Hart Crane

1899–1932
Hart Crane
Hart Crane is a legendary figure among American poets. In his personal life he showed little self-esteem, indulging in great and frequent bouts of alcohol abuse. In his art, however, he showed surprising optimism. Critics have contended that for Crane, misery and despair were redeemed through the apprehension of beauty, and in some of his greatest verses he articulated his own quest for redemption. He also believed strongly in the peculiarly naive American Romanticism extending back through Walt Whitman to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in his most ambitious work, The Bridge, Crane sought nothing less than an expression of the American experience in its entirety. His failure in this attempt, as many critics noted, was rather to be expected. His effort, however, not only impressed many of those same critics but prompted a few of them to see Crane as a pivotal figure in American literature, and he has since come to be regarded as both the quintessential Romantic artist and the embodiment of those extreme characteristics—hope and despair, redemption and damnation—that seemed to preoccupy many writers in his time. As Allen Tate wrote in Essays of Four Decades, "Crane was one of those men whom every age seems to select as the spokesman of its spiritual life; they give the age away."

Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, in 1899 of bourgeois parents—his father was a businessman who produced chocolates, and his mother was an emotionally unstable woman known for her beauty. Crane's relationship with his mother was stifling in its intensity. His parents fought regularly, and his mother succeeded in engaging his sympathies against his father. In addition, his mother used him as an often inappropriate confidant in complaining about the sex act and her real and imagined health problems. During his mother's bouts of hypochondria, Crane often spent an inordinate amount of time in her company, comforting and consoling her. This unusual intimacy proved overwhelmingly distressful to Crane, but even in adulthood he often remained incapable of freeing himself from his mother's considerable control.

As a result of real and imagined problems, Crane's mother suffered a nervous collapse in 1908, and while she recuperated, he moved to his grandmother's home in Cleveland. There he spent most of his formative years and showed his first enthusiasm for poetry. His grandmother's library was extensive, featuring editions of complete works by poets such as Victorian Robert Browning and Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, both of whom became major influences in Crane's poetry. During his mid-teens Crane continued to read extensively, broadening his interests to include such writers as philosopher Plato, novelist Honore de Balzac, and Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Crane's formal education, however, was continually undermined by family problems necessitating prolonged absences from school. Finally, in 1916, he left Cleveland without graduating and moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, which he hoped to enter upon passing an entrance examination.

Once in New York City, however, Crane abandoned any pretence of acquiring a college education and began vigorously pursuing a literary career. Through a painter he knew earlier from Cleveland, Crane met other writers and gained exposure to various art movements and ideas. Reading the works of French Symbolists Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud and contemporary Irishmen William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, writing, and socializing with other artists—and aspiring artists—left Crane little time or energy for work. Instead of seeking regular employment, he relied on his parents to provide financial support. Their continual squabbling, however, sometimes resulted in unfortunate delays of his funds, and so Crane occasionally sold advertising for the publication Little Review, which promoted the work of modernists such as Joyce and T. S. Eliot.

Crane also associated with a far different periodical, Seven Arts, which devoted itself to traditional American literature extending from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman to Sherwood Anderson and Robert Frost. Both Seven Arts and Little Review exerted considerable influence on the impressionable Crane, and in his own poetry he would seek to reconcile the two magazines' disparate philosophies. At this time—around 1917—Crane was already producing publishable verse. Some of these works appeared in the local journal Pagan. Relatively short, Crane's poems from this period reveal his interests in both tradition and experimentation, merging a rhyming structure with jarringly contemporary imagery. These early poems, though admired by some critics, were never held highly by Crane, and he never reprinted them in his lifetime.

Initially, Crane found New York City invigorating and even inspiring. Although he abused alcohol and consistently indulged his sexual proclivity for sailors, he still managed to work diligently on his poetry. But his parents divorced in 1917, and afterwards his mother arrived—with her mother—to stay in his one-bedroom apartment. Bedridden from emotional exhaustion, Crane's mother demanded his near constant attention. His problems mounted when his father, increasingly prosperous in the chocolate business, nonetheless threatened to withhold further funds until Crane found a job. To escape the pressures of family life, Crane attempted to enlist in the Army, only to be rejected as a minor. He then left New York City for Cleveland and found work in a munitions plant for the duration of World War I.

