Jared Gardner: On "The River"

With "The River," another intermediary bridge is constructed, here towards a recovery of racial identity. The roar of commercialism and technology, as embodied in the speeding Twentieth Century Limited, leaves in its tracks three black hobos, modern day stand-ins for Rip [Van Winkle in "Van Winkle," the preceding poem in this sequence], "wifeless or runaway." These men form an intermediate identification for the poet to pass through before he can achieve union with the Indian in the next section, as if he must first put on blackface in order to see red.

The hobos are "born pioneers," innocent possessors of an instinctual knowledge of the land, and Crane juxtaposes these men and their myths to the father who had punished the young poet for his desires [in "Van Winkle"]. By locating the hoboes "Beind / My father’s cannery works," they can offer a very different set of lessons from the father’s commercialism and the father’s whip:

Rail-squatters ranged in nomad raillery, The ancient men – wifeless or runaway Hobo-trekkers that forever search An empire wilderness of freight and rails. Each seemed a child, like me, on a loose perch, Holding to childhood like some termless play.

These dispossessed men know the land "without name," they know Pocahontas without knowing "the myths of her fathers." As the missing link between modern America and Native America, the hobos know Pocahontas without the ability to recover the power of that bridge: "They know a body under the wide rain." The poet must first experience the land as they do, learn their myths ("Jesus! Oh I remember watermelon days," "There’s no place like Booneville though, Buddy … – For early trouting") hum "Deep River," and walk with them a while to learn all they can teach him of the true Pocahonats.

This section engages blacks as stepping-stones back to the pure race of the Indian. Crane referred to the hobos as "psychological ponies" that would "carry the reader across the country and back to the Mississippi," allowing him to "unlatch the door to the pure Indian world which opens out in ‘The Dance’ section." Identifying the black men as "Grimed tributaries to an ancient flow," the poet charts his progress through their ancillary knowledge towards the river which will carry him finally to the "pure Indian world" of Maquokeeta and "the Dance." Walking on their "backs," the poet empowers his recovery of the Indian for the homosexual American by employing the black as the unassimilable minority. Imagined as a dispossessed, drifting, and dying race, the sacrificed black serves as the poet’s vehicle back to the Indian in an especially horrific image:

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.

In his effort to establish a genealogical bond that would evade the biological one of father and mother, the poet seems to authorize racist violence in using the bodies of blacks, a race excluded from both Progressivist and nativist constructions of American identity, to propel his course back to the Indian in order that he might truly become his "father’s father."

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Title Jared Gardner: On "The River" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Jared Gardner Criticism Target Hart Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication 'Our Native Clay': Racial and Sexual Identity and the Making of Americans in The Bridge
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