Cranch was born in the District of Columbia. He attended Columbian College and Harvard Divinity School. He briefly held a position as a Unitarian minister. Later, he pursued various occupations: a magazine editor, caricaturist, children's fantasy writer (the Huggermugger books), poet (The Bird and the Bell with Other Poems in 1875), translator, and landscape painter.
He is now remembered chiefly in connection with the Transcendentalists. His caricatures of Ralph Waldo Emerson were later collected as Illustrations of the New Philosophy: Guide. He edited for a time a Transcendentalist publication, and was a member of the Transcendental Club. He resided mostly in Cambridge, Massachusetts.