Dragtime

Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby

by Geoffrey Wolff
Random House, 367 pp., $12.95

The Age of Nostalgia in which we find quantities of current books dwelling (and earning a good living) is not yet in its twilight years. The much abused label, Biography, is stuck on collection after collection of pages about a person whose “biographer” hopes to make the era in which his subject lived fascinating to a wide public. What emerges is not a character in stage center; rather, scenery appears, most of it slapdash construction, painted in colors bright enough to be seen from top row balcony rear. And so when yet another curtain goes up, and once again we are treated to the old “Twenties set,” before the mad bad chorus comes streaming out of the wings one is tempted to steal away.

That is one trouble in taking up this “life” of Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff. Period Fatigue it might be called. Another trouble is the barrenness of the subject itself.

Simply, the story is this: a rich Boston man’s son (Harry Crosby) does not go to work, when of age, but rather takes himself, his wife, and his money to Paris. Idle, he tries to write poetry, fails. With his wife he founds the Black Sun Press, publishing some volumes of writings of his own, his wife’s, and of others such as Joyce and D. H. Lawrence. None of this sufficiently interesting him, he returns to New York and kills himself, after first killing his mistress. The period is just previous to and a decade after World War I.

It is a life that earned Crosby a few chapters in Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, and a footnote in the work of a serious critic (Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave—oddly not mentioned by Wolff in a bibliography so comprehensive it could be taken as an apology).

Marvin Mudrick once defined a new breed of literary biographer as one who “aims at demonstrating that every writer’s private life is as unseemly as ours; that nobody is any better than he has to be; that only the writer’s ‘conscious direction’ gives shape to what might otherwise be his run-of-the-mill phobias or obsessions and distinguishes his grand paranoia from our squirmy ones.” Mr. Wolff has taken literary biography a step further: he has plucked a personality out of a scandal, and tried to make him a literary figure, while never taking his eye off the squirmy bits. God knows we’re long past condemning anyone for writing a best seller. What I am not past being surprised at is that such an insensitive job as Mr. Wolff’s has been getting such a good press. You might say he’s moved them to hysteria.

Wolff sheds, or seems to mean to shed, a sympathetic light on the puzzled, harassed, embarrassed parents, Stephen and Henrietta Crosby, back in Boston, bearing the brunt of their son’s wild and wasteful life. Yet they emerge only at an enviably safe distance. At the center of …

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