Stephen Crane: A Biography
When Thomas Beer was working on the first biography of Stephen Crane (1923), his publisher engaged a detective agency to help him in his research. Crane, though not yet twenty-nine when he died in 1900, had traveled fast and hard from the New Jersey parsonage in which he had been born, had been in many scrapes, had reported everything from the Bowery to the Greek-Turkish War and the Spanish-American War, had loved many women, had been admired by several first-class writers. There were an extraordinary number of people in his short life, many of whom had tales to tell. There were a lot of secrets; and Crane himself was the biggest secret of all, for he was easy to meet, he put himself on record as the most direct and straightforward of honest American fellows, but there was no clear path between this character and his genius.
So a detective agency no doubt was needed to follow up the amazingly tangled trail Crane had left behind him, and no one could write about Crane at all without being tempted to discover the psychological connection between his self and his work. Besides, Beer was so dependent for material on Crane’s respectable relatives that he omitted to mention the fact that in the last three years of his life Crane had lived with the extraordinary Cora Taylor, whom he had met in Jacksonville, Florida, where she was running an elegant sporting house.
This failure at detail, among other failures in Beer’s mannered but very evocative picture of Crane in all his fin de siècle sauciness and naughtiness, was somewhat repaired by John Berryman in his psychoanalytical critical biography of Crane; more so by Lillian Gilkes in her valuable biography of “Mrs. Stephen Crane”; and most of all by Professor Robert Wooster Stallman in Stephen Crane: An Omnibus, Stephen Crane: Sullivan County Tales and Sketches, Stephen Crane: Letters (with Lillian Gilkes), The War Dispatches of Stephen Crane, The New York City Sketches of Stephen Crