Illustrated Editions of The Bridge: The Joseph Stella Frontispiece

Photograph of the canceled title page of the Black Sun Press edition

Crane was quick to register his pleasure in the three photos of the Black Sun Press edition, professing delight in a letter of 2 January 1930 to Caresse Crosby: "I think Evans is the most living, vital photographer of any whose work I know. More and more I rejoice that we decided on his pictures rather than Stella’s" (O My Land, 422). This "Stella" whose picture had been passed over in favor of Walker Evans’s photographs was no less than the celebrated young modernist painter Joseph Stella (1865-1946), one of the Europeans who had brought news of cubism and futurism to New York art circles and had prospered as a result. And originally, it was a work by Stella that Crane had in mind when, shortly after first meeting the Crosbys in January 1929, the idea of a deluxe limited edition of The Bridge was first discussed.

Crane had began the year 1929 as a 30-year-old tourist, traveling in Europe on a $5,000 bequest from his grandmother’s estate. The change of scene, he no doubt hoped, would prod him into completing The Bridge, most of which had been written in a few months in 1926, when he had taken himself away from the distractions of New York City to live for a summer and part of a fall on the Isle of Pines in the Caribbean. What remained elusive was a last segment exactly at the midpoint of the long poem which had, ever since the work had been outlined in 1926, centrally involved Whitman, a figure who was, for one circle of Crane’s friends, out of fashion. Allen Tate and Yvor Winters, in their mid-20s and still developing the moral formalism that would be their signatures, recoiled from Whitman’s sprawling observations as undisciplined threats to the body politic. By contrast, the circle of Crane’s friends that centered around cultural and social critic Waldo Frank (which included Alfred Stieglitz and Eugene O’Neill) revered Whitman as an iconoclast whose own social program glimpsed an America united in its diversity. And even Further complicating Crane’s attitude toward Whitman was the underground status he shared with him as a gay male poet – a status that he would acknowledge but with subtlety.

In short, the most difficult section Crane had left for last – a situation not untypical of a career in which his own knack for mishandling matters was sometimes impossible to separate from his writing strategies. When he was starting to write The Bridge he had worked on the uplifting conclusion that would eventually be entitled "Atlantis" much as he had begun Voyages by composing what would become "Voyages IV," the very moment of ecstatic sexual union. To complete Voyages, he eventually surrounded that fourth poem with an opening narrative of expectation and a concluding narrative of loss. With The Bridge, however, he had raised the stakes for his own project by positing a triumphant finale whose basis he would then need to construct in the poems of the main text. It is not possible to conclude that Crane wrote well under pressure simply because he was always finding himself in situations in which he could not but write under pressure. To contract for a deluxe, illustrated, limited edition might have seemed to him just the kind of serious incentive that would help him to finish.

The Black Sun Press was certainly capable of delivering such an edition. Begun in 1927 as "a show case for writers as yet unknown or distrusted by commercial publishers" (according to Harry Crosby’s biographer Geoffrey Woolf [Black Sun, p. 174]), the press had, by 1929, published brief collections of poetry by Archibald MacLeish (Einstein, 1929), stories and novellas by D. H. Lawrence (Sun, 1928; The Escaped Cock [later titled The Man Who Died], 1929), and lavishly illustrated reprints of stories by Poe and Wilde. The writer whose work it had most completely presented, however, was Crosby himself. His work had been featured as the first volume with the imprint of the press (Shadows of the Sun, 1928), and his works continued to appear in considerable numbers: Transit of Venus (1928), Mad Queen (1929), Shadows of the Sun – Series Two (1929), Sleeping Together (1929). (That so much of his work was self-published helps explain why his reputation as a poet has been so long in forming.) To add Hart Crane’s name to this list, to publish an advance edition of a major work, could only benefit the press, and Crosby was, whatever other foibles he pursued, serious about his press. Even though the press had proved useful to the Crosbys, as Woolf explains, because it "offered them immediate and easy access to literary personages they might otherwise never have met" (Woolf, p. 174), it was never a frivolous venture: "Generally resentful of business obligations, Harry tended scrupulously to the most minute detail of his books" (Woolf, p. 175).

