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 the storm, Caresse, who is not much favored by Wolff with any sympathy, becomes pitiable, if indeed she becomes anything at all. Perhaps this is one of the risks run by the New Literary Biographer. Poor Caresse causes Mr. Wolff an irritation so great he cannot figure out her age. She is presented at court “in 1914, when she would have been twenty-two, considerably long in the tooth for a presentation of her maidenhood to the king.” She meets the man who will be her first husband “in 1908…[when] they were the same age, fourteen,” and finally meets Harry Crosby, in 1920: “Polly Peabody [Caresse]…was twenty-eight.”

Having Caresse at twenty, in fact, long in the tooth, and having dazzled the reader with the news that a presentation at the English court is in truth a test of virginity, he goes on to have her an “elder” and a “maiden” at twenty-six when she’s been married nearly six years and has two children.

This is a fair example of the way Wolff deals with the women in Harry Crosby’s life. Anyone reasonably well off is a “lady” unless she is trifled with by Harry, then she’s a “maiden,” unless she’s socially prominent and married, in which case she’s a “matron.” Both Harry and his father are fond of “the girls.” It is the tone of feminine hygiene ads, also of Harry’s early poetry, which Wolff himself admits is “silly”:

And tremble at the touch of naked charms
With silver finger seeking to entwine.
My dying words shall be a lover’s sighs
Beyond the last faint rhythm of her thighs.

All along the author has trouble with statistics: Harry’s father’s varsity Harvard football team scores “555 points to its opponent’s 12.” Either bad with figures or punctuation. It’s a common error to confuse race with religion, but a trifle odd of the author to accuse Harry of anti-Semitism while he himself talks of the “exotic races” as opposed to “protestants.” Then there are wayout metaphors such as making the Left Bank of Paris one big Dracula sucking the blood of Kay Boyle and Archibald MacLeish, who are imagined as wishing to “drive a silver stake plumb through” its heart—wooden stake? silver bullet? silver spoon?

All of the above carelessness (not to mention odd language: “perform exclusion” and “the emptiness was not sharp” and so forth) and the rearrangement of terms and facts to suit a slant of Wolff’s are a dismal warning to the reader early along in Black Sun. If a thing isn’t worth doing at all, it isn’t worth doing well, seems to be the guiding idea of these pages. As Harry Crosby’s life in Paris centers more and more around his attempts at writing, and Wolff is more and more faced with having to balance his exploitation of the dramatic suicide with an examination of these attempts, Black Sun sinks.

Wolff quotes from Robert McAlmon, a fellow guest with Kay Boyle at the Crosby house, a converted mill, in the country outside of Paris, “It’s too damn depressing, so depressing that I can’t even get drunk. They’re wraiths, all of them. They aren’t people. God knows what they’ve done with their realities.” And that is the truth about Harry Crosby. From the horror of his experiences as an ambulance driver, straight from a preparatory school, in the nightmarish bloody battles in 1916-1917, until his death twelve years later, he was that wraith. Wolff’s efforts to present him as “mad” and possessed of hopeless ambitions to be a poet, the descriptions of Paris wild life, the drinking, the drugs, the sex, finally leave one unmoved by pity and certainly weary. The last twelve years of his life boil down to this passage:

His realities were his adversaries, and Harry drove against them full bore, fueling his aggression with stimulations of higher and higher octane, burning out his life, refusing to settle for settled embers, drugging himself, multiplying his orgasms, testing death and the sun, reaching for an illumination, a poem or line or word or beat of silence.

Purple as the prose is, this passage would seem to be enough. But the author goes on: “And in his extravagant disdain for his realities he found an accomplice, a poet sure enough, the real article, Hart Crane.” The reader understands that a comparison is coming up: two Americans, of the same age, both expatriots and suicides. Yet Hart Crane’s famous suicide left behind not only immensely valuable poems, it ended a life that represented something, call it what one will—sexual and aesthetic dispossession, a desperate rebellion against middle-class restraints. Harry Crosby’s life, as Wolff has recorded it, is no more than McAlmon said of it: “depressing” and “wraith-like.”

The Four Arts Balls, for example, like the Black Sun Press, provided Harry Crosby with an entree to the artist’s life. As the art students of Paris let off steam once a year in a series of costumed revels, so the Crosbys published a series of costumed manuscripts. Crosby’s eagerness to join the orgies and print expensive, often handsome, editions of writers who were already fairly well established stemmed from the same gate-crashing instinct.

The dances were restricted to male art students and as many women as wished to attend, but Harry and Caresse nevertheless went every year from 1923 till 1929…. [In 1924, Harry] talked his way in by saying he was painting a nude for the Prix de Rome….

[In 1926,] he rubbed himself down with red ocher and wore a red loincloth and a necklace of three dead pigeons…. Caresse wore bare breasts and a turquoise wig and at the ball won a prize of twenty-five bottles of champagne for the Crosbys’ group by riding around the ballroom in the jaws of a papier-mâché dragon….

In 1925, realizing “the simplest way to get a poem into a book was to print the book!” they did:

…an elegant artifact, tastefully designed and hand-printed by Herbert Clarke,…bound by G. Levitzky…in turquoise Levant, stamped back and front with the Crosby crest in gold.

But how to become a publisher of an established writer? You send him gold coins. “For heaven’s sake, you embarrass me! I hope to heaven you’re quite, quite rich, for if you’re not, I shall feel really bad about it.” And eventually you have a story by D. H. Lawrence for your press.

Crosby wrote his mother everything. The love affairs, the squalid parties, the extravagant life all went into his letters to her. Wolff believes this was calculated to shock and give offense to Boston. That’s an easy explanation and one that Crosby, himself, over and over seems to be using. But perhaps those letters also say that a sick and arrested child has only that one person to reproach. The truth is, there was little life to “explore” nor was there much “meaning” to find in it. There were only décor, a grand entrance (wealth and family connection), and a gaudy exit.

I was enchanted by Doctorow’s recent novel Ragtime where fictive characters came alive as they were taken through many of the same scenes, meeting many of the same celebrities, that Black Sun had for use. Ragtime’s fiction brought that past up close. In Black Sun it is far away. This may be because Harry and Caresse Crosby themselves set out to make fiction of their lives, and their biographer sees Crosby’s suicide as that fiction’s punch line.

Black Sun opens and closes with Harry Crosby’s last day. While Caresse and her mother-in-law wait for Harry at his uncle’s, J.P. Morgan’s, house in New York, Harry and Josephine Bigelow, a mistress among many, are dead in a friend’s flat. Harry has shot her, first, then wandered around for several hours before lying down beside her to shoot himself. Scandal! Tabloids! “The Twenties” have ended. Let’s hope so.