“At times dear Gorham, I feel an enormous power in me–that seems almost supernatural,” Hart Crane wrote to his friend Gorham Munson in 1922. America was under the spell of Modernism, and Crane was on the cusp of his twenty-third birthday, but he had been sure since the age of 17 that he was destined for literary greatness. He was falling short of it, he believed, because of circumstance rather than his own limitations. “If this power is not too dissipated in aggravation and discouragement I may amount to something sometime,” he continued. The modern condition was a big part of his problem (“If only America were half as worthy today to be spoken of as Whitman spoke of it fifty years ago there might be something for one to say,” he wrote to another friend). Equally frustrating for Crane, however, was the necessity of earning a living. He was constitutionally incapable of holding down a job, in large measure because he felt he shouldn’t be required to, and as a result was always short of funds. Though he worked off and on in advertising while he was in New York, and at a few dreadful posts at his father’s candy company when he was forced to return home, completely broke, to Ohio, most often he was content to borrow as much as he could from friends and family, shuttling between numerous New York City apartments, his native Midwest and various people’s country houses. A stint at his grandmother’s decrepit estate off the coast of Cuba, where he sought but never found peace, filled out the spring of 1926.
All of this conspired to make Crane, already at odds with the world thanks to his often frightening proclivity for excess and his homosexuality, feel even more of an outsider–and an exhausted one at that. As he explained to his mother, he was constantly “moving around from one place to another, clothes here, there and everywhere and not knowing where the next meal was coming from.” But there was another, equally large–if not larger–problem standing between Hart Crane and his best work, though he was not willing to admit it. “I can say this now with perfect equanimity,” he wrote to Munson, referring to his proclamations of greatness and despair, “because I am notoriously drunk…”
For if Crane was one of America’s greatest poets–and his inclusion in the Library of America pronounces, once and for all, that he was–he was also one of America’s most infamous imbibers. He believed drinking illuminated the darkest corners of his imagination–as he wrote in “The Wine Menagerie,” “Invariably when wine redeems the sight…A leopard ranging always in the brow/Asserts a vision in the slumbering gaze.” He often sat down to work when he was drunk, and once confessed to Alfred Stieglitz, “I nearly go mad with the intense but always misty realization of what can be done if potentialities are fully freed, released.” Indeed, his plans were nothing if not grandiose. “Very roughly, it concerns a mystical synthesis of ‘America,'” he said of the epic poem that he planned to write about the formation of the United States, “The Bridge,” which became his masterpiece and best-known work. “History and fact, location, etc. all have to be transfigured into abstract form that would almost function independently of its subject matter. The initial impulses of ‘our people’ will have to be gathered up toward the climax of the bridge…”
With a design as lofty as that, it’s perhaps no wonder that the poem, which was published in 1930 as a book resplendent with Walker Evans’s photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge, is a spectacular, though inarguably important, failure. Much of it crumbles under the weight of history, which Crane doesn’t manage to bring to life–the clash between Native Americans and New Americans, the drama of the Gold Rush–and the language seems to wind around itself so completely at certain points that it’s entirely choked off from meaning. This was a problem he had encountered before. After he submitted a poem to Marianne Moore’s Dial magazine in 1925, she wrote back to him rejecting it: “We could not but be moved, as you must know, by the rich imagination and sensibility in your poem, Passage. Its multiform content accounts, I suppose, for what seems to us a lack of simplicity and cumulative force. We are sorry to return it.” Though Crane was angry at Moore, he was not entirely unaware of his weaknesses. Writing to Munson about “The Bridge” in 1926, he noted that “however bad this work may be, it ought to be hugely and unforgivably, distinguishedly bad. In a way it’s a test of materials as much as a test of one’s imagination.”
In spite of his depressive temperament, Crane was an enthusiast, and as such was explicitly against the pessimism that defined his era and especially its poetry. “Is this acceptable or not as the poetic determinism of our age?!” he asked Munson about the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” “I, of course, can say no, to myself, and believe it.” Though he admired Eliot’s skill, Crane utterly refused to bow down to fashionable skepticism, and instead turned backward to find inspiration, telling the critic and poet Louis Untermeyer, who had written about Crane in The New Republic, “It has been my conviction, based on personal experience (whether my poems prove it or not) that ecstasy and beauty are as possible to the active imagination now as ever. (What did Blake have from ‘the outside’ to excite him?)”
Born in 1899 with, as he quipped in a letter to the critic Allen Tate, “a little toe-nail in the last century,” Crane was never quite comfortable in his own time. His delight in working on “The Bridge” came, in large part, from his rediscovery of his country’s beginnings. “I have never been able to live completely in my work before,” he wrote to the novelist and critic Waldo Frank in 1926. “To handle the beautiful skeins of this myth of America–to realize suddenly, as I seem to, how much of the past is living under only slightly altered forms, even in machinery and such-like, is extremely exciting.”
His thrill shows all over his most ambitious work, despite its flaws. Where it is good, it is truly awe-inspiring, and once read, is burned into the mind forever. The entire “Proem” (as he called it) of the book is a gorgeous, wild ride, a glittering paean to his object of desire. “O harp and altar, of the fury fused,” he writes of his beloved bridge:
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–
Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.