When Crane began talking with the Crosbys in January 1929 about a Black Sun Press Bridge, he already had an idea of how to illustrate it. A few months before, in the summer of 1928, Crane had been visiting an old friend, Charmion von Wiegand Haubicht, in her summer home at Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and she had drawn his attention to a brief essay in which Stella addressed aesthetic possibilities of the Brooklyn Bridge and associated himself intimately with it. Stella’s little sketch, "The Brooklyn Bridge (A Page of My Life)," was remarkably aligned with Crane’s own thoughts. Stella envisioned the bridge much as Crane had: as a point of vantage that was both deeply within the city yet giving one the potential to see beyond that city. Its unique perspective encouraged one to be both the searching. Probing explorer and the visionary standing on a brink:

Many nights I stood on the bridge – and in the middle alone – lost – a defenseless prey to the surrounding swarming darkness – crushed by the mountainous black impenetrability of the skyscrapers – here and there lights resembling suspended falls of astral bodies or fantastic splendors of remote rites – shaken by the underground tumult of the trains in perpetual motion, like the blood in the arteries – at times, ringing as alarm in a tempest, the shrill sulphurous voice of the trolley wires – now and then strange moanings of appeal from tug boats, guessed more than seen, through the infernal recesses below – I felt deeply moved, as if on the threshold of a new religion or in the presence of a new DIVINITY.

Even Stella’s delicately frenetic and slightly breathless style – its fragments set in giddy motion by the dashes that both link and separate them – would have appealed to Crane, who frequently seemed in his own prose just to stop short of employing capital letters himself, even as he personally favored the suspenseful dash.

Stella’s bridge, like Crane’s, was mysteriously empowered to solve social problems: "… from the sudden unfolding of the blue distances of my youth in Italy, a great clarity announced PEACE – proclaimed the luminous dawn of A NEW ERA." As with Crane’s poetry, the "bridge" evoked here existed outside and beyond any single description: it was nothing less than a mechanism or a medium through which the aspirations of the individual became artistically charged, like a lighting-rod for aesthetic sensibility. Stella even associated his bridge with some of the same American poets whom Crane championed, though they were out of favor with his modernist friends. On the one hand, the dark city the Bridge evoked was linked by Stella with "POE’s granitic, fiery transparency revealing the swirling horrors of the Maelstrom" and on the other, it was "the verse of Walt Whitman – soaring above as a white aeroplane of Help – was leading the sails of my Art through the blue vastity [sic] of Phantasy …" (Stella’s wildly mixed metaphor of Whitman’s "soaring aeroplane" leading art’s "sails" may have served as a germ for Crane’s own "Cape Hatteras," the poem on Whitman that Crane sketched in Europe as his central section.)

Given these striking parallels, it is not surprising that Crane’s thoughts would have turned to Stella when offered the chance to think of an illustration for his long poem. After all, Stella’s little essay had been printed on the occasion of displaying a large-scale enterprise entitled New York Interpreted which was in itself a painterly analogue to the symphonic epic: a piece in five panels, the central one of which (entitled "Skyscrapers") stood 4 ˝ feet tall and more than eight feet wide (the four side panels were each slightly narrower, but still over seven feet wide). The fifth of these panels was entitled "The Bridge" and depicted New York skyscrapers framed through the archways of what could only be the Brooklyn Bridge. Although Stella’s meditation on the Brooklyn bridge had been originally prompted by thoughts of an earlier painting, a work in the cubist style completed in 1919 and entitled "Brooklyn Bridge," Stella’s essay, in the form in which Crane knew it, accompanied not a reproduction of that 1919 painting but his 1923 polyptych New York Interpreted. This, then, was the painting – the fifth of the five panels – that Crane first envisioned as his frontispiece, a clear parallel in numerous respects to his own work:

In the same January 1929 letter to Stella requesting permission to reproduce this painting, Crane demonstrated his enthusiasm for Stella’s essay by soliciting it for publication in Transition, the European journal edited by Eugene Jolas, an important figure in the European avant-garde who had been hospitable to Crane’s writing, along with reproductions of three panels from New York Interpreted. Stella’s essay, along with the reproduction of the fifth panel only, "The Bridge," appeared in issue no. 16-17, dated June 1929.

