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Hart Crane is a legendary figure among American poets. He lacked self-esteem, was prone to depression and alcohol abuse, and committed suicide at the age of 32. His art, however, was boldly ambitious and optimistic. His longest work, The Bridge, retains its character as a monumental experiment, and as such stands as a landmark in twentieth-century American poetry. His work has had many detractors over the years, but he has acquired an iconic stature as the quintessential Romantic poet.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From an Ivory Tower to New York
Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21, 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio. His family was upper-middle-class; his father, Clarence A. Crane, built a fortune as a chocolate candy manufacturer.
His mother, Grace Hart Crane, was famously beautiful and profoundly neurotic. Their marriage was stormy and as their only child, Hart Crane was often the victim of their antagonism. His mother smothered him with affection, turned him against his father, and ensnared him in an unhealthy, stifling bond from which he could never free himself. Biographers attribute Crane s unstable, excitable personality to the effects of these early traumas.
When Grace Crane suffered a nervous breakdown in 1908, Hart moved to his grandmother s house in Cleve land. It was a big, three-story frame house with a pair of turrets on the front. There Crane created his own private ”ivory tower with many books, a phonograph, and a typewriter. His grandmother s library was extensive, featuring editions of complete works by poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, both of whom became major influences on his writing. His aunt recalled that Crane announced at the age often his desire to make poetry his vocation. He stuck single-mindedly to this ambition throughout his life.
Crane enrolled in one of Cleveland s finest secondary schools, but his education was undermined by family problems that led to prolonged absences. He never graduated, and instead taught himself, haunting bookstores and reading literary magazines. Finally, in 1916, after his parents separated, Crane left Cleveland and set off for New York. He hoped to pass Columbia University’s entrance examination, but that plan never materialized. He was too eager to become a successful poet right away to be willing to spend four more years in school. He immersed himself in New York’s literary scene, and wrote diligently, managing to publish some early pieces in a Greenwich Village journal, Pagan.
Struggling financially, Crane sold magazine advertising to supplement the financial support he received from his parents, who were divorced in 1917. Hart sided totally with his mother in the divorce disputes, but as a result her emotional demands on him were still greater. Grace Crane, along with her mother, came to live with Hart in his one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, and demanded his near-constant attention. His father then demanded that Crane get a steady job. America had entered the World War I, and Crane attempted to enlist, but was rejected because he was still under age. He then returned to Cleveland and worked in a munitions plant for the duration of the war.
Jazz Age Poetry
When the war ended, Crane took a job reporting for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He briefly worked in his father’s company, then worked in advertising firms in Cleveland and, again, New York. Because of his restless nature, and because he always saw himself as a poet first, he never held a job for long. His romantic life was similarly scattered. Hart Crane was homosexual and promiscuous; he had a zeal for sailors, who were always on the move, and he suffered from many unrequited infatuations.
In the early 1920s, Crane hit his stride as a poet; Among the most important of his poems from this period is “Chaplinesque,” which he produced after viewing the great comic Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid Crane saw in Chaplin the archetype of the poet in the modern world—a combination of clown, Everyman, and holy fool. The idea of the poet as wry comedian was in keeping with the sensibility of America in the Jazz Age. Similar ideas appear in the work of Wallace Stevens, and in T.S. Eliot’s ”Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917). Crane’s poem ”For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” (1923) places mythic characters in a contemporary urban setting: Helen, the embodiment of ideal beauty, appears as a flapper in a jazz club.
Crane’s passionate affair with a seaman named Emil Opffer inspired him to write a suite of love poems, called ”Voyages,” in the fall of 1924. The series contains some of Crane’s finest lyrical passages, using the sea as a metaphor for the beauty, power, and danger of human love. Crane included ”Voyages” in his first published volume, White Buildings (1926).
By the time he finished ”Voyages” in 1924, Crane had already commenced the first drafts of his ambitious poem The Bridge (1930). In composing The Bridge, Crane had in mind a response to T. S. Eliot’s erudite masterwork, The Waste Land (1922)—but he intended it to be an uplifting affirmation, not a bleak negation, of modernity.
As he worked on The Bridge its scope and length expanded, until it comprised fifteen sections. With this long poem, Crane sought to create a panorama of the American experience. The Brooklyn Bridge serves as the work’s sustaining metaphor: a work of functional art, a product of modern technology, and a symbol of America’s idealistic aspirations for unity and social progress. The Brooklyn Bridge, opened for use in 1883, was and is a marvel of engineering. When it was completed, it was by far the longest suspension bridge in the world. It became an official National Historic Landmark in 1964. Crane invokes various American icons, from Christopher Colum-bus to Rip Van Winkle to the Wright Brothers, to celebrate the visionary element of American life.
Crane poured his heart and soul into The Bridge. The generally hostile, bewildered, and indifferent reception his poem received was devastating to him. After his father’s death in 1930, he plunged into a depression from which he never recovered. With the money he inherited, Crane traveled to Paris, where he associated with prominent figures in the city’s American expatriate community. He wrote little in Europe, indulging instead in alcohol and carousing. He wallowed further in these behaviors when he returned to the United States. He sensed the decline in his literary skills. In 1931, he traveled to Mexico, where he had periods of hopefulness about his writing, followed by moments of despair. The despair won out, for on April 27, 1932, during a cruise on the Gulf of Mexico, Hart Crane leapt overboard to his death.
