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Remembering Harry Crosby: Kay Boyle, John Wheelwright

Kay Boyle (1) (1930)

[This passage from Kay Boyle’s tribute appeared in the June 1930 Transition in which Crosby was remembered by friends. Boyle’s short stories appeared in the Black Sun Press, and Boyle herself stayed with the Crosbys in Paris. Crosby knew her well enough to cash in some stock dividends on his 1928 visit to New York to help Boyle pay for an abortion. On several occasions – notably in letters to his mother ion 1928 and 1929 – Crosby described her as "the best girl writer since Jane Austen."

There was no one who ever lived more consistently in the thing that was happening then. And with that courage to meet whatever he had chosen, with no consistency except the consistency of his own choice, and always the courage to match it. His heart was like an open door, so open that there was a crowd getting into it. And with his mind it was the same way. His protection was not in closing himself up when he found he was invaded, but in retreat. Retreat from knowing too much, from too many books, from too much of life. If he crossed the sea, it was never a stretch he looked upon as wide rolling water, but every drop of it stung in him because he did not know how to keep things outside himself; every rotting bit of wreck in it was heaped on his own soul, and every whale was his own sporting, spouting young adventure. If he went into retreat, into his own soul he would go, trailing this clattering, jangling universe with him, this ermine-trimmed, this moth-eaten, this wine velvet, the crown jewels on his forehead, the crown of thorns in his hand, into retreat, but never into escape. Either they would get out and leave him, the young boy making his own choice, or they would stay inside. But other than this there was no middle way.

from Kay Boyle, "In Memoriam Harry Crosby," Transition No. 19-20 (June 1930), p. 222.

Kay Boyle (2) (1930)

[The following is a section of "A Paris Letter" that appeared in Charles Henri Ford’s journal Blues in 1930. Comparing Hemingway with Crosby in a sense pits Anglo-American modernism against continental modernism, though Boyle’s particular indictment contrasts a literature that can be commercialized with a literature that deliberately resists such consumption. Boyle provocatively argues that Hemingway’s obsessions with violence are morbid while Crosby’s spontaneity represents health and vitality. This excerpt begins as Boyle is ending her comments on Hemingway.]

… But how can you speak of life and death when in your own heart the terms are interchangeable? How can you say health and disease (health in a bull-fighter, in a man of few words, a man of winter-sports and blunt speech, a normal, full-blooded, healthy man), when oh, Hemingway, the desert of thy soul has no oasis, no blade, no spring, no shadow of a bird?

Hemingway has left Paris, and so has Harry Crosby. But the former should have put before him the work of someone who has retained life and health and glamor and glory for his generation. This does not mean that the diary that Harry Crosby left will ever be the popular thing, although it has preserved qualities that romance would go black without, and has justified Hemingway’s blasted age. Harry Crosby’s diary lacks the whimper, the wail, the false bravado of shrugging manly shoulders and giving up. Because Harry Crosby took each day as a new challenge, his work is a testament where Hemingway’s is a blasphemy. He wrote about the life he led with a strong natural gaiety, a health that was both in his flesh and his mind, a consideration for love, and a belief, that no men of the church surpass, in what would come when he died. He took every minute to task, which means that he preserved a rigid tradition that the tired young men and women never knew anything about, an upright, a stern and relentless Boston tradition upheld to the very end.

from Kay Boyle, "A Paris Letter to Charles Henri Ford," in Blues no. 8 (spring 1930), 32.

John Wheelwright

[John Wheelwright was a Boston-based poet with ties to the intellectual community around Harvard. His tribute to Crosby appeared in The Hound & Horn 4:3 (April-June 1931), the journal begun by Lincoln Kirstein when he was a Harvard undergraduate.]

Wise Men on the Death of a Fool

Wise men, when Crosby died, looked on each other
And saw musicians who did not mistake
The catgut of their instruments for heart strings
Withered by necessary, if regretful, Life.

Presume to hold your scales like Radamanthus;
– Wise men, presented in self-portraiture, –
And weigh yourselves and Crosby; your own scales,
(After due vacillation of the dart)
Will rest to show your reassured eyes
A pound of lead outweigh a pound of feathers.

Crosby, in feathers, danced through a sealed house
Which he unsealed, whose Idol’s cerements,
In ever lessening spirals, he unwrapped
With helian desire to grasp the Sun.

And saw no sun, but saw the uncovered skull, –
Shuddered upon a sharp and fleshless mouth
And then, to warm his own cold skeleton,
He fired his borrowed feathers. A night bird,
He blazed in plumes of smoke before the crowd.
A traveller once wrote home from Africa:
"I saw the fowl. But the time was out of season.
It was only a chick. And when young, the Phoenix
Is no more astounding than a barn-yard cock."

Hierophants turned neophyte adore
This worshiper of Faithfulness in wolves,
Wisdom in doves and Gentleness in snakes, –
Let not New England join, from whence he sprang,
Towards which he looked; too eager to amaze;
And wondered, "What may Boston say about me
Now"; and dying, exulted, wondering "What
Can they now say?" State Street, maintain your silence.
His mad impiety is holier than your sane,
Infidel doubt; but you, sane infidels,
You wisemen named in Crosby’s diary,
Whose words are linked with his words, be discreet
And please the financiers who have exacted
Murder and suicide with Investment Council.

Let men made easy by his death keep silent
Resenting Crosby’s life and Crosby’s death
Resenting. Poetry has saints. He was not of them.
His death was his best poem. And Crosby, dead,
Shall live in history like the marauders
Infatuate of new found luxuries
Who fired the scrolls of Alexandria
To warm the water of the Public Baths.

Wise men; without regard to almanacs;
Be amorous, opulent, inebriate;
Penurious, abstinent and solitary.
Wise men are moon gazers who never challenge
The fisher of tides to mesh them in her net.
Wise men have built with calm of Antonine
Their philosophic membranes which absorb
From toxic chaos only pleasing lies.
Magnanimous in bronze, and straddling a stallion
Over the Roman Capitol diffusing
A green benediction rides serene Aurelius.

– John Wheelwright

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