Hart Crane was born Harold Hart Crane in Garrettsville, Ohio, just outside Cleveland (he would drop his first name when older). Crane was an anxious child, nervous and volatile-traits most likely stemming from his family life. His father was a candy manufacturer who expected Crane to follow him into the business; his mother was domineering and wanted her son always by her side. Neither parent approved of his dream of going to New York to make it as a writer. Despite their disapproval, Crane began writing verse as a teenager, and read all of the "classics" including Elizabethan dramatists and French poets.
Crane dropped out of high school at seventeen and convinced his newly divorced parents to let him live in New York to attend college. Once in the city he took a job selling ads for poetry magazines. When he wasn't working, he could be found on the floor of Greenwich Village literary salons, reading the work of Ezra Pound and Robert Frost. His first attempt at city life failed however, and he returned to Cleveland to work in his father's candy factory.
From 1917 to 1924, Crane shifted back and forth between the two cities, working as a cub reporter in Cleveland, as a copywriter in New York, and, most typically, as a menial in his father's factory. These opposite pulls in his life can be found in his legacy. He idolized writers like T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, and sought to write epic works of American spirit; yet his study of Elizabethan poetry influenced his style and gave his words a more traditional versification.
During one of his stays in Cleveland, Crane wrote a small poem, "My Grandmother's Love Letters." Its acceptance to a literary magazine ended Crane's drifting years. He raced back to New York, and a friend's tip led him to 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn for an apartment. From his room he could hear the bustling life of the harbor below him. He set up his typewriter against the rear window, and from there, received a clear view of his greatest inspiration - the Brooklyn Bridge.
While living in New York, Crane associated with many important writers, among them short-story writer Katherine Anne Porter and avant-garde poet e.e. cummings. His friends admired and respected him, but often could not stand his frequent bouts of instability. Crane was a chronic drinker and partyer, and many times would lurch out into the New York City night in search of intoxicated ecstasy. He would heave his typewriter out the window when frustrated, and seek divine madness to jerk the words from his head. Such a lifestyle is easily romanticized as the nature of a tortured artist, but any early inspiration came at the later cost of Crane's physical, mental, and emotional health.
Crane's first collection of poetry was published in 1926 under the title White Buildings. Shortly after he began work on his most well-known epic, "The Bridge." The poem took many years to write, with Crane continuously creating and abandoning plans for it. In it he praises American architecture, technology, history, literature, and most often, the familiar and magical New York streets. The Brooklyn Bridge provided Crane with the state of bliss he sought. He wrote to friend and critic Waldo Frank: "I am living in the shadow of that bridge…. There is all the glorious dance of the river directly beyond the back window ... the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan ... it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh...."
Crane began "The Bridge" in the Isle of Pines in the Caribbean. After a despairing letter to Frank, in which he professed he could never write the epic, he finally started, writing more than two-thirds of the poem there. In other dry periods during his writing, he traveled to Europe. In Paris he met wealthy expatriates and publishers Harry and Caresse Crosby; they promised to finance the epic once finished. Unfortunately, Crane had to leave Europe after a brawl in a café, and he forced himself to complete the work in New York. The Crosbys fulfilled their deal and, in 1930, published the sixty-page-long poem to instant acclaim.
The success of "The Bridge" changed Crane's life. In 1928, he had been a mildly successful writer, being photographed for Vanity Fair and well known enough to be parodied in the Saturday Review. Now he was being included in a university class on contemporary poetry and winning both the top prize from Poetry Magazine and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. With the money from the Guggenheim, he sailed to Mexico and rented a villa next to his friend, writer Katherine Anne Porter. Intending to write another epic on conquistador Cortes, he suffered further fluxes in his creativity; he started a relationship with a woman, and once, attempted suicide.
In 1931, Crane's father died. His friend and publisher Harry Crosby had killed himself. His years drinking and carousing, along with his tormented work on "The Bridge," had taken much out of him, and old friends were stunned by his haggard appearance. His Guggenheim fellowship over and resources depleted, he returned to a financially stricken America (the Great Depression). On the morning of April 27, 1932, Hart Crane jumped over the side of the ship taking him from Mexico to the United States.
After his death, critics flocked to find reasons for Crane's suicide. Many of them concluded that the task of writing an epic (a genre better left extinct) was too much for the artist. They turned a man's tragic decision into a lesson for others, denouncing the "cultural epic."
Few followed their advice, however, and Crane left a legacy for many twentieth century writers. His unique mix of inspirations, from Pound to Whitman to Eliot to Shakespeare, came together to form his own celebration of America; his psychological turmoil mirrored the extremes of the 1920s. As a self-taught Midwestern boy, he wrote what he saw and loved the vibrant life of New York City and the quickly changing American nation. As a self-taught Elizabethan poet, he infused his works with the styles he loved, using detail and innuendo to give them many levels of interpretation. It is true that Hart Crane grew up an outsider to classical traditions, but he lived as an inventor of his own.