The Hell Below Brooklyn Bridge

Clive Fisher. Hart Crane: A Life. 567 pp. Yale University Press. £25.00. 0 300 09061 7

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

Published in TLS August 30, 2002, p. 9.


On 12 September, 1927, Hart Crane wrote to his patron, the banker Otto Kahn, asking for financial help. Kahn had already given him $2,000 to work on his projected epic poem The Bridge, which Crane couldn’t seem to bring to completion. He was drinking heavily, picking up sailors on the New York docks and getting into terrible brawls that sometimes culminated in a night in jail. Longing to impress Kahn with the good progress he was making on his poem, Crane sent him a précis:

. . . I jump from the monologue of Columbus in “Ave Maria”—right across the four intervening centuries—into the harbor of 20th-century Manhattan. And from that point in time and place I begin to work backward through the pioneer period, always in terms of the present– finally o the very core of the nature-world of the Indian. What I am really handling, you see, is the myth of America.”

The last sentence must be one of the most poignant in American letters — poignant in its idealism and the disarming naiveté of that “you see.” Imagine Arthur Rimbaud, to whom Crane is often compared, assuring a potential patron, “What I’m writing, you see, is the myth of France.” But then Rimbaud never attempted to write a long poem that introduced well-known historical figures—in this case, Columbus, Pocahontas, Rip van Winkle, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, or the Wright Brothers—into the fabric of lyric meditation. And yet it does make sense to talk of the “myth of America” where Crane is concerned, for his own brief and tortured life is paradigmatic of that myth, as Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway might have portrayed it. Hence Crane’s enormous appeal to the biographer: Clive Fisher’s Hart Crane, running to nearly 600 pages, follows in the wake of Brom Weber’s pioneer study of 1948, John Unterecker’s Voyager (Farrar Straus, 1969), and Paul L. Mariani’s The Broken Tower (Norton 2000).

The central facts about Crane’s life are not in dispute. Earlier biographers made much of the trauma of Crane’s childhood, and Fisher examines it very fully. An only child, born in1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio to Clarence Arthur (CA) Crane and Grace Edna Hart, both from distinguished, affluent Midwest families, the poet was caught early on in the crossfire of what turned out to be the disastrous marriage of his parents. “I think it’s time you realized,” Hart wrote to Grace, as he came to call his mother, in 1919, “that for the last eight years my youth has been a rather bloody battleground for your’s [sic]and father’s sex life and troubles.”

The turmoil of Crane’s youth–his parents separating, reconciling, separating again, announcing their plans to remarry, and then finally divorcing—was exacerbated by his discovery, in mid-adolescence that his sexual desires were directed toward men, not women. In the “genteel” Ohio world of the Cranes and Harts, homosexuality was, quite simply, taboo. Hart never told his father the truth about his sexuality and couldn’t bring himself to tell Grace until 1928, when they were in California together. Even then she claimed not to believe him. Hart’s sex life was thus unusually secret and furtive. The most serious relationship Hart had was with the Danish merchant marine, Emil Opffer whom he met in New York in 1923. But Emil was frequently at sea, and soon Hart went back to his usual habits—brief, anonymous sex, primarily with sailors he picked up in the bars and on the waterfront of lower Manhattan.

This, then, was the matrix within which some of the great American lyrics —especially love lyrics—of the early twentieth-century were written. Given Hart’s relatively scanty education—he was a high school drop-out and autodidact—his self-creation as a Poet was astonishing. While still in Cleveland in 1916, he had already published his first poem “C-33” in Bruno’s Weekly; and by the time he was twenty-three and living in New York, he had written Part II of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” the first part of “Voyages,” and had published “Black Tambourine,” “Chaplinesque,” and “Praise for an Urn”– all in serious little magazines. Already in these early poems, Crane had developed a unique style—elaborately rhetorical, densely figurative, and yet alluding at every turn to the actual modern world of “stenographic smiles and stock quotations.” Avoiding the free verse of his Imagist confreres, he wrote primarily in iambic pentameter, packing his memorable and musical lines with alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.

Crane, as Fisher is at pains to document and as all his biographers agree, had an enormous capacity for friendship and although, when he first came to New York in 1916, he was a complete greenhorn, within a few years, he was driving up to Connecticut with the Malcolm Cowleys to visit Eugene O’Neill and attending New York parties with e.e. cummings. He was especially close to two of the most prominent poet-critics of the period: Allen Tate and Yvor Winters. At his best, Crane was charming, generous, funny. At the same time, his heavy drinking invariable led to misunderstandings and bitter arguments. The story of his falling out with Tate and his then wife Caroline Gordon, with whom he was sharing an old farmhouse in upstate New York in 1925, has become legendary: Hart refusing to do his share of the chores, Hart carousing and disturbing the Tates to the point where they would only communicate with their house guest by means of notes stuck under each others’ doors. Similar quarrels occurred with other close friends, and Hart was always packing, leaving in a huff, going off to the Isle of Pines or back home to Cleveland. White Buildings (1927), his first book, was a big success: it received a wealth of flattering reviews, and many of its poems—“At Melville’s Tomb,” “The Wine Menagerie,” “Voyages”—became instant classics. But despite—or perhaps because of—his success, 1927 was also, according to Fisher, “the year in which his alcoholism finally took hold.” The twenty-seven year old poet wrote less and less and experienced long bouts of depression. The Bridge, so long in the planning, refused to jell, and Crane knew it. When a less ambitious version of the originally planned epic was finally published in 1930, Hart had to endure the stinging critique of Winters and Tate, both of whom declared The Bridge to be excessively Whitmanian and incoherent.

