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Harold Hart Crane (July 21, 1899 – April 27, 1932) was an American poet. Identified with the Lost Generation. Finding both inspiration and provocation in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Crane wrote modernist poetry that was difficult, highly stylized, and ambitious in its scope. In his most ambitious work, The Bridge, Crane sought to write an epic poem, in the vein of The Waste Land, that expressed a more optimistic view of modern, urban culture than the one that he found in Eliot's work. In the years following his suicide at the age of 32, Crane has been hailed by playwrights, poets, and literary critics alike (including Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, Tennessee Williams, and Harold Bloom), as being one of the most influential poets of his generation.
Hart Crane was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, the son of Clarence A. Crane and Grace Edna Hart. His father was a successful Ohio businessman who invented the Life Savers candy and held the patent, but sold it for $2,900 before the brand became popular. He made other candy and accumulated a fortune from the candy business with chocolate bars. Crane's mother and father were constantly fighting, and early in April, 1917, they divorced.[notes 1] Hart dropped out of East High School in Cleveland during his junior year and left for New York City, promising his parents he would attend Columbia University later. His parents, in the middle of divorce proceedings, were upset. Crane took various copywriting jobs and jumped between friends' apartments in Manhattan. Between 1917 and 1924 he moved back and forth between New York and Cleveland, working as an advertising copywriter and a worker in his father's factory. From Crane's letters, it appears that New York was where he felt most at home, and much of his poetry is set there.
Throughout the early 1920s, small but well-respected literary magazines published some of Crane's lyrics, gaining him, among the avant-garde, a respect that White Buildings (1926), his first volume, ratified and strengthened. White Buildings contains many of Crane's best lyrics, including "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen", and "Voyages", a powerful sequence of erotic poems. They were written while he was falling in love with Emil Opffer, a Danish merchant mariner. "Faustus and Helen" was part of a larger artistic struggle to meet modernity with something more than despair. Crane identified T. S. Eliot with that kind of despair, and while he acknowledged the greatness of The Waste Land, he also said it was "so damned dead", an impasse, and characterized by a refusal to see "certain spiritual events and possibilities". Crane's self-appointed work would be to bring those spiritual events and possibilities to poetic life, and so create "a mystical synthesis of America".
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Crane returned to New York in 1928, living with friends and taking temporary jobs as a copywriter or living off unemployment and the charity of friends and his father. For a time, he was living in Brooklyn at 77 Willow Street until his lover, Opffer, invited him to live in Opffer's father's home at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights. Crane was overjoyed at the views the location afforded him. He wrote his mother and grandmother in the spring of 1924:
Just imagine looking out your window directly on the East River with nothing intervening between your view of the Statue of Liberty, way down the harbour, and the marvelous beauty of Brooklyn Bridge close above you on your right! All of the great new skyscrapers of lower Manhattan are marshaled directly across from you, and there is a constant stream of tugs, liners, sail boats, etc in procession before you on the river! It's really a magnificent place to live. This section of Brooklyn is very old, but all the houses are in splendid condition and have not been invaded by foreigners...
His ambition to synthesize America was expressed in The Bridge (1930), intended to be an uplifting counter to Eliot's The Waste Land. The Brooklyn Bridge is both the poem's central symbol and its poetic starting point. Crane found what a place to start his synthesis in Brooklyn. Arts patron Otto H. Kahn gave him $2,000 to begin work on the epic poem. When he wore out his welcome at the Opffers', Crane left for Paris in early 1929, but failed to leave his personal problems behind. It was during the late 1920s, while he was finishing The Bridge, that his drinking, always a problem, became notably worse.
In Paris in February 1929, Harry Crosby, who with his wife Caresse Crosby owned the fine arts press Black Sun Press, offered Crane the use of their country retreat, Le Moulin du Soleil in Ermenonville. They hoped he could use the time to concentrate on completing The Bridge. Crane spent several weeks at their estate where he roughed out a draft of the "Cape Hatteras" section, a key part of his epic poem. In late June that year, Crane returned from the south of France to Paris. Harry noted in his journal, "Hart C. back from Marseilles where he slept with his thirty sailors and he began again to drink Cutty Sark." Crane got drunk at the Cafe Select and fought with waiters over his tab. When the Paris police were called, he fought with them and was beaten. They arrested and jailed him, fining him 800 francs. After Hart had spent six days in prison at La Santé, Harry Crosby paid Crane's fine and advanced him money for the passage back to the United States where he finally finished The Bridge. The work received poor reviews, and Crane's sense of his own failure became crushing.
Crane visited Mexico in 1931–32 on a Guggenheim Fellowship and his drinking continued as he suffered from bouts of alternating depression and elation. When Peggy Cowley, wife of his friend Malcolm Cowley, agreed to a divorce, she joined Crane. As far as is known, she was his only heterosexual partner. "The Broken Tower," one of his last published poems, emerged from that affair. Crane still felt himself a failure, in part because he recommenced homosexual activity in spite of his relationship with Cowley.
While on board the steamship Orizaba en route to New York, he was beaten after making sexual advances to a male crew member. Just before noon on April 27, 1932, Hart Crane jumped overboard into the Gulf of Mexico. Although he had been drinking heavily and left no suicide note, witnesses believed his intentions to be suicidal, as several reported that he exclaimed "Goodbye, everybody!" before throwing himself overboard. His body was never recovered. A marker on his father's tombstone at Park Cemetery outside Garrettsville, Portage County, Ohio includes the inscription, "Harold Hart Crane 1899–1932 lost at sea".
Hart Crane (1899-1932), David Hyde Pierce (born 1959), Barbara Gittings (1932-2007) and Caitlin Cahow (born 1985), all descend from the same Mayflower Pilgrims, William Mullins and Alice Mullins.
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