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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Hart Crane

The only child of a successful candy manufacturer and a difficult, possessive mother, Hart Crane grew up in a household of domestic turmoil that did not end even with his parents’ divorce in 1916. He had a sketchy formal education but a precocious self-education derived from reading the experimental writing published in the little magazines of the period. He published his first poem, “C-33,” in one such magazine, Bruno’s Weekly, when he was 17. During this period, he voraciously read not only nativist writers such as Edgar Lee Masters and Sherwood Anderson but also Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot and the French poets Rimbaud and Laforgue.

He left school and went to New York for a brief stay in 1916, returned to Ohio to work for his father from 1919 to 1923, and finally settled in New York. Nourished by the break with his family, Crane was nonetheless troubled by financial difficulties which kept him unhappily dependent upon his relatives. Benefactors such as financier Otto Kahn, who provided support for part of the writing of the long poem The Bridge, also helped Crane through troubled times.

In 1922, he started work on a three-part poem “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” which was to express the union of science and beauty, of technology and art, in the modern world. The oddly disparate three parts of the poem open with the poet’s meeting Helen of Troy, symbol of beauty, in a streetcar (Part I), then move to an evocation of the jazz age (Part II), and end with a vision of wholeness beyond the ravages of modern warfare (Part III). This poem is important as a precursor of The Bridge as well as an expression of Crane’s visionary hope.

During this period of his life, Crane was alternately productive and dejected. His first volume of poetry, White Buildings, was published in 1926. He continued to work on The Bridge through 1927, but he did not complete it until 1929 when he was encouraged by a promise from Harry Crosby, the owner of the Black Sun Press, to publish the poem. Crane never revived the inspiration that inaugurated the long work, and the last poems that he wrote for it lacked the power and vitality of the beginning. However, because he published the poems not in the sequence in which they were written but in the sequence outlined very early in the composition (he wrote, for example, the last section first), The Bridge is a difficult poem to read as a whole. It moves through changes of mood, as it struggles to maintain the positive vision of America that Crane first imagined. The poem starts and ends with a paean to the Brooklyn Bridge, symbolized as “O harp and altar, of the fury fused.”

In the middle sections of the long poem, Crane moves back and forth in American history: back to trace the voyage of Columbus, forward to track the modern subway traveler, back to the Indians, forward to the airplane age, in an effort to unite past and present, nature and technology, America and the spiritual possibilities of the new age. Some parts, written late in the process of composition, express Crane’s flagging spirits even when, in the sequence of the long work, they are designed to move positively toward the affirmation of the ending. As a result, The Bridge has presented problems in interpretation. Assured of its power, readers have been less certain about its purpose.

Long before he completed The Bridge, Crane lost faith in his vision of America and in his own ability as a poet. After a period of creative inactivity and personal discontent, Crane was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and moved to Mexico. On his return from Mexico in April 1927, he committed suicide by jumping from the ship carrying him to New York. Among the poems that he had been working on in his final years, “The Broken Tower” indicates a new range of control and verbal mastery. It expresses a return to the subject of poetry and to his own role as a poet of “the visionary company of love.” Crane’s poetry is marked by visionary power, verbal difficulty, and jammed syntax.

Margaret Dickie
University of Georgia

In the Heath Anthology
At Melville's Tomb (1926)
Black Tambourine (1926)
Chaplinesque (1926)
The Broken Tower (1932)
from The Bridge
      The River (1930)
      To Brooklyn Bridge (1930)

Other Works
White Buildings (1926)
The Collected Poems of Hart Crane (1933)

Cultural Objects
IMAGE fileBrooklyn Bridge Photo Gallery

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Academy of American Poets
Exhibit offering some of Crane's work, a brief bibliography, and links.

Modern American Poetry
Biographical sketch, analytical essays about many of his poems, and links.

Text & RealVideo: At Melville's Tomb
Paul Connah discussing and reciting Crane's poem in a video file.

The Hart Crane WebBridge
Selection of resources including poetry, secondary bibliography, essays, papers, and explications.

Secondary Sources

Edward Brunner, Hart Crane and the Making of "The Bridge," 1984

Philip Horton, Hart Crane: The Life of an American Poet, 1937; rptd, 1957

Herbert A. Leibowitz, Hart Crane: An Introduction to the Poetry, 1968

R.W.B. Lewis, The Poetry of Hart Crane, 1967

Monroe K. Spears, Hart Crane, 1965

John Unterecker, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane, 1969

M.D. Uroff, Hart Crane: The Patterns of His Poetry, 1974

Brom Weber, Hart Crane: A Biographical and Critical Study, 1948