Crane Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Hart Crane’s dauntingly ambitious and difficult modernist poem The Bridge was characteristic of the author’s effort to see modern urban America in mythological terms.

Summary of Event

Hart Crane began work on his long poem The Bridge in 1923. He conceived this epic work as a rejoinder to the pessimism and sense of apocalyptic decline expressed in T. S. Eliot’s epochal poem The Waste Land, Waste Land, The (Eliot) which had been published in 1922. Although Crane much admired Eliot, he felt The Waste Land, with its representation of the sterility of civilization after World War I, had not done justice to the energy and excitement of the modern urban and industrial era. Hence Crane began, slowly and methodically, to put together an idiomatically American synthesis of the twentieth century machine age. [kw]Crane Publishes The Bridge (Feb., 1930) [kw]Publishes The Bridge, Crane (Feb., 1930) [kw]Bridge, Crane Publishes The (Feb., 1930) Bridge, The (Crane) Poetry;The Bridge (Crane)[Bridge] [g]United States;Feb., 1930: Crane Publishes The Bridge[07530] [c]Literature;Feb., 1930: Crane Publishes The Bridge[07530] Crane, Hart Eliot, T. S. Joyce, James Whitman, Walt

Crane’s work on the poem through the 1920’s was fitful and was interrupted by bouts of alcoholism, depression, and foreign travel, as well as by numerous homosexual affairs. His most productive period came in 1926, the year that also saw the publication of White Buildings, White Buildings (Crane) a collection of his shorter lyric pieces. During the late 1920’s, Crane’s epic endeavor attracted the private sponsorship of Otto H. Kahn, a wealthy banker, and it was Kahn’s support that helped Crane to complete the poem. The Bridge finally appeared in a special edition printed by the Black Sun Press in February, 1930, before being published in the United States by Liveright in April of the same year.

The Bridge is made up of nine sections. It starts with the introductory “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in 1920’s Manhattan, which hails Brooklyn Bridge as a modern-day deity mysteriously empowered to “lend a myth” to the capitalist affairs of Wall Street. This is followed by “Ave Maria,” which features Christopher Columbus in mid-Atlantic narrating the story of his discovery of America as he returns home to Spain. Section 2 of The Bridge is titled “Powhatan’s Daughter” and encompasses five distinct shorter poems that recount the history of Native American life. With section 3, “Cutty Sark,” the reader returns to a saloon in lower Manhattan, where old sailors recall their seafaring adventures; section 4, “Cape Hatteras,” then focuses on epic exploits of the air, notably the aviation experiments conducted in 1903 by Wilbur and Orville Wright off the coast of North Carolina. Section 5, “Three Songs,” again brings the reader back to the world of twentieth century New York; one of the section’s three shorter poems, “National Winter Garden,” takes its title from a burlesque theater in Greenwich Village that Crane had frequented. Section 6, “Quaker Hill,” proceeds to cast a jaundiced eye at golf courses in suburban Connecticut. Section 7, “The Tunnel,” describes an infernal and nightmarish subway ride from Manhattan to Flatbush, passing under the East River and so beneath the Brooklyn Bridge; the final section, “Atlantis,” circles back to the poem’s first image of the deified bridge, a construction now found to be illuminated with an intense mythological splendor.

Hart Crane.

(Library of Congress)

No simple narrative description of The Bridge, however, can capture the full extent of Crane’s artistic ambitions in this work. He aspired to invent an aesthetic design of multiple interlocking strands, so as to bring to light—and into an idealistic harmony—suppressed analogies between different geographic areas and historical eras in American life. Crane’s goal was indeed to evoke a series of conceptual bridges: the railway bridging the American continent, the Wright brothers’ bridging of land and air, bridges between the white man and the Indian, between childhood and adulthood, between fifteenth century Christopher Columbus and twentieth century Columbus Circle in New York City. Thus each section of The Bridge anticipates and echoes all the other sections. As Crane himself said in a 1926 letter, his poetic technique can be seen as “symphonic in including the convergence of all the strands” introduced separately within the narrative structure of the poem.

