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On "Cape Hatteras"

Alan Trachtenberg

Crane was not interested principally in Whitman’s social vision, but in his conception of poetry as the final step in the restoration of man’s wholeness. Not the engineer nor the statesman nor the captain of industry, but the poet was the true civilizer. Translating engineering accomplishments into ideas, the poet completed the work of history, and prepared for the ultimate journey to "more than India," the journey to the Soul: "thou actual Me." Thus the poet recognized that all of history culminated in self-discovery; and he would lead the race out of its bondage in time and space to that moment of consciousness in which all would seem one. That moment of "return" would redeem history by abolishing it. …

"Cape Hatteras" is the center of the span that leaps from Columbus to Brooklyn Bridge. The sea voyages are now done, the rondure accomplished. Now, a complacent age of stocks, traffic, and radios has lost sight of its goal; instead of a bridge, the age has created a "labyrinth submersed / Where each sees only his dim past reversed." War, not peace and brotherhood, has succeeded the engineers, and flights into space are undertaken, not by poets but by war planes. "Cape Hatteras" poses the key questions of the poem: "What are the grounds for hope that modern history will not destroy itself?" "Where lies redemption?" "Is there an alternative to the chaos of the City?"

The answers are in Whitman’s "sea eye," "bright with myth." He alone has kept sight of the abstract form, the vision of ultimate integration. His perspective is geological; he stands apart, with "something green / Beyond all sesames of science." Whitman envisioned the highest human possibilities within the facts of chaos. It was he who "stood up and flung the span on even wing / Of that great Bridge, our Myth, whereof I sing." He is a presence: "Familiar, thou, as mendicants in public places." He has kept faith, even among the most disastrous circumstances of betrayal. With his help, the flight into space might yet become "that span of consciousness thou’st named / The Open Road."

"Cape Hatteras" introduces the violence and the promise, the despair and the hope, of modern life. It argues for the effectiveness of ideals, for the power of Utopia over history. the poet places his hand in Whitman’s and proceeds upon his quest. …

from Alan Trachtenberg, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (New York, Oxford, 1965), 150-151.

Paul Mariani

"Cape Hatteras"—three years in the making, and by far the longest poem in The Bridge, in fact, the longest single poem Crane ever wrote. It is both palinode and antidote, really, to his "Faustus and Helen," a poem of transformations and metamorphoses, revising the paradigm of the Faustian overreacher in favor of Whitman’s more democratic brotherhood of man. In his reading of Spengler and of Western literature and Western history, as in studying his own parents, Crane had come to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the ego-centered drive of Western man to conquer and pacify. The conquest of time, the conquest of space, the conquest of the wilderness, manifest destiny, the age of progress, the race to link East and West. But once "The seas all crossed, / weathered the capes, the voyage done," what then? An age of armaments, the war to end all wars, one empire dying, another striving to be born. Hollywood manifesting once again the gold rush fever. Europe an exhausted whore.

But what of the long view? The gradual replacement of one age with another, the late Jurassic transformed into coal and gas and oil-fields, to be devoured by the late Cambrian in its Western industrial phase. The "dorsal change of energy": frogs’ eyes transformed into the giggling whine of greased ball bearings. Explorations, strange languages, the surf of radio static, the "combustion at the astral core." Matter transformed into energy: wind over waters bringing Columbus to the New World. And now what new worlds disclosed with the whirr of engines and the wind playing over canvas wings?

Cutty Sark [note: "Cutty Sark" is the poem preceding "Cape Hatteras"] transformed to Kitty Hawk. Horizontal conquest giving way now to sheer verticality. He was finishing "Cape Hatteras" two years after Lindbergh had made his transatlantic solo flight, reversing Columbus’s voyages and covering the same distance backward in a fraction of the time. "The nasal whine of power whips a new universe," Crane wrote, like Williams and other American poets aware of the sheer power of the new electrical stations built to supply power to entire cities, the stars’ energy harnessed by coal and oil, the strop of belts on assembly lines, the boom of spools, the roar of industry with its deafening power. Energy as exotic dynamo.

