You may be forgiven if you never read, nor heard of, the Outré Literary Quarterly. It existed in and around the Coventry Road neighborhood of Cleveland's east side back in the very late 1970's and very early 1980's. In its earliest days, it was printed on a mimeograph machine after hours in the main office of Cleveland Central High School or, again after hours, in the English Department office at John Carroll University.
The Outré was, without question, a bit pretentious, in addition to sometimes being sophomoric, esoteric to the point of obscurity, and self-conscious. Given that it was the creation of three guys in their twenties who enjoyed beat poetry, punk/new wave music, foreign films, and the CoEvolution Quarterly, that shouldn't come as a surprise. However, that also meant that the poetry and prose found in the Outré was not what would be found in other periodicals. Much of it was solicited from graduate students, street poets, songwriters, thwarted housewives, and bookstore or tea house owners. Anyone with a scintilla of literary ability could make a submission and, this was the important part, be taken seriously and graciously by the editors.
Although the three editors were able to create a welcoming platform for artistic expression, including some pieces that were determinedly experimental, they weren't as adept at the business end of the enterprise. The Outré Literary Quarterly lasted a glorious six issues. [Yes, I was one of the three.]
There was a publisher who served as the model for this literary madness, though, as he had done something similar fifty years before, although in Paris after World War I instead of Cleveland after Vietnam. As this proto-publisher was dedicated to opening up the rather tight world of creative writing, he was so much on the mind of the three editors that his visage would appear in the upper left corner of every cover of the Outré. When inevitably asked his identity and the reason for his prominence, the only explanation offered was, "That's Harry Crosby. Not the singer."
Crosby was born in 1898 to wealth and privilege as the nephew of J.P. Morgan. He was raised to be the quintessential Boston brahman, educated at St. Mark's School and Harvard, fully prepared to enter into whatever bank or business would have him, although it was unnecessary for him to actually earn a living. Instead, a significant experience radically altered his world view.
There have been some marvelous stories and books about the ambulance drivers and crews of the American Field Service during The Great War, made all the more interesting as a number of those soldiers would become prominent in literary circles. Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, ee cummings [that's how he spelled it, although most articles "correct" it to conventional forms of grammar], W. Somerset Maugham, and [my mother's cousin and Yukon poet] Robert Service all drove converted Ford Model T's to and from the battlefields, often at great risk and with no small amount of bravery on display. Harry Crosby was one of that group and it was during those rather dark days of war that he met the acquaintances who would be a part of his social and professional life until his death.
While not participants in the same way as were the soldiers in the trenches, the AFS and other ambulance drivers still were privy to the horrors of war. Their responsibility was to take the screaming, maimed, mad, and dying victims of battle away from the field, unable to help in any substantial manner other to serve as transportation, from one place of mayhem to another. Namely, the crude battlefront hospitals. Here they would witness more trauma and more death; nervous breakdowns and aberrant behaviors. It would have its effect.
Hemingway would be wounded while fulfilling his duties, cummings would witness a gibbering madman eating the eyeballs out of corpses, Maugham would keep a tedious count the number of people he'd watched die, sometime in pieces. While we nowadays recognize the particular realities of post-traumatic stress disorder, and have developed ways of treating its symptoms, there was no such thing in 1917-1918.
So, it comes as no surprise that, during the remainder of his life, Hemingway became increasingly violent and dependent on alcohol. cummings would be institutionalized for a period and, in his poetry [as well as his signature] reject things such as common punctuation or verse structure. Maugham would write a cathartic novel about a veteran's disordered post-war life and the redemption he found through Eastern religion. In their literary works and their life stories, one may see the echoes of what they witnessed.
Harry Crosby was no different. Having been recruited at Harvard, he enthusiastically entered the war hoping to be of service to those in need. Without question, he worked with courage and forthrightness and earned medals in both the American and French armies for his bravery. By the war's end, he was numb from the futility of it all and obsessed with his intangible, immortal partner in the AFS, so much so that one of his biographers would call him "The Man Who Was in Love with Death".
Crosby's return to Boston society was difficult. That may be an understatement. For the returning survivors of World War I, the United States seemed different and the old ideas no longer carried any merit. Music would change, from the formal style of orchestras to the frenetic jazz of combos, financial speculation would increase so feverishly that it drove the wealth of the 1920's and, inevitably, the debilitating crash at the end of that decade, theater and literature would become experimental and somewhat racy.
Crosby, wealthy enough to be provided with work by his uncle, and driven by quiet demons, drifted from parties to social events to concerts to dances without any feeling of connection. He had a Bartleby-like disinterest in the bank where he worked. While this alarmed his family somewhat, he alarmed them further when, in seeking attachment to something other than his memories of war, he met, and began a notorious relationship with, a married woman who was a few years older and the mother of two children.
Mary Phelps Jacobs, known as Polly, may have been the liberated woman of her era. Not only was she, too, a member of the tightly-ruled Boston establishment, a descendant of some of the great families, but she had accomplished something that gave her both independence and her own considerable income. In frustration with fitting into the new, European-style formal dresses, she updated her undergarments and invented the brassiere, even gaining an official U.S. patent for her invention.
Honestly, of the people profiled in The Coracle, she may be the most accomplished, based only on her invention.
