in the autumn but who was reborn in spring with the new crops. Eliot, as his title suggests, stopped the unfolding of this story halfway, depicting modern society as one that had lost all of its legitimate authorities and was stuck in a winter without hope of resurrection.

A look at the manner in which Crane treated the story of Rip Van Winkle in the second part of his poem will indicate his contrasted approach. The folktale is presented in a way that is both wittily irreverent and personal. It is not called up in a portentous meditation but by recalling how it first was learned by the author in a primary school lesson, where the pupil “walked with Pizarro in a copybook.” The story is interpreted positively, as charting the capacities of the human mind.

Rip Van Winkle woke up in a confused state, in which events that for him occurred yesterday had actually taken place twenty years before. Crane presents his mature narrator effortlessly, vividly recalling his school days, and so indexes Van Winkle’s juxtaposition of time periods to the human ability to recapture the past. This point validates, in turn, the broader project of the poem, which argues for the centrality of memory. If, the poem argues, the United States’ historical and mythic apprehension were fully used, the nation would be regenerated.

It should not be thought that Crane’s fervent optimism meant that he underestimated the problems of America. Two of its major defects, as he diagnosed them, propelled his work. The country had lost touch with its past, he says, and this is shown in a number of ways. For one, the omnipresent clamor of advertising and other distractions, as described in the opening of “The River” section, tricks the people into a pointless immersion in contemporary ephemera.

A related point is that the lack of historical circumspection has undercut an appreciation of who really built the country. “The River” section casts light on the lives of transient workers, roustabouts, and...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)