“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.”