Hart Crane in Greenwich Village

Hart Crane
(photograph by Walker Evans)

 

Francesca Bratton

 

In his 1921 flâneur’s guide to New York City, Hints to Pilgrims, the dramatist and essayist Charles S. Brooks briefly interrupts his rhapsodies over the city’s ‘restaurants and theatres…bridges…the shipping…parks…fifth avenue…electric signs’ with a quick sketch of its ‘quartier Latin’, Greenwich Village. Brooks’s interlude revolves around a brief meeting with a ‘not entirely famous’ young poet at his lodgings ‘just North of Greenwich Village’ in the Spring of 1919. The poet, whose ‘verses’, we are told, are ‘of the newer sort’, was the twenty-year-old Hart Crane, then living above the offices of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap’s Little Review (which Brooks chauvinistically dubs ‘The Shriek’) and whose career began in the pages of the Village’s lively journals.[1]

Crane appears beslippered on the staircase of his dark, decaying, ‘tarnished’ and ‘frescoed’ building that, for Brooks, recalls Thomas de Quincey’s glamorously decrepit ‘vast gothic halls’. With its roots in an ‘earlier bohemia in the lower Manhattan of the 1890s’, the Village’s distinct brand of modernism in the late 1910s was steeped in references to past generations of artists and writers. As Stephen Rogers has noted, its aesthetic was given particular ‘impetus’ by the ‘spirit of Decadence’ fashionable in local literary circles.[2] At once a Wildean, loquacious dandy, and terse defender of the ‘newer’ poetry, Crane is presented as the Greenwich Village archetype made flesh in Brooks’s self-described ‘memorandum’ of the ‘characters’ of New York City.[3]

The much mythologised culture of the Village in the 1910s was, according to Crane’s friend, the writer and editor Malcolm Cowley, a distinct mixture of ‘radicalism and bohemianism’. Animated equally by these ‘two currents’ of arts and liberal politics, writes Cowley, ‘socialism, free love, anarchism, syndicalism, free verse’ were all ‘lumped together’. ‘The Villagers’, he continues, ‘might get their heads broken in Union Square by the police before appearing at the Liberal Club to recite Swinburne in bloody bandages.’[4] As a 1925 map of ‘Greenwich Village Today’ printed in a local journal The Quill illustrates, the area teemed with bookshops, theatres, galleries, artists’ studios, magazine offices (with those of Guido Bruno and Joseph Kling, two of Crane’s first magazine editors, picked out in The Quill’s map), literary salons (with Mabel Dodge’s famous rooms at 23 Fifth Avenue), and the headquarters of civil and political organisations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.[5] While Cowley’s reminiscences are admittedly nostalgic, they do convey something of the cosmopolitan, radical, and assimilative spirit that governed the editing practices of a number of the Village journals. In turn, charting Crane’s involvement with these journals, and his extrication from them in 1919 when he suddenly cut ties with The Pagan, sheds light on the development of his poetry as it shifted from his straightforward borrowings of fin-de-siècle tropes and homages to Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and Stephan Mallarmé in his early poems, published in Bruno’s Bruno’s Weekly, Bruno’s Bohemia, and Kling’s The Pagan in the late 1910s, to his interest in ‘machine age’ subjects and proto-Surrealist experiments with metaphor in the early 1920s.

A wide range of journals were edited from the Village during this period, ranging from Emma Goldman’s anarchist journal ‘Devoted to Social Science and Literature’, Mother Earth (1906-1918), James Waldo Fawcett’s The Modernist, which asserted it was ‘radical in policy; international in scope’ on the masthead of its single issue in November 1919, Alfred Kreymborg and Man Ray’s Glebe (1913-1914), which became a centre for Imagism on its publication of Ezra Pound’s Des Imagistes: An Anthology, Robert J. Coady’s literary and visual arts journal The Soil, which printed poetry from Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein and reproduced works by Cézanne and Picasso. For both Cowley and the writer and editor Gorham Munson, the Village’s ‘intellectual center’ was The Masses, a journal which combined political commentary, poetry and prose publications and cultural criticism.[6] Edited by Max Eastman, The Masses was published in its first iteration between 1906 and 1918 (The New Masses was published from 1926-1948), when its political programme which demanded ‘revolution not reform’ led to its suppression under wartime censorship legislation and the trial of its editors for publishing ‘treasonable material’.[7]

Among these publications was a cluster of journals that, though varied in approach, shared in their self-conscious portrayal of ‘bohemian’ Village life – veering into marketing in Bruno’s case, as he sold tickets for paid tours of ‘bohemian’ painters at work in his ‘garret’ through his magazines – and, crucially for the young Crane, shared an interest in an internationally inflected post-Decadent aesthetic, built upon ‘cultural exchange’ with Europe, which Deborah Longworth has identified as, rather than direct imitation, a ‘smart sophistication that spoke to young and modern New York as much as it did fin-de-siècle/fin du globe of 1890s London.’ This was ‘a term that signaled at once a moving on from, and parodic appropriation of, the tropes and rhetoric of Aestheticism and Decadence that continued to influence many writers.’[8] Among these publications –  which Crane, based in Cleveland was able to get hold of at Richard Laukhuff’s bookstore which, as Crane put it, ‘handle[d] most of the radical stuff’ – were Bruno’s array of short-lived literary magazines, Greenwich Village (1915), Bruno’s Weekly (1915-1916), Bruno’s Bohemia (1918), Bruno’s Review (1919), Bruno’s Review of Two Worlds (1920-1922), Joseph Kling’s magazine with ‘Yellow Book sympathies’, The Pagan (1916-1922) which Crane helped to edit from April 1918 to 1919 alongside Gorham Munson, and Arthur Moss’s Quill, a ‘guidebook to cultural activity’ which aired ‘discussions of free love, the conventions, psychoanalysis, and socialism.’[9]

In September 1916 Crane’s poetry first appeared in print, with the publication of his homage to Oscar Wilde, ‘C33’, in Bruno’s Weekly. Crane had sent the poem to the magazine under the pen-name Harold H. Crane (misspelled ‘Crone’ in Bruno’s Weekly) alongside ‘Carmen de Boheme’ in what appears to have been his first submission of poetry.[10] This was followed by a letter to The Pagan, in which Crane links the ‘new and distinct’ presence of the journal in the ‘American Renaissance of literature and art’ to its interest in ‘the exoticism and richness of Wildes’ [sic] poems.’[11] This established a fruitful, if brief, relationship between Crane and Kling, with Crane serving as an editing assistant from April 1918 to 1919, alongside Gorham Munson. Crane appeared seventeen times in the magazine, with poetry, prose and reviews, amounting to 20% of Crane’s total publications (which my research puts as standing at 109) during his career from 1916 to his untimely demise in 1932, when he leapt to his death from the S.S. Orizaba, en route from Mexico to New York. Crane was retrospectively disdainful of his first published efforts, distancing himself from their imitative style, which emulated the literary fashions of the Village. While none of the Pagan poems appeared in his first collection, White Buildings, he characterised his efforts in the Bruno’s as ‘adolescent juvenilia’, impulsively submitted to Bruno’s Weekly in a ‘white hot fury’ earlier in 1916.[12] Bruno’s handling of the submission added to Crane’s embarrassment. Lacking the usual mores of little magazine publishing, while he did not initially print ‘Carmen’, Bruno kept hold of the ‘adolescent’ poem and published it two years later in a new venture, Bruno’s Bohemia. Appearing in March 1918, this was long after Crane had moved on from the derivative style of ‘C33’ and ‘Carmen’, and discarded his first pen name.[13]

