Revolution of the Word: Transnational Network Authorship in Transition

(Reading Manuscript from ALA 2017)

On 27 March 1927, Hart Crane wrote two letters to two of his most trusted friends whose critical acuity and poetic knowledge he held in high regard: Allen Tate and Yvor Winters. Both letters dwell on the arrival of transition, a literary magazine founded and edited by Eugene Jolas in Paris in 1927. The first issue of transition contained Crane’s poem “O Carib Isle,” but this was not the only reason why the American poet was excited about this postal item from abroad. As his remarks reveal, he regarded this new periodical as a platform for transnational publication: “A copy of transition #1 has reached me—and I’m enthusiastic about it,” he told Tate. “By all means send Jolas some poems […] It doesn’t spoil re-sale of ms over here, you know. […] It’s a wedge that ought to be used.” Winters was briefed in more detail about transition’s material and transnational qualities: “The first issue of transition arrived yesterday. It is far better constructed—physically and ‘spiritually’ than I expected. I’m going to send Jolas a number of things—regardless of payment—which is negligible especially in view of the fact that being printed in France one can still market here and England also. […] I think transition is a good wedge to use.” A European magazine as a wedge American writers should use? A periodical with the border-crossing prefix ‘trans-’ in its name as a tool that could improve one’s marketability?

In this case study, I will argue that Crane took his metaphoric rendering of transition quite literally and used, or, to put it more provocatively, manipulated transition as an instrument to promote his long poem The Bridge, which was first published by Harry Crosby’s The Black Sun Press in Paris in 1930. I will focus on Crane’s role in soliciting material for transition’s June 1929 Revolution of the Word issue. In doing so I aim to extend Ryan Cordell’s concept of a “network author” by emphasizing the importance of the ‘transnational’ in the field of periodical studies.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris in January 1929 and after he personally met Jolas and Crosby, Crane contacted the Italian-American modernist painter Joseph Stella. Claiming that prior to his departure from America he saw “a copy of [Stella’s] essay on Brooklyn Bridge and the marvelous paintings of the Bridge [and] other New York subjects,” Crane requests permission to his “editor friend,” Mr. Eugene Jolas, to “reproduce The Bridge, The Port, and The Skyscrapers,” reprint [Stella’s] essay and “use this material in the next number” of transition. In the next paragraph, Crane’s part as quasi-official advisory editor fuses with his role as canny self-promoter: “I should like permission to use your painting of the Bridge as a frontispiece to a long poem I have been busy on for the last three years—called The Bridge. It is a remarkable coincidence that I should, years later, have discovered that another person, by whom I mean you, should have used the same sentiments regarding Brooklyn Bridge which inspired the main theme and pattern of my poem.”

Crane’s emphasis on the ‘remarkable coincidence’ that Brooklyn Bridge inspired both artists is interesting in this passage, as it is questionable, to say the least, that Crane was unfamiliar with Stella’s work. The poet undoubtedly read magazines which featured Stella’s art and, as in this special issue of The Little Review, even appeared in the same pages. Readers of this Stella number would not only have encountered a black-and-white reproduction of Stella’s cubist painting “Brooklyn Bridge” but would have also come across Crane’s letter to Jane Heap, editor of The Little Review. The next Little Review issue even contained a satirical sketch by Crane which proves that he actively read and participated in the magazine environment of the time.

Did Crane in his letter, then, try to disingenuously cover up the fact that he had been aware of Stella’s bridges for years? If so, why would Crane solicit Stella’s material just at that time in Paris? And why specifically for the next number of transition? If one takes a closer look at the content selection and arrangement of this very next number, potential answers materialize. It seems likely that the Stella contribution was the most important piece in a promotional enterprise planned by the network of Jolas, Crosby, and Crane to publicize The Bridge. In the remainder of this talk, I will point to documents in this issue that supported their plan.

transition 16/17 opens with a cover photograph by Gretchen and Peter Powel of a Manhattan skyscraper which faces the word ‘synthesis’ on the right-hand side. This initial juxtaposition of image and word and the idea of fusion—seminal to Crane’s poetics—leads into the ‘Revolution of the Word’ manifesto. Crane was among the signatories of this controversial proclamation and thus subscribed to such polemical statements as: “The literary creator has the right to disintegrate the primal matter of words imposed upon him by text-books and dictionaries.” Crane’s neologisms like ‘transmemberment’ or ‘curveship’ clearly attest to his endorsement of this claim. Additional photographs of Manhattan architecture appear under the banner of “Manhattan: 1929” and visually chime with images evoked, for instance, in Crane’s proem “To Brooklyn Bridge” in stanza 6: “Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks, / A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene.” These photographs, then, give way to Stella’s contribution “Brooklyn Bridge: Text and Painting.” Stella’s grandiose visualization of Brooklyn Bridge clearly echoes with Crane’s vision of this architectural landmark. In fact, Crane could not have agreed more with most of Stella’s sentences such as: “I seized the object into which I could unburden all the knowledge springing from my present experience—“THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE.”

While there is no reference to Crane’s agency behind the procurement of the Stella material, the poet’s name appears several times in one of the longest articles of this transition number. In Crosby’s “Observation-Post,” the founder of The Black Sun Press defends Crane against charges of obscurity, hails him as “dynamic energy, concentration, fresh vision, a migratory crane flying above the worn-out forest of the poetic phrase,” and confronts the reader with the poem “O Carib Isle!” to exemplify Crane’s genius. Reprinted in its entirety and framed by Crosby’s praise, “O Carib Isle” harks back to the first issue of transition.

This promotion of Crane’s poetry and the subtle product placement of The Bridge finally come to the fore in an advertisement in the magazine’s closing pages. Written in boldface and capital letters on a double-page spread, Crosby’s The Black Sun Press announces forthcoming publications by authors whose names any reader of this transition number would have known by now. Tellingly, Crane’s The Bridge is the first entry on this list. Given that Crane’s poetic project resonates throughout the material of the entire issue, it does not come as a surprise that his Bridge ultimately occupies such a prominent place.

As this quick tour through the magazine suggests, the editing method of the Revolution of the Word number was in large part motivated by the program of Jolas, Crosby, and Crane in particular—a transnational network literally on the same page in this final ad—to publicize Crane’s long poem.

Upon publication of The Bridge, both Winters and Tate wrote harsh and in Winters’ case devastating reviews of Crane’s ambitious epic. Crane reacted to their criticism by defending his poetic project in elaborate letters. The phrasing in one central paragraph of his letter to Tate, though not explicitly referring to the periodical, epitomizes the function which he saw in transitionas well as in his poetry: “I shall be humbly grateful if the Bridge can fulfill the metaphorical inferences of its title. You will admit our age (at least our predicament) to be one of transition. If the Bridge […] contains as much authentic poetry here and there as even Winters grants—then perhaps it can serve as at least the function of a link connecting certain chains of the past to certain chains and tendencies of the future.” For Crane, transition served as such a link and guaranteed him a place within a literary network. For him, transition truly was a tool, a wedge, a bridge which he used—transnationally.