A short introduction to Crane’s life and work
Hart Crane (1899-1932) is a significant American poet of the early twentieth century, though he is often overlooked in our haste to get to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams or, of the expatriate Americans who settled in Europe, to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Yet Hart Crane wrote an epic poem about America which deserves a wide readership, and his life was a curious one – as we hope to demonstrate in this extremely short biography of him.
The omens were good: Hart Crane was born on 21 July 1899, the exact same day that Ernest Hemingway also entered the world. Crane was born in Ohio although he moved to New York in his teens, having decided that poetry was his vocation. Although he briefly returned to Ohio (to work in his father’s confectionery business) he ended up back in New York working as an advertising copywriter (fellow American writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Joseph Heller also worked in the ad business).
Crane was homosexual, which alienated him from much of mainstream American culture, though he felt such alienation was necessary for him to succeed as a poet. He struggled with drink in the 1920s in New York, though he continued writing poetry, influenced especially by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was profoundly affected by Eliot’s The Waste Land. But, unlike Eliot, Crane had not crossed the Atlantic, and he could not share the sense of post-war pessimism evinced by The Waste Land. He responded by writing an epic poem that focused on American history and geography, traversing the United States from New York to California, and featuring both real and mythical American figures such as Pocahontas and Rip van Winkle. This poem, The Bridge (1930), is well worth reading: along with William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, it’s perhaps the great American epic poem of the twentieth century.
Crane is widely thought to have committed suicide by jumping overboard while on a steamship carrying him back to New York from Mexico, where he was conducting research for an epic poem he planned to write about the Conquistadors. It’s not actually known whether it was deliberate or an unfortunate accident (Crane was a heavy drinker, after all), though several witnesses claims he exclaimed ‘Goodbye, everybody!’ before he went over the ship’s side. He was just 32 years old. His body was never recovered; on his father’s tombstone in Garrettsville, Ohio is the inscription: ‘Harold Hart Crane 1899–1932 lost at sea’. Ironically, given the nature of his death, Crane’s father invented ‘Life Savers’ sweets.
If you’ve found this very short biography of Hart Crane useful, you can discover more about his life and work here.