Finding a Place for Hart Crane

Hart Crane, by Bill McVey

The placement of public sculpture often says as much as the sculpture itself–rather in the way that the position of people in family snapshots can say a lot about their degree of friendship and their respective roles.


A fascinating instance of this is the sculpture of the poet Hart Crane by the late Bill McVey (1904-1995) that stands beside the Kelvin Smith Library in Cleveland, on the campus of Case Western Reserve. Making and casting a bronze sculpture is a surprisingly time-consuming and costly process: it generally costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you go through all that effort, it seems logical to find a prominent place to show off what you’ve accomplished. McVey’s bronze Hart Crane isn’t standing by the front door of the library, however, but in a distinctly isolated location on the other side of the building, set forlornly on a little pedestal in a place where he looks distinctly lost, where there isn’t even a pathway.


On the face of it, that seems a peculiar way to treat a handsome public monument, but I think I know the explanation. Let me start with why the statue was made and who it represents. Then let me propose why it’s been placed the way it has, and why that should be changed.


Hart Crane (1899-1932) is a natural subject for a public sculpture since he was one of America’s greatest writers, and it’s particularly natural to honor him in Cleveland, since he grew up nearby (his father being a candy manufacturer and inventor of Life Savers candy in Garretsville) and wrote some of his best verse here. Crane was also a close friend of Cleveland’s best and most original early modernist painter, William Sommer.


To understand what McVey’s statue is about, it helps to know a little about Hart Crane’s poetry. I’ve always been a fan of Crane’s work, and some notable figures who know more about poetry than I believe that he ranks with the world’s greatest poets. I was touched, for example, to recently come across the following tribute from the Yale pundit Harold Bloom, who wrote of Crane in a note for his anthology of the best poems in the English language:


Something visionary and authentically exalted ended with Hart Crane, which is why he is the last poet included in this book. Together with William Blake (an influence upon him), Hart Crane was my first love among the great poets, and like Blake he gave me a lifelong addiction to high poetry.


The peculiar quality of poetry is that it displaces normal logic, yet in some peculiar way captures the inner feeling of things. For example, take this passage from what may be Crane’s best-known poem, The Bridge, largely written when he had an apartment that looked out on the Brooklyn Bridge:


Through the bound cable strands, the arching path

Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,–

Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate

The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.

Up the index of night, granite and steel—

Transparent meshes—fleckless the gleaming staves….


My logical brain doesn’t quite understand what Hart Crane is saying. Nonetheless, for me there’s no description ever written that so fully conjures an image of the Brooklyn Bridge looming out of the moonlight.


Sadly, Crane died young, a suicide, when he jumped off a freighter taking him from Mexico to New York City, on April 27, 1932, three months shy of what would have been his thirty-third birthday. It’s hard not to be struck by the weird coincidence that the son of the man who created “the lifesaver” died by jumping overboard. One can find a premonition of Crane’s sea-death in his verse. Like Walt Whitman, one of his central subjects was the sea and death, which he imagined wrapping us in a kind of maternal embrace. For example, he wrote in Voyages:


Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,

And hasten while her penniless rich palms

Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,–

Hasten, while they are true,–sleep, death, desire,

Close round one instant in one floating flower.


There’s a particularly solemn magic to those last words:


Sleep, death, desire,

Close round one instant in one floating flower.


The task of memorializing Crane in sculpture, and of evoking Crane’s genius as a poet, fell to Bill McVey, a figure who never achieved much of a national reputation but produced much excellent work. Born in Boston, McVeigh moved to Cleveland as a teenager, and spent most of his career here, studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art and eventually landing a post on the faculty there. While he also spent three years in Paris, studying with Charles Despiau, McVey never became a radical modernist. He worked instead in the blocky naturalistic style we associate with the WPA and the other public art programs of the 1930s. Over the course of his career he produced some 48 public monuments, most of them in Ohio. Much of his work was hand-carved stone, although the Hart Crane sculpture is cast in bronze.


How can one capture the qualities of Crane’s remarkable verse in sculpture? The simple answer is that you can’t. As an alternative, McVey chose a very straightforward approach: he portrayed Hart Crane in a sailor’s jacket, a sort of stand-in for “everyman,” rather like the protagonists in the graphic novels of Lynd Ward. The poignancy of the statue lies in the implicit contrast between the solid, earthbound, masculine qualities of the figure and the breathless, ethereal, star-seeking qualities of his poetry.


One might compare what McVey did to the chapter headings in Rockwell Kent’s famous illustrated edition of Moby Dick, whose clear, straightforward, almost pedestrian mode of rendering for some reason forms the perfect complement to the abstract flights of Melville’s prose. One of the nice things about the statue is the way that the weather has run tear-like streaks on the patina of the face, which somehow suggests the resistance Crane must have faced as a poet and artist, and his fortitude in facing it.


It should be evident, of course, that McVey’s statue is not a landmark of art history—a work that transformed the history of art, and which we go to marvel at in some museum. But McVey was doing something a bit different, and within his framework of intentions I think he did an extremely good job. He was producing a daily landmark, something that provides a kind of reference point as we go through our daily walks, a statue that’s comfortable as a companion precisely because Crane looks so normal, and like the rest of us. His statue is a reminder of what’s ordinary about us all as human beings, and a statement about what seemingly ordinary people can do with the power of their artistry and imagination. It’s about the capacity of all of us to reach for the stars.


Why has this handsome statue of Cleveland’s greatest writer been so isolated? I don’t think anyone is ever going to tell us in plain language, but it’s not hard to guess. Hart Crane was homosexual. Much of his best work was written when he fell ecstatically in love with a young Danish sailor, Emil Oppfer. There’s just one discrete reference to this in McVey’s statue, the sailor’s jacket. As we know from Paul Cadmus’s paintings Fleet’s In!, sailors ashore after a long voyage were often promiscuous and ready for sexual adventures. Indeed, Crane was obsessed by sailors: the night before his suicide he was badly beaten up by a sailor he propositioned.


In short, the awkward placement of the statue is an expression of the awkwardness many people still feel in dealing with homosexuals, who are often isolated, teased, set apart. As it now stands, the statue is a sort of public statement that homosexuals, at least in Cleveland, still stand a bit apart: that even if they look pretty much the same as everyone else, like the figure in McVeigh’s statue. Its location is a statement we should somehow treat them differently.


Today that seems to me a bit behind the times. The statue was created in 1985, when even making a public monument to a man who was gay was probably controversial. It was put in its present position in 1996, shortly after the new Kelvin Smith Library was completed. In the meantime, the world has moved forward, and at this point, such isolation and segregation is an embarrassment—an indication that Cleveland is a bit behind the times.


To my mind it would be a very nice gesture if Hart Crane could be moved to the plaza by the front entrance of the library, where he can inspire and challenge all the students going in the main door. Surely Cleveland has reached the point where we can be comfortable celebrating Crane as Cleveland’s greatest writer, and hailing his wondrous achievements as a poet, without troubling about his sexual orientation.