After the war, Crane stayed in Cleveland and found work as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He held that job only briefly, however, before returning to New York City to work once again for the Little Review. In mid-1919 his father used his influence in obtaining a position for his son as a shipping clerk. But Crane stayed at that job for only a few months before moving back to Ohio to work for his father's own company. Their relationship, though, was hardly congenial, for Crane's father professed little understanding of his son's lifestyle, and Crane, in turn, accorded little compassion for his father, despite the latter's trying marriage and divorce. Complicating matters further was the presence of Crane's mother, with whom Crane had begun living after she returned to Cleveland. Tensions finally exploded in the spring of 1921 when Crane's father criticized the son's maternal ties, whereupon Crane apparently announced that he would no longer associate with his father. As biographer John Unterecker noted in Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane: "[Crane's father] ... turned white with rage, shouting that if Hart didn't apologize he would be disinherited. Hart climaxed the scene by screaming curses on his father and his father's money." The two men did not speak to each for the next two years.

Upon leaving his father's company, Crane stayed briefly in Cleveland working for advertising companies. He then found similar work in New York City, but moving there hardly solved his ongoing personal problems. His mother continued to ply his sympathies by mail, regaling him with accounts of her emotional and physical troubles. Crane sought solace in sex but inevitably found heartbreak, for his infatuations with other men, including many sailors, went largely unreciprocated. Curiously, his fluctuating emotional state—which ranged from manic euphoria to dire depression, both exacerbated by alcohol abuse—led him to distort his childhood memories into fond recollections, though he managed to resist his mother's constant pleas to return to her home in Cleveland.

By 1922 Crane had already written many of the poems that would comprise his first collection, White Buildings. Among the most important of these verses is "Chaplinesque," which he produced after viewing the great comic Charlie Chaplin's film "The Kid." In this poem Chaplin's chief character—a fun-loving, mischievous tramp—represents the poet, whose own pursuit may be perceived as trivial but is nonetheless profound. For Crane, the film character's optimism and sensitivity bears similarities to poets' own outlooks toward adversity, and the tramp's apparent disregard for his own persecution is indication of his innocence: "We will sidestep, and to the final smirk / Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb / That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us, / Facing the dull squint with what innocence / And what surprise!"

In "Lachrymae Christi," another major poem from this period, Crane expresses a more profound sympathy for the poet, whose suffering inevitably leads to redemption. Here, through mysterious imagery and symbolism, Crane portrays nature, specifically as it is renewed in springtime, as a reflection of the poet's own rejuvenation: "Lean long from sable, slender boughs, / Unstanched and luminous. And as the nights / Strike from Thee perfect spheres, / Lift up in lilac-emerald breath the grail / Of earth again—/ Thy face / From charred and riven stakes, O / Dionysus, Thy / Unmangled smile." In his volume Hart Crane, Vincent Quinn noted that "the birthpangs of spring, and the anguish of the poet are presented as analogous instances of torment" and added, "From this gathering of pain, a chorus of triumph emerges."

Aside from "Chaplinesque" and "Lachrymae Christi," the most impressive poem Crane produced before 1924 was probably "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen," a relatively expansive work reveling in the optimism that Crane believed prevalent throughout America at the time—the early 1920s. With this poem, he reinforces his own optimism by setting the marriage in contemporary times: Faustus rides a streetcar, and Helen appears at a jazz club. Here Faustus represents the poet seeking ideal beauty, and Helen embodies that beauty. In the poem's concluding section, Helen's beauty encompasses the triumph of the times too, and Crane calls for recognition of the age as one in which the poetic imagination surpasses the despair of recent events, notably World War I: "Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile / Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height / The imagination spans beyond despair, / Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer."

Unfortunately, the optimism expressed in such poems as "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen" was hardly indicative of Crane's emotional state at the time. Soon after completing the aforementioned poem in the spring of 1923, Crane moved back to New York City and found work at another advertising agency. Not surprisingly, he once again found the job tedious and unrewarding. Adding to his displeasure was the unwelcome tumult and cacophony of city occurrences—automobile traffic, street vendors, and endless waves of marching pedestrians—that corrupted his concentration and stifled his imagination. By autumn Crane feared that his anxiety would soon lead to a nervous breakdown and so fled the city for nearby Woodstock. There he reveled in the relative tranquility of the rural environment and enjoyed the company of a few close friends.

