The Broken Tower: A Life of Hart Crane


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Written by award-winning biographer Paul Mariani, "The Broken Tower" reads with all the drama of a psychological novel and the inexorable force of a Greek tragedy. Few poets have lived as extraordinary and fascinating life as Hart Crane, the American poet who made his meteoric rise in the late 1920s and then flamed out just as suddenly, killing himself at the age of 32. 34 photos.

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Jul 1, 2017

A Late American Romantic

In a short, wild, and mostly unhappy life, Harold Hart Crane (1899-1932) became -- Hart Crane -- a major figure in 20th Century American poetry whose reputation has grown with time. His life became the stuff of legend. Hart Crane left an unhappy home at the age of 17 to live in New York City and follow his dream to become a poet. Without any formal education -- he did not finish high school -- he used his inborn gifts and wide reading to quickly become important to New York's literary culture and community. His first book, "White Buildings", is a collection of short, difficult imagistic poetry. His second book, "The Bridge", is a lengthy poem offering a mystic, highly personal account of America, its past and its future, using the Brooklyn Bridge is its chief symbol.

Crane's life was one of excess. From late adolescence, Crane drank heavily. He spent a great deal of time in underworld sex picking up sailors in the harbors of New York, all the while trying to conceal his sexual identity from his parents. Towards the end of his life, his behavior grew increasingly violent and self-destructive. He was jailed on several occasions in New York, Paris, and Mexico. Near the end, he did have what seems to be his only heterosexual relationship with Peggy Cowley, the divorced wife of the critic and publisher, Malcolm Cowley. Crane committed suicide when he returned with Peggy Cowley from Mexico in 1932 by jumping off the deck of a ship. He was all of 32.

Published in 1999, Mariani's biography commemorates the Centennial of Crane's birth. It gives a good detailed account Crane's life. The poetic focus of the book is "The Bridge". (some critics see "White Buildings" as the stronger, more representative part of Crane's work.) Mariani shows how Crane conceived the idea of his long poem and how he worked on it fitfully over many years. He also shows the difficulty Crane had in completing the work at all -- given his alcoholism. sexual promiscuity, difficulty in supporting himself, and bad relationship with his separated parents. But complete the work Crane did. It presents a mythic, multi-formed vision of the United States stretching from the Indians to our day of technology. There is much to be gained from this poem. I have loved it for many years and Mariani's discussion of the poem and its lengthy creation is illuminating.

Crane was a romantic in his life and art. Frequently, Mariani refers to him as the "last romantic", but this is an overstatement. I was reminded both by Crane's dissolute life and by his work of the beats -- particularly of Kerouac -- and the vision of America that they tried to articulate. With a Whitman-type vision of a mystical America encompassing all, the beats share and expand upon the romanticism of Hart Crane.

Mariani's book covers well Crane's tortured relationship with his parents. It includes great discussions of literary New York City and of Crane's friends. It shows well how Crane was captivated by New York. We see Crane going back and forth between Cleveland, New York, Paris, Mexico and Hollywood in a short overreaching life. But most importantly, we see the creation and legacy of a poet. Mariani does well in describing the poems and in reading these difficult texts in conjunction with the poet's life and thought.

Crane's literary output was not extensive. Several of his poems are part of the treasures of American literature. These poems include, for me, "Voyages" (a six-part love poem from the White Buildings collection), "At Melville's Tomb" and other lyrics from White Buildings, The Broken Tower, Crane's final poem, and, of course The Bridge.

Mariani gives a good account of Crane. As with any biography of this type it is not definitive. I hope it will encourage the reader to explore and reflect upon Crane's poetry and achievement.

Robin Friedman

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