On one level, then, Crane was reinventing the kind of mythic version of the United States that Walt Whitman had promulgated during the nineteenth century. Indeed, Crane explicitly pays tribute to Whitman in “Cape Hatteras,” saluting the great “Saunterer” as a pioneer who sought to impose a mythic form on the most unpromising and inchoate American materials. Crane’s own style, however, should be understood as Whitman crossed with Eliot and James Joyce, for Crane believed Whitman’s language of bluff, colloquial Romanticism to be no longer adequate to address the complexities and dislocations of modern life. Instead, Crane, like Eliot and Joyce, used a dense and complicated mixture of verbal allusion and wordplay to convey his sense of the fragmented and radically unstable landscape of technological society. Crane was very interested in the first installments of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) Finnegans Wake (Joyce) —then known as “Work in Progress”—which were being published during the late 1920’s in the Parisian magazine transition, and Joyce’s elaboration of punning as a narrative principle in that work was something Crane also chose to pursue, working with the idea of the pun as a bridge between disparate meanings.

Crane himself visited Paris in 1929 while putting the final touches to The Bridge. At the time, the French capital was home not only to Joyce but also to the Surrealist movement in art and literature, and throughout his career, Crane was conversant with the self-reflexive strategies of Surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, whose perception of art as an ingenious but ultimately nihilistic game also came to influence certain aspects of the American poet’s work. The Bridge, in fact, is shot through with moments of black humor in which its visionary idyll seems knowingly to collapse into self-parodic or burlesque forms. There is in Crane’s poem an element of deliberate buffoonery, a dark self-mockery that does not altogether cancel the poem’s mythological idealism but that holds it in an ambiguous suspension. It was not by chance that Crane fixed upon the image of a suspension bridge to convey his sense of how mythological transformation might (or might not) operate within the hardheaded business world of Manhattan.

Significance

Immediate reaction to publication of The Bridge was disappointing. Crane’s poem finally appeared only a few months after the Wall Street crash, and the literary climate of the early 1930’s was no longer favorable to the poem’s dense and cryptic style of high modernism. The Bridge materialized at the moment when American writing was developing methods of journalistic realism that had more direct social and political relevance to the Great Depression era; within that context, Crane’s ornate rhetoric appeared uncomfortably inward-looking and self-indulgent. Even intellectuals such as Allen Tate and Yvor Winters, who had both encouraged Crane when he was writing the poem, were lukewarm in their response to the final product. In part, this happened because Crane’s idiosyncratic brand of hyperbolic wordplay did not conform to any definition of “myth” sanctioned by the classical learning Tate and Winters admired. Crane was depressed at these responses, but he spent time in Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship during 1931 and 1932, and he began to plan another epic poem, this one centered on Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico. He completed only a few fragments of that work, however; gray-haired and exhausted by his emotional traumas and intellectual travails, Crane took his own life on April 27, 1932, by jumping into the Caribbean Sea from the SS Orizaba as he was returning home from Mexico to New York.

The most obvious long-term effect of The Bridge was its validation of American urban life as a fit subject for poetry. As Crane wrote in his “Modern Poetry,” his intention was to ensure that the environment of the machine could form “as spontaneous a terminology of poetic reference as the bucolic world of pasture, plow, and barn.” The Beat poets of the 1950’s were to build on this idea of a visionary quality implicit within everyday urban life, as was another Manhattan poet of that period, Frank O’Hara. In fact, The Bridge helped to redress a long-standing imbalance in the American poetic tradition, which up until Crane’s time had been weighted heavily toward the rural and pastoral mode.

For thirty years after Crane’s death, however, the most common reaction to The Bridge was that the poem represented a heroic but ultimately pathetic failure. It was held to be a frustrated attempt to invent a grandiose myth of America, a myth that could not be sustained either by the mundane, lapsed environment of the twentieth century or by the erratic lyric gifts at Crane’s disposal. Philip Horton’s 1937 biography of Crane characterized the poet as a lost romantic soul, helping to reinforce this image of noble self-immolation, which lasted for more than a quarter of a century. During the 1950’s, for example, Allen Ginsberg Ginsberg, Allen in several poems invoked Crane as a doomed victim of corporate America, a homosexual iconoclast and visionary whose genius had been crushed by the impersonal weight of the nation’s unfeeling commercial culture. Robert Lowell’s Lowell, Robert poem “Words for Hart Crane,” published in his 1959 collection Life Studies, paints a similar picture of Crane as a tortured poet, “the Shelley of my age.” At this time, the legend of Crane’s short and robustious life was still overshadowing the legacy of his poetic achievement, and it was not until the 1960’s that critics began paying more attention to the intricacies and achievements of Crane’s texts themselves.

Gradually, however, the aesthetic impact of The Bridge began to be felt. Several fine close readings during the 1960’s and 1970’s were supported by the publication of John Unterecker’s massive biography, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane, in 1969. After that time, interest in Crane’s work continued to grow. In the 1980’s, a new generation of critics such as Lee Edelman and Thomas E. Yingling wrote of Crane as having developed a radical style of gay poetics, an elliptical series of rhetorical tropes that in failing to acquiesce to the orthodox conventions of language could be seen as mirroring Crane’s own ambivalent stance toward the dominant ideologies of American society. It is also significant that postmodernist writers of long poems such as Richard Howard and Alfred Corn Corn, Alfred acknowledged a greater debt to Crane than to the “concrete” poets of midcentury such as Charles Olson. Whereas Olson’s style of clear-eyed realism could be seen as antithetical to Crane’s thrusting rhetoric, Corn’s narrative poem Notes from a Child of Paradise (1984) Notes from a Child of Paradise (Corn) conjoins epic and mock epic in a way very reminiscent of Crane’s edgy tone in The Bridge. Corn wrote an admiring critical essay on The Bridge, and these two long poems also resemble each other in their uneasy juxtaposition of public concerns with private identities, their teasing affiliation between objective myth and subjective romance, and their knowing interrogation of how precisely one side of this equation depends on the other.

For many years, The Bridge was seen as something of a white elephant in American literary history: an ambitious and impressive work, but also a strange, puzzling, and ultimately perturbing one. Yet what in the 1930’s was generally perceived as a weakness—Crane’s refusal to adopt any standard intellectual formula for his mythic endeavor—was later viewed by many critics as an unexpected source of strength. Because the poet enjoyed an oblique relationship with the aesthetic conventions of American modernism, The Bridge managed subsequently to keep its distance from the various large-scale theories about a misplaced mythopoeic idealism that is sometimes said to constitute the “failure of modernism.” Crane was never emotionally or intellectually wedded to utopian ideals in the manner of T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound; rather, the ubiquitous element of mythic gamesmanship in The Bridge distinguishes it as a work touched more by the Surrealist mode. From this perspective, the poem’s quirky humor and self-mocking wordplay lend it an elusive quality that the more solemn epic works of Eliot and Pound tend to lack. With its wry mixture of romanticism and subversive comedy, its delicate balance between sentimentalism and irony, The Bridge is a poem that continues to offer challenges and surprises to the reader. Bridge, The (Crane) Poetry;The Bridge (Crane)[Bridge]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corn, Alfred. The Metamorphoses of Metaphor: Essays in Poetry and Fiction. New York: Viking Press, 1987. Considers the final section of The Bridge in relation to Crane’s revision of utopian legends. Notes connections with Dante and T. S. Eliot. Of special interest in the light of artistic parallels between The Bridge and Corn’s own poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crane, Hart. The Complete Poems of Hart Crane. Edited by Marc Simon. New York: Liveright, 2001. One of the most complete editions of Crane’s poetry. Includes The Bridge and all other published works, plus unpublished poems, incomplete works, and fragments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Letters, 1916-1932. Edited by Brom Weber. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. Excellent collection of Crane’s letters to his friends, relatives, and publishers. Provides a sense of the range of Crane’s interests. Marred by some editorial bowdlerizing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edelman, Lee. Transmemberment of Song: Hart Crane’s Anatomies of Rhetoric and Desire. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1987. Presents a general discussion of stylistic issues in Crane’s work followed by close attention to particular poems, including The Bridge. Provides especially perceptive psychoanalytic readings of Crane’s poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, Clive. Hart Crane: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Biography examines Crane’s personal life in greater detail than earlier works on the author and places his work in the context of his life and times. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giles, Paul. Hart Crane: The Contexts of “The Bridge.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Relates The Bridge to a series of historical and conceptual contexts, such as relativity, capitalism, burlesque theater, and European Surrealism. Places The Bridge within a particular historical framework, showing links between Crane’s work and that of his artistic contemporaries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Unterecker, John. Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane. 1969. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. Comprehensive biography includes anything about Crane that the author thought might possibly be of significance. Difficult to read from cover to cover, but indispensable for tracing particular aspects of Crane’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yingling, Thomas E. Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Concentrates on the development of Crane’s poetic style in terms of a specifically homosexual aesthetic. Connects some of the alleged obscurity in Crane’s work with a general reluctance on the part of critics to engage with Crane’s radical subject matter. Somewhat narrow in approach but presents many perceptive readings.

Harriet Monroe Founds Poetry Magazine

Pound’s Cantos Is Published

Eliot Publishes The Waste Land

Surrealism Is Born

Categories: History Content