Everything was now moving toward the final act of the drama. In 1931, a down-and-out Hart was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and decided to spend his grant year in Mexico. His old friend Waldo Frank warned him that the temptation to drink heavily would be even greater there than in New York and that he would be cut off from friends and family. The situation was exacerbated by the arrival of Peggy Cowley, who was divorcing Malcolm and decided to make it her mission to convince Hart that he was really heterosexual. The two had a passionate but brief romance— Hart expressed bliss at his “conversion”– followed by the usual Cranean fights, reconciliations, and drinking marathons. Peggy was herself unstable and unreliable—Fisher refers to her as the “veteran drinking companion to half the Village”– and by the time the two booked passage on the SS Orizaba, supposedly to go home to the U.S. and get married, everything was falling apart. The final chapter—Hart having to be locked up in his cabin, Hart trying to seduce a crew member who wasn’t interested, and then, just before noon, with a sick Peggy still asleep below deck, jumping over the ship’s rail to his death—has been recounted again and again. Like the tale of Sylvia Plath’s suicide (she, too was thirty-two when she died), the Orizaba story has gotten almost too much play, as if Crane’s suicide, in clear view of the passengers on deck, had somehow made his poetry more valuable.

Fisher’s account of the Mexico episode and of Peggy Cowley’s role in it is the most detailed we have; indeed, the biography contains much new material, for example, on Crane’s relationship with the flamboyant Harry and Caresse Crosby—a kind of opera bouffe—and on the untimely death of Hart’s Uncle Frank, (Grace’s brother) from a mysterious morphine overdose. The poet’s father emerges, in these pages, as a more sympathetic figure than he did in the Unterecker or Mariani’s biographies. CA was hardly the cold businessman Hart’s friends heard so much about; he was himself interested in literature and music and was, from all accounts, deeply devoted to his son. True, he would not support Hart’s escapades in New York and elsewhere because he was convinced that Hart would do better if he had to work for a living, but he was always sending his son money and trying to get him to straighten out his life. Certainly, CA was not as destructive as Grace, whose own neurotic demands on her son must have been hell to cope with.

But despite its meticulous documentation, its careful research, and its sober, low-key style, Fisher’s biography is, in the end, disappointing. For one thing, the author insists on paraphrasing most of Crane’s extraordinary letters—a great pity because, like Keats, Crane was a superb letter writer. Unterecker’s biography, which cites so many of Hart’s and Grace’s letters verbatim, is thus much livelier—more fun to read. Unterecker was writing before the publication of Thomas S. W. Lewis’s monumental Letters of Hart Crane and his Family (Columbia, 1974), and so Fisher may have felt he shouldn’t just recycle materials that are now readily available. But in paraphrasing so heavily, he fails to capture the intimacy and immediacy that make Crane’s prose especially appealing.

More important: Fisher seems to have no slant of his own on what is now a familiar story. True, he avoids Mariani’s romantic and somewhat stagy portrait of Crane as tragic hero, a victim of a cruel, homophobic society. But although Fisher regularly calls this or that poem “beautiful” or “great,” he succeeds no more than did his predecessors in connecting the poet to his visionary poems. For Fisher, Crane seems to be, yet again, the poète maudit of his generation, whose sins and sufferings were “redeemed” by the greatness of his lyric. But this is to take Crane at face value, underrating the role early twentieth-century poetry culture played in the drama. Indeed, seventy years after the poet’s death, what seems remarkable is not how broke and miserable Crane was, but, on the contrary, how respected and admired he managed to be. In post-World War I New York, the individual poet could still be—and often was—adulated as a hero. It was a time, antithetical to our own, when poets and their critics were still published–and reviewed in–the mainstream press and read by the larger “literary” public. Poetry, in other words, still mattered, so that it was not considered far-fetched to invoke the great names of the past when assessing the work of a contemporary.

Thus Yvor Winters called Crane “one of the five or six greatest poets writing in English and opined that “Voyages” merited comparison with “no one short of Marlowe.” And both Allen Tate and Waldo Frank declared on the basis of “Faustus and Helen” and “Voyages,” that Crane was the greatest living poet. Who can imagine any poet today—Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich— receiving this kind of praise? And how is it that Crane was so much more admired in his lifetime than were those other more durable Modernists– Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Gertrude Stein?

These are questions that don’t come up in Fisher’s biography. He simply assumes that Crane was a major poet and that therefore the biographer’s object is to accumulate new information about his subject. But in Crane’s case, knowledge about yet one more sailor he went to bed with or one more person he befriended on the outbound trip to Vera Cruz in 1931, doesn’t satisfy our curiosity about the more literary and cultural issues of the day. How, one wonders for example, could critics as brilliant as Kenneth Burke or Malcolm Cowley not see that the problem of The Bridge was not only organizational but ideological? In Crane’s “epic,” the subway symbolizes hell, as opposed to the noble “curveship” of Brooklyn Bridge, aspiring “to lend a myth to God,” not to mention those “Up-chartered choristers of their own speeding,” as Crane referred to airplanes. It seems never to have occurred to Crane (or to his early critics) that the technology that made possible the suspension bridge and the airplane is the same as that which produced the subway. And so the facile opposition of “above” versus “below” cannot sustain the poem.

Like Crane’s contemporaries, Fisher fails to see this as a problem. “’The Tunnel’,” he writes, “besides establishing its author as a major practitioner in the principal twentieth-century poetic tradition—that of urban despair—continues [the] pattern of recurrence. . . . the poet reflects that Hell must be like these tunnels he now travels—darkly involved, endlessly repetitious and inescapable.” A critical biography—and this is what Hart Crane now deserves—must read Crane more strenuously.