15 May 2022

Notes on Crosby and Crane: Pin-Up Boys of the Lost Generation

Harry Crosby (1898-1929) and Hart Crane (1899-1932)
La plus volontaire mort c'est la plus belle.
The initials HC mean different things to different people. 
For example, for poor souls suffering with an unremitting headache, they refer to Hemicrania continua, whilst for those to whom the health of horses is a concern, they refer to the connective tissue disorder hyperelastosis cutis.        
Then again, for students of organic chemistry - or those working in the oil and gas industry - HC is short for hydrocarbon, whilst for fans of the Tour de France, HC designates the most difficult type of mountain climb (one which is hors catégorie). 
For me, however, as an amateur literary critic, the initials HC bring to mind the two Jazz Age American poets Harry Crosby and Hart Crane ...
Crosby and Crane sounds like a double act and, as a matter of fact, these two are often linked in the cultural imagination; not merely because they were both poets of debatable merit, but because each committed suicide at a young age (Crosby was 31 when he shot himself in the head in December 1929 and Crane was 32 when he literally jumped ship in April 1932).  
They met for the first time in Paris in January 1929. Harry and his wife, Caresse, had set up the Black Sun Press and were keen to publish new work by the most interesting authors of the day in de luxe editions. Crane was then working on the long poem by which he is best remembered, The Bridge, which he intended as a positive counterstatement to Eliot's Wasteland (1922).    
Crane gave Crosby the MS to read and the latter loved it, encouraging his new friend to complete the poem he had been obsessively reworking since 1923. For Crosby, Crane's poem was full of thunder and fire and swept away all the dust and artificiality of the times, reminding him of Blake and, one suspects, of what he aspired to in his own heliocentric verse. 
As one commentator notes: 
"Crosby's obvious excitement had its source not only in the poem itself but also in finding a work answering to his own theories of poetry and his own particular enthusiasms." [1]    
For example, both had a quasi-Futurist love of speed and modern technology, seeing in the machine a dynamic expression of man's essentially restless spirit and desire to self-overcome; both also valued open spaces in which to move; and both believed that poetry should not only look back to the past, but connect the present to the future and concern itself with the only themes that really matter: love, beauty, and death. 
At heart, then, both were Romantics in the era of Modernism; writers who sought spiritual illumination and a glimpse of some essential reality or lyrical absolute. It's no wonder then that despite his initial enthusiasm for the work of D. H. Lawrence, Crosby concludes that the latter is not his cup of tea:

"'I am a visionary I like to soar he is all engrossed in the body and in the complexities of psychology. [...] He admits of defeat. I do not. He is commonplace. I am not.'" [2]
This - and the fact that he can't really write for toffee - puts me off Crosby. I can't dislike him, but neither can I accept this son of one of the richest banking families in New England to be the real deal (despite the painted toe-nails and sun tattoo) [3].  
As for Crane, well, to be honest, I'm undecided, knowing as I do so little of the man, so little of his work. Many think him a genius and admire his highly stylised and difficult poetry - for its ambition if nothing else. And some scholars working within queer theory champion Crane as an exemplary outsider who struggled with his homosexuality (when not fucking sailors).    
In late November 1929, the Crosbys arrived in New York for what they planned to be a short visit. Hart Crane threw a party for them at his Brooklyn apartment on December 7th, where fun was had by all (including fellow poets E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams).
Three days later, however, Harry killed himself and his 21-year-old lover - Josephine Rotch, aka the Fire Princess - in an apparent suicide pact. It was Hart Crane who broke news of this tragic event to Crosby's wife and mother. 
Shortly after the funeral, Caresse returned to Paris and arranged for the Black Sun edition of The Bridge to be published in February 1930. Sadly, the reviews weren't great and Crane's sense of failure resulted in a creative slump. 
Although he desperately looked for "another great theme around which he might order his work" [4], he unfortunately never found such. Rather, having relocated to Mexico, Crane had simply discovered the intoxicating power of tequila.
Having attempted suicide on several occasions, Crane boarded a ship back to New York - the S. S. Orizaba - from where, on April 27, 1932, he jumped into the sea having shouted goodbye to a group of fellow passengers. He left no suicide note and his body was never recovered. 
Sy Kahn writes:
"Crane's death by water and Crosby's death by exploding bullet in his head, in retrospect, and with the testimony of their poems, seem inevitable acts of self-destruction. For both men death was not fearsome, but a portal through which they might find the tormenting, often elusive, absolutes they felt and sought." [5] 
He concludes:
"The parallels and similarities (even the accident of their initials) in the works and lives of these two poets express the literary vitality of the 1920s [...] In retrospect it seems almost ordained that these poets should have encountered each other before their deaths." [6]  
What a pity, then, that both of these young men had always been "too rich and spoilt" and left with no new pleasures to experience but suicide: "the last sort of cocktail excitement" [7].  

[1] Sy Kahn, 'Hart Crane and Harry Crosby: A Transit of Poets', in the Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 1, No. 1 (Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 45-56. The line quoted is on p. 47. 
      This essay can be accessed on JSTOR by clicking here
[2] Harry Crosby writing in his diary, quoted by David Ellis in D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game 1922-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 472-73.
[3] Without getting into issues of authenticity etc, let's just say that, for me, Crosby tries a bit too hard to be un poète maudit like his heroes Baudeaire, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, et al. Some people just are extreme and achieve a state of inspired madness without having to paint their nails. Ultimately, who gets closest to the sun - Van Gogh, or Harry Crosby ...?     
[4] Sy Kahn, 'Hart Crane and Harry Crosby: A Transit of Poets', Journal of Modern Literature Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 54. 
[5] Ibid., p. 55. 

[6] Ibid., p. 56. 
[7] These phrases were said by D. H. Lawrence with reference to the case of Harry Crosby; see his letter to Giuseppe Orioli [18 Dec 1929], in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VII, ed. Keith Sagar and James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 600-601. 
      See also Lawrence's kind letter to Caresse Crosby (30 Jan 1930), Letters VII 634, in which he tells her: "Harry had a real poetic gift - if only he hadn't tried to disintegrate himself so! This disintegrating spirit, and the tangled sound of it, makes my soul weary to death." 
      He also advises that she not try to recover herself too soon; "it is much better to be a little blind and stunned for a time longer, and not make efforts to see or to feel. Work is the best, and a certain numbness, a merciful numbness. It was too dreadful a blow - and it was wrong."

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