January 2004

Kris Rothstein

nonfiction

Black Sun by Geoffrey Wolff

In December 1929 Harry Crosby, an American poet, shot himself and his current girlfriend Josephine. The upper class society he’d sprung from was shocked, although he’d made a career out of shocking them. In fact Crosby had proclaimed his suicidal intentions throughout his adult life despite his wealth, popularity and artistic success.

So what’s so special about Crosby? In one sense, nothing. It is not Wolff’s intention to offer Crosby as the epitome of the "lost generation," a key to decipher the crisis and ennui of post-war society. But Wolff does hope that Harry’s isolation and his singular purpose will be noteworthy for their own sake. And if you’re looking to understand the human condition in its many forms, Crosby’s unconventional life and his highly personal suicide, not motivated by despair or grief, is a good place to start.

Crosby first arrived in Europe as part of the American ambulance corps in WWI, and his traumatic experience of war awoke wildness and frenzy in his personality. The sun was his deity of choice and with its violent brightness he relentlessly pursued his own pleasure. He found Europe more encouraging of his defiant personality and spent most of his life in Paris, living among famous names such as Hemingway, Stein, Eliot and Lawrence. He immersed himself in the arts, learning from Edith Wharton’s lover, Walter Berry. When Berry left Crosby his collection of eight thousand rare and valuable books it became an amusing game to give them away to strangers and hide them among the tattered covers in second-hand book stalls.

Crosby did exactly as he pleased, and always found the means to do so. He pursued his future wife Polly (later renamed Caresse) relentlessly and maintained a strong connection with her despite his numerous affairs. He never held a job, dismissing his parents’ hopes for a career in banking. And despite his hatred of the Boston society of his youth, he was happy to live on his parent’s money, often requesting more than the large profits from his family’s investments. A few months before his death he cabled to his parents: “Please sell $10,000 worth of stock. We have decided to lead a mad and extravagant life.” Here was a man who didn’t understand the concept of guilt. For Harry, art was a dangerous proposition and true genius could only be achieved with full orgiastic abandon.

While Crosby’s poetry was of little importance, he and Caresse did leave something for posterity. The two poured their aesthetic sense in a publishing venture, printing many contemporary classics and experimental works in exquisitely beautiful volumes. Among Crosby’s reckless consumption, this stands as his only real accomplishment.

Wolff attempts to understand Crosby and his milieu by examining their art, literature, hedonism, drug habits, travel, gambling, sexual promiscuity and religious beliefs. He approaches his subject thematic rather than chronologically and while this causes some overlap and confusion in the sequence of events, it brings to life an enthralling and unusual character.

There has been little academic or cultural interest in Crosby so Wolff has a massive amount of primary material to sort through. Each facet of Crosby’s personality is meticulously documented and illuminated by numerous quotes from Harry and Caresse’s writings and from floods of contemporary letters. Neither Harry nor Caresse were content to be defined by others and Black Sun persuasively demonstrates their desire to create and preside over personas that were larger than life. Wolff points out the many personal legends (an Egyptian treasure picked up for a song, a guilt-free open marriage) that are refuted by a preponderance of other evidence, but never allows his story to become mired in detail or fact-checking. Though there is a sense of the tragedy of suicide throughout the biography, perhaps Wolff’s greatest achievement is his dynamic style, ably reflecting Crosby’s own ability to fascinate and enthral. He made me wish I’d seen Crosby’s antics first-hand, that I’d known someone so single-minded in their devotion to the creation and destruction inherent in art.

Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff
New York Review of Books
ISBN: 1590170660
371 pages