The recent date of July 21 marks the birthday of American poet Hart Crane, born in Garrettsville, Ohio in Portage County in 1899. In his short lifetime—he lived to be only 32 years old—Crane created two memorable collections of poetry. Like so many artists who die young, the details of his life have become legendary. Crane’s legend is that of an incredibly gifted but deeply tormented poet who relentlessly drank and caroused and finally took his own life by jumping from a ship—in view of fellow passengers–while returning to America from Mexico. But there is so much more to Crane than the often sad and sordid details of his standard biography. His story is also that of a man who created a small but memorable body of poetry despite his demons, and scholars and readers continue to study and enjoy his rich and evocative lyric poetry. More recently, scholars examining homosexuality in literature and the lives of gay writers have examined Crane’s work and life, taking a fresh look at questions of image and identify in his poetry related to his sexuality.
Harold Hart Crane was the only child of Clarence Arthur Crane, who made a success in candy manufacturing–he developed Life Savers–and Grace Hart, a delicate woman from Chicago and devout Christian Scientist. It was an unhappy marriage, and the parents’ problems would be a source of instability and anxiety throughout his life. Especially problematic was Crane’s mother. She was a smothering influence who developed an inappropriate relationship with her son, often sharing with him intimate details about her problems with her husband. She was successful also in turning Crane against his father.
The first nine years of Crane’s life were spent under the oppressive influence of his mother and the poisonous atmosphere of marital discord, but his mother suffered some kind of nervous collapse in 1908—she was apparently a hypochondriac—and this allowed Crane to spend much of his later childhood and adolescence in the home of his grandparents in Warren, Ohio, where he was exposed to a wide variety of literature. Crane explored the works of writers as varied as Whitman, Emerson, Voltaire, Balzac, Shelley, and Plato. By thirteen he had begun composing verse. Throughout his adolescence and early adult years, Crane continued to read deeply, becoming especially knowledgeable about the work of Rimbaud, Laforgue, the Elizabethans, Melville, Poe, Dickinson, Eliot and Sandburg.
Crane left school at age seventeen, spending six months on his maternal grandfather’s fruit plantation on the Isle of Pines before leaving for New York City, where he hoped to take an entrance exam for Columbia University. Instead, Crane was drawn into the literary life of the city. It was here in New York that some of the destructive patterns in Crane’s life took shape: heavy drinking, promiscuous sex with sailors, and the inability to hold a job for any substantial length of time.
During much of his late teens and early twenties, Crane wandered back and forth between Cleveland and New York City. He attempted to join the U.S. Army during WWI but was rejected, and later held jobs ranging from working in a munitions plant during the war to stints as a reporter, advertising writer, and shipping clerk. Crane had begun placing poems in little magazines while still a teenager, and by 1926 had published his first collection: White Buildings. White Buildings includes some of Crane’s strongest early poems, including “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” and “Voyages.” Crane had fallen in love with a Danish sailor and journalist named Emil Opffer, and this affair inspired “Voyages,” which is a poetic sequence dealing with the redemptive power of love. “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” pictures the two mythological figures in the American 1920’s, and it celebrates the optimism of the postwar era. Unlike many other literary figures of the times, Crane saw things worth celebrating in the raw vitality of postwar industrial America. The success of White Buildings also attracted the attention of wealthy arts patron Otto Kahn, who gave Crane two grants to work on his next project, which would become his most famous work—the long symphonically structured poem entitled The Bridge (1930).
The Bridge is a fifteen-part poem using the Brooklyn Bridge as its key symbol, representing a link between past and present. The bridge serves as metaphor in other ways, representing the length of the land from one coast to another, as well as the energy and ambition of 20th century America. It is a particularly rich symbol that is capable–no pun intended–of bearing the weight of multiple interpretations. The poem is Crane’s attempt to capture and celebrate America, its myths and promise, its fertility and vibrancy. A host of famous real and fictional figures crowd its pages: Columbus, Pochahontas, and Rip van Winkle are there, and the landscape of America is too, ranging from the western frontier and the shoreline of Cape Hatteras to the stony soil of New England and the urban roar of a New York subway.
Critical reaction to the poem was mixed, and continues to be so to this day. The Bridge has always had admirers, with some critics praising the ambition and scope of the work, along with Crane’s eloquent lines. Others have decried what they see as the formlessness and obscurity of the poem while noting the success of individual poems. It is often noted in discussions of The Bridge that critics more sympathetic to Whitmanesque long lines and rhapsody are probably more predisposed to view the work favorably, whereas others who favor classical unity are more skeptical of Crane’s achievement. It is remarkable to me how much polarization there is surrounding the poem, and how it is a kind of barometer measuring any one critic’s sympathy for literary romanticism.
Despite the mixed response, The Bridge helped Crane obtain a Guggenheim fellowship, and the poet left for Mexico, planning on writing a long poem on Cortez and Montezuma. His relationship with Emil Opffer had deteriorated not long after the publication of White Buildings, and Crane had continued his old patterns, drinking heavily, arguing with friends, and cruising the waterfront–sometimes being badly beaten by sailors while doing so. Crane continued to drink and carouse while in Mexico, but he startled his friends by embarking upon a heterosexual romance with Peggy Baird, who was separated from her husband, the critic Malcolm Cowley. Baird and Crane spoke of marriage and a future, but their time was shadowed by Crane’s deep personal problems. The poet was frustrated with his output and felt he had wasted his fellowship. Crane, only recently reconciled with his father after a long period of estrangement, lost his father in 1931. He drank heavily, created six different wills, and attempted suicide by drinking iodine.
He could take it no longer. En route to New York on the S. S. Orizaba, Crane leaped to his death shortly before noon on April 26, 1932 off the coast of Florida.
Crane’s life was full of anguish, but he managed to create a poetry rich with sonorous elegance and beauty. If The Bridge is a failure, as some critics insist, it is a magnificent one. As with any person who dies young, we can only speculate as to what he might have done had he lived longer. However, we have Crane’s collected work available to us, and we can be grateful for what he gave us in his short and painful life.
The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane. Edited with introduction and notes by Brom Weber. Anchor Press, 1966.
Hart Crane: An Introduction. Clarence Lindsay, The State Library of Ohio, 1979.
Ohio Authors and their Books 1796-1950, ed. by William Coyle. The World Publishing Co., 1962.
Poetry Foundation website entry on Hart Crane.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, Philip Leininger. Entry on Hart Crane by Oscar Cargill and George Perkins. Harper Collins, 1991.
The Oxford Companion To American Literature, edited by James D. Hart. Fifth Edition. Oxford University Press, 1983.