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IT WAS THE KIND OF PARTY THAT I would have liked to have gone to, had I been invited; at a Brooklyn apartment a block from my own, overlooking the river and the bridge, the entire mile of it—or is the bridge a he, a beautiful recumbent sailor?—and its stone towers, one hundred yards tall; ships’ horns yawping over the water, shouldering through the December air, and all that muffled by the windows, by the Victrola, by the chatter and the holding forth on poetry and such; sofas and corners, coats heaped on the bed, whisky and gin on ice from the juddering fridge; and underneath, the seethe of possibilities—japes and aperçus, misapprehensions, confessions, attachments ill-advised and fortuitous, vertigoes, oblivions till dawn and beyond. It’s what I’d like to watch: altercations, perhaps, and sex quavering in the air; then moths stampeding from the piled winter coats, beating their wings against the windows, beguiled by the lamps on the bridge.


Oh dear, that was just writing; words upon words, layer cakes of words, fussy as candelabra. Where are the people? Where are the smells, the sizzle and clank of the steam heat? Where are the things, not the metaphors and adjectives and attitudinizing, but the things themselves? There’s nobody home in this, no carpet and wallpaper and leaks in the ceiling, no pots on the stove, no hairs on the bathroom floor, no stains on the sheets. It’s just writing, words atop words, like snow accreting, like dandruff, confetti, Legos in a sack. It’s prose imagining how poetry sounds. But as Robert Lowell said, “Why not say what happened?” Why not “give each figure in the photograph his living name?”


All right then: e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Walker Evans, Malcolm Cowley, and more. Harry and Caresse Crosby, wealthy expatriates and proprietors of the Black Sun Press in Paris, were the guests of honor. The host was Hart Crane, whose epic cycle, The Bridge, the Crosbys were about to publish. There were more, in total perhaps fifteen or twenty, several of them sailors and longshoremen and shipwrights from the East River docks and Sands Street where Hart liked to cruise. Some of these men he had loved.

The party went on a long while, and the liquor supply had to be replenished from the bootlegger on Pineapple Street (two blocks from me), near the subway station and the Saint George Hotel where Hart also liked to cruise. Not much before six in the morning the party broke up, but there was another party with much the same guest list the following night, December 8, 1929, in Manhattan. Two nights later, there was a dinner hosted by the Crosbys—their ship was leaving the day after tomorrow—but Harry didn’t show, missing the play they were all going to attend and the nightcaps afterward.

Harry had been using a friend’s studio in the Hotel des Artistes by Central Park for assignations (no secret to Caresse; they had an open marriage). He liked to play with guns and stand close to open windows; he liked his lovers to paint his toenails. During the dinner, or perhaps long before, he had been in the studio with Josephine Noyes Rotch, with whom he’d been having a long-running affair. She’d written Harry a poem the day before, closing with the line “Death is our marriage.” The next day in his journal Harry wrote, “One is not in love unless one desires to die with one’s beloved.” They were found on the studio’s bed, a shot in Josephine’s left temple and another in Harry’s right, the gun still in his hand. As for Hart, it took him two more years, but on April 27, 1932, he threw himself overboard from a ship, into the Gulf of Mexico.


Later, in a memoir, Caresse would remember the party and Hart’s apartment: the Brooklyn Bridge cables “drawn like a netting across his window; the sailors lounging; that, and a parlor game, cummings proffering a deck of cards to Harry, from which he drew the ace of hearts, an unlucky card. Inwardly all of us crossed ourselves.”

A few days before the party Hart had written her, just a few lines that had the cast of an elegy, of solace extended, as though he knew:

——–—To my loved Caresse—
——–—“while through white cities passed on to assume
——–—that world which comes to each of us alone”
——————————————-—from forever her Hart

So he’d sent Caresse a verse from one of his own poems, “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen,” and who knows what he meant? Perhaps she did. Crane the poet didn’t worry much about intelligibility in any usual sense, only about impressions and associations and then the feelings and epiphanies that might arise out of their passage from the ear to the heart such that the “poem gave the reader as he left it a single new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate.” And as far as we know, he wrote nothing directly to her about Harry’s death, though there was this telegram sent as she was about to board the ship back to France:

dear caresse you know i wish to be of help caresse you are my favorite friend caresse i say caresse you are not only all but you understand all

Perhaps she didn’t need more, not from Hart anyway. Her life with Harry had been a precarious and speculative enterprise, and Harry had only gotten to the finish line first.