But Crane was able to manage such flights only when his personal life was steady, something that more often than not eluded him, thanks to his parents’ fractured relationships to each other and to their son. As late as 1922, he confided to a friend that he was “quite disrupted. Family affairs and ‘fusses’ have been my destruction since I was eight years old when my father and mother began to quarrel. That phase only ended recently, and the slightest disturbance now tends to recall with consummate force all the past and its horrid memories.” Even after Grace and C.A. Crane finally split in 1917, there was no peace for their offspring. Crane, never able to put up his defenses against an unhealthy emotional bond, became his mother’s proxy husband (it was she who suggested he drop his given name of Harold for Hart, his middle and her maiden name) as well as her advocate vis-à-vis his father. “Now for a winter coat and hat you are owing Mother fifty-one dollars. And the last two months rent on the apartment, eighty-dollars, you also owe her,” he wrote to his father after the divorce was finalized and he, his mother and grandmother had decamped to New York. His time was taken up with these petty matters and with larger emotional negotiations as well, for although he was angry at his father, he was as desperate for his approval as he was for his money. Long after Grace had remarried, he was still begging to be understood by C.A. “Can’t you rub some of the prejudice from your eyes, and see me a little clearer? It will honestly hurt me to receive help from you unless I can believe that a little of your father’s pride and heart is in it.”
When Crane’s family wasn’t bringing him to the brink of despair, his love affairs were. Nevertheless, he needed them to feel alive and to bring him to the extremes he relished even as they destroyed him. “I am entirely engrossed in personal erotic experience lately,” he wrote to Munson in 1921 about his new fling with a truck driver who was also working at his father’s warehouse in Cleveland. “O if you had ever seen the very Soul of Pierrot…you would at least admire. Never, though, has such beauty and happy-pain been given me before.” Like all of his passions, Crane’s romances inspired poetry. His Pierrot, for example, found his way into “Praise for an Urn,” published in his first book, White Buildings (1926). The poem was a eulogy for a friend who had been killed in a car accident, but Crane simply transposed his emotions to fit the occasion, writing of his lost friend’s “kind and northern face/That mingled in such exile guise/The everlasting eyes of Pierrot/And, of Gargantua, the laughter.”
On other occasions, Crane was more forthcoming about his desires, though he was careful never to indicate that they were directed at men. “Legend,” also published in White Buildings, is a defiant hymn to lust, but it never makes the object of its fierce emotions apparent. “I am not ready for repentance,” he writes, “Nor to match regrets. For the moth/Bends no more than the still/Imploring flame. And tremorous/In the white falling flakes/Kisses are,–/The only worth all granting.”
“Legend” emerged in 1924, in the middle of what would be a long, intermittent love affair with Emil Opffer, a merchant marine and the son of Crane’s landlord at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn. Opffer also inspired a sequence of love poems called “Voyages,” which number among Crane’s best work. He writes of the ocean, where he imagined Opffer on his travels, with a rare, muscular beauty:
Light wrestling there incessantly with light,
Star kissing star through wave on wave unto
Your body rocking!
Your body rocking!and where death, if shed,
Presumes no carnage, but this single change,–
Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn
The silken skilled transmemberment of song;
Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…
In section four of the poem, he writes of Opffer’s “Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes,” and then, as if worried he’s given too much away, finishes with an obvious image of heterosexual love, “In this expectant, still exclaim receive/The secret oar and petals of all love.”
The apartment at 110 Columbia Heights brought Crane more than just the most important relationship of his short life, however. It was in this building that he was able to gorge himself on the view of the bridge he loved so much, and its shape on the horizon became inextricably bound to his affair with Opffer. In a letter to Waldo Frank, Crane confessed to “the ecstasy of walking hand in hand across the most beautiful bridge of the world, the cables enclosing us and pulling us upward in such a dance as I have never walked and never can walk with another.” Unable or just unwilling to distinguish between things and people he loved, Crane muddled all of his grand passions together until they became his religion. Upon falling head first into his affair with the Cleveland truck driver, he wrote to a friend, “I believe in, or have found God again.” Of the Brooklyn Bridge he wrote, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend/And of the curveship lend a myth to God.” Upon meeting Opffer, he declared he had “seen the Word made Flesh.”
In the last months of his life, just before he committed suicide at the age of 32 by jumping over the railing of a ship sailing from Mexico to New York (he had gone there on a Guggenheim Fellowship), Crane performed one last act of transposition by falling in love with a woman, Peggy Cowley, who had gone to Mexico to get a divorce from her literary critic husband, Malcolm. He was as surprised as anyone, and yet he never once thought to shy away from this new form of love. “I’m in such a hectic rush this morning that I can’t do more than remind you that you already know the depth of my love for you,” he wrote her soon after their romance began. The whole thing was “psychologically so strange and new a meditation to me…almost like sheer delirium.” For Crane, this was the only way to live. Though he had found his heart in Brooklyn, he left New York behind because it was old territory, used up. Still, he knew the power of that place, and the record he left of it has long given his readers precisely what the bridge gave him.
“That window is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, and the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning or evening,–rain, snow or sun, it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh,” he wrote Waldo Frank in 1924. “I believe I am a little changed–not essentially, but changed and transubstantiated as anyone is who has asked a question and been answered.”