Bruno’s Weekly was a natural choice for ‘C33’, which takes its title from Wilde’s cell number in Reading Gaol. As well as sixteen drawings from Aubrey Beardsley, during its fourteen-month run, Bruno’s Weekly mentions Wilde 106 times. Openly queer publications such as London’s The Link and Chicago’s Friendship and Freedom (both published in the 1920s) were supressed, with their editors jailed. Bruno’s repeated nods to Wilde, then, work as a coded advertisement of his magazines’ sexually liberal, even queer aesthetic, all the while avoiding the gaze of the censor (Bruno and Kling at The Pagan both documented censorship trials in the editorial sections of their journals). Bruno used ‘C33’ in a feature ‘Oscar Wilde: Poems in His Praise’ (which significantly also contains a poem by Alfred Douglas), and ‘Carmen’ was used to punctuate a feature ‘Bohemia Over Here: Bohemia Over There’, rather than publishing the poem in its own right, as was standard practice for contributions such as Marianne Moore’s ‘Holes Bored in a Workbag by the Scissors’.[14] Although both poems contain traces of Crane’s mature style, with the beginnings of Crane’s associative use of metaphor in ‘C33’, and, in ‘Carmen’, the emergence of the halting intonation that characterises the ‘Voyages’, the earnest, derivative qualities of both poems are highlighted by Bruno’s editing. Eschewing the more obvious ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’, the first stanza of ‘C33’ stays close to Wilde’s play Salomé:

 

He has woven rose-vines
About the empty heart of night,
And vented his long mellowed wines
Of dreaming on the desert white
With searing sophistry.
And he tented with far thruths [sic] he would form
The transient bosoms from the thorny tree.[15]

 

Here Crane borrows from reoccurring images in Wilde’s play, with its ‘roses in the garden’, ‘redder than roses’, ‘vines’ and ‘vineyards’. The phrase ‘vented his long mellowed wines’ is both a literal description of airing wine before it is drunk, but if ‘vent’ is understood as breathing or speaking, it reads as an allusion to Salomé’s encomium to Jokanaan: ‘Thy voice is wine to me’. Crane’s ‘roses’ and ‘lamp’ lit ‘heart of night’ recall Beardsley’s illustrations, particularly ‘The Mysterious Rose Garden’. Crane takes Salomé and Jokanaan’s exchanges and applies it to the incarcerated Wilde, trapped within his own ‘searing sophistry’. Showing the extent to which his appreciation of Wilde was mediated by Bruno’s Weekly, Crane draws on details included in an article in the January 1916 number that documented Wilde’s ‘Experience in Reading Gaol’. Wilde becomes something of a cipher for Crane, and his own sexual anxiety (and perhaps internalised homophobia). Crane commonly used masks to articulate his cruellest interpretations of his own sexual anxiety, as in the mocking smiles of ‘The Wine Menagerie’. Suggesting the ‘bitter self contempt’ noted in the article, Wilde’s ‘transient’ imaginings become a ‘thorny tree’, as he remains trapped in his cell.[16] Similarly, in ‘Carmen de Boheme’, Crane’s description of Carmen’s ‘yellow…mystic face…like ancient lace’ borrows the image of ‘yellow’ and ‘ravelled lace’ from Wilde’s ‘La Mer’, printed in Bruno’s Weekly in April 1916.[17]

The phrase ‘searing sophistry’ (that is to say, aestheticizing suffering), however, is crucial. Crane’s agnosticism towards Wilde shows through, and he instigates a dialogue with his influences rather than, as the context ‘Poems in Praise’ suggests, tendering a simple homage. ‘[T]ransient bosoms form the thorny tree’ is deliberately difficult to annunciate; the sentence is forced into stutters because of its own over-patterning, and in the following stanza, ‘head’ and ‘shed’ are marshalled into an uncomfortable and obvious rhyme, with the syntax twisted to accommodate it: ‘with a new light shed’.

