James Franco's playing him in a movie now, but Hart Crane's genius has gone largely unrecognized since his death
Hart Crane, who is famous for having jumped off the back of a boat at age 32 after having been lauded as one of America’s greatest poets, is most often associated with New York. This makes sense: Crane lived and wrote there, after all, and his best-known work, The Bridge, is an epic about the Brooklyn Bridge. It is no surprise that the go-to biography of Crane, Paul Mariani’s The Broken Tower (the basis of last year’s motion picture starring James Franco), starts this way: “There was only one city for Hart Crane, and that was New York.”
But this is wrong from the start. It’s a rust belt story, that of Hart Crane. He even has a rust belt name — the name of a piece of heavy machinery — made even more so by the fact that sometimes he would sign his letters “Heart.” Crane was not a New York but a Cleveland poet: a mess of a thing, a striving wreck of promise and all too human failings. Crane was raised in Cleveland and lived much of his short adult life in the city that made his father rich and his mother suicidal. He hated its over-obviousness, its out-to-make-a-buck spirit. “What especially irked him was Josephson’s going gaga over Apollinaire’s celebration of the new: ‘the telegraph, the locomotive, the automat, the wireless, the streetcars and the electric lamp post,’” Mariani writes. “In Paris, such quotidian conveniences might be novelties, to be praised for their abstract design. But in Cleveland, such things were mere practicalities for getting things done or for getting from one point to another.”
Crane hated Cleveland (or so he claimed), but he could not deny its traction. It had a “vulgar honesty” to it that Greenwich Village, already overrun by tourists and poseurs by the time he arrived there, did not. In New York and Washington, D.C., where he lived briefly when his father sent him to open new sales territory, he was often homesick. I have “a terrible vacuity about me and with me and a nostalgia for Cleveland,” he wrote to a friend in 1920. It was not a beautiful place but he was happy there, he said. He returned home, and was relieved to be
back into the usual smoke and tawdry thoroughfares […] Does one really get so used to such things as, in time, to miss them, if absent? I am sure I should not miss factory whistles in Pisa or Morocco, but I frankly did miss them in Washington. Anyway, they were more enlivening (and the people they claim) than anything or anyone that I saw in Washington which seemed to me the most elegantly restricted and bigoted community I ever ventured into.
Hart’s father, C.A. Crane, was a candy man. In 1901, cane sugar was the next new thing, so C.A. watered down maple sugar with it in order to make cheaper candy. He sold his sugar cannery to the Corn Products Refining Company. Then he decided cellophane was the new new thing; he was right, and got richer. He went to Canada and ate some really good chocolates, and by 1911 was selling “Queen Victoria Chocolates” all over Cleveland. Later it would be called “Mary Garden Chocolates,” and he would have the painter Maxfield Parrish design the boxes.
C.A. also invented a hard candy that you could punch holes in. He called it “Crane’s Peppermint Life Savers […] For that Stormy Breath,” and put a picture of a sailor tossing a lifesaver to a girl on the wrapper. He sold the trademark for $2,900 in 1913 and the buyer went on to make millions with it. (If you know the end of Hart Crane’s story, well, you’ll appreciate the irony.)
C.A. and Grace, Hart’s mother, had a terrible marriage. They were always either fighting or having violent sex; their only son would later claim, according to Mariani, that this is why he never wanted a heterosexual relationship. After their first separation, Hart, née Harold, went to live with Grace’s parents in an old Victorian house with two twin towers on Cleveland’s East 115th Street. Hart would spend much of his life, as a child and an adult, in a room inside one of those towers. Today the house is gone, replaced by the Case School of Dental Medicine.
Harold was an indifferent student, attending Fairmount Elementary and East High irregularly. In February 1914, he attempted suicide twice: first he slashed his wrists and, when that failed, he swallowed 18 packets of his mother’s sleeping powder. He also had his first homosexual encounter in high school, which, according to Mariani, “may have been a case of sexual abuse by an older man;” later he would talk about it to friends, sometimes changing the details to make himself the seducer.
Harold hated his father and, at the urging of his mother, renamed himself “Hart”: his middle name, and his mother’s. At seventeen he wanted out of Cleveland, and he left for New York. He would soon return. And he would repeat that pattern for another decade, coming back to Cleveland when he was broke and needed a job, or at the behest of his needy mother, or because he wanted to. He worked at a munitions plant on the waterfront, working seventeen-hour days six days a week tightening bolts. (C.A. always gave him lowly jobs to test his mettle, a test Crane always failed.) That job didn’t last long — nor did his job as a camp counselor, or as a riveter for another war-related plant. The first world war ended right when it looked like he would be drafted. He wrote a poem about the armistice that was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who then hired him as a cub reporter. He lasted seven weeks. He went back to New York, and then came back home again.
For a summer, Hart worked at a soda fountain in Akron, and the Akron newspaper did a story on him: Millionaire Son Works In Drug Store. He became friends with another local writer, Sherwood Anderson, to whom Hart complained about his father making him work; Anderson told him to be more practical:
The arts [C.A.] ridicules have not been very sturdy and strong among us […] Our books are not much, our poetry not much yet. The battle has scarcely begun. These men are right to ridicule our pretensions.
