Highlights of a Life
On April 27, 1932, Hart Crane jumped into the sea from the stern of the S.S. Orizaba. He was returning to the United States from Mexico, where he had just spent a year on a Guggenheim fellowship. Instead of returning in victory and validation, the poet, depressed and distraught, ended by his own choice a short but passionate life.
Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21, 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio. His father, Clarence Arthur Crane, came from a successful bourgeois family. His mother, Grace Hart, was known for her delicate beauty. After a brief and passionate courtship, the two united in marriage…what proved to be a miserable marriage. In 1903 they moved to Warren, Ohio, where Hart’s father managed a corn products refining plant. He traveled frequently, as did Hart’s mother, who missed her family and her premarital life.
His parents’ separation from each other may have prolonged their marriage, but it put a strain on young Hart. After his mother’s long absences he developed an obsessive need for affection and affirmation of her love. Grace worked hard to make the young Hart her ally in her struggle with his father, and she often confided in him her fears about sex and her real and imaginary health problems. In addition, Grace repeatedly emphasized to Hart her great love for him, which put a great deal of pressure on the young man. This intense and unhealthy relationship set the stage for later relationships for Hart, setting the pattern whereby Hart would constantly test and abuse his friends in an obsessive and insatiable desire for unconditional love.
In 1908, Hart’s mother had her first nervous breakdown and was sent to a sanatorium. His father moved his business to Chicago, and Hart went to live with his mother’s parents in Cleveland. There he began to show an interest in poetry, and he benefited from his grandmother’s extensive library and the privacy of his own room in the north tower.
At age 13, Hart began to think of himself as a poet. At his grandmother’s house he read Whitman, Emerson, and Browning, all of whom proved to be great influences on his work. He bought books on his own which demonstrated extraordinarily sophisticated tastes. He also befriended Richard Laukhuff, a German who knew several languages, owned 6,000 books, and loved to discuss ideas. Laukhuff started a bookstore in 1916 which became a refuge for contemporary writers, and it was there that Hart Crane began to read small literary magazines. He published his first poem, “C33,” in Bruno’s Weekly at age 17.
In 1916, Hart’s parents separated. Although he had not yet graduated from Cleveland’s East High School, he convinced his parents to let him go to New York City, where he planned to take entrance examinations and enroll at Columbia University. Once he got to New York, however, his academic ambitions faded. Hart befriended Carl Schmitt, a painter friend of his aunt’s, and the two developed theories of art that would ultimately affect Crane’s poetry. He published poems in The Pagan and was praised by William Carlos Williams. He also published a poem in The Little Review, alongside the work of James Joyce, T.S.Eliot, and William Butler Yeats. He did not find a job, however, and continued to rely on his parents for financial support.
Family problems eventually complicated Hart Crane’s success in New York. His parents divorced, and in 1918, when his father remarried, Hart’s mother convinced him to join her in Cleveland. Hart did so, working briefly as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, before returning in 1919 for another brief stay in New York. This time, with his considerable reputation and his genius for immediate intimacy, even without having much published work of his own, he managed to befriend poet Gorham Munson and Sherwood Anderson.
Productive Years in Ohio
After continued pressure from his father to find a paying job and hoping to reconcile with both his father and the industrial, working world, Hart returned to Cleveland at the end of 1919 to work for his father’s company. Instead of reconciliation, however, an argument between the two men in 1921 left father and son unwilling to speak to each other for two years.
Hart Crane began his best work during this stormy period of life in Ohio and forged some of his strongest friendships. In 1922 he completed “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” which merged “the dimensional world of the trivial—the world of baseball scores and stock quotations and ‘smutty wings’—with the nondimensional world that is ‘twisted by the love of things irreconcilable’” (from Hart Crane, an Introduction, by Charles B. Lindsay, 1979). Shortly after this poem’s completion, he experienced a night of drunken revelry during which he found the inspiration for his most well-known poem, The Bridge (view a video clip of The Bridge). This kind of revelry and wild abandon, however, would ultimately prove to be a false muse and instead would lead to Crane’s self-destruction.
Back to the Big Apple
Hart took various odd jobs after leaving his father’s company, and in 1923 he moved back to New York. Soon after, he fell in love with Emil Opffer, a sailor, and their intensely passionate and occasionally turbulent relationship inspired “Voyages,” a poetic sequence in praise of love’s transforming powers. The sea is the poem’s metaphor, shifting from calm to storm, which may have symbolized Crane’s life as much as it did the love affair. Completed in 1924, some believe “Voyages” was his best poetic work.
When Crane published his first collection, White Buildings, in 1926, Waldo Frank said it “gives us enough to justify the assertion that not since Whitman has so original, so profound and above all so important a poetic promise come to the American scene.” But not every response to the collection was positive, and even the praise was bittersweet. Hart was struggling financially, his relationship with Opffer had ended, and his sexual and alcoholic debauchery was becoming legendary.
Family problems continued to plague the poet, and in 1928 Hart spent some time in Hollywood, where his mother was living. His exploits there can only be described as decadent, and he finally confessed his homosexuality to his mother, who reacted badly to the news. In retaliation, Crane waited for an opportunity to abandon his mother, finally running away from her home in the middle of the night. He would never see his mother again. This split with Grace precipitated a reconciliation with his father, who had begun to regret his own pursuit of material wealth and was sympathetic towards his son’s distaste for money making.
Under The Bridge
Hart also struggled with the completion of The Bridge, on which he worked for several years. He’d send portions of the poem back and forth in letters to his friends to foster aesthetic discussions, and The Bridge eventually became a kind of partnership between poet and critic. Late in 1928, Hart went to France to put the finishing touches on the piece, but his escapades were so extravagant that he ended up spending time in jail, and little work on the poem was accomplished. Finally, friends at the Black Sun Press convinced him The Bridge was finished, and they published it in 1930.
The Bridge received a disappointing reception, however, which shook Crane’s self-esteem. Many critics respected his effort, but they were dissatisfied with his poetic achievement. William Rose Benet, for instance, wrote that Crane had “failed in creating what might have been a truly great poem,” but nonetheless called it “fascinating,” saying it “reveals potencies in the author that may make his next work even more remarkable.” Today, The Bridge is considered one of the century’s major poetic statements, along with T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and William Carlos Williams’ Patterson.
South of the Border, Never to Return
Late in 1929, Hart went to live with his father in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. There he applied for and received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to spend a year writing in Mexico. But his time there was his least fruitful. His drunken habits often led his friends to believe he was insane and several times nearly cost him his fellowship. He frequently engaged in fights with friends and enemies alike, and his sexual solicitations often ended in beatings. While in Mexico he entered into a heterosexual relationship with Peggy Cowley, a longtime friend, and the two began making plans for marriage which tragically would never come to pass.
On April 23, Hart and Peggy boarded the S.S. Orizaba for home, and at high noon on April 27, 1932, Hart Crane leapt from the stern of the ship. Those watching saw his hand appear briefly above the surface before he disappeared. They argued over whether it was an attempt to clutch a nearby life preserver or a sad gesture of farewell.