In situ as an homage, ‘C33’ is shorn of some of its complex attitudes to Wilde. Nevertheless, Bruno appears to use Crane’s text to create dialogue within the feature. ‘C33’ as Niall Munro has written, works as ‘a badge of male homosexual suffering, connecting Wilde and certain of Crane’s readers’. Crane’s poem is followed by Jubal Agmenon’s ‘Oscar Wilde’ (with its blend of classical and biblical allusion, presumably a pen name). Agmenon’s poem contains the sanctimonious lines: ‘However ugly be the vine, / Shall it, condemned, uprooted be…?’, which asks for God’s ‘pity’ in his ‘judgment’ of the poet.[18] In comparison, Crane’s poem is sympathetic. ‘C33’ was crucial for the young poet, for whom the act of writing poetry became bound up with the problem of sexual self-expression in a censorious public sphere, and shows him adopting a coded language even in this early publication, laying the foundations of his associative, coded (later, more Whitmanian) mode.

Like Bruno’s Weekly, The Pagan presented a ‘post-decadent’ aesthetic. After The Pagan printed Crane’s letter alluding to Wilde, he went on to publish regularly in the journal, helping Kling edit the publication from 1918 to 1919 after his move to New York. While Crane’s decision not to include any of the Pagan poems in White Buildings is testament to his feeling that these were still apprentice works, the particular aesthetic of The Pagan, which assimilated fin-de-siècle reprints alongside contemporary experiments in Imagism and Dada (including Dadaist calligrammes), was crucial to the development of Crane’s poetry. In his memoir The Awakening Twenties, Gorham Munson describes The Pagan as a kind of ‘training school’ for young editors and writers who went on to found the ‘exile’ journals of the early 1920s – Malcolm Cowley’s term for journals founded by U.S. writers based in continental Europe, of which Broom and Munson’s own Secession were crucial to Crane’s career. Crane and the editors of the ‘exile’ journals were profoundly influenced by The Pagan, in its catholic tastes in contemporaneous poetry, attention to the fin-de-siècle, European avant-garde poetry, and its demands for a cosmopolitan, multi-lingual modernism evident in its wide range of works in translation (representative of the Greenwich Village milieu, reflecting the sizable German, Polish, Italian and Russian speaking population of New York).[19]

Crane’s poems in The Pagan are characterised by their marrying of fin-de-siècle tropes with Imagist forms – an aesthetic that was common in poetry published by The Pagan. Genevieve Taggard noticed this quality in Crane’s early poetry, titling her review of White Buildings ‘An Imagist in Amber’. Crane’s ‘October-November’, for instance, borrows extensively from Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A Dice Throw At Any Time Never Will Destroy Chance), but retains an Imagistic preoccupation with ‘instances in time’  (to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase), while Crane’s omission of the article in the first line, beginning ‘Indian-summer-sun’, was common to experiments in Imagist poetry.[20]

In 1919 in a fit of pique, Crane dramatically cut ties with the magazine after Kling rejected his poem ‘To Portapovitch’, citing the editor’s ‘mysterious aesthetic touchstones’, although his occasional anti-Semitic remarks about Kling in his letters suggest more sinister reasons for his severing of this publishing relationship.[21] Crane had, most likely, simply grown out of the journal’s aesthetic, with Kling sending back ‘To Portopovitch’ the final affront to his sensibilities. As Malcolm Cowley wrote, by 1920, aided by the postwar economic boom, the ‘bohemia’ and ‘radical’ politics of the Village had become a fashionable ‘doctrine’. The post-war Village was fuelled by ‘the ethic of a young capitalism’ and its principles of ‘self expression and paganism’ had, Cowley added, become marketable products: ‘Greenwich Village standards, with the help of business, had spread through the country’.[22] By 1919 the ‘Yellow Book’ aesthetic of The Pagan was passé. Cowley and Munson’s memoirs recall this change in tastes, while letters from Crane to Carl Zigrosser, the editor of the New Jersey journal The Modern School (which later published ‘To Protavotich’), makes a similar point: ‘here before the war I resided in the village, but at last I have made the break, I really like my new location, out a ways, much better.’ Crane’s ‘break’ is both geographical and artistic, testament to the development of his poetry away from the dominant aesthetic inextricably associated with the Village and its magazines, and a shift in his poetry away from sincere experiments in ‘post-decadence’ and Imagism.

