"Looking for the god in Brooklyn": the romantic affinities of Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane.
In such caricatures, both writers suffer from characterizations of their art that are overly reliant on generalizations about their turbulent and tragically short lives (Crane was dead at 32 years of age; Wolfe at 37). It is meaningless and intellectually lazy, however, to further caricature Wolfe and Crane as "splendid or magnificent failures." To do so seems condescending and a contradiction in terms, for if a work of art is splendid or magnificent, it cannot be a failure by any but unreasonable standards. Leaving, then, such unfair judgments at the door, I seek to delve more deeply into certain of the fascinating affinities that link the deeply Romantic sensibilities of Wolfe and Crane.
Before doing so, it will be beneficial to cover some basic biographical and literary-historical ground in order to bring the almost intertwined lives of these two men into focus. The correct phrase is indeed "almost intertwined" because, although the biographies of Wolfe and Crane are quite similar, eerily so at some points, there is no concrete evidence of the two writers ever having actually met. It might be said that they lived parallel lives that never quite intersected, in keeping with the mathematical postulate about parallel lines. Still, one likes to imagine that they must have encountered each other in a social setting at some point, not least because they moved in similar and often overlapping literary circles in New York City during the 1920s. Born one year apart, Crane and Wolfe both traveled to New York as staggeringly ambitious young writers; the city in turn quickly came to emanate a mythic grandeur for both of them, viewed at once as a place of awe, fear, beauty, wonder, disgust, inspiration, and so much more. But Wolfe, a working-class Southerner, and Crane, a gay man from the Midwest, always remained outsiders in New York; this lurking feeling of foreignness or "lostness," is a constant theme in both Wolfe and Crane. However, its particular biographical element is a surface manifestation that evinces a much deeper ontological anxiety with the solitude and strangeness of human existence--theirs is an unmistakably Romantic anxiety, of a kind that dated back to Wordsworth. Around the time that Wolfe and Crane were writing, their contemporary, the German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, would similarly describe the essence of the human condition as something unheimlich, meaning "strange or uncanny," but literally, "unhome-like." (1)
New York City captivated Wolfe and Crane, but more specifically they were taken with Brooklyn, the same locale that had so stimulated their common precursor Walt Whitman in such poems as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." When Crane lived in Brooklyn, he slept, by sheer chance, in the same room that Washington Roebling had lived in while supervising the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the structure that was to be the inspiration for Crane's epic poem The Bridge (1930). Incidentally, in the rather Joycean "Penelope's Web" chapter of Wolfe's novel The Web and the Rock, Esther Jack recounts a childhood memory of going to visit an elderly Washington Roebling (409-14). Crane's street address in Brooklyn was 110 Columbia Heights; shortly after Crane left Brooklyn, Wolfe moved there, and, by a startling coincidence, lived in 111 Columbia Heights--the building right across the street.
In Brooklyn, Wolfe must have been aware of his quarters' proximity to Crane's recent residence, for each man was aware of the other, and, I think, influenced by the other (though both could be quite reluctant to admit to any contemporary living influences on their writing, save for T. S. Eliot in Crane's case--and this only as a "negative" influence). In June of 1931, about a year before his suicide, Crane wrote a letter to aspiring young poet Selden Rodman in which he discusses the work of aspiring young literary critic William Harlan Hale. Crane's praise of Hale segues into an admiring mention of Wolfe: "I agree so much with some of [Hale's] statements, his keenness on the scent of such men as Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward, Angel was one of the real experiences of life" (375). Crane, whose magnificent letters have been compared to those of Keats and Emily Dickinson, uses a striking phrase here in speaking of the "scent" of Thomas Wolfe. Could it be that Crane had caught on to and appreciated the great significance of smell in Wolfe's work? (2)
Perhaps this is so, but Crane also felt a profound if solitary kinship with his contemporary Wolfe. Both were, to expand Harold Bloom's description of Crane, unfortunate "High Romantic[s] in the era of High Modernism" (xiii). Crane's admiration of a critic who understands Wolfe's "scent" really means that he thinks the critic has gotten at Wolfe's essence, under the mythology and thinly veiled autobiography. This shared essence between Wolfe and Crane is presumably what made Crane call Look Homeward, Angel "one of the real experiences of life." Yet what is this scent or essence, this reality that Crane discerned in Wolfe? Here I claim that it is the genuinely Romantic sensibility that acknowledges the lostness and strangeness at the heart of the human condition, and that values the search--the endless homecoming passage--above all else. Crane's seemingly nonchalant description of Wolfe's novel as simply an "experience" takes on much greater significance when we consider that, in a 1930 letter to Selden Rodman, Crane summed up the whole of The Bridge as ultimately "an affirmation of experience" in contrast to The Waste Land's negativity and denial of life (351).
This indefinable Romantic search contains a yearning for both an idyllic past and the ideal future (which, often, are one), for a father, for the God, and, most of all, for the original Word, the Logos. In the famous proem to Look Homeward, Angel, and elsewhere, Wolfe calls this the quest for the "great forgotten language": "Remembering speechlessly, we seek the great forgotten language ..." (3; italics in orig.). This restive, speechless search is comparable to the ars poetica found in Crane's essay "General Aims and Theories" (1925), in which he writes: "It is as though a poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader's consciousness henceforward" (163). I would like to suggest that both Wolfe's "great forgotten language"--his "speechless almost-captured password" (505)--and Crane's "new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate," derive, directly or in spirit, from their American Romantic predecessor Walt Whitman, who in "Song of Myself," the opening poem of Leaves of Grass, proclaims the "word unsaid":
There is that in me.... I do not know what it is.... but I know it is in me. I do not know it.... it is without name.... it is a word unsaid, It is not in any dictionary or utterance or symbol. Perhaps I might tell more.... Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters. (64-65; emphasis added; five ellipses in orig.)
Wallace Stevens gnomically remarked that "The poet is the priest of the invisible" (195). Crane and Wolfe, one might add, are priests of the ineffable: "the word unsaid." As Wolfe asks early in his second novel, Of Time and the River: "What is it that we know so well and cannot speak? What is it that we want to say and cannot tell?" (34).
The unnamable and borderline Gnostic transcendence that Crane and Wolfe seek is present everywhere in their work and yet is so often just out of reach. For Crane, this transcendence came to be represented by the majestic Brooklyn Bridge, which served as the central symbol for his magnum opus, The Bridge. A sequence of lyric poems and dramatic monologues, The Bridge was meant to be a Romantic reimagining of the American myth, starting with Columbus's voyage and ending with the poet addressing the bridge as it becomes the paradisiacal city of Atlantis, rising again out of the ocean. While soberly critical of the prejudice, oppression, and greed of historical and contemporary America, Crane's poem ultimately presents an idealistic vision of a future America, where all citizens have cast off materialism (both in the sense of consumerist greed and in the sense of philosophical nihilism) and embraced their inner divine creativity--indeed, Crane's project is profoundly influenced by the ecstatic visions of Jerusalem handed down by another important Romantic precursor, William Blake. Blake's Jerusalem and Crane's Atlantis are ideal cities and communities, but they are also symbols of the divine imagination present in each of us: Blake says that the "Divine Vision" (i.e., the imagination) is "Jerusalem in every Man" (203). Wolfe, consciously or not, continues this tradition on the final page of Look Homeward, Angel when he refers to " the city of myself," where "I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter, and music strange as any ever sounded ..." (508; emphasis added).
Crane's search for the true, aboriginal America, and its possible utopian future, is also prominent in Wolfe. The latter's declaration from the close of You Can't Go Home Again that "I believe that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found" perfectly encapsulates both his and Crane's artistic projects (741). And one cannot help but be reminded of Crane's visionary optimism when, at the close of chapter 3 of The Web and the Rock, the young George Webber "saw a vision of the golden future in new lands" (90). John Peale Bishop picks up on this thematic link: "both [Crane and Wolfe] conceived that genius had been given them that they might celebrate, the one in poetry, the other in prose, the greatness of their country" (10).
Crane's most evocative vision of the golden future occurs in "Atlantis," the final section of The Bridge. In "Atlantis," Crane addresses the Brooklyn Bridge with a rapt religious devotion, noting the similarity of the bridge's cables to a harp that issues divine music from its orphic strings:
Through the bound cable strands, the arching path Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,-- Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate The whispered rush, telepathy of wires. Up the index of night, granite and steel-- Transparent meshes--fleckless the gleaming staves-- Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream As though a god were issue of the strings.... (72; ellipsis in orig.)
