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CRANE, [HAROLD] HART

CRANE, [HAROLD] HART (1899–1932). Critical opinion remains divided about the quality of Hart Crane’s best-known and longest poem, The
Bridge (1930), but it appears that it will continue to hold a solid place in
the canon of American literature. Ten of the fifteen separate poems that
constitute The Bridge, its most vital section, were written during the summer
of 1926 that he spent at his grandmother’s home on the Isle of Pines, Cuba.
Composed over several years, it is epic in aspiration and best understood
and appreciated if seen from a mythopoetic vantage point, even though
Crane possessed firsthand knowledge of the sea, principally from his Caribbean* experiences.
The poem’s focus is on the remarkable and enduring engineering and
architectural feat, the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883 to link Brooklyn
and Manhattan shortly before the borough annexations that formed modern
New York City. Opening and closing with a paean to this bridge and gazing
on seabirds and harbor life, the complex poem also traces Christopher Columbus’* voyage and moves back and forth through history and time.
Clearly influenced by Walt Whitman’s* writing—particularly “Crossing
Brooklyn Ferry” (1856), the East River transportation mode replaced by the
span—The Bridge is an emblem of industrialism that contrasts with the pastoral setting.
The paradigms useful in comprehending Crane’s statement and judging
its success are familiar to cultural and intellectual historians: modernity’s threatened aridity in contrast to tradition’s proven and comfortable fecundity, desert and water, urban and pastoral, civilized and primitive, corrupt
and innocent, materialistic and spiritual. Crane’s strategy is to journey back
in time and west in space, juxtaposing the simpler, more virtuous preColumbian or frontier epoch with the more complex and sullied modernity
that Western civilization has forged.
Crane connects with romantics such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry
David Thoreau,* Herman Melville,* Whitman, Emily Dickinson,* and others. The river symbolizes the same renewal for Crane that it does for Samuel
Clemens* and for countless other artists, and the subway (underground)
and bestial sailors, for example, clearly conjure up the opposite pole. Other
bodies of water such as Columbus’ Atlantic suggest similar voyaging in the
quest to recover lost innocence, which is implicit in other modernist works,
for example, T. S. Eliot’s* The Waste Land (1922) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s*
The Great Gatsby (1925).
Facets of Crane’s vision in The Bridge are also present in other works such
as “Voyages” (1926) and “Key West”* (1933). His tribute “At Melville’s
Tomb” (1926) uses maritime imagery of waves, wrecks, shells, compass,
quadrant, and sextant. Crane committed suicide when returning to New
York from a Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico by jumping off the ship that
was carrying him. A recent biography is Paul Mariani’s The Broken Tower:
A Life of Hart Crane (1999).