Going Half the Way

O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane

edited by Langdon Hammer, by Brom Weber
Four Walls Eight Windows, 562 pp., $35.00

Once Hart Crane had been a young man hanging around the office of the Little Review and getting in the way. He was the teenage son of a recently broken home, whose father was a chocolate manufacturer in Ohio. Soon he became intolerable—not, as in his lonely youth, because of his insatiable thirst for conversation, but because of his thirst. Drink made him aggressive. He wanted a fight. He wanted a fight because he wanted to be humiliated. The humiliations piled up. He sought more of them. People told him in quite plain language how intolerable he had become. Katherine Anne Porter, with whom he stayed for a while in Mexico in 1931 (they were both Guggenheim Fellows at the time), wrote to him after one incident:

I have lived in Greenwich Village also, as you know, but I was never involved there in such a meaningless stupid situation as this…. You must either learn to stand on your own feet as a responsible adult, or expect to be treated as a fool. Your emotional hysteria is not impressive, except possibly to those little hangers-on of literature who feel your tantrums are a mark of genius. To me they do not add the least value to your poetry, and take away my last shadow of a wish to ever see you again.

Within a week, a letter was sent from Henry Allen Moe on behalf of the Guggenheim Foundation, which had awarded him a grant around the time of publication of The Bridge in 1930. Its language was just as plain. The foundation was not in the habit of telling its fellows to drink less or to get on with their work. But Hart Crane was the first Guggenheim Fellow to raise hell and get thrown in jail for it. He was in danger of creating a diplomatic incident, of getting bullet holes in his hide. He must stay sober, keep out of jail, and get to work. The letter continues:

There’s no use in getting mad at this letter; protests have been made in several governmental channels and I cannot ignore them, which I have no desire to do anyway. So I put my cards on the table and tell you that you are making yourself liable to deportation; and, if that happens, your support from the Foundation must cease. I am far from saying that that is the only incident that would terminate the Fellowship either.

So that’s that, and that’s flat. The Fourth of July is coming; and that will make a grand occasion for you to go on a final bust or quit making a nuisance and a fool of yourself and the Foundation. Take your choice and go to it.

Excerpted like this in the admirable new Selected Letters of Hart Crane, Moe’s reprimand seems startlingly frank and abrupt, almost like a challenge to suicide. In fact it ended on a friendlier note: “But I hardly need to tell you …

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