To understand Hart Crane’s work, it is necessary first to appreciate that he was homosexual and, second, to realize what it meant to be homosexual in the United States in the early twentieth century. Three Crane biographies that precede The Broken Tower—Philip Horton’s Hart Crane: The Life of an American Poet (1937), Brom Weber’s Hart Crane: A Biographical and Critical Study(1948), and John Unterecker’s massive Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (1969)—are valuable in their own rights, but all the authors deal only obliquely with the salient question of Crane’s sexuality.
Paul Mariani, writing in more enlightened times, deals frankly and openly with this matter. He also gained access to crucial documents that were not available to earlier researchers. As a result, he has produced a much more penetrating study of Crane than the three previous biographers, each of whom produced worthy studies that failed to elucidate fully what affected Crane’s development as a writer more than any other single factor.
Harold Hart Crane was born into an affluent family in Garrettsville, Ohio, on July 21, 1899. Crane’s entrepreneurial father, Clarence, worked in his father’s maple syrup business, expanding that sleepy enterprise and growing wealthy in the process. Surmising that the average person relishes a bargain even at the sacrifice of quality, he devised a way to flavor cane sugar with maple syrup and sell it at an attractive price, somewhat to his father’s chagrin.
When Clarence introduced this product, sales skyrocketed, spurring him to attempt further experiments, one of which was the invention of Crane’s Peppermint Life Savers, the flavored rings with holes in the middle with a package that read, “For That Stormy Breath.” Clarence expected his son would eventually take over his thriving business.
Crane’s mother, Grace, who married Clarence after knowing him for two months, came from a socially prominent family in Cleveland. She was heavily influenced by her mother, a Christian Scientist, who wooed her daughter into that faith. Both mother and grandmother later tried unsuccessfully to entice Crane into Christian Science.
The Crane marriage was an unhappy one. Grace and Clarence argued almost constantly. They had trial separations, but Clarence generally relented, repented, and reclaimed his wife with gifts. Their reconciliations involved violent sessions of love-making, causing the impressionable son to vow never to be involved romantically with women. This is not to say that his parents’ tempestuous relationship made the young Crane homosexual. Rather, it confirmed in him an inherent homosexual nature that he realized quite early.
Mariani chronicles the psychosomatic illnesses that afflicted Crane throughout his life. He suffered from asthma and, at times, completely disabling bouts of hay fever. During periods of emotional stress, particularly during his parents’ tumultuous arguments, he had asthma attacks. His skin broke out in welts. He also experienced stress-generated fevers, as when his mother scolded him during a holiday on Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac because he failed to stand up when her friend came to their table. Within hours, Crane was in bed with a fever, receiving concerned attention from his distraught mother.
Crane’s early life was privileged but troubled. He often lived in the Victorian mansion of his maternal grandparents in Cleveland, where he was attended by servants and fussed over by a doting grandmother. At times, his parents lived in this house too, but usually Crane stayed with his grandparents because his parents were separated.
Grace enjoyed traveling and sometimes took her son out of school for extended periods to travel with her. In the winter of 1915, he went for two months with his parents to Isle of Pines, an island between Cuba and Florida, where Grace’s parents owned a plantation. Clarence left abruptly after yet another argument with Grace, but Grace stayed on with her son. Crane often returned both physically and in his imagination to Isle of Pines. In 1917, he began writing a novel set there and in Havana, Cuba, but abandoned the project when a hurricane wrecked his family’s plantation.
Mariani provides telling information about the mercurial tempers of Crane’s parents. The two loved each other and unquestionably loved Crane, but both parents engaged in incessant verbal combat during which...
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