The Letters of Hart Crane, 1916-1932
The life of Hart Crane was a bacchic orgy; he knew no other way to live or compose his poems. As Quevedo wrote: “He rode post to perdition.” Though I realize that humdrum everyday existence cannot be a gloss upon the poem, it might be of niggish interest to the reader to have some intelligence of Crane as a person. I knew him, and there were some similarities in our lives which, though no more than gossip, tease the blood and the veins.
Hart Crane was born July 21, 1899, and I on July 22, 1900. When he was a soda fountain clerk in his father’s fancy ice cream parlor and tea room in Cleveland, Ohio, I was then an inmate of an orphanage in the same city. For a short space of time Hart Crane was a navvy in a munitions plant in Cleveland, and so was I. In 1928 he went to Paris where we met. Crane had already published White Buildings, of which I had never heard, and he asked me, though God knows why, to read the ms. of The Bridge. Though I had studied pre-Socratic philosophy and middle English in the graduate school at Columbia, I knew little about the Boulevard Montparnasse seers of the USA vulgate. I was exceedingly anxious to be a part of the covey of roaring, spastic exiles who contributed to Transition and This Quarter, little expatriate magazines. Hart Crane and I already had encountered Robert McAlmon, Kay Boyle, Eugene Jolas, one of the editors of Transition, and Harry Crosby, a disciple of Lautréamont, author of Maldoror, and the high priest of surrealist satanism.
I was prepared to offer Crane all the genuflections necessary to quell his doubts. We became friendly and he introduced me to McCown, the artist, with whom he lived in a left bank atelier. Both had read my first novel, Bottom Dogs (for which D. H. Lawrence, one of Crane’s deities, had written the Introduction), and Constant Huntington, director of G. P. Putnam’s in London, had given me a contract for the book. Huntington asked me to look up somebody in Paris who would design the wrapper for the volume and Hart Crane had suggested that McCown should do it.
When McCown gave me the drawing for the dust-jacket, I conveyed it to Mr. Huntington who, after receiving it, sent me an acerb reply, saying that he knew that I had written a dirty, picaresque Americanese, but he had never imagined I had believed it was lewd. Eugene MacCown had drawn a map of the United States emphasizing a phallical Florida which I had noticed with a nebulous and naive uneasiness. Of course, I had heard about pathics, but had not the scantiest suspicion that Hart Crane was homosexual. Crane was a stocky, virile male with a jovean square face, mizzling, foggy eyes, gun-metal, gray hair, and a smouldering, amorous mouth.
Though Crane and I knew many Americans in Paris both of us were overwhelmingly alone, castaways of American letters. On the outside of this riotous, visionary coterie, we were solitary mendicants looking for the rotten grapes of Pisgah, and living like cut-rate Montezumas in some dump near the Select or Coupole, parnassian meeting-places for deracinated chatterboxes of literature and gamy, venereal whores.
Crane and I were part of a senseless babel of economics. Impecunious most of his life, he was then receiving a handsome subsidy from the banker and patron of the arts, Otto H. Kahn. The Bridge was to be published by the millionaire sybarite of letters, Harry Crosby. No less poor than Crane, I was then involved with the niece of a very puissant industrialist who later became the fervid crony of Khrushchev. I mention these pocketbook ironies as an aside.
Harry Crosby also invited Crane to write in a castle whose eighteenth-century proprietor had been the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, hoping he would finish The Bridge there. Meanwhile, Crosby, a tenderhearted sufferer who also longed for dionysiac trances, and detesting a world suitable for pithless salesmen and fusty, monied dowds, committed suicide. It was Crosby’s widow, Caresse, who published The Bridge in a beautiful, recherché edition of the Black Sun press in Paris.
Although Crane had fallen into adust ecstasies over Paris, absinthe, Gertrude Stein, and the French language, he went back to America. Penniless by then myself, Hart Crane suggested that I go to Otto H. Kahn and say I was his friend, which I did, and with felicitous results. In New York I saw Hart Crane just when Boni and Liveright had brought out the American edition of The Bridge. He lived in a one-room apartment, somewhat beneath the sidewalk, with a gallon of whiskey on the floor next to his cot, and a pile of Sophie Tucker records for his Victrola. Though not thirty years old, his hair was the color of a seagull. In the daytime he was deeply pooled in mouldy sleep, and at night he ran about Red Hook, the libidinous docks of Tarshish in Brooklyn, soliciting the favors of sailors.
