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December 7, 1929
Hart Crane, Harry Crosby
Hart Crane & Harry Crosby
by Steve King

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On this day in 1929, Hart Crane hosted a party for Harry and Caresse Crosby, attended by E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, Walker Evans and others. The occasion was to celebrate Crane's completion of his seven-year poem, The Bridge, and its imminent publication by the Crosbys' Black Sun Press. It was also a bon voyage to the Crosbys, who were scheduled to sail for Europe within the week, returning to the wild and wealthy expatriate pursuits they had declared their mission -- in telegrams home, for example: PLEASE SELL 10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LEAD A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE. The party was not the last time Crane would see Crosby alive, given that it did not so much break-up at dawn as adjourn to a new site on the following evening, but two-and-a-half days later Crosby and his mistress, Josephine Bigelow, committed double suicide. When Crane committed suicide two-and-a-half years later, many gave him a place in literary legend alongside Crosby, among the most lost of the Lost Generation.

Crane's was the more troubled life, or perhaps just troubled in a more recognizable way. Although his high poetic ambitions were sometimes reached -- Harold Bloom says that The Bridge is "uneven certainly but beyond The Waste Land in aspiration and in accomplishment" -- it was at considerable cost. The professional struggle added fuel to an already excessive personality, one prone to alcoholism, homosexual guilt and suicidal despair. His last drunken hours before jumping from the stern of an Atlantic steamer were spent fighting with the woman he thought to marry and with the sailors he tried to seduce He was born in Garrettsville, Ohio, he once lived in Chagrin Falls, his father invented Life Saver candy, and he was last seen reaching for or waving away the lifesavers thrown to him.

Crane had written parts of The Bridge at Harry and Caresse Crosby's retreat outside Paris. This was a place of champagne, polo played on donkeys, and literary projects, all of it inspired or just funded by the Crosbys -- both were high society Boston, and Harry's uncle was J. P. Morgan. The Black Sun Press had evolved from being a vehicle for the Crosbys' own bad poetry to being an important outlet for many famous modernists -- James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Archibald MacLeish and others. Whatever else was said about the money, the self-indulgence, the Jazz Age pranks and the avant-garde posing, the Crosbys were known to be serious about full living and books.

Waiting in the morgue for the doctors to finish, MacLeish thought that it was this, some warped approach to the literary life, which killed Harry Crosby:
    As I sat there looking at his corpse, seating myself where I wouldn't have to see the horrible hole in back of his ear, I kept saying to him: you poor, damned, dumb bastard. He was the most literary man I ever met, despite the fact that he'd not yet become what you'd call a Writer. I never met anyone who was so imbued with literature; he was drowned in it. I think I'm close to deciding literature is the one thing never to be taken seriously....
Crosby's reading had led him to develop a cryptic personal mythology based on darkness and light. The "black sun" symbol stood for some sort of life-death principle, and Crosby was convinced that he and his wife should live hard and die young. One plan was to blaze out by airplane, another was to jump -- on the morning of his death Harry asked Caresse to jump from their hotel room -- and another involved the revolver Harry owned, engraved with a sun. Josephine Bigelow was his "Sun Princess," and one of the few who took it all seriously. Those who did not, even afterwards, had various other explanations for Crosby's suicide, most prominent among them being that he could not get over WWI, in which some close to him died, and because of which he felt both life-affirming passion and death-seeking guilt.

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Related authors:  Harry Crosby, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane
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