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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Modernist Portraits Hart Crane (1899-1932)

[7194] Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City Views. Financial District, framed by Brooklyn Bridge, courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-T01-21249].

Though Hart Crane only lived thirty-three years, the rich poetry he produced provides readers with an alternative view of modernity–his poems seek connectedness and optimism in a world many of his contemporaries saw as fragmented and hopeless. His life was not an easy one; his relationship with his parents was strained, he drank heavily, and he was homosexual at a time when homosexuality was not openly discussed, much less tolerated. Born in Ohio, Hart Crane moved to New York at the age of eighteen to pursue a career as a writer. Two years later, he returned to Ohio to try his hand at business in order to support himself while he worked at the craft of writing. Though he was not especially successful in business, in his four years in Cleveland Crane developed friendships with a variety of intellectuals and published several of the poems that established his literary reputation. “Chaplinesque” appeared in 1921 and “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” was published in 1922. In 1923 he returned to New York City to begin his writing career in earnest.

His first four years in New York were very productive: he finished his sequence Voyages and in 1926 published his first collection of poetry, entitled White Buildings. Ten of the fifteen poems that constitute his long work The Bridge were also completed during this period. Though he worked occasionally, he was supported primarily by friends and family, in particular a banker named Otto Kahn, who became something of a patron.

Crane thought of himself as a visionary in the tradition of the celebratory optimism of Walt Whitman. Crane was interested in the methods of modernism, but did not share completely the modernist pessimism about the state of the contemporary world. Rather than bemoan the loss of a time past, Crane’s work sought affirmation and hope in the fabric of everyday life. In The Bridge, Crane employs the Brooklyn Bridge as a symbol to suggest the unifying potential of the modern world: the bridge links far-flung reaches of the United States in a celebration of the possibilities of America and its people. Published in 1930, the poem did not receive favorable reviews from critics. It won an award from Poetry magazine, however, and Crane received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation that year as well. Nonetheless, Crane was uncertain about his career in literature, and on his return from Mexico, where he had been working on another book, he jumped from the ship and drowned.

Teaching Tips

  • The Bridge could be fruitfully paired with Whitman’s Song of Myself or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” as both poets aim to encompass and represent all aspects of America and American life. Ask students to find parallels in imagery, structure, and ideology between Crane’s and Whitman’s poems. Ask them to consider the difference between the symbol of the bridge as that which links times and places together as opposed to Whitman’s use of himself as the connector of people from different times and places.
  • Because Crane uses visual references as touchstones for his poems, you might want to make your class’s study of his work multi-media. The archive provides an image of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was constructed in the 1880s, when it was an engineering feat that surpassed all previous bridge construction and joined two of the most populous cities in the world. Consider presenting this information to extend your students’ thinking about Crane’s choice of the bridge as a symbol. Also ask them to consider the form of the Brooklyn Bridge, which, despite its modern construction, employs an almost medieval architectural vocabulary. You might also show a clip from a Charlie Chaplin film in conjunction with Crane’s “Chaplinesque” and ask some of the same questions–what is it about this icon of silent film that appeals to Crane? How might Chaplin’s body movements and the plots he involves himself in be attractive as a subject for poetry?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does the speaker admire about Charlie Chaplin in “Chaplinesque”? What is the significance of the kitten in this poem? What do you think is meant by the assertion that the moon can “make / A grail of laughter of an empty ash can”?
  2. Context: Look at photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge and read Crane’s poem about it. Why does this bridge function as an effective symbol for Crane? What is the poem saying about contemporary American society? What is its attitude toward modernization?
  3. Context: Crane’s poetry relies heavily on metaphor, which he believed gave poetry its power to communicate with a reader. Choose a metaphor from one of Crane’s poems and another from a poem by Marianne Moore. How do the two poets use these metaphors as vehicles for their ideas? What makes these metaphors effective? What similarities and differences do you see in the poets’ approaches?
  4. Exploration: What is the effect of the host of esoteric allusions in The Waste Land? Why do you think Eliot chooses the kinds of references he does? Why does he draw from so many different religions?
  5. Exploration: Read Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and consider what it has in common with Crane’s The Bridge. Do you see similarities in their outlook on modern life? Both employ symbols of modernity–the ferry, which brings commuters to work in Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which joined Brooklyn to Manhattan three decades after Whitman first published his poem. Why do you think both poems are set in this space between two cities? What does each poem say about the possibilities for connection between people? About the relation of the present to the past?

Selected Archive Items

[6287] Frank Pearsall, Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, left hand under chin (1869), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-89947].
Modernist poet Hart Crane considered himself an artist in Whitman’s tradition of optimism and exuberance. Both tried to represent the vastness of America in life and modernity.

[6548] A. E. Marey, Going to See Chaplin (1920), 
courtesy of the Gazette du Bon Ton. 
Line outside theater in Paris. Technology made movies available to mass audiences and facilitated popular culture, which often crossed national boundaries. Hart Crane’s poem “Chaplinesque” referenced Charlie Chaplin, a popular comic actor.

[7194] Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City Views. Financial District, framed by Brooklyn Bridge
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-T01-21249]. 
Hart Crane used the Brooklyn Bridge to represent modernization’s unifying potential, while some authors perceived technology and urbanization to be fragmenting.

[7656] Anonymous, Charlie Chaplin in The Vagabond (1916), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-6636].
In his poem “Chaplinesque,” Hart Crane explored Chaplin’s comic grace.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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