Crane's ornate iambic pentameter swells as he describes the soaring bridge and the eventual emergence of the promised land of Atlantis, all resulting in and from this overwhelming "Unspeakable Thou Bridge to Thee, O Love" (74). In Of Time and the River, Eugene Gant is questioned by the condescending Mrs. Pierce about his life in the city, and her question about the Brooklyn Bridge sets off a dazzling inner monologue that unmistakably, and perhaps even consciously, evokes the awe and power of Crane's long poem, especially the "Atlantis" section. It is worth quoting at length:
What bridge? Great God, the only bridge, the bridge of power, life and joy, the bridge that was a span, a cry, an ecstasy--that was America. What bridge? The bridge whose wing-like sweep that was like space and joy and ecstasy was mixed like music in his blood, would beat like flight and joy and triumph through the conduits of his life forever. What bridge? The bridge whereon at night he had walked and stood and watched a thousand times, until every fabric of its soaring web was inwrought in his memory, and every stone of its twin terrific arches was in his heart, and every living sinew of its million cabled nerves had throbbed and pulsed in his own spirit like his soul's anatomy. (536)
Crane's brilliant metaphor of the Brooklyn Bridge as a grand harp is also invoked in The Web and the Rock, where George Webber imagines the "Brooklyn Bridge with its great, winglike sweep, the song and music of its cables" (117). Wolfe mentions the bridge several other times in that novel and also in You Can't Go Home Again, and in almost every reference, he employs imagery, diction (even using identical phrases), and a reverent tone that are so indebted to Crane as to sound almost like a prose paraphrase of "Atlantis." Noting the two authors' shared fascination with the important image of the bridge, Holliday asserts that "the Brooklyn Bridge often acted as a unifying symbol for many American modernist writers... . the American landmark attracted the attention of an entire generation" (54-55).
Many other similarities and affinities between Wolfe and Crane, both specific and general, could be explored in depth, including their consuming obsession with time. In fact, time is perhaps the central theme in the works of both writers, who regularly invoke the Heraclitean image of the flowing river, as in the title of Wolfe's second novel. This paradigmatic river is often the Mississippi in Wolfe, just as it is in a section of Crane's The Bridge entitled "The River." In the midst of the unceasing flow of clock-time, however, Crane and Wolfe seek a transcendent moment where a still eternity is revealed (T. S. Eliot, in "Burnt Norton," the first of his Four Quartets, would later call this "the still point of the turning world" ). Crane's own longing for this transcendence is encapsulated in his astonishing two-word imperative from the opening poem in The Bridge: "condense eternity" (32). Wolfe's prose also expresses this sentiment often. One beautiful example is early in Of Time and the River: "... it almost seemed that they were poised there in that image of eternity forever--in moveless movement, unsilent silence, spaceless flight" (77).
In addition to shared Romantic influences, each man was highly conscious of Modernism, and most especially of the two titans Joyce and Eliot. We can only think of the ambitious young Wolfe himself when he tells us that Eugene Gant "began to worry about being 'modern'" and participating in "the most advanced literary and artistic movements of the time" (Of Time 113). Crane fretted similarly in his letters, striving to follow Rimbaud's dictum that "Il faut etre absolument moderne" (186). Crane and Wolfe were both in sympathy with Modernist ideas of syncretism, the seamless blending of classical myths with contemporary culture. (3) Here again they intersect--perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not: Crane's first major extended poem, published in his first collection, White Buildings (1926), is titled "For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen"; the eighth and final section of Of Time and the River is titled "Faust and Helen," while the second section of the novel is titled "Young Faustus."
Both Wolfe and Crane were relatively apolitical, a rare thing for writers of their place and time (or any place and time, for that matter). (4) Largely uninterested in the transient politics of their day, they instead held a fascination with Whitman's democratic America, its soaring ideal and its disappointing reality. This reticence to take up specific political causes can perhaps be attributed to the aforementioned Romantic belief that each person contains a city--indeed, an entire "kosmos," as Whitman puts it--inside of him. Any change has to start with the individual, for each individual is a microcosm of the universe.
