A review of The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932, edited by Brom Weber.
Anybody who knew Hart Crane will come away from his letters both depressed and relieved. I confess that I hope I shall not have to follow this desperate, melancholy life again. I prefer to cherish, after the violence and the final frustration of a great lyric poet, an image of Crane the poet as hero. What at last destroyed him one cannot quite say, even after the copious evidence that Mr. Weber’s ably edited volume puts before us. The clue to the mystery is not here: it seems to lie far back of the written testimony of the letters, in his boyhood, when at eleven he became the “bloody battleground” for his father’s and mother’s “sex lives and troubles,” which ended not only in divorce but in such disorder that the boy was set adrift. The family was by no means poor, but he was not sent to college; he was turned loose in New York when he was seventeen.
What astonishes me in the early letters—and what I had not got from Crane himself or from Mr. Horton’s excellent biography—is Crane’s moral as well as intellectual precocity. He was seventeen when he wrote to his father from New York: “When I perceive one emotion overpowering to a fact, or a statement of reason, then the only manly, worthy, sensible thing to do, is build up the logical side, and attain balance, and in art—formal expression.” In 1926,nine years later, he wrote to an anonymous friend: “… with the sailor no faith or such is properly expected, and how jolly and cordial and warm. … Let my lusts be my ruin, then, since all else is fake and mockery.”
The intellectual deterioration came more slowly. What had happened to him morally between 1917 and 1926? The letters definitely answer this question. He had been confirmed in his homosexuality and cut off finally from any relationship in which the security necessary to mutual love was possible. I was surprised, after two years of correspondence with him, when in 1924 I met him and learned a little later that he was a homosexual: he had none of the usual characteristics. The violence of his obscenity (particularly about women) and his intense emotional attachments to women his own age (not to middle-aged women) convinced me even then that he was an extreme example of the unwilling homosexual. It is significant that his last love affair, quite real if not wholly “committed,” was with a woman: his letters to her are in every sense the letters of a man to a woman down to the full implications of physical love.
I emphasize this part of the record because beneath it lies the mystery of the disintegration, at the age of thirty-two, of the most gifted poet of his generation. The “causes” of homosexuality are no doubt as various as the causes of other neuroses. But the effect on the lives of its victims seems to be uniform: they are convinced that they cannot be loved, and they become incapable of loving. This is not to say that they are incapable of strong affection: they are incapable of sustaining it in a sexual relationship. They may have affection or sex; or if both, both are diluted and remote. Crane’s intensity excluded this compromise. Incidents of the “bloody battleground” that he told me and other friends about in the late twenties have never appeared in print. Is it not reasonable to assume that the hatred and suffering that accompanied the violent sex-life of his parents gave him very specifically the homosexual neurosis? Was it possible for an eleven-year-old boy, or for the man later, to dissociate hate from the. sexual relation with a woman.? Almost to the end of his life he was still trying to “explain” himself to his mother, and to force from a peculiarly stupid and selfish woman the recognition and love of what he was. He could love her because he could not be her lover. It seems to me that the defection of his mother precipitated the final disaster. He had been endowed with powerful family affections that were progressively frustrated: his letters to his divorced parents are among the most considerate, tender, and moving in literary history. He turned to his friends for the totally committed love, the disinterested caritas, that only one’s family can sustain and that alone will condone repeatedly violent and aggressive conduct. None of us was capable in the end of taking the place of his family, and that was what he demanded of us; our failure—and I speak here not only for myself but not improperly, I think, for his entire intimate circle—also contributed to the final disaster. But there was for us no other way: we also had families and our own lives.
Out of these conflicts, which in the end became one conflict, emerged a peculiar focus of the intelligence and sensibility that represents “modernism” in its extreme development. (Towards the end he speaks of himself as the “last romantic”.) He had an abnormally acute response to the physical world, an exacerbation of the nerve-ends, along with an incapacity to live within the limitations of the human condition. It has become commonplace to describe this as the mentality of “alienation.” But the point to bear in mind—and it is amply confirmed by the letters—is that Crane was never alienated.He did not reject, he simply could not achieve, in his own life, the full human condition: he did not for a moment suppose that there was a substitute for it. This is borne out not only by his poetry—for example, The Bridge is not in intention a poem of “rejection,” in the tradition of Rimbaud, but of ““acceptance,” an attempt to assimilate a central tradition; it is confirmed also by his life, reflected day by day, year after year, in the letters. His deepest friendships were not with homosexuals; they were with Malcolm Cowley, Slater Brown, Kenneth Burke, Gorham Munson, Waldo Frank, and myself; it was with these men that he lived the life of the mind and the imagination. He could not pretend that the alienated society of the committed homosexual was complete: for this unhappy person—for his manners and for his irresponsibility—he felt compassion and contempt. There is a Christian doctrine which says that God does not despise conditions. Out of the desperate conditions of his life Crane produced a shining exemplum of uncompromising human dignity.
He came to New York at seventeen equipped with an hysterical and disorderly family, almost no formal education, and the cultural inheritance of a middle western small town; his religious training had been in Christian Science. By the time he was twenty-five, before The Bridge had scarcely been conceived, he had produced a body of lyric poetry which for originality, distinction, and power, remains the great poetic achievement of his generation. If he is not our twentieth-century poet as hero I do not know where else to look for him.