Tracking Crane’s poetic development through his periodical contexts shows the affinities between his poetry and texts by both Crane’s contemporaries and previous generations. Crucially, in the case of the Village journals, the extent to which his assimilation of various strands of influence was crucial to his poetic mode, and illuminates the construction of later texts. Crane’s extrication from Village journals was a self-conscious development towards the cosmopolitan, ‘machine age’ aesthetic of his poems ‘Porphyro in Akron’ and ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’. The Decadent tropes of ‘woven rose vines’ in ‘C33’ and ‘bright peacocks drink[ing] from flame pots’ in ‘Carmen de Boheme’ give way to ‘A shift of rubber workers press[ing] down | South Main’ in ‘Porphyro in Akron’, and later, developed out of ‘Porphyro’, ‘the street car device’ in ‘For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen’.[23] Meanwhile, later poems that experiment with Decadent tropes, such as ‘The Wine Menagerie’ which works through Baudelaire’s ‘Enivrez-Vous’ and Les Paradis Artificiels, evidence a more mature treatment on Crane’s part; through careful allusion, he stitches together a text that sits with deliberate discomfort between homage and pastiche, in contrast to the derivative, if promising efforts of ‘C33’ and ‘Carmen’.

In the 1920s, Crane developed his concept of ‘the logic of metaphor’. As he wrote in a 1926 letter to Harriet Monroe, published in Poetry, he was:

 

more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations…[24]

 

Given the necessary interest of the associative form of Crane’s ‘logic of metaphor’ with collage and intertextual allusion, analyzing his formative use of borrowing and connotation in the late 1910s is crucial to unpicking the genealogy of this poetic, which underpins his mature work. Furthermore, tracking Crane’s periodical publications sheds light on his complex reception history. He never quite seemed to shake his close (if brief) affiliation with the lively, sexually progressive post-decadent journals of the Village. This is perhaps exemplified by Yvor Winters’s famous 1937 assessment of Crane’s The Bridge in Primitivism and Decadence, which includes the unpalatable equation of Crane’s homosexuality with a general ‘Decadence’ of character and lack of discipline, supposedly revealing itself in his poetry. Marianne Moore, who edited The Dial from 1925 to 1929, famously reduced ‘The Wine Menagerie’ from 49 to 18 lines for the May 1926 number, turning the poem into a meditation on the ‘thresholds’ of poetic practice rather than desire, as in Crane’s original text. When questioned about the edit by Donald Hall, Moore echoed Winters. Revealing perhaps more about her own poetic process than that of Crane’s poem, she complained to Hall that he was unable to self-edit, ‘to be hard on himself’, something she found rooted in a lack of discipline that she linked to his homosexuality and alcoholism. Alluding to his ‘wild parties’, she added that he was ‘in both instances under a disability with which I was unfamiliar.’[25] Unpicking Crane’s periodical networks and the history of his publications and interactions with journals, then, works to shed considerable light on his complex poetry, and challenges some of the more crude shibboleths of his reception history.

 


 

[1] Charles S. Brooks, Hints to Pilgrims (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921), pp. 12-13; Guido Bruno, ‘Bohemia Over Here’, Bruno’s Bohemia, 1.1 (March 1918), p. 2.

[2] Stephen Rogers, ‘Village Voices’, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Volume II: North America 1894-1960, ed.by Andrew Thacker and Peter Brooker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 445-464. (p. 446).

[3] Brooks, Hints to Pilgrims p. 93.

[4] Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994), p. 66.

[5] Robert Edwards, ‘Greenwich Village Today’, digitised by the Harry Ransom Center in Kelsey McKinney, ‘In the Galleries: A Map of Greenwich Village from the Greenwich Village Quill’, Ransom Center Magazine, available at: <https://sites.utexas.edu/ransomcentermagazine/2012/01/05/in-the-galleries-a-map-of-greenwich-village-from-the-greenwich-village-quill/> [Accessed 14.05.18].

[6] Cowley, Exile’s Return, p. 66; Gorham Munson, The Awakening Twenties: A Memoir History of a Literary Period (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), pp. 74-75.