But consider too the underbelly of this Faustian energy: the urge to conquer space and time implying the urge to conquer other humans as well. The Wright brothers, "windwrestlers," veering like Columbus "Capeward," and the soul, "by naphtha fledged into new reaches," already that much closer to exploring the rocky surface of Mars. Not the space age only, implied in the lifting of that gooneybird over Kill Devil Hills in 1903, but military conquest following inevitably in its wake as well. The most advanced airplane of 192 not that far removed from its World War I counterpart: biplanes leaving their silver hangars like so many larvae—new Iliads glimmering "through eyes raised in pride." The dogfight, enemy circling enemy in "war’s fiery kennel," machine-gun bullets—those "theorems sharp as hail"—grenades exploding, their razor petals carving face and body. Or the vision of dirigibles like huge whales aboard which planes might land:

Regard the moving turrets! From grey decks
See scouting griffons rise through gaseous crepe
Hung low . . . until a conch of thunder answers
Cloud belfries, hanging, while searchlights, like fencers,
Slit the sky’s pancreas of foaming anthracite
Toward thee, O Corsair of the typhoon . . .

A pseudo-epic language here, alas, as out-of-date, really, as da Vinci’s drawings of an early helicopter, a mIltonic rhetoric employed to treat the facts of modern air combat. Planes lifting from aircraft carriers circa 1929. Swarming through overcast skies, then the sounds of anti-aircraft shells and sirens and searchlights zigzagging, swording the skies, trying to pinpoint the enemy, flown by Faustian overreachers, hot-dogs. But the picture in its outlines true for all that, no more far-fetched, really, than the idea of permanent space stations from which manned spacecraft or missiles might be launched. And all this in an elevated Virgilian / Elizabethan language Crane thought of as resonating with the most sublime undertakings of humankind, man drunk on power in the "alcohol of space."

America, Crane rightly understood, had within it the power "to conjugate infinity’s dim marge—anew." But first it would have to overcome its bloodlust, its dependency always on force—its destruction of the Indian, slavery, the murder of brother by brother in the epic Civil War which Whitman had witnessed firsthand. "Thou, pallid there as chalk," Crane wrote now, addressing his guide, none other than this same Walt Whitman, "Has kept of wounds, O Mourner, all that sum / That then from Appomattox stretched to Somme!" All those deaths at Antitam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg. Chancellorscille, Cold Harbor, the trenches south of Petersburg and Richmond, as well as at the Little Big Horna nd San Juan Hill and the even more terrible losses at the Somme, Verdun, Chateau-Thierry. There had to be another way out of the nightmare of history. If it was death one wanted, then, yes, receive the "benediction of the shell’s sure. Deep reprieve," the "Sky-gak pilot," hit with a fusillade of machine-gun bullets, as the soaring plane – perforated – suddenly reversed in its ascent, spiraling down and down until man and plane hit the Cape again, a healp of "high bravery," yes, but a heap of "mashed and shapeless debris" as well.

Another way was needed, then, another way to ascend those imagined heights and "conjugate infinity’s dim marge – anew." That sense of discovery, such as Crane felt, he tells us here, when – like Keats opening Chapman’s Homer – he first read Whitman in the spring of 1916 with the Somme offensive about to be unleashed, and fifty thousan dmen were lost in those first hours alone. Whitman’s lines of power and beauty, surging and receding, lines of poetry – "thunder’s eloquence" felt in the landscape itself – "as rife as the loam / Of prairies, yet like breakers cliffward leaping," a power Crane was trying to replicate in The Bridge with his own thundering lines.

Not division, then, but communion. Not bare-knuckled hands, but a hand extended in friendship. Wasn’t that what Whitman, having seen what bullets could do to his brother and to every mother’s son, had offered in their stead? Panis Angelicus! The new communion of friendship, the radiant host of brotherhood, glimpsed in those "Eyes tranquil with the blaze" not of bullets but "Of love’s own diametric gaze, of love’s amaze." A gaze steady, democratic, accepting the other not as inferior or superior but as equal, as brother. Walt, seen on the bearded faces of hoboes and beggars behind his father’s cannery, or on the tracks, or (closer) the streets of New York. A look both familiar and evasive, the sustaining myth of brotherhood, extended to all, in the all-conquering language of love that just might transcend death itself, a vision bequeathed by Whitman in those marvelous leaves of grass of his:

And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me . . .