Works in Literary Context
Crane’s self-directed education led him to absorb many literary influences, starting from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, whom he read as a child. In his teens, his reading broadened to include such writers as Plato, Honore de Balzac, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Algernon Swinburne. His earliest poems were long rhapsodies in the manner of Swinburne, full of gods and goddesses.
Modernism and ”Young America”
In New York, Crane came under the influence of two very different, but perhaps complementary, spheres of literary activity. One was that of the journal Little Review, which published the work of modernists such as Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce. The other sphere of influence centered on the journal Seven Arts, whose contributors called themselves ”Young America” and were intent upon revitalizing American civilization through the arts; their guiding spirit was Whitman.
Crane moved freely between these two circles and drew upon them both. The synthesis Crane achieved between these very dissimilar sources is an important part of his contribution to American literature. The spirit of Young America led Crane to endeavor a creative answer to the pessimism of Eliot’s The Waste Land, one that would echo Eliot’s modernist techniques, but apply them in service of more spiritual values. The Bridge sought to unite the style of modernism with the spirit of American romanticism.
Logic and Metaphor
Crane’s poetry is often difficult to comprehend, primarily because of the author’s poetic theory. According to Crane, logic should not be allowed to strip the complexity from real experience. His poems are often guided by what he called a ”logic of metaphor,” filled with private symbolism and emotions inspired by the sounds of words. He was more concerned with the spontaneous associations aroused by words than with their definitions, which he understood as a way of limiting perception. Crane sometimes sought spontaneity of expression by writing while drinking and listening to jazz.
Although he left only a small body of work, Crane is important as a lyric poet in the tradition of the romantic visionary. As such, his work is often compared to that of William Blake and Charles Baudelaire. Crane exuded the expansive optimism of modern America; despite his unhappy life, he was not the type of poet whose perspective stems from alienation from society. It was Crane’s ambition to build upon the emotional illuminations of his private life and extend them into a broad vision of all America. Crane’s world view had a significant influence on later poets such as Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, as well as the prominent literary critic Harold Bloom.
Works in Critical Context
Crane’s collection White Buildings earned him critical respect, but its highly original style prompted speculation that Crane was an imprecise and confused artist who sometimes settled for sound instead of sense. These doubts contributed to the disappointing reception accorded The Bridge. Some influential critics found his effort worthy, but lacking in overall unity and coherence. Even some of Crane’s greatest admirers panned the poem in print. Lacking in detachment from his work, Crane took the criticism to heart.
Crane and the New Criticism
Hart Crane’s opposition to the modernist ethos expressed by T. S. Eliot was deep-rooted. Eliot, that most intellectual of poets, distrusted the emotions and rejected the romantic visionary imagination. Eliot was a major literary critic himself, and his viewpoint heavily influenced a generation of critics who were essentially hostile to Crane’s poetry. Some proponents of the so-called New Criticism took the entire romantic tradition as their target; Crane was the unfortunate example of that tradition. The report of his suicide, which fueled the legend of Hart Crane as the tragic romantic poet-hero, also prevented an objective evaluation of his body of work.
Since the 1960s, as the influence of the New Criticism has waned, Crane has earned recognition as an accomplished poet, albeit one whose goals exceeded his capabilities. Later critics have reassessed The Bridge: they still believe the poem fails as an epic encapsulation of the American experience, but they contend that it succeeds admirably as the portrayal of a quest for a new mythic vision. Works of scholarship, most notably those by L. S. Dembo and R. W. B. Lewis, have clarified many of his poems’ obscurities. Crane is now perceived as an important, even a pivotal figure in American literature.
- Butterfeld, R. W. The Broken Arch: A Study of Hart Crane. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969.
- Clark, David R., ed. Critical Essays on Hart Crane. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- Combs, Robert. Vision of the Voyage: Hart Crane and the Psychology of Romanticism. Memphis, Tenn.: Memphis State University Press, 1978.
- Cowley, Malcolm. Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s. New York: Viking, 1951.
- Dembo, L.S. Hart Crane’s Sanskrit Charge: A Study of The Bridge. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1960.
- Hazo, Samuel. Hart Crane: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963.
- Leibowitz, Herbert A. Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.
- Lewis, R. W. B. The Poetry of Hart Crane: A Critical Study. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.
- Unterecker, John, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane. New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1969.
- Weber, Brom. Hart Crane: A Biographical and Critical Study. New York: Bodley Press, 1948.
- Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1952.
- Arpad, Joseph J. ”Hart Crane’s Platonic Myth: The Brooklyn Bridge.” American Literature 39 (March 1967): 75-86.
- Frank, Waldo. ”The Poetry of Hart Crane.” New Republic 50 (March 16, 1927): 116-117.
- Metzger, Deena Posy. ”Hart Crane’s Bridge: The Myth Active.” Arizona Quarterly 20 (Spring 1964): 36-46.
- Tate, Allen. ”The Self-made Angel.” New Republic 129 (August 31, 1953): 17-21.
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