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Harry Crosby: Selected Poems. Edited by Ben Mazer

Man in uniform, Crosby Poems Cover
Selected Poems by Harry Crosby. Edited by Ben Mazer. Cheshire, MA: MadHat Press, 2020. Pp. 210, $21.95 (paper); $23.95 (illustrated paper).

In 1927, a disapproving Edith Wharton presciently pronounced Harry Crosby “a sort of half-crazy cad.”[1] Ernest Hemingway, who spent the summer of 1927 in Pamplona with Crosby, once told Archibald MacLeish, “Harry has a great, great gift. He has a wonderful gift of carelessness” (Wolff, Black Sun, 171). Crosby is a liminal figure hovering in the background of modernist literature—a now largely forgotten poet whose work inspired MacLeish and an aesthetically sophisticated publisher whose Black Sun Press published Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, Short Stories by Kay Boyle, and the first excerpts of James Joyce’s Work-in-Progress to appear in book form. Ben Mazer’s Selected Poems by Harry Crosby brings Crosby’s poetry out of the background of literary modernism and into the foreground for our examination.

Born in Boston’s Back Bay and educated at Harvard, Crosby was the scion and presumptive heir of one of the wealthiest banking families in America. Connected to the best East Coast families, he was a nephew of J. P. Morgan, and his cousin Walter Van Rensselaer Berry was the love of Wharton’s life, according to her diary.[2] A stint in the American Ambulance Corps in World War I garnered Crosby the Croix de Guerre, and a photograph of him in uniform, wearing the French military decoration and gazing pensively at the camera, graces the cover of this collection of his work. In 1920, he fell in love with Mary Peabody, a married woman six years older than he. Their affair and her subsequent divorce from her alcoholic husband scandalized Boston society, but Crosby married her in September 1922 and two days later took her to Europe. He and Caresse (née Mary, nicknamed Polly, and later self-christened Caresse) cofounded their publishing company in 1927 (Wolff, Black Sun, 110).

Crosby is perhaps now best known for his death in either a double suicide or a murder suicide with his married twenty-one-year-old mistress, Josephine Bigelow, in a New York hotel room in 1929. The couple were found dead, both with gunshot wounds to the head, and neither left a suicide note. Gruesomely, the ensuing investigation revealed that Bigelow had died two hours earlier than Crosby. The sordid scandal made headlines internationally. In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald the day after Crosby’s death, Hemingway wrote, “He was a hell of a good boy and I feel awfully bad today about him.”[3]

Included in this collection of Crosby’s work—the first authorized collection since 1931—are all his poems first published in the experimental literary quarterly transition and other “little magazines” (such as Pagany and Blues) favored by the modernist avant-garde, all of his pieces included in various anthologies, and poems from several of Crosby’s own published poetry collections. His poems are lyrical, focused on subjective experience, and many are very brief. Crosby wrote in a range of forms, ranging from a traditional Italian sonnet in iambic pentameter (“Our Lady of Tears”) to prose poems, the form he seems to have most preferred. His poetry evinces his Whitman-like fondness for lists and catalogs. Recurring themes in his oeuvre include eros, suicide, Greek mythology (as befitting a young man with a degree from Harvard), and heliolatry and other celestial imagery (of flight, stars, and moons, for example). Crosby deftly deploys humor occasionally, as for example in the comic surprise endings of poems like “White Aeroplanes in Flight” and “For a Protection” (Selected Poems, 41, 90–91). His work frequently alludes to the familiar accoutrements of modernist expatriate life: hotel maids, trains, telegrams, an elevator boy, “aeroplanes.”

Crosby once cabled his disapproving father, “PLEASE SELL $10,000 WORTH OF STOCK. WE HAVE DECIDED TO LIVE A MAD AND EXTRAVAGANT LIFE” (Wolff, Black Sun, 4). He had lasted only eight months working at one of his father’s banks and just over a year working for one of his uncle’s banks in Paris. The coruscating anticapitalism of his prose poem “Scorn” sounds eerily contemporary in the twenty-first century; in “Tattoo,” he quotes (in French) “mort aux bourgeois,” the slogan of an anarchist who unsuccessfully attempted to bomb the Paris Stock Exchange in 1886 (Selected Poems, 68, 146). Poems such as “C Preferred” and “I Break with the Past” further express his contemptuous defiance of the business world and utter rejection of bourgeois values (82, 89–90).

“I never met anyone who was so imbued with literature; he drowned in it,” MacLeish told Crosby’s biographer Wolff in an interview (Wolff, Black Sun, 289). In Crosby’s lengthy prose poem/manifesto “Observation Post” (Selected Poems, 13–23), he announces his allegiance to modernists like T. S. Eliot, Joyce, E. E. Cummings, Crane, and Boyle, whom he identifies as the “True Dawn,” while he dismissively rejects the “False Dawn” of poets he perceived as more traditional, including Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg. Reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s command to “Make it new!” Crosby titles one poem “I Break with the Past.” But paradoxically, Crosby’s work does demonstrate his erudition and his indebtedness to a host of earlier writers. For example, “Unleash the Hounds” is Crosby’s paean to the power of the imagination by way of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (Selected Poems, 152). His poem “Mosquito” is a clear homage to John Donne’s “The Flea ” (73). Frequent references to dreams suggest the influence of the surrealists, and Joyce obviously inspired Crosby’s wordplay and neologisms in the poem “Short Introduction to the Word” (35–36). His poems ultimately confirm history’s judgment that Crosby should be remembered primarily for his taste and discrimination as a publisher and only secondarily as a minor modernist poet.

Mazer, a poet and Harvard graduate himself, has published his own volumes of poetry, including three with MadHat Press. An experienced editor, he has also compiled previous collections of poetry by John Crowe Ransom, Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, and Delmore Schwartz. Mazer’s twelve-page introduction usefully contextualizes Crosby’s work without weighing the collection down. A three-page bibliography lists Crosby’s published writings, including books, poems in periodicals, and contributions to anthologies. A list of resources for further reading directs interested readers to Wolff’s 1976 biography, Caresse Crosby’s memoir, and George Robert Minkoff’s Bibliography of the Black Sun Press, among other relevant works.

Apart from textual notes about prior publication, all gathered near the end of the book, there is very little here in the way of scholarly apparatus, so this collection would be appropriate for students only if the instructor were willing to provide ancillary materials. This collection is designed primarily for the reader who wishes to encounter Crosby’s fresh and energetic poems unencumbered by academic annotations. Mazer’s collection allows readers to rediscover the work of an unconventional young modernist.


[1] Edith Wharton to John Hugh Smith, November 23, 1927, in Geoffrey Wolff, Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby (New York: Vintage, 1977), 112.

[2] Edith Wharton, 1927, quoted in Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (New York: Knopf, 2008), 655.

[3] Ernest Hemingway, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway Volume 4, 1929–1931, ed. Sandra Spanier and Miriam S. Mandel (New York: Cambridge, 2018), 200.