(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Bridge Crane, Hart

(Full name Harold Hart Crane) American poet and essayist.

Although he left only a small body of work, Crane is important as a lyric poet in the tradition of the romantic visionary as exemplified by such other poets as William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Baudelaire, and Walt Whitman. Crane's greatest contribution to this tradition is his epic poem The Bridge (1930), in which he attempted to delineate a mythic vision of the American experience through his primary symbol, the Brooklyn Bridge, an engineering marvel of the time that many people considered to represent the promise of America.

Biographical Information

Born in Garrettsville, Ohio, Crane was the only child of a wealthy candy manufacturer. His mother had a history of mental illness, and in 1908, when she entered a sanatorium to recover from a nervous breakdown, Crane was sent to Cleveland to live with his maternal grandmother. There he enrolled in East High School in 1914, undertaking a program that emphasized English literature and composition, mathematics, and foreign languages. While his formal education was frequently disrupted by family conflicts and long vacations with relatives, Crane pursued a course of independent reading that included classic literature as well as contemporary avant-garde literary journals, and at this time he began writing poetry. After the separation of his parents in 1916, he moved to New York City, originally to study with a tutor to prepare for entrance into Columbia University. Instead, Crane wrote poems that were published in New York magazines during the next few years and worked in advertising and at various other jobs. Crane's first major poem, "The Marriage of Helen and Faustus," was published in 1923, and during this year he began work on The Bridge. In 1925 Crane was able to further pursue his literary endeavors as a result of a grant from Otto Kahn, a financier and patron of the arts. Crane's first collection of poetry, White Buildings, was published the following year, and he completed a substantial portion of The Bridge—an undertaking that was to preoccupy him for seven years—while living at his grandmother's plantation on the Isle of Pines near Cuba. Using an inheritance from his grandmother's estate, Crane traveled to Paris in 1929. There he met Harry and Caresse Crosby, the owners of the Black Sun Press, which published the first edition of The Bridge the following year. After Crane was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931, he moved to Mexico City but produced little writing there that was to his satisfaction. Feeling alienated from friends and family and convinced his poetic abilities were waning, Crane began indulging in alcohol and homosexual exploits on a regular basis. In April of 1932, while returning to New York City on a ship, Crane jumped overboard after a night of heavy drinking, and his body was never recovered.

Major Themes

Crane originally conceived of The Bridge as a poem about equal in length to his "The Marriage of Helen and Faustus," and intended it to be published in his first volume of poetry. But, returning to it repeatedly over seven years, Crane gradually expanded the scope and themes of the poem until it grew to its final epic length. Written as a refutation of the pessimism he found in T. S. Eliot's epic modernist poem The Waste Land, The Bridge is intended to create an American mythology—in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman—built around its central image, the Brooklyn Bridge. Organized into eight major sections-"Ave Maria," "Powhatan's Daughter," "Cutty Sark," "Cape Halteras," "Three Songs," "Quaker Hill," "The Tunnel," and "Atlantis"—as well as an opening "Proem" to the Brooklyn Bridge, the poem contains references to and meditations on historical and fictional figures significant to the founding and development of America, including Christopher Columbus, Pocahontas, the Wright brothers, and Rip Van Winkle. But despite Crane's hope of creating an epic vision for the country, The Bridge is ultimately considered to be the portrayal of a spiritualquest for a new mythic vision, and thus its major theme is the quest itself and the necessity for an intense examination of experience by every individual. Whether or not the quest succeeds in providing a new vision is of secondary importance. Joseph Miller wrote of The Bridge: "Brooklyn Bridge itself, the controlling symbol of the poem, with which it begins and ends, is at the same time a historical object, a work of art, a product of modern technology, and a perfect metaphor for the desire, the spiritual ambitions, and the unifying and reconciling aspirations of American idealism."

Critical Reception

Upon publication, The Bridge was met with limited praise and much confusion from critics. While some commentators, especially those associated with the New Criticism movement, recognized noteworthy individual passages, most found the poem lacking in formal unity or logical exposition and deemed its symbolic structure incoherent and poorly executed. Others asserted that Crane's limited formal education resulted in social analysis and criticism that display a deficient knowledge of the American past. Since the 1960s, however, critics have reassessed the poem. While most agree that as an epic expression of American history and an affirmative myth of American experience the poem fails, many have argued that The Bridge succeeds admirably as the depiction of the spiritual quest in America and is a major achievement in many of its sections as well as an important contribution to American literature.