The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill the next fold of the future . . .

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and filter your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Whitman’s vision of the Open Road, then – open to all, to be shared by all, the rainbow’s arch as promise, a bridge of love connecting past and present. St. Francis Whitman, the "joyous seer" providing a vision of brotherhood, and Crane accepting the open hand extended toward him in friendship across the chasm of time and suffering. For now Crane’s hand, but, after him, another’s and another’s – each reading the Bible of Whitman "by the aureole ‘round thy head / Of pasture-shine. Panis Angelicus!"

from Paul Mariani, Chapter 12: "Last Strands," in The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane (New York: Norton, 1999), 332-336

Thomas E. Yingling

Because it takes the definition of cultural value as its conscious center, the construction of epic is a far richer field than lyric for analyzing the textual control of difference and the social struggle among peoples, languages, manners, and values that [Louis] Althusser suggests occurs throughout ideological apparatuses such as literature. Epic is, then, a text produced through the figure of voices and discourses disciplined to a single, authoritative, "tribal" understanding, and the multiple elisions and operations of power that legitimate its "collective vision:" form a distinct political unconscious of the text. For instance, when Crane names Whitman’s "choice / … to bind us throbbing with one voice" ["Cape Hatteras"] as that which legitimates and authorizes his own epic project, he exposes one of the important problematics in which his epic is based – the disciplining or binding of difference into unity, the production of a single, authoritative voice that in this case reduces the strong homosexual element in his filiation to Whitman to the rather weak textual traces that adheres in the word "throbbing." In this instance, homosexuality is immediately sublimated, and what appears in its place is praise within a nationalist vocabulary: "New integers of Roman, Viking, Celt – / Thou, Vedic Caesar, to the greensward knelt!"

Early commentators decried Whitman’s influence in the poem for two reasons: according to the lights of Winters, Tate and others, Whitman was guilty of the twin literary offenses of bad form and bad philosophy (in Winters this latter charge reaches a hysterical crescendo and Whitman’s text becomes for him the destruction of all value and ethics outside personal whim and sensation.) In defending Whitman in "Cape Hatteras," Crane writes a poem of fifteen stanzas each sonnetlike in form, thereby making Whitman the muse of a more formal literary inheritance. He also places this homage to Whitman in the second half of a poem the first half of which is a meditation on the negative effects of technology, taking aviation as a synecdoche for the power and the horror of industrialism. By doing this, the poem also tests and tempers the image of Whitman as a jingoist apologist for American technology (as in "Song of the Exposition"). But as a sonnet sequence, the poem also carries the trace of a love poem, and it ends with the image of Crane and Whitman hand-in-hand, never to be parted:

Recorders ages hence, they shall hear
In their own veins uncancelled thy sure tread
And read thee by the aureole ‘round thy head
Of pasture-shine, Panis Angelicus!
                                                    yes, Walt,
Afoot again, and onward without halt, –
Not soon, nor suddenly, – no, never to let go
    My hand
                in yours,
                            Walt Whitman –
                                                        so –

This may strike us as terribly sentimental poetry and as a homosexual union purified of any bodily referent whatsoever; but we should read the "terror" in terrible when making that assessment, for if "Cape Hatteras" traces the terror of sexuality, Whitman in some sense resolves it for Crane. The meditation on flight that takes up the first half of the poem may refer to Crane’s doubts about the legacy of technology in American culture (it ends with the crash of a plane) but it is also symbolic of the ecstatic flight and crash of homosexuality. Freud reminds us that flying is symbolic of phallic power, and the Wright brothers are not only historical figures of invention in the text; they represent as well a metonymic displacement of that other brotherhood of homosexuality the text traces. The plane that crashes is a not so subtle phallic image of the pitch and tragedy of Crane’s life as a homosexual, anxiety over which we may read in a number of his late, rather unpolished texts. …

from Thomas E. Yingling, Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990), 194-95, 214-215.

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