Edward Brunner: On "The River"

In 1927, when constructing "The River," Crane] has on hand seven, possibly eight quatrains originally composed in the summer of 1926 for "Calgary Express," and it now seems reasonable to employ them as the conclusion to "the River." "Calgary Express," formerly titled "John Brown," was to have taken place on a Pullman sleeper: "The main theme is the story of John Brown," Crane wrote, possibly in the spring of 1926, "which predominates over the interwoven ‘personal, biographical details’ as it runs through the mind of a Negro porter, shining shoes and humming to himself. In a way it takes in the whole racial history of America." …

All that is left of "Calgary Express" (and perhaps all that was ever written) appears as the last eight quatrains of "The River." Judging from that fragment, what can be told about the poem? In Crane’s explanatory outline, he had the porter meditating while "humming to himself." Presumably, toward the end of his poem, he was to break into a spiritual, a spiritual that would somehow unite the strands of the porter’s own "personal, biographical details" with the porter’s memory of John Brown. And in fact the quatrains that end "the River" are noteworthy for their stately rhythms and frequent rhymes as though they were intended to reproduce the sonority of a spiritual. The outline also mentions that the poem was to take in "the whole racial history of America," and these quatrains also allows for that possibility, though it requires some reconsideration before that is evident.

As the quatrains bear it (when viewed from the perspective of the unfinished "Calgary Express" rather than "The River"), the whole racial history of America is a history of thwarted progress. But what Crane offers as a critical view of the sorry relation between the races is tactfully (or perhaps shrewdly) masked by appearing in the guise of an innocent meditation on the course of the Mississippi River. Needless to say, the idea that the porter must speak ina code which only the initiated can hear, and which sounds like innocent chatter to everyone else, itself indicates Crane’s familiarity with certain aspects of living as a member of an oppressed minority. … On its surface, the fragment appears as innocent and even beguiling, in keeping with stereotyped ideas of porters – the waywardness of black folks, their musical talents, their belief in a Promised Land, and so forth.

The river, though, carries another tune, one right below its surface, a tune an alert. Sophisticated reader would quickly overhear. In that other tune, the porter begins by cautioning himself to submit to the quiet, subdued flow of the river. Though he is one of the "born pioneers in time’s despite, / Grimed tributaries to an ancient flow," he realizes that there is "no frontier" for him and advises himself to "drift in stillness, as from Jordan’s brow." Yet such a deliberate act of submission, the porter also recognizes, is a postponement of living, even a capitulation to despair. The river is slow because "loth to take more tribute," as though reluctant to bear more freight, swollen enough as it is with those who have already submitted to it. To give way to the manner of the river, to drift in stillness, is to learn that you have spent your dream and gained nothing. Your return downstream to the Southland indicates, then, your lack of progress:

The River, spreading, flows – and spends your dream. What are you, lost within this tideless spell? You are your father’s father, and the stream – A liquid theme that floating niggers swell.

Superficially, this stanza is no more than a clever interpolation of stereotyped images: black folks are irresponsible, always spending the little they have, then wandering lost as their fathers had before them; fortunately, their talent for minstrelsy is sufficient to cheer them in their despondent state. From another angle, however, the stanza is bitterly blunt: the dream of progress, the promise of emancipation, is forgotten once one prostrates oneself, submitting to the muteness of the river, "sliding prone / Like one whose eyes were buried long ago." "You are your father’s father" then becomes a dolorous gauge of how little progress has occurred. And "nigger" is no longer a mere phrase from the vernacular: it retains its edge of contempt, for by submitting to it you become no more than a "floating nigger," a victim with no cause, no rights, no future.

Crane continues in this double vein, always from one angle simply describing the Mississippi River in terms of a spiritual, but from another angle revealing the angry bitterness of a race that has been displaced, its promises broken. … As this river gains momentum, then, it masses together because of these numbers of persons:

O quarrying passion, undertowed sunlight! The basalt surface drags a jungle grace Ochreous and lynx-barred in lengthening might; Patience! And you shall reach the biding place!

Over DeSoto’s bones, the freighted floors Throb past the City storied of three thrones. Down two more turns the Mississippi pours (Anon tall ironsides up from salt lagoons).

These stanzas reveal a whole new meaning to the initiated. Superficially, the lines are just what they have been praised for being by critics who have admired them because they seem a rare instance in which Crane is simply, if lushly, descriptive: they are not weighed down with thinking, they are simply exotic descriptions of the Mississippi with a few historical references tossed in for local color. A second look, though, discloses a host of multihued black, brown and sepia faces moving together in a "jungle grace." The "Ochreous and lynx-barred" colors are not simply a play of sunlight imagined below "The basalt surface": these are clues to identify the color of the faces as they assemble to move together. Sunlight is "undertowed" and the "Quarrying passion" is repressed; but the drawing-under and the repression have the effect of concentrating, of building with energy in a "lengthening might." When the river gains speed, disturbing the bones of that imperial conqueror DeSoto, disrupting "the City storied of three thrones" (with "thrones" an emblem of obedience), the sense is of a strengthening force no longer able to be constrained, literally heaving its way up out from within the oppressive weight of a long history of exploitation. (Perhaps Williams was correct when, after reading the passage, he felt that Crane had borrowed from his "Destruction of Tenochtitlan.") "Tall ironsides" – a warship – is ominously released from the mud, later ("Anon") to emerge on the surface.

The conclusion of the fragments is no less unsettling to those who can hear the note of prophecy in the porter’s apparently innocent descriptions. When the river reaches its terminus, its speed and strength enormously increased, it quite naturally rushes to break free of any constriction. "And flows within itself, heaps itself free" is, of course, a description of the river water backing up and spreading out across the delta.ut in the underground context of the poem, it is also the portrayal of a revolutionary urge to break free of constraint, to escape from bondage. "Poised wholly on its dream, a mustard glow / Tortured by history, its one will – flow!" From the porter’s perspective, this image of the river carries a distinct significance. Underneath his superficial air of subservience, beneath his guise of a harmless drifter who is bemused by spirituals and possesses a childlike innocence and waywardness, the black man fervently retains all his old dreams of emancipation. And he is still "Poised wholly" on a dream, and, though "Tortured" by a history of exploitation and repression, he has an unbroken will to be free. To suppress his dream only adds to its strength, increasing the likelihood that the moment must soon arrive when the bondage is too great to be endured. At the moment, the river meets "No embrace … but the stinging sea," and it spreads back as though it had met the master’s whip. But "The Passion" remains to spread outward, in ‘wide tongues, choked and slow."

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Title Edward Brunner: On "The River" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Edward Brunner Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Splendid Failure: Hart Crane and the Making of "The Bridge"
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