While I began this essay by emphasizing the importance of not using biography to caricature Crane and Wolfe, one cannot ignore the tragic similarity of their vivid life stories--the wildness and excess of both men. There are myriad other intriguing similarities between Crane and Wolfe, but all of them should be viewed in the context of each man's unabashed and abiding Romanticism. As Evan Hughes writes in his fine recent book, Literary Brooklyn,"... Wolfe and Crane both embraced the grandeur of America and espoused a Romantic individualism that ran against the grain of the times ..." (105). (5) While I have explored some thematic and biographical links between Thomas Wolfe and Hart Crane in detail and only gestured toward other possibilities for inquiry, I am convinced that further juxtaposition and analysis of these two authors will prove productive in the understanding of their writings, as well as in understanding the larger context of twentieth-century American literary history.
There is a haunting sentence in chapter 29 of Look Homeward, Angel that serves as a perfect conclusion. If read devoid of its context in the novel, it beautifully summarizes the yearning common to Wolfe and Crane, while also gesturing to their shared homeless home of Brooklyn: "They stood quietly, frightened, in that strange place, waiting to hear the summons of his voice, with expectant unbelief, as some one looking for the god in Brooklyn" (342).
Bentz, Joseph. Rev. of Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life, by Evan Hughes. Thomas Wolfe Review 35.1-2 (2011): 156-58. Print.
Bishop, John Peale. "The Sorrows of Thomas Wolfe." Kenyon Review 1.1 (1939): 7-17. Print.
Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. 1804. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed.
David V. Erdman. Rev. ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1982. 144-258. Print.
Bloom, Harold. "Centenary Introduction." Introduction. Complete Poems of Hart Crane. Ed. Marc Simon. 1986. New York: Liveright-Norton, 2000. xi-xxxii. Print.
Crane, Hart. The Bridge. 1930. Crane, Complete. 31-74.
--. Complete Poems and Selected Letters. Ed. Langdon Hammer. New York: Library of America, 2006. Print.
--. "General Aims and Theories." 1925. Crane, Complete. 160-64.
--. The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932. Ed. Brom Weber. New York: Hermitage, 1952. Print.
--. "To Selden Rodman." 22 May 1930. Letter 341 of Crane, Letters. 351.
--. "To Selden Rodman." 20 June 1931. Letter 365 of Crane, Letters. 374-75.
Eliot, T. S. "Burnt Norton." 1936. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. 1952. New York: Harcourt, 1971. 117-22. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New Haven: Yale UP 1959. Print.
Holliday, Shawn. Thomas Wolfe and the Politics of Modernism. New York: Lang, 2001. Amer. Univ. Studies Ser. 24, Amer. Lit. 73. Print.
Hughes, Evan. Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life. New York: Holt, 2011. Print.
Lake, Inez Hollander. "Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust: The Importance of Smell in Look Homeward, Angel." Thomas Wolfe Review 25.1-2 (2001): 23-30. Print.
Rimbaud, Arthur. A Season in Hell. 1873. Selected Poems and Letters. Trans. Jeremy Harding and John Sturrock. London: Penguin, 2004. 138-86. Print.
Stevens, Wallace. "Adagia." 1934-[1940?]. Opus Posthumous: Poems, Plays, Prose. Ed. Milton J. Bates. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf, 1989. 184-202. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. Selected Poems: 18551892. Ed. Gary Schmidgall. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. 15111. Print.
Wolfe, Thomas. Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life. 1929. New York: Scribner, 2006. Print.
--. Of Time and The River: A Legend of Man's Hunger in His Youth. New York: Scribner's, 1935. Print.
--. The Web and The Rock. New York: Harper, 1939. Print.
--. You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper, 1940. Print.
(1.) For an extended discussion of his concept of unheimlichkeit, see Heidegger 146-65.
(2.) This phenomenon is documented in Inez Hollander Lake's "Thomas Wolfe and Marcel Proust: The Importance of Smell in Look Homeward, Angel." As it happens, both Crane and Wolfe were keen admirers of Proust.
(3.) In his discussion of the significance of the Brooklyn Bridge, Holliday mentions its potential for syncretism: " [the bridge's] two great archways presented a common archetypal form through which citizens could link the present public place to ancient, historical precursors" (53).
(4.) This assertion should be qualified: Wolfe became more politically conscious later in his life and career, as Holliday documents (see especially 65-109), but he never became didactic.
(5.) For a review of Literary Brooklyn, see Bentz.
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|Publication:||Thomas Wolfe Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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