When the drug store gig ended, Hart’s father transferred him to the Cleveland factory to unload chocolate and sugar barrels for 60 hours a week. And then back to New York and back again to Cleveland, this time to work endless shifts at a shipping department. “Our age tries hard enough to kill us, but I begin to feel a pleasure in sheer stubbornness,” he wrote to his friend Gorham Munson, trying to rally.
In Cleveland, he supervised bulk storage. He had affairs. He went out on “mad carouses” that began with “pigs’ feet and sauerkraut” and ended in his tower, where he played classical music for his arty friends. At one point someone in town found out about his penchant for sailors and truck drivers. Crane paid $10 week, out of his $25 weekly wage, to buy the man’s silence.
Crane loved boxing, which he described as “two sublime machines of human muscle-play in the vivid light of a ‘ring’—stark darkness all around with yells form all sides and countless eyes gleaming.” He wanted his poetry to be like boxing, to have a “patent-leather gloss,” and “extreme freshness.” He wanted it to hit hard.
By the time Crane was 23, the career-making poet-critic Allen Tate had dubbed him the greatest contemporary American poet. At 32, he jumped off the back of a boat. Some argue it was an accident, but most agree that he never grasped for the lifesaver.
A tugboat wheezing by
Wreaths of steam
Lunged past a sound of waters bending astride the sky.
— words from Crane’s poems on a sculpture at the Hart Crane Memorial Park
After his death, Cleveland did not celebrate its native son: it judged him. A 1937 Plain Dealer article referred to Crane’s “perverse personality” and “terrible psychopathic handicap that set him apart from normal men and women, and alienated the major portion of his intellectuals.” In a 1962 article, the paper explained that Hart’s homosexuality had led to his “alcoholic, shabby and hungry” existence. Even as late as 1981 they were dwelling on the poet’s “sexual persuasion” in relation to his “alcoholic and sexual debauches.”
Even without the bigotry in the way, Crane is a difficult man to memorialize. He was egotistical, quick to borrow money, usually drunk. His poetry is obscure, as he always made sure he was four steps removed from the real, and because he had to use feminine pronouns when he meant masculine ones.
Still, in 1995, more than sixty years after his death, the city of Cleveland finally dedicated a monument to Crane’s memory: the Hart Crane Memorial Park — today “the city’s most overlooked park,” according to Cleveland magazine. In this tiny alcove of a park are crammed six sculptures created by a local artist, Gene Kangas, and commissioned by the Ohio and Erie Canal. Two of the sculptures are a rather too obvious sky blue, thick curvy pipe-looking things. Others are forged form Cleveland’s civic metal, steel. They curve, too — like the crooked river, I guess — into half-ovals. Pocked with holes that make words, words from Hart Crane’s poems. Not lines, mind you: scattered words chosen to greet the tugboats that sail down the river, in honor of the great failure of American poetry, the one who drowned.
I was there in June 2012 with about 50 other people, scattered under the bridges in a pocket park for Rivergate Fest, sponsored by the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. The party was to feature dragon boats, rocket cars, and bands. I heard the bands but I never saw a dragon boat or a rocket car. No matter: they were selling beer, and the bridges above us looked like a Man Ray photograph left out in the rain. You know, rusted. Like the city, and like the jokes about it. And the bridge above us is, according to one academic study, the real inspiration for Crane’s The Bridge. That’s right but wrong: when tall boats drift down the Cuyahoga, that bridge draws up.
A bit too tipsy, plastic cup of Great Lakes beer in hand, I walked up to the couples and families and of the young artsy types to find out what they knew about Hart Crane. A typical encounter: “Do you know who Hart Crane is?” “Who?” “Well, we’re at the Hart Crane Memorial Park.” “What the hell does that mean?” “The park is named after him.” “No, I’ve never heard of him.”
Only two out of twenty said yes. One said he knew Crane because he read about him on Purple Armadillo, a website devoted to gay and lesbian Clevelanders. The other said he knew the poet’s name because he hung out at the bar on the corner all the time, and one night he stumbled out to the park, perhaps to puke, and found the plaque in his honor. I forgot to ask him where that plaque is, and I should have, because I never found it myself.
No one much cared that they had never heard of Crane — no one responded to my questions with muttered excuses or “I really should have known that” or “Where can I find some of his work?” I like to think that if I was interviewing the same crowd in Brooklyn, I would have embarrassed some of them. The Clevelanders were not embarrassed. They did seem happy, though.
Across the river, up a hill, sits a bar called Major Hooples. They project Indians games — and Browns games and Cavs games — onto the bridge pylon at night, lighting up the bridge with men dancing and hitting each other, for all to see. Crane, the boxing fan, would have loved it. Who needs the overwrought lines of The Bridge, the James Franco impersonation? Who needs to tilt their head to read words like “Far strum of foghorns / Fog-insulated noises Midnight among distant chiming buoys adrift”? The place knows itself. It is not trying too hard.
Even so, I would like to read this some day, while I am sitting safely inside a boat well stocked with lifesavers, floating down the Cuyahoga — someday soon, I hope — when Hart Crane and Cleveland no longer need to be reintroduced:
Follow your arches
To what corners of the sky they pull you
Where marble clouds support the sea wreck of dreams
A different version of this essay appears in Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology.