American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

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). [See also SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY]

Donald Yannella