Many times Crane had been beaten by seamen; on one occasion, living on Columbia Heights hard by his iron seraph, the Brooklyn Bridge, he complained to me that a young man whom he thought had the milk-white shoulders of Pelops (I am paraphrasing Christopher Marlowe, Hart Crane’s demigod) had stolen his clothes and forsaken him. He was sorely wounded by this ill hap, but, as I have said, when he was not humiliated, or had not drunk hyssop in some waterfront pot-house, he was unable to achieve that Apollonian composure which he needed to enable him to sit at a table—a poet’s guillotine—and write. “Unless you are broken up, you are not alive,” said Wyndham Lewis in one of his remarkable letters, but as Hart Crane has worded it, he wrote verses, roared, and quarreled with all “the zest for doom.”
What drove Crane crazy was the humid torpor between poems. An odalisque can be idle and recumbent, and her languor is the joy of Eve and the serpent in Eden, but when a poet is supine, just a rotting unthinking corpse, he is beside himself.
Still, he was glutted with remorse and shame; he wrote: “Our tongues recant like beaten weather vanes.” Later I saw him at a party given in honor of Mae West, who had completed her autobiography, the usual elite merde of the cinema star. Crane arrived late; though extremely drunk his clothes were seemly and his manner cavalier. In one of his missives he said: “I’ve been cooking my own meals, and doing my best without the help of a flatiron to keep myself looking spruce.” Crane, copying the dandyism of Heine, explains elsewhere: “Despite my objections to cane-carrying, I find it very pleasant. Puce-colored gloves complete the proper touch.”
He doted on a soirée, and on this occasion he had found the side of a carton which he was offering to authors upon which to sign their names to petition Mae West to sing Frankie and Johnnie. Why Mae West, a mildewed and synthetic dame of the theater, was considered such an aphrodisiacal morsel I will never know. Edmund Wilson, who was there, thought she was as desirable as a Sabine virgin. I don’t think any poet has ever had luck with these dumpy Hollywood dolls whose agents inform us they adore Proust and Dostoevsky. He had sent White Buildings to Chaplin, supposed to be the sorrowful and educated Quixote clown, Chaplin’s secretary sent him a sere, laconic note acknowledging that the book had been received. I believe Hart Crane’s idolatry of jazz, Charles Chaplin, and his mechanolatry, was, in part, the slag of Acheron in his poetry.
There is a doleful chasm between Crane’s epistolary comprehension of a mechanized commonwealth and the veneration of brand new gew gaws which are so apparent in Crane’s poems. In one of his letters Crane asserts: “All this talk about being gay…and painfully delighted” with “the telegraph, the wireless, the street-cars and electric lamp posts annoys me.” A model T. Ford is more precious to the unshriven up-to-date mind than St. Paul’s occiput which was said to have been found in a sheep-cote. We are now near the Last Judgment, making ready for the gaseous declamations of a celestial missile.
The Letters have been marvelously arranged by Brom Weber; and though Crane shows lucid knowledge of a society grounded upon money, an opiate phantasy that has no relation to work or the moral values of products, it is necessary to take a fugitive glance at the poetry. Hart Crane desired above all to make an American myth, and notwithstanding his contempt for pessimism, he was a “revolutionary” in the sense that Wyndham Lewis defines it, “a man of the tabula rasa.”
The American poet is a nihilist, and because he has no past or any sure, graspable tradition, he starts with nothing and then imagines that is his godhead. Crane’s principal faults come from his misuse of language; English is our step-mother language, and we speak, giving the scantiest thought to the reasonable order of words. The music of logic in literature is the sublime use of the metaphor. Crane took swollen and almost deranged risks to make a startling phrase. Crane says: “I now find myself baulked by doubt at the validity of practically every metaphor I coin.”
There is no science of literary criticism, and whatever remarks are offered come from countless errors. A man can misread a poem at twenty, fifty or at my age. The critical faculty is no less splayed than Vulcan’s foot. May each one accept as much of this as suits his purpose, and if the reader mislikes what I say let him throw it out of his mind, and stuff himself with lentils, cabbage and a tithe of Aristotle.
At his best Hart Crane was a Magian of the Logos, but when he felt down he wrote turbid, amorphous doggerel. His work is glutted with neologies, solecisms, and jazz dada locutions which have nothing to do with the sexual feud between his father, a Cleveland candy manufacturer, and his mother, a Christian Scientist. There is no doubt that he was the brunt of bestial, Faustian altercations between his parents. Hart Crane tells his mother: “…my youth has been the rather bloody battleground for yours and father’s sex life.” “Must every man entomb a withered child?” asks the poet Stanley Burnshaw.
No matter what one’s childhood is, a seeming Elysian remembrance or a parental vendetta, the understanding of the afflatus of a poet lies elsewhere. Crane was a neo-American Elizabethan who ran mad for new words. Nor can one assert that his electric shock tropes were the result of a sundered, homosexual nature, for this makes no sense. He could have been drawn to Aphrodite, inflamed by her peplum, and have had no sensibility.