The similarities between Crane’s cultural epic and Stella’s polyptych are striking enough to lead at least one scholar to wonder whether Crane had been more intimate with Stella’s painting than he had been willing to acknowledge. After all, Stella had painted not one but two "portraits" of the Brooklyn Bridge, and both were objects of considerable admiration in New York art circles in the early 1920s. How could Crane have not known about them? Stella’s biographer, Irma B. Jaffe has assembled a persuasive narrative that suggests Crane’s project was likely to have been powerfully influenced by these examples from Stella. For Jaffee, Crane’s January 1929 letter to Stella seems disingenuous, especially the statement: "It is a remarkable coincidence that I should, years later, have discovered that another person, by whom I mean you, should have had the same sentiments regarding Brooklyn Bridge which inspired the main theme and pattern of my poem."

Stella’s name ought to have been familiar to Crane, as Jaffe notes. Few contemporary artists in New York had achieved the success of Stella in actively promoting the tenets of cubism and futurism. More important, Stella’s work circulated in the very magazines in which Crane hoped to publish and with which he was associated. Indeed, the special "Stella number" of the Chicago-based Little Review in August 1922 (volume nine, number one, though misidentified on its title page as volume nine, number three) happened to be the journal for which Crane had served as Advertising Manager in 1919 – without much success, though he did persuade his father to take out an advertisement for Crane’s Chocolates. Moreover, Crane himself had appeared in the issue after the "Stella number" with a satirical sketch, "Anointment of the Well-Dressed Critic," that indicates how carefully Crane wanted to keep pace with modernist art: his cartoon is a question mark that is surrounded by cubist-like distortions.

Among the paintings that were reproduced in the "Stella issue" was the 1919 "Brooklyn Bridge." If Crane had even glanced at the issue of the Little Review that featured Stella wouldn’t his eye have been at once caught by this painting on what would be a subject of immense importance to him? Is it possible that Stella is a foundational source for The Bridge – a fact that Crane is surreptitiously acknowledging in 1929 by arranging to have included within the first edition a Stella painting, albeit not the painting that had been the origin of the long poem?

If Crane had spotted that painting in 1922 – and it is worth mentioning that it is one of a number of muddy black-and-white reproductions scattered throughout the issue in three separate sections – he never did register his excited reaction to it in any of his letters of the time. What can be said that might link this first depiction of Brooklyn Bridge by Stella and the conception of Crane’s new poem is the element of generality that attends both. Stella’s 1919 painting is less a portrayal of the actual Brooklyn Bridge (despite its title) than a formally organized presentation of a cubist construction. Abstract lines predominate, and the presence of the Brooklyn Bridge and the modern city is conspicuously downplayed, though the pair of arches that are directly centered in the painting clearly resemble the distinctive granite towers of the Brooklyn Bridge with their Gothic arches reminiscent of cathedral windows. (To the right is the 1919 Stella painting as reproduced in the Little Review in black-and-white.)

Just as Stella’s painting subordinates the presence of an actual bridge to a demonstration of cubist principles, so Crane’s earliest conceptions of his new long poem, entitled The Bridge, never refer specifically to Brooklyn Bridge and always emphasize the generalities of "bridging." In his earliest descriptions of his new project, Crane first describes The Bridge as an extension of "Faustus and Helen," the three-part sequence he had completed in January 1923 when he had returned from New York and was living in Cleveland. In followup letters of February and March, he continues to refer to the bridge in terms that are exclusively metaphorical. If he had been thinking of any particular bridge, it is likely he had in mind an earlier poem, an unpublished fragment entitled "The Bridge of Estador," some portions of which he had cannibalized for two other poems, "Praise for an Urn" and "Episode of Hands," and a copy of which he sent to Gorham Munson on April 1921. "Estador" was no more (or less) "real" as a place than Xanadu. The poem opens with lines that will act as a refrain: "Walk high on the bridge of Estador, / No one has ever walked there before."

Crane quoted a handful of lines from his new poem in a letter to Allen Tate, but these too envision the bridge as primarily metaphorical, no less unreal or mystical than the bridge of Estador because this bridge (in lines later reproduced as the opening to "Van Winkle") leapt "From Far Rockaway to Golden Gate," uniting the continent.

In these earliest of conceptions, the bridge was carefully left disembodied – as befits, perhaps, the "mystical synthesis of America" that he promised to Gorham Munson in early 1923. But even after Crane left Cleveland in the spring of 1923 and returned to New York, he continued to add to his description of a bridge that was exclusively metaphorical. He sent some examples of his new writing back to friends in Cleveland, Charlotte and Richard Rychtarik. These were drafts of what would eventually become "Atlantis"; never once did he explain to them that he was inspired by a particular bridge or Brooklyn bridge.

Is there a moment when the association between The Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge suddenly occurred? It probably came about

The Voice of the City of New York Interpreted: The Bridge, 1920-22. Joseph Stella Oil and tempera on canvas, 88 1/2 x 54 in. Collection of the Newark Museum, New Jersey, 37.288E. Newark Museum/Art Resource, New York.

as late as the spring of 1924, when Crane took up residence in the Opffer family household at 110 Brooklyn Heights, well within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge itself – and indeed in the very location from which Joseph Roebling oversaw its construction. But Crane’s new interest in the Brooklyn Bridge was not based on an aesthetic appreciation of it as an artifact so much as on his new association with Emil Opffer. Falling in love with Opffer, moving to Brooklyn Heights, beginning work again on The Bridge all occur at the same time. His emotional repositioning is at once a physical repositioning which affords him a new slant on his work: "For the first time in many weeks I am beginning to further elaborate my plans for my Bridge poem," as he writes to his mother on May 11, 1924. Even here, however, he is not yet linking Brooklyn Bridge to The Bridge, but that linkage is about to occur in a more candid letter to Waldo Frank on April 21, 1924, which announces his new love affair and which begins: "For many days, now, I have gone about quite dumb with something for which ‘happiness’ must be too mild a term." Crane further mentions "the ecstasy of walking hand in hand across the most beautiful bridge in the world, the cables enclosing us and pulling us upward in such a dance as I have never walked and never can walk with another." As Samuel R. Delany points out, the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1924 would have allowed for exchanges of same-sex affection that permitted such physical displays. Moreover, sailors in the Brooklyn Navy Yard would have used the bridge as a pathway to the South Street taverns and bars. (This would have been a background Crane drew upon for the barroom scene and the homeward walk in "Cutty Sark.") But if Crane personalizes and eroticizes Brooklyn Bridge, he also insists upon its function as a generalizing symbol, promising to Waldo Frank that his faith in Crane’s art will be repaid as Crane’s skill as an artist evolves: "Then we shall take a walk across the bridge to Brooklyn (as well as to Estador, for all that!)" (187).

This April 21, 1924, letter is the first in which Crane directly mentions Brooklyn Bridge, but in it he also retains a sense of that actual artifact as a metaphorical construct. Nevertheless, the linchpin that is the true uniting source is the personality of Emil Opffer, the great love of Crane’s life, long-known as the muse of Voyages and almost certainly serving a similar role for much of The Bridge. When the Brooklyn Bridge appears in Crane’s poem, it is not simply a contemporary artifact that is aesthetically attractive even as it retains its functionality, and it is not simply an example of the virtue of "connecting," of reaching out and extending oneself to others: it is also a secret talisman, a hidden souvenir that points to a love inscribed everywhere but never mentioned. The specificity of the Brooklyn Bridge is not simply a "presence" so much as it is a metonym for the figure of Emil Opffer.

If Crane had seen Stella’s 1919 "Brooklyn Bridge" reproduced in The Little Review in 1922, then, it is unlikely that he would have responded to it as particularly special. Not only had he not yet begun his long poem, but he had little reason to associate Brooklyn Bridge with New York. When he had previously lived in New York City from 1916 to 1919, his addresses were in Manhattan, though sometimes in lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge. Had he seen Stella’s painting he might have, at best, associated it only with his general sense of bridging and bridges – the same sense from which he produced his earliest drafts of what would become "Atlantis."

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Title Illustrated Editions of The Bridge: The Joseph Stella Frontispiece Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jul 2021
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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