Two weeks later, she was back in Paris, and she and Hart were corresponding about getting the last draft of The Bridge to the printer. There would be photographs by Walker Evans between the pages, and these needed to be selected and placed. Finally, the day after Christmas, Hart mailed Caresse the last unfinished section, “Quaker Hill,” not a crucial element of the larger poem, but there it was; ending just here, and that too might have been for her:

——–—Breaks us and saves, yes, breaks the heart, yet yields
——–—That patience that is armor and that shields
——–—Love from despair—when love foresees the end—
——–—Leaf after autumnal leaf
——————————————break off,



He spent Christmas with the sailor he was in love with, Bob Stewart, brighter than the people at Hart’s party might have suspected and someone who genuinely cared for him. Stewart attempted to get him to moderate his drinking and find a day job, since The Bridge had earned him only a $250 advance from the Crosbys and a further two hundred from Boni & Liveright (who would publish the American edition), all but fifty of which was now spent.

He needed to lower his expenses, and on January 2, 1930, Hart moved in across the street from where I live now. I can see it—190 Columbia Heights—from my bedroom window. He had the basement apartment, rented furnished, and a sliver of a view of the bridge out the back. It was his third apartment on this street where, except when he was traveling or staying with friends upstate, he had lived for the last six years—through all the time he had been composing The Bridge. The apartment at 190 Columbia Heights was his last home in New York; really, his last home anywhere. That was what I began to wonder about: him—who’d been down the street for a long while and now opposite my window—and me, and how we had ended up together in the same place.


I realize that’s a tenuous connection, no true connection at all. It’s happenstance, and for perhaps anyone but me not very striking or significant. There are a lot of dead writers’ homes in Brooklyn Heights: Arthur Miller, Truman Capote, W.H. Auden, Thomas Wolfe, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Norman Mailer for starters. Across the street from me, next to Crane’s place, Mailer kept an apartment as a studio where he wrote some negligible books (Marilyn, The Faith of Graffiti) but also one of his best, The Executioner’s Song. He slept and debauched in his house up the street, between my place and the house where Hart held his December 1929 party.

I wasn’t writing much myself—really, nothing at all—and I might have taken inspiration from their presence, but mostly it induced unease and self-reproach. Hart Crane had written The Bridge over there, and Norman Mailer his best “nonfiction novel.” But I was doing nothing.

In fact, Hart hadn’t written The Bridge across the street, and perhaps there was an excuse for me in that; he’d finished it at 130 Columbia Heights and moved to 190 because he was broke, awash in alcoholism, rehearsing for death and, come our time, relative obscurity. Mailer never again wrote anything as good as The Executioner’s Song in the fifth-floor studio next door and nowadays enjoys a reputation as a misogynistic, self-promoting windbag.

Something similar happened to Thomas Wolfe, who after publishing Look Homeward, Angel moved into 111 and 101 Columbia Heights in 1931 and 1932 respectively and then in 1933 to 5 Montague Terrace, one block down from my apartment in the other direction. Once installed there, he finished the overwrought Of Time and the River and the still more indigestible manuscripts that were cobbled together into The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again after he died three years later, age thirty-seven. In the 1930s, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald had acknowledged him as a talent greater than theirs; today his books—when they’re mentioned at all—make sophisticated readers wince on account of their overripe style and insistence on being taken seriously on their own terms. Admiring them requires a sort of hilarious bad taste.

As a group who’d shared a single street, you could venture to say that writers came here on the way to becoming washed up, to losing their reputations, their final station before an early grave. Still, I was impressed that they had been my neighbors once upon a time. I love artists undone by posterity, magnificent failures, writers who are ignored, forgotten, mocked or proscribed for being who they were when they were, for having styles or preoccupations or ideas unpalatable to us. So I determined to like these writers, to defend and support them, to stand up for the home team.

This didn’t have so much to do with their work as with their being out of critical favor. I’d read Look Homeward, Angel when I was younger (my twenties) and some of The Web and the Rock when I was younger still (age fourteen; why and even how, given the book’s length and opacity, I can’t imagine); I’d read Mailer’s The Armies of the Night when I was nineteen or so; Crane I hadn’t read at all, and I’m not sure anyone else I knew had either.

What I did know—somehow—was that Hart Crane had written The Bridge, some sort of Great American Epic about or inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge. And I knew the Brooklyn Bridge; lived in sight of it and walked it at least two or three times a week. The bridge was venerable and magnificent, embodied huge ambitions and convictions. It hadn’t grown stale or irrelevant or embarrassing. It was among the rare things that rendered the city—otherwise so brutal, money- and power-crazed, vain, careless, and pitiless—transcendent. As Crane tried to say, the bridge gave New Yorkers with all their sins something larger than themselves: “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God.”

The Brooklyn Bridge was not pretentious: it didn’t try too hard; it didn’t make unsustainable claims for itself; it didn’t rely on sentimentality or rhetoric for its effects. But maybe Crane did. Some people thought so in 1930 and probably most (of the few that can be bothered to read the poem and form an opinion) today. And what ever was a “curveship,” and why—if it meant anything at all—should anyone care? That was what Hart surely feared: indifference—for a writer, not far from ignominy, having wagered that art, like love, “breaks us and saves us.” Well, perhaps.

And me? Yes, but maybe a little less. The aspirations, ambition, and will of someone like Hart could kill you, wagering everything on the inspiration and brilliance the bridge was meant to supply him. But he wanted, I think, too much from it—the entire saga of America in both geography and chronology and, beyond that, a prophecy of where it would all end up. But above all, he wanted his poem to be a masterpiece, and he wanted the bridge to provide the symbols, the structural scaffolding, and the borrowed grandeur that would substantiate the poem’s importance; the imperative that it must be read and reckoned with. But I think Hart wanted—he was nothing if not a man of magnificent and consuming desires—the wrong things, or things to which he was not quite entitled. I have wanted them too. I want them here and now, in my writing, in these words, drawn stupid and stunned to a candle, eagerly beating their wings, transfixed.

Thomas Aquinas asserted that “God is in all things and most intimately so.” And it seems as if Hart understood this and believed it to a point of extremity, or rather something like it but perhaps not the idea itself: he wanted The Bridge to contain and manifest everything, and that included God, to whom the bridge “would lend a myth”—would make God into God, give him, really, a story. But it wasn’t the bridge that supplied that but Hart, mere Hart, and that is probably where he went wrong.

I’ve tried the bridge too: for solace, inspiration, for knowledge of myself, for love, I suppose, or desire, if that is not the same thing. And it gave me nothing; I took nothing. I see it every day and I walk over it two or three times a week, always to somewhere else, of course, not really for its own sake. It is true, though, that it is magnificent in ambition and scale, in the pointed arches that evoke cathedrals, yet for all that not grandiose, but merely dignified, stolid, silent, not withholding itself but knowing the limitations of speech, of words, even if someone tried to write them.

But the tourists walking the bridge drive me mad, taking their selfies, clogging up the footway with their clueless milling, or maybe it is wonder. And I want to say, “This is no place to stop and block the way. Don’t you know that New Yorkers use this bridge too, that they have places to go, work to get to?” But I don’t: I don’t scold or glare—a New Yorker would not do that—too busy, so much to do, to want and to get. I brush by them, weaving between them at a clip while they gape and memorialize each other with their smartphones.

But maybe Hart and I are seeing it inside out; maybe it’s the river that makes the bridge by making the bridge necessary for us to cross the river, to make poems and woolgathering curveships, to pile up our lusts and ambitions against it and make fools of ourselves upon it, contriving gods.

Hart did all that, and he had the idea of doing it when he was all of twenty-three. I’m older; I know better. I miss the wanting, the pretensions to carry such things through with words, just words. But that, despite the loss, is for me better, learning that the river makes the bridge, that the world, not the artist, makes the art.

I love Crane; I wish I had been at that party, and I wish that life and poetry had shown him more mercy. But in the view from my house, the party’s been over for ninety years, one of those things you can want but not have, but you can write about it—though it’s all simulacra, futile and false, at best an exercise in “picturing” things, not truly speaking them, bringing them forth whole and vital. But never mind that. I still have words; have them like a ragpicker, scavenged and hoarded. So it’s as if it’s dawn and the party’s end when all the liquor has been drunk, the guests are putting on their coats, and the window above the river is opened and all the night’s business—the swelter of cigarette smoke, breath and bodies, passion and regret, and the words, of course—rushes out, wishes and yearnings that melt over the water and descend.



Robert Clark is the author of nine books, most recently My Victorians: Lost in the Nineteenth Century (Iowa). He lives in New York City.




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