In early January, 1924, the poet Hart Crane, twenty-four and basically broke, received a letter from his father offering to hire him into the family business. To a friend, Crane wrote, “Along comes a letter from my father this morning offering me a position with him as travelling salesman! This is unacceptable, of course, even though I now can’t complete the rent on the room for the rest of this month and simply don’t know what is going to happen.” Here is the writerly temperament in miniature, preferring sincere penury to an insincere and time-consuming career.
Responding to his father on January 12, Crane is less sarcastic but no less straightforward, and I know of no better example of a writer attempting to explain his vocation—to explain why “the most important things to me in my life” are “some real thinking and writing”—to baffled and concerned friends and family. The closing paragraph of the letter soars. Here are a few excerpts:
“…I think, though, from the above, you will now see why I would not regard it as honest to accept your proposition, offered as it was in such frankness and good will. I don’t want to use you as a makeshift when my principle ambition and life lies completely outside of business. I always have given the people I worked for my wages worth of service, but it would be a very different sort of thing to come to one’s father and simple feign an interest in fulfilling a confidence when one’s mind and guts aren’t driving in that direction at all. I hope you credit me with genuine sincerity as well as the appreciation of your best motives in this statement.
“You will perhaps be righteously a little bewildered at all these statements about my enthusiasm about my writing and my devotion to that career in life. It is true that I have to date very little to show as actual accomplishment in this field, but it is true that on the other hand that I have had very little time left over after the day’s work to give to it and I may have just as little time in the wide future to give to it, too. Be all that as it may, I have come to recognize that I am satisfied and spiritually healthy only when I am fulfilling myself in that direction. It is my natural one, and you will possibly admit that if it had been artificial or acquired, or a mere youthful whim it would have been cast off some time ago in favor of more profitable occupations from the standpoint of monetary returns. For I have been through some pretty trying situations, and, indeed, I am in just such a one again at the moment, with less than two dollars in my pocket and not definitely located in any sort of job.
“However, I shall doubtless be able to turn my hand to something very humble and temporary as I have done before. I have many friends, some of whom will lend me small sums until I can repay them—and some sort of job always turns up sooner or later. What pleases me is that so many distinguished people have liked my poems (seen in magazines and mss.)… If I am able to keep on in my present development, strenuous as it is, you may live to see the name ‘Crane’ stand for something where literature is talked about, not only in New York but in London and abroad.
“You are a very busy man these days as I well appreciate from the details in your letter, and I have perhaps bored you with these explanations about myself… Nevertheless, as I’ve said before, I couldn’t see any other way than to frankly tell you about myself and my interests so as not to leave any accidental afterthoughts in your mind that I had any ‘personal’ reasons for not working for the Crane Company. And in closing I would like to just ask you to think sometime,—try to imagine working for the pure love of simply making something beautiful,—something that maybe can’t be sold or used to help sell anything else, but that is simply a communication between man and man, a bond of understanding and human enlight[en]ment—which is what a real work of art is. If you do that, maybe you will see why I am not so foolish after all to have followed what seems sometimes only a faint star. I only ask to leave behind me something that the future may find valuable, and it takes a bit of sacrifice sometimes in order to give the thing that you know is in yourself and worth giving. I shall make every sacrifice toward that end.” (O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane, 177-180)