Friday, July 21, 2017

Birthday: “Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Hart Crane, Inge … oh, the debris! The wreckage!” - Tennessee Williams

hart crane.jpg

Harold Hart Crane (1899-1932)
Guggenheim Fellow, 1931-32

Born under the same star as Ernest Hemingway- same day, same year, both in the mIdwest- Hart Crane took the path of poetry and killed himself at 32.

Hemingway pursued fiction, and did the same, almost 62. Both lived hard, drank oceans, and  left mixed literary legacies.

When The Library of America brought out its Hart Crane volume in 2007- 75 years after his death- the event triggered a reappraisal of the Jazz Age poet’s work, if not consensus.

Reviewer William Logan summed up Crane this way:

Crane still makes young men want to write poetry — his best lines are extraordinary, even if there are few major poems, or even very good ones. He failed to write the poetry of the American continent Emerson was calling for before the Civil War: if the ideal seems naïvely nationalistic now, the country was once younger and less cynical. Crane was no innovative genius like Whitman; he was perhaps closer to a peasant poet like John Clare, an outsider too susceptible to praise and other vices of the city. Defensive about his lack of education, a Midwestern striver out of a Sinclair Lewis novel, Crane tried to make it among the big-city literary men, gripping a rum in one hand and a copy of “The Waste Land” in the other. Had beauty been enough, he might even have succeeded.

Critic Harold Bloom, on the other hand, holds a place in the pantheon for Crane, arguing he burst forth at 17, in his first published poem- on Oscar Wilde- the writer he would be for the rest of his brief life.

Son of Cleveland candy manufacturer- Pa Crane invented Lifesavers but sold the rights cheap before they reached their potential- and a rather odd Christian Scientist mother, Crane was sure of his destiny as a great American poet. He had an eye for the coming thing, spotting, and championing, Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore before the popular wave. He loved the Elizabethan poets, and sought to translate their allusiveness and inventive language into an industrial, jazz age idiom that was uniquely American.

His childhood was marked by endless, acrimonious rows and separations between his parents; he tried to kill himself at 16. Crane dropped out of high school and moved to New York, promising his parents he would pick up with university later.

He bounced back and forth, New York to Cleveland and back, working in his dad’s factory; selling candy in a drugstore, writing advertising copy (one of his successes was the wonder fabric, Naugahyde).

In the way of all twenty-somethings, he patched together a bohemian life from paid gigs, unemployment checks, and friends; couches (the Irish novelist Colm Toibin wrote, “like most young men of his age, he wanted love from his mother and money from his father”). He complained, endlessly, about never having enough time to write, in between startlingly insightful letters explaining his theories of art and the dense, hard-to-follow meanings of his poems.

About as out as he could be for the time, Crane formed an attachment to a Danish merchant seaman, who fixed him up in his dad’s New York boarding house (John Dos Passos was a neighbor). The view of the Brooklyn Bridge enthralled Crane, and became the anchor for his vision of The Epic American Poem.

Handsome and charming, Crane knew everyone: Eugene O’Neill; William Carlos Williams (who thought Crane’s work was “damn good stuff”); Sherwood Anderson; and E.E. Cummings (who said Crane had “a mind no bigger than a pin”).

He also drank a lot and tended to wear out his welcome; when his relationship with Emil Opffer ran aground, he went to Paris on a grandmother’s legacy and made a beeline for Gertrude Stein and her circle of American expats. A well-to-do publisher set him up to work on his epic, “The Bridge,” paid his bar tabs, and bailed him out of the Marseilles jail after some louche incidents, but shipped him home in 1929.

He cadged a grant from the principal shareholder of the Metropolitan Opera, removed to upstate New York to finish his epic in between bouts of wastrelsy and annoying the  hell out of his hosts, the writers Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon.

Then, just as the money ran out, he sought refuge for a time in one of the many Crane estates, on an island off Cuba, overcoming his mother’s concerns that his antics would upset the housekeeper.

“The Bridge” was published in 1930 to decidedly mixed reviews, but it netted him a Guggenheim Fellowship. He used it to go to Mexico, where Crane conducted field experiments in heterosexuality with the estranged wife of poet Malcolm Cowley. He so alienated fellow Guggenheim grantee Katharine Anne Porter- then also in Mexico- that she not only reported him to the Foundation but wrote him into Ship of Fools as the loathsome William Denny.

The grant ran out in March 1932. The Depression socked the Crane fortune hard and his mother’s allowance was as nothing against the cost of his living.

He took a steamer home in April, 1932; made a pass at a crew member, and got a black eye for it. The next day, he walked on deck, took off his coat, folded it neatly over the railing, and jumped.

Boats were launched, but Crane, last seen swimming away from the vessel, was never found.

Was Crane a second-rate Eliot, or a first-rate Crane? The debate is unresolvable. As Toibin put, it, at Crane’s death, “one of the most brilliant first acts in American literature came to an end.”

Related sites:

William Logan, “Hart Crane’s Bridge to Nowhere,” The New York Times, January 28, 2007
Colm Toibin, “A Great American Visionary,” The New York Review of Books, April 17, 2008

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