Once revived, Crane traveled back to New York City. Soon afterwards he fell in love with a sailor, Emil Opffer, and their relationship—one of intense sexual passion and occasional turbulence—inspired "Voyages," a poetic sequence in praise of love. In Hart Crane, Quinn described this poem as "a celebration of the transforming power of love" and added that the work's "metaphor is the sea, and its movement is from the lover's dedication to a human and therefore changeable lover to a beloved beyond time and change." Here the sea represents love in all its shifting complexity from calm to storm, and love, in turn, serves as the salvation of us all: "Bind us in time, O Season clear, and awe. / O minstrel galleons of Carib fire, / Bequeath us to no earthly shore until / Is answered in the vortex of our grave / The seal's wide spindrift gaze toward paradise." With its dazzling poeticism and mysteriously inspiring perspective, this poem is often hailed as Crane's greatest achievement. R. W. B. Lewis, for instance, wrote in The Poetry of Hart Crane that the poem was Crane's "lyrical masterpiece."

By the time he finished "Voyages" in 1924, Crane had already commenced the first drafts of his ambitious poem The Bridge, which he intended, at least in part, as an uplifting alternative to T. S. Eliot's bleak masterwork, The Waste Land. With this long poem, which eventually comprised fifteen sections and sixty pages, Crane sought to provide a panorama of what he called "the American experience." Adopting the Brooklyn Bridge as the poem's sustaining symbol, Crane celebrates, in often hopelessly obscure imagery, various peoples and places—from explorer Christopher Columbus and the legendary Rip Van Winkle to the contemporary New England landscape and the East River tunnel. The bridge, in turn, serves as the structure uniting, and representing, all that is America. In addition, it functions as the embodiment of uniquely American optimism and serves as a source of inspiration and patriotic devotion: "O Sleepless as the river under thee, / Vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod, / Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God."

In 1926, while Crane worked on The Bridge, his verse collection White Buildings was published. This work earned him substantial respect as an imposing stylist, one whose lyricism and imagery recalled the French Romantics Baudelaire and Rimbaud. But it prompted speculation that Crane was an imprecise and confused artist, one who sometimes settled for sound instead of sense. Edmund Wilson, for instance, wrote in New Republic that "though [Crane] can sometimes move us, the emotion is oddly vague." For Wilson, whose essay was later reprinted in The Shores of Light, Crane possessed "a style that is strikingly original—almost something like a great style, if there could be such a thing as a great style which was ... not ... applied to any subject at all."

Crane, for his part, responded to similar charges from Poetry editor Harriet Monroe by claiming, in an appropriately confused manner, that his poetry is consistent with the illogicality of the genre. "It all comes to the recognition," he declared, "that emotional dynamics are not to be confused with any absolute order of rationalized definitions; ergo, in poetry the rationale of metaphor belongs to another order of experience than science, and is not to be limited by a scientific and arbitrary code or relationships either in verbal inflections or concepts."

By the time that White Buildings appeared in print, Crane's intense relationship with sailor Emil Opffer had already faded. Crane returned to his former ways, enjoying promiscuity, abusing alcohol, and alternating from obnoxious euphoria to disturbing depression. Constant conflict with his mother further aggravated his already unstable demeanor, as did the death of his grandmother in 1928. More positively, Crane realized a reconciliation with his father around that time, but the parent's death soon afterward only served to plunge the poet once more into depression.

With his inheritance, Crane fled his manipulative mother and traveled to Europe. There he associated with prominent figures in Paris's American expatriate community, notably publisher and poet Harry Crosby, who murdered his mistress and killed himself the following year. Crane wrote little in Europe, indulging instead in alcohol and carousing. When he returned to the United States he wallowed further in excessive drinking and sexual relations. Furthermore, his self-confidence was shaken by the disappointing reception accorded The Bridge by critics, many of whom expressed respect for his effort but dissatisfaction with his achievement. But even critics that deemed Crane's work a failure readily expressed respect for his creative undertaking. William Rose Benet, for instance, declared in the Saturday Review of Literature that Crane had "failed in creating what might have been a truly great poem." But Benet nonetheless deemed The Bridge "fascinating" and declared that it "reveals potencies in the author that may make his next work even more remarkable."

