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Books: The story of a self-destructive life told as it really was; Hart Crane - A Life. By Clive Fisher (Yale, pounds 25). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

Hart Crane has been dubbed 'The Rimbaud of the Gatsby era.'

But where Scott Fitzgerald's fictional hero lived out his golden summers in the pages of a classic novel, Hart Crane, a modernist American poet of prodigious talent (now highly rated by the American reading public) played a similarly hedonist 1920s scenario for real.

His vision of becoming a great poet, perhaps another Keats, was formed by the time he was 18 when he informed his mother: 'Believe me when I tell you that I am fearless and that I am determined on a valorous future.'

But valour is as valour does. Crane was living in New York on an allowance from his father, a conventional sweet manufacturer who had done well. Problems arising from Crane's indifference to a structured, middleclass career led his father to insist his errant son must learn the value of money and 'work harder'.

Crane was toiling hard - and can anything be harder - in an attempt to balance a perfect poetic line. It was an endeavour which left his father cold.

Clive Fisher's finely written and totally observing biography does not sidestep (as others have done) the tricky issue of Hart Crane's homosexuality. The poet's promiscuity is given here without apology or constraint as an insistence of his personality which came to life in the covert bars of the contemporary New York gay underworld.

Crane's life was one of selfdestruction and violence. The photographs of his parents show conventional people - with smiling women in sunlight wear pretty millinery while the men sport homburgs and stiff collars. Crane totally repudiated these domestic values and his love affairs, mostly with handsome men but sometimes with women, suggest a dangerous promiscuousness which could erupt into violence and the lost weekends of heavy drinking binges. At one of his evenings of frantic dancing and boozing, during the final period of his life in 1931 when he was living in a Los Angeles rooming house (his hopes of an inheritance frustrated by maternal incompetence), Crane 'interrupted his frenzy,' writes Fisher, 'to produce photographs of sailors he had loved, whose loyalty he contrasted angrily with the inconstancy of family and friends.'

Unwilling to bear any longer the homophobia of even his closest friends, and although now a married man, Crane finally and in a supreme act of heroic sacrifice threw himself from the stern of an ocean going liner into the Gulf of Mexico. 'When my death comes it will be with a bang, by God!' he had said to a photographer friend months before.

Thus, Hart Crane sublimated in a despairing suicide his lifelong fascination with the sea perhaps paying at the same time the price for being a modern poet in the United States of the early 1930s.

'If the propellers didn't grind him to mincemeat, then the sharks got him immediately,' writes Fisher and the image is more devastating than anything Crane could have dreamed of.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 24, 2002
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