Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1954
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 writer. For a considerable time after his death, Crane was seen as a modern version of the self-destructive romantic poet maudit—an American counterpart to Arthur Rimbaud (one of Crane’s major influences), who has been described as “a rebel, a strikingly masculine homosexual poet who explored mystical borderlands of sensation and died an early death.” The applicability of this characterization is indisputable, but it ignores the aspect of Crane’s life that David Bromwich has accurately depicted in his observation that Crane was “among the most intelligent of artist—in the discursive sense which entails an ability to communicate a purpose of the work of art outside the work itself.”
In letters to Harriet Monroe (editor of Poetry) responding to her request for an explanation of his poems (including the exceptional “At Melville’s Tomb”), Crane not only demonstrated a very careful concern for the craft of poetry but also indicated how thorough and perceptive his knowledge of literary tradition was. During the 1920’s, Crane was in constant communication with other poets, critics, scholars, and friends (as well as his parents) about his ambitions and interests.
The zest with which Crane approached both his social life and his work culminated in his greatest achievement, the fifteen-part epic poem The Bridge (1930). As early as 1923, Crane wrote that he already had an image in his mind of a poem that would be a “mystical synthesis of America.” Crane was inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, which he could see from his apartment in Columbia Heights near the East River. Crane learned later that the apartment had once been the home of Washington Roebling, the designer of the bridge, who had used it as an observation platform during construction. Crane intended to write a poem that echoed Walt Whitman’s vision of an America of limitless possibilities and that also served as a rejoinder to T. S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land (1922) he admired but which he considered “dead,” remarking that Eliot’s pessimism was “amply justified, in his own case.”
While Crane was preparing The Bridge from 1923 to 1927, his complicated entanglement with his parents’ demands, a reading of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, and the effects of an untrammeled nightlife darkened his outlook to the degree that the poem developed as a mixture of modes, joining the exhilarating vision of a nation in ascendance with a grimness (part 7, “The Tunnel”) that gave the poem a kind of balancing gravity. Not all of the individual sections are entirely successful—the one called “Indiana” is limited by a sing-song metric arrangement—but in the strongest ones, Crane evokes the heart-driven, mind-stirring feelings of great adventure and exploration. The bridge itself looms across all fifteen sections, its awesome arch symbolizing the outward reaches of a quest for some cosmic insight.
The originality, complexity, and linguistic density of the poem led to a mixed critical response, and Crane’s search for what his friend, editor Malcolm Cowley, called the “ecstasy of frenzy and illumination” became more frantic and reckless as Crane began to doubt the validity of his enterprise. “If only America were half as worthy as Whitman spoke of it fifty years ago, I might have something to say,” he lamented. His “appetite for disorder” (as the poet Richard Howard put it) led his editor, Langdon Hammer, to observe that Crane “sometimes settled for the fame of a drunkard, whose intoxicated misadventures mocked the inspired states of ‘possession’ he once knew.”
In 1927, Crane visited California with Herbert Wise and found himself in a “pink vacuum” of “nondescript people who seem just bound from nowhere to nothing.” His intimacy with his mother, whose loans helped to sustain him and his estrangement from his father (who died in 1931, pulling Crane into the legal thicket of a contested will), also contributed to a state of growing despair. When he went to Mexico with Peggy Cowley in 1931, the lure of the region that he had first visited at the age of sixteen could not overcome what Cowley called his “suicidal mania.” After a drunken brawl on the ship A. S. Orizaba, Crane escaped from a boarded room and leaped into the sea. His last words, according to Cowley, were, “I’m not going to make it, dear. I’m utterly disgraced.”
Hart Crane hoped to be remembered as one of a company of poets whose work defined literary modernism—a group that included his contemporaries T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound, all of whom lived on toward the last decades of the twentieth century, solidifying their reputations and outlasting gossip about their idiosyncracies. Crane, however, was defined in the public eye by his suicide and by his raucous lifestyle. His homosexuality, which he did not flaunt but never denied or hid, was not stressed in discussions of his work but probably affected the judgment of some commentators who tended to dismiss Crane’s work since they disapproved of his life. In addition, the difficulties inherent in his poetry—which he acknowledged and examined in some very lucid letters—prevented him from achieving the popularity of other contemporaries such as Carl Sandburg or Robert Frost.
One of the reasons that Crane’s work requires some close and careful attention to yield its pleasures is that it is not directly personal. Crane the poet does not emerge as a recognizable character, nor does the intricate detail of his life appear. However, there is a specific sensibility present, a distinctive voice, and a concern for both the character of a country and the complexity of some of the largest questions of existence. Consequently, his poetry has not become the reflection of a particular time but continues to maintain interest for the reader-listener fascinated with the arts of language and the issues that Crane engaged. Decades later, the poet as outsider or martyr to his art does not seem as threatening or scandalous as he did in Crane’s time. In a sense, Crane is a kind of connective link between Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom also tried to use words to shape their love for a country where they were not always made to feel welcome.
Berthoff, Warner. Hart Crane: A Re-Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989. This is a solid, concise, generally accurate discussion of Crane’s life and work that uses more recent scholarship to correct misrepresentations of earlier books.
Crane, Hart. O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane. Edited by Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998. This expanded and revised edition of the 1952 Letters includes separate introductions to the periods of Crane’s life and an analytical index. One-third of the letters are new, and all are uncensored.
Unterecker, John. Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Unterecker’s detailed biography does not deal with Crane’s poetry but offers a wealth of information about his life
Williamson, Alan. “Hart Crane.” Voices & Visions: The Poet In America. New York: Random House, 1987. This perceptive, informative essay covers Crane’s life and work. The book is intellectually serious but accessible and contains many illustrations.
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