Crane, however, had entered a creative slump from which he would not recover. Perhaps sensing a decline in his literary skills, he applied for a Guggenheim fellowship with intentions of studying European culture and the American poetic sensibility. After obtaining the fellowship, though, Crane traveled to Mexico and continued his self-destructive behavior. At this time he also experienced a heterosexual romance—presumably his only one—with Peggy Baird, who was then married to prominent literary figure Malcolm Cowley. During this time Crane wrote only infrequently, producing largely inferior work that only confirmed his own fear that his talent had declined significantly. Finally, in 1932, his despair turned all-consuming, and on April 27, while traveling by ship with Baird, Crane killed himself by leaping into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the years since his death, Crane has earned recognition as an ambitious and accomplished—if not entirely successful—poet, one whose goals vastly exceeded his capabilities (and, probably, anyone else's) but whose talent nonetheless enabled him to explore the limits of self-expression both provocatively and profoundly. Allen Tate, writing in his Essays of Four Decades, assessed Crane's artistic achievement as an admirable, but unavoidable, failure. Tate noted that Crane, like the earlier Romantics, attempted the overwhelming imposition of his own will in his poetry, and in so doing reached the point at which his will, and thus his art, became self-reflexive, and thus self-destructive. "By attempting an extreme solution to the romantic problem," Tate contended, "Crane proved that it cannot be solved."

Other critics have tended to share Tate's general assessment of Crane as a flawed but nonetheless invaluable poet. R. P. Blackmur, in his essay collection The Double Agent, acknowledged Crane's shortcomings and accepted that in reading Crane "we must make allowances for him." But Blackmur also wrote: "Merely because Crane is imperfect in his kind is no reason to give him up; there is no plethora of perfection, and the imperfect beauty, like life, retains its fascination. And there is about him, too—such were his gifts for the hearts of words, such the vitality of his intelligence—the distraught but exciting splendour of a great failure." Likewise laudatory was poet Brother Antoninus, who wrote in Commonweal that Crane, despite his failings, achieved much as an artist. "Crane ... was woefully deficient in the stabilizing apprehension of the concrete," Antoninus conceded. But he added that through this deficiency Crane "purchased a kind of heroic redemption, in that he was enabled to register most vividly reality as he did apprehend it ..., and hence make of his death that sacrifice by which an age enables those whom it destroys to accomplish what we others need to know."

Career

Writer. Worked as mechanic bench hand and shipyard laborer in Ohio in mid-1910s; newspaper reporter for Cleveland Plain Dealer in Cleveland, OH, 1919; advertising manager for Little Review in New York City, 1919; shipping clerk for Rheinthal and Newman in New York City, 1919; advertising copywriter for various firms in Cleveland and New York City in 1920s; in sales in New York City in mid-1920s.

