It is impossible to read Gorham Munson’s The Awakening Twenties without thinking of Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, since both are memoir-histories of the 20’s. Munson, however, is concerned only with 1913-1924.

“America will never be the same.” So opined the New York Globe after the official opening of the 1913 Armory Show. . . . In an unspecific way, the book ends with the remarkably pregnant situation of 1924, a historical moment unusually rich in possibilities of renascent achievement.

Although Munson and Cowley had known some of the same writers and had even worked together, they did not much like each other. Exile’s Return has come to be an indispensable record of the period. Munson’s work consists of 16 freely related essays, nine of which have been previously published. Some are on general topics (“Greenwich Village That Was”); some are concerned with individual writers (“Waldo Frank, Herald of the Twenties”). They have the value that comes from being written by an eyewitness, although Munson’s claim that he participated in the making of the 20’s must be regarded as a very modest one at best. The major difference between Cowley and Munson can be measured by their essays on Hart Crane, well known to both of them.

In a few pages Cowley draws a warm picture of “the Roaring Boy . . . more lost and driven than the others,” a picture full of insight about Crane because of the few selective details so carefully chosen. Munson’s is a plodding account even though it is an “untold story.”

That Munson was a close friend of Crane “during the best years of his life” (1919-1925) was his luckiest literary encounter. It guaranteed him a secure place in the decade, more so than his founding of the short-lived Secession or his book on Waldo Frank. Munson introduced Crane to Frank, who became one of the most powerful influences on him. Crane came to see the “symbolic possibilities” of The Bridge connected “directly with Whitman” through Frank. All considerations of the composition of that poem must begin with this fact. Agreeing with the common consensus that the poem is an intellectual failure, Munson offers this “untold story” to explain its failure. Crane had been given the wonderful opportunity to become part of a school, to have direct contact with a master—George Ivanovitch Gurdjiieff, the Russian/Parisian guru. “He turned back from Gurdjiieff, and his life was arrested at that point.” Munson admits that this strange story will never be convincing “with the whole truth hidden from Crane and his friends.” That being the case, how does the informed reader respond? Crane was Frank’s disciple at the time, and Frank had a violent negative reaction to Gurdjiieff. The solid evidence we have is a letter of Crane to Yvor Winters which is clearly scornful about Munson and others rushing into the portals of this new Institute. This curious explanation for the failure of The Bridge, however, is no more esoteric than that offered by Edward J. Brunner in Splendid Failure.

Brunner’s “untold story” is a previously “hidden” Hart Crane to explain the “Splendid Failure” of The Bridge. He needed “to overcome his doubt that he lacked a worthy audience” for his poetry. He somehow found this confidence in the summer of 1926 when in a burst of creativity he composed six of the poems and revised one. But the proof offered is strange: it is Crane’s letter of June 20th, 1926, to Waldo Frank, a mixture of sarcasm and despair explaining how the modern America he wishes to celebrate is unworthy of its past, and, further, how Whitman’s confidence in the people turned out to be ineffectual. In some convoluted fashion, Brunner takes this to mean that Crane discovered “that this desire for a clear-cut, dynamic affirmation is precisely what he shares with the multitudes.” This, by the way, is the principle method of the book—a series of guesses as to what Crane intended. Despite the misleading title, Brunner attempts an assessment of Crane’s work in general, not just The Bridge, although he omits any systematic study of White Buildings. But his volume contributes nothing significant to the criticism and scholarship about Hart Crane.

For a clearer perception of Crane’s failure in The Bridge, we may turn to Crane’s own letters and the many accounts of his conversation with friends. Few poets were more explicit, when he could be, than Crane. He was his own first critic, and one of the best.

The failure of The Bridge (a splendid poem) was that Crane did not know enough and that he never defined a center for it. It began as a visionary poem celebrating the beautiful: then under Waldo Frank’s tutelage Crane tried to turn it into a hymn to Whitman. But Crane was never comfortable with that shift. In 1926 he read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. He wrote Frank that this “stupendous” book acted as a negative catalyst, forcing him to find a positive center of action. Spengler was surely a catalyst, as a study of the six 1926 poems easily reveals, but not, I think, a negative one. The 1926 poems rise out of a past that overwhelms the present with its worth: no real links are forged between this past and the hopeless present. The paradox is that Spengler inspired, willy-hilly, the most elegantly fashioned parts of the poem. The sections written in 1929 were so embarrassing because in them Crane tried finally to force Frank’s cosmic Whitmanism into them, and it just didn’t work.


[The Awakening Twenties: A Memoir-History of a Literary Period, by Gorham Munson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press) $19.95]

[Splendid Failure: Hart Crane and the Making of “The Bridge”, by Edward J. Brunner (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press) $22.95]