[7] ‘Socialists to Test the Espionage Act: Editors of Radical Publications Would Establish Their Right to the Mails’, New York Times, 10 July 1917.

[8] Rogers, ‘Village Voices’, p. 446.

[9] Crane to Munson, 13 November 1919, O My Land My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. by Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), pp. 24-25; F.J. Hoffman, C. F. Ulrich, and C. Allen, The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 252.

[10] Hart Crane [as ‘Harold Hart Crone’], ‘C33’, Bruno’s Weekly, 3.15 (23 September 1916), p. 1008; as ‘Harold H. Crane’, ‘Carmen de Boheme’, Bruno’s Bohemia, 1.1 (March 1918), p. 2.

[11]  Crane to The Pagan, 1.6 (October 1916), p. 43.

[12] Interview in John Unterecker, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969), p. 107.

[13] Crane, ‘Carmen de Boheme’, Bruno’s Bohemia, 1.1 (March 1918), p. 2. As noted by Brom Weber, p. 34.

[14] Alfred Douglas ‘To Oscar Wilde’, Bruno’s Weekly, 3.15 (23 September 1916), p. 1009; Marianne Moore, ‘Holes Bored in a Workbag by the Scissors’, Bruno’s Weekly, 3.17 (7 October 1916), p. 1137.

[15] Crane, ‘C33’, p. 1008, ll. 1-7.

[16] Anonymous, ‘The Story of Oscar Wilde’s Life and Experience in Reading Gaol’, Bruno’s Weekly, 2.4 (22 January 1916), pp. 400-01.

[17] Oscar Wilde, ‘La Mer’, Bruno’s Weekly, 2.14 (1 April 1916), p. 3.

[18] Jubal Agmenon, ‘Oscar Wilde’, Bruno’s Weekly, 3.15 (23 September 1916), p. 1008.

[19] Ira Rosenwaike, Population History of New York City (Syracuse University Press, 1972), pp. 93, 95. See Victoria Kingham, Commerce, Little Magazines, and Modernity, PhD thesis (De Montfort University, 2009), p. 185.

[20] October-November’, The Pagan, 1.7-8 (November-December 1916), p. 4; Genevieve Taggard ‘An Imagist in Amber’ review of Crane, White Buildings (1926), The New York Herald Tribune  (29 May 1927), p. 4; Pound, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, Poetry, 1.6 (March 1913), pp. 200-06.

[21] Crane to Carl Zigrosser, box 9, folder 346, Carl Zigrosser Papers, Kislak Center for Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia); Crane to Munson, 23 April 1918, O My Land My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. by Langdon Hammer and Brom Weber (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), pp. 13-14 (p. 14).

[22] Cowley, Exile’s Return, pp. 60-64.

[23] ‘Porphyro in Akron’, The Double Dealer, 2. 8-9 (August-September 1921), p. 53; Crane, ‘General Aims and Theories’, The Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Hart Crane, ed. by Langdon Hammer (New York: Library of America, 2006), pp. 160-164 (p. 160).

[24]Crane, in Crane and Harriet Monroe, ‘A Discussion with Hart Crane’, Poetry, 29.1 (October 1926), pp.34-41 (p. 35-6).

[25] Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason: Primitivism and Decadence, a Study of American Experimental Poetry (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947), p. 590; Marianne Moore, ‘The Art of Poetry No. 4’, interview by Donald Hall, The Paris Review, 26 (Summer-Fall 1961), pp. 41-66 (p. 60).

Francesca Bratton

About Francesca Bratton

Francesca Bratton recently completed her AHRC-funded PhD on 'Hart Crane and the Little Magazine' (Durham University), which she is developing into a monograph. She was a Library of Congress Kluge Fellow in 2013-14, and teaches at Durham University. Her current research project examines the roots of New Criticism in literary periodicals, and its consolidation in cultural and governmental institutions. Her poetry has appeared in The Oxonian Review and Eborakon and she regularly reviews for The Scores.