Bibliography

  • White Buildings (poetry), foreword by Allen Tate, Boni & Liveright, 1926, reprinted, Liveright, 1972.
  • The Bridge (poetry), Black Sun Press, 1930, Liveright, 1930, reprinted, 1970.
  • The Collected Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Waldo Frank, Liveright, 1933.
  • Voyages: Six Poems From White Buildings, illustrations by Leonard Baskin, Museum of Modern Art, 1957.
  • The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane, edited by Brom Weber, Doubleday/Anchor, 1966, Liveright (New York, NY), 2000.
  • Twenty-one Letters From Hart Crane to George Bryan, edited by Joseph Katz, Hugh C. Atkinson, and Richard A. Ploch, Ohio State University Press, 1968.
  • Robber Rocks: Letters and Memories of Hart Crane, 1923-1932, edited by Susan Jenkins Brown, Wesleyan University Press, 1969.
  • Ten Unpublished Poems, Gotham Book Mart, 1972.
  • (With others) The Letters of Hart Crane and His Family, edited by Thomas S. W. Lewis, Columbia University Press, 1974.
  • (With Yvor Winters) Hart Crane and Yvor Winters: Their Literary Correspondence, edited by Thomas Parkinson, University of California Press, 1978.
  • The Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Marc Simon, Liveright, 1986.
  • O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, Four Walls Eight Windows (New York, NY), 1997.
  • Clive Fisher's Hart Crane: A Life, Yale University Press, 2002.
Work represented in numerous anthologies, including The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse and The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Contributor to periodicals, including Bruno's Weekly, Modern School, Modernist, Pagan, and S4N.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Blackmur, R. P., The Double Agent: Essays in Craft and Elucidation, Arrow Editions, 1935.
  • Butterfield, R. W., The Broken Arch: A Study of Hart Crane, Oliver & Boyd, 1969.
  • Clark, David R., editor, The Merrill Studies in "The Bridge," Merrill, 1970.
  • Clark, David R., editor, Critical Essays on Hart Crane, G. K. Hall, 1982.
  • Combs, Robert, Vision of the Voyage: Hart Crane and the Psychology of Romanticism, Memphis State University Press, 1978.
  • Cowley, Malcolm, Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920's, Viking, 1951.
  • Crane, Hart, The Collected Poems of Hart Crane, edited by Waldo Frank, Liveright, 1933.
  • Dembo, L. S., Hart Crane's Sanskrit Charge: A Study of The Bridge, Cornell University Press, 1960.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 4: American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939, 1980, Volume 48: American Poets, 1880-1945, Second Series, 1986.
  • Frank, Waldo, In the American Jungle: 1925-1936, Farrar & Rinehart, 1937.
  • Hanley, Alfred, Hart Crane's Holy Vision: "White Buildings," Duquesne University Press, 1981.
  • Hazo, Samuel, Hart Crane: An Introduction and Interpretation, Barnes & Noble, 1963.
  • Horton, Philip, Hart Crane: The Life of an American Poet, Norton, 1937.
  • Leibowitz, Herbert A., Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1968.
  • Lewis, R. W. B., The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study, Princeton University Press, 1967.
  • Munson, Gorham B., Destinations: A Canvass of American Literature Since 1900, J. H. Sears, 1928.
  • Nilsen, Helge Normann, Hart Crane's Divided Vision: An Analysis of The Bridge, Universitetssforlaget (Oslo, Norway), 1980.
  • Paul, Sherman, Hart's "Bridge," University of Illinois Press, 1972.
  • Perry, Robert L., The Shared Vision of Waldo Frank and Hart Crane, University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
  • Quinn, Vincent G., Hart Crane, Twayne, 1963.
  • Schwartz, Joseph, Hart Crane: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1983.
  • Spears, Monroe K., Hart Crane, University of Minneapolis Press, 1965.
  • Sugg, Richard P., Hart Crane's "The Bridge": A Description of Its Life, University of Alabama Press, 1976.
  • Tate, Allen, Essays of Four Decades, Swallow Press, 1968.
  • Trachtenbert, Alan, editor, Hart Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1982.
  • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 2, 1979, Volume 5, 1981.
  • Unterecker, John, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane, Farrar, Strauss, 1969.
  • Uroff, M. D., Hart Crane: The Patterns of His Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1974.
  • Weber, Brom, Hart Crane: A Biographical and Critical Study, Bodley Press, 1948.
  • Wilson, Edmund, The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties, Farrar, Straus, 1952.
PERIODICALS
  • American Literature, March, 1967; March, 1968.
  • Arizona Quarterly, spring, 1964.
  • Commonweal, October 26, 1962.
  • Critical Inquiry, autumn, 1975.
  • New Republic, March 16, 1927; May 11, 1927; August 31, 1953; June 22, 1987.
  • Papers on Language and Literature, summer, 1980.
  • PMLA, March, 1951, January, 1981.
  • Poetry, October, 1926.
  • Prairie Schooner, summer, 1974.
  • Saturday Review of Literature, July 5, 1930.
  • Sewanee Review, January-March, 1950; July-September, 1965.
  • Southern Review, July, 1975.
  • Twentieth Century Literature, October, 1967.
  • University of Kansas Review, winter, 1949.
  • Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, spring-summer, 1962.
  • Yale Review, winter, 1987.

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Poet Categorization

SCHOOL / PERIOD Modern

LIFE SPAN 1899–1932

Hart Crane

Biography

Hart Crane is a legendary figure among American poets. In his personal life he showed little self-esteem, indulging in great and frequent bouts of alcohol abuse. In his art, however, he showed surprising optimism. Critics have contended that for Crane, misery and despair were redeemed through the apprehension of beauty, and in some of his greatest verses he articulated his own quest for redemption. He also believed strongly in . . .

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