Not by the Mind Alone
The Gay Love Letters of Hart Crane
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the
Centuries, Edited by Rictor Norton
Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All
rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit
Hart Crane (left) and Emil Opffer (right)
In 1920 in Washington Hart Crane (18991932) met Wilbur Underwood, a minor government official with an interest in the arts. He was charming and gossipy, and they often went to pre-Broadway tryouts. Underwood became the confidant to whom Crane wrote long letters about his secret sex life, described in graphic details, until his death. Most of these letters remain unpublished. Crane cruised the Cleveland parks late at night, and was especially fond of truck drivers and sailors, whom he educated into the mysteries of sex and literature. To Underwood he wrote in 1923, "The first night brought a most strenuous wooing and the largest instrument I have handled. Europa and the Bull are now entirely passé. As this happened only two nights ago, I am modest and satisfied. Still, I am uneasy. I fear for all the anticlimaxes that are surely now in store for me." Early in 1923, when Crane was in his twenty-third year, he met a young man at a concert; after the young man took Crane to a vaudeville show they began a brief but overwhelming affair, referred to in the letter of February 20, 1923. In 1924 Crane lived at 110 Columbia Heights in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge, with Emil Opffer and Opffer's father. Emil was a good-looking ship's writer, who was regularly away from home for ten-day stretches, during which Crane was jealous. It was here that Crane worked on the Voyages poems, written for Opffer, and began the last part of his major poem The Bridge, about which many books of interpretation and evaluation have been written. Crane described their relationship as a "blood-brotherhood"; around 1960 (thirty-six years after the affair) Opffer told Crane's biographer John Unterecker that Crane was passionate, ecstatic and sometimes violent, but "It was never dirty." Crane threw himself overboard ship on a return voyage from Mexico. His life (and suicide) haunted the imagination of gay writers for the next two generations, just as Whitman's life inspired his own generation.
HART CRANE TO WILBUR UNDERWOOD
Feb. 20, 1923
Those who have wept in the darkness sometimes are rewarded with stray leaves blown inadvertently. Since your last I have [had] one of those few experiences that come, –ever, but which are almost sufficient in their very incompleteness. This was only last evening in a vaudeville show with . has manifested charming traits before, but there has always been an older brother around. Last night it sounds silly enough to tell (but not in view of his real beauty) O, it was only a matter of light affectionate stray touches and half-hinted speech. But these were genuine and in that sense among the few things I can remember happily. With you must think of someone mildly sober, with a face not too thin, but with faun precision of line and feature. Crisp ears, a little pointed, fine and docile hair almost golden, yet darker, eyes that are a little heavy – but wide apart and usually a little narrowed, aristocratic (English) jaws, and a mouth that [is] just mobile enough to suggest voluptuousness. A strong rather slender figure, negligently carried, that is perfect from flanks that hold an easy persistence to shoulders that are soft yet full and hard. A smooth and rather olive skin that is cool at first.
Excuse this long catalog I admit it is mainly for my own satisfaction, and I am drunk now and in such state as my satisfactions are always lengthy. When I see you ask me to tell you more about him for he is worth more and better words, I assure you. O yes, I shall see him again soon. The climax will be all too easily reached, But my gratitude is enduring if only for that once, at least, something beautiful approached me and as though it were the most natural thing in the world, enclosed me in his arm and pulled me to him without my slightest bid. And we who create must endure must hold to spirit not by the mind, the intellect alone. These have no mystic possibilities. O flesh damned to hate and scorn! I have felt my cheek pressed on the desert these days and months too much. How old I am! Yet, oddly now this sense [of] age not at all in my senses is gaining me altogether unique love and happiness. I feel I have been thru much of this again and again before. I long to go to India and stay always. Meditation on the sun is all there is. Not that this isn't enough! I mean I find my imagination more sufficient all the time. The work of the workaday is what I dislike. I spend my evenings in music and sometimes ecstasy. I've been writing a lot lately. . . . I'm bringing much into contemporary verse that is new. I'm on a synthesis of America and its structural identity now, called The Bridge. . . .
HART CRANE TO GORHAM MUNSON
March 2nd, '23
. . . And now to your question about passing the good word along. I discover that I have been all-to-easy all along in letting out announcements of my sexual predilections. Not that anything unpleasant has happened or is imminent. But it does put me into obligatory relations to a certain extent with "those who know," and this irks me to think of sometimes. After all, when you're dead it doesn't matter, and this statement alone proves my immunity from any "shame" about it. But I find the ordinary business of earning a living entirely too stringent to want to add any prejudices against me of that nature in the minds of any publicans and sinners. Such things have a wholesale way of leaking out! Everyone knows now about B, H and others this list is too long to bother with. I am all-too-free with my tongue and doubtless always shall be but I'm going to ask you to advise and work me better with a more discreet behavior.
HART CRANE TO WALDO FRANK
Brooklyn, N. Y.
April 21st, '24
For many days, now, I have gone about quite dumb with something for which "happiness" must be too mild a term. At any rate, my aptitude for communication, such as it ever is!, has been limited to one person alone, and perhaps for the first time in my life (and, I can only think that it is the last, so far is my imagination from the conception of anything more profound and lovely than this love.) I have wanted to write you more than once, but it will take many letters to let you know what I mean (for myself, at least when I say that I have seen the Word made Flesh. I mean nothing less, and I know now that there is such a thing as indestructibility. In the deepest sense, where flesh became transformed through intensity of response to counter-response, where sex was beaten out, where purity of joy was reached that included tears. It's true, Waldo, that so much more than my frustrations and multitude of humiliations has been answered in this reality and I promise that I feel that whatever event the future holds is justified before hand. And I have been able to give freedom and life which was acknowledged in the ecstasy of walking hand in hand across the most beautiful bridge of 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. . . .
SOURCE: The Letters of Hart Crane 19161932, ed. Brom Weber (New York: Hermitage House, 1952).