Feeling the wrath of Boston society for their uncommon, and openly sexual, relationship, and neither being bound to work or family, Crosby and Jacobs left the United States for a freer life in Paris and became founding members of what literary history labels "The Lost Generation". [Jacobs would soon be divorced from her husband. He had returned from WWI so traumatized that he enjoyed getting riotously drunk and watching buildings burn. One could say she, by extension, was a victim of The Great War's horror, too.]
After much drama, including Crosby's relationships with other women [he was J.P. Morgan's nephew, after all] Crosby and Jacobs were married in 1922. At his suggestion, and to augment their sense of personal change, Polly Jacobs changed her name to Caresse Crosby. [As absurd as Caresse sounds, Crosby's original suggestion had been "Clytoris", so....] Crosby then quit his job and dedicated his service and that of Caresse's to the burgeoning literary scene of post-war Paris, especially seeking out those whom he had met during the dark days of his ambulance service.
While originally intending to create a vanity press to publish only Crosby's poetry, given that Paris during that decade was filled with writers, poets, and artists, and as Crosby was fluent in French [it had been his major at Harvard], with Caresse he founded The Black Sun Press in 1928. In addition to being devoted to finding new and original talent to present to the post-war world, in keeping with the taste instilled in him by his upbringing, Crosby made sure that the volumes he produced were of extremely fine and attractive binding, making them stand out in a field crowded by second-rate product.
Also, as Crosby's personal tastes were rather latitudinal, [he was notorious for hosting the wildest of wild parties among the expatriate community, occasions filled with alcohol, drugs, and the sorts of "interpersonal" exploration that one's mother and the Lord Almighty warn against], he and Caresse were not adverse to soliciting and publishing, without judgement, experimental, or even vulgar, writing.
Of course, the standard for "vulgar" in the 1920's is tame compared to an evening's viewing of basic cable offerings in our era. Many of those "vulgar" writers were, by the 1960's, commonly read in public high school curricula and awarded international prizes in the arts.
So, Black Sun Press became one of the first to publish works by James Joyce, Kay Boyle, Hart Crane [previously profiled in The Coracle], D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, and Ernest Hemingway, among others. With such talent in print, Black Sun was becoming the most successful publisher in Paris and was about to enter the American market in New York. That's when things went, as the French say, comme un fagot. [As it's slang, literally meaning "like a bundle", the expression indicates, in modern American idiom, everything going sideways.]
It was at this point, when his literary and business successes were about to become complete, that Crosby's un-processed war trauma, fascination with death, and wandering eye would collide. Having met a young Bostonian woman, Josephine Rotch, in Paris as she was vacationing on the eve of her marriage, Crosby fell into an absurd affair with her, seemingly ending when she left Paris to return to the States for her marriage.
Crosby, now obsessed with his new love, returned to New York with Caresse three months later, ostensibly to celebrate the Yale-Harvard football game, and re-kindled his relationship with the former Miss Rotch, now Mrs. Bigelow. Suffice it to say, their intense time together in New York was marked with the betrayal of their respective spouses, melodramatic nicknames [she was his "Fire Princess"] verse after verse of bad poetry written by the two of them to one another, and a remarkable amount of smoked opium.
Sometime shortly after a party hosted for the Crosby's by Hart Crane, attended by many of Crosby's friends from his ambulance days and clients whom he had made known to the literary world through Black Sun, including e.e. cummings, Malcolm Cowley, William Carlos Williams, and Walker Evans [who, with James Agee, also profiled in The Coracle, would produce one of the great works of the 1930's] Crosby and Bigelow were found dead in a lovers' hideaway in New York on December 10, 1929. Crosby had shot Bigelow and them himself, their murder-suicide marked with verses left strewn about the room. Naturally, the New York papers outdid themselves over the lurid quality of the scandal, with even the rather staid New York Times getting exercised about the details:
Crosby's final verse, found among the mortal detritus, sums up his morbid philosophy: "One is not in love unless one desires to die with one's beloved. There is only one happiness it is to love and to be loved."
Boston society was roiled by the deaths and would be divided like the Capulets and the Montagues until distracted a decade later by World War II. As was unusual for the times, Crosby was cremated and his ashes surrendered to his mother and Caresse. They never said what they did with them, although the rumor has always been that his ashes were scattered about Manhattan from an airplane, but that's always seemed apocryphal.
With Crosby's death, coming as it did at the end of the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of The Great Depression, the Paris world of expatriate writers and artists began to dissipate, and with it much of the lingering residue of The Great War, as the next decade would produce another opportunity for the human race to practice self-slaughter. Caresse would remain in Paris and continue The Black Sun Press for a few more years until she returned permanently to the United States.
While he was barely talented enough to be more than a secondary expatriate poet, Crosby's lasting contribution was in enabling the publication of poets and writers who, until that time, had been rejected by the more established houses. Without his enthusiasm and acceptance of even the most outrageous of work, many of those who would define literature in the American Century would perhaps never have been discovered. As Harry Crosby knew few, if any, limits in his own life and death, he brought the same expansiveness to The Black Sun Press' repertoire.
Those who haunt used book stores and auctions have discovered that, because of the quality and artistry of their binding, Black Sun Press books are currently highly prized and command some remarkable prices. Crosby has been the subject of a serious biography, Black Sun by Geoffrey Wolfe, that attempts to put his brief life and considerable gifts in an historical context, and some of his recently discovered poetry was released in a new volume a few years ago.
What of Caresse, though? Her life continued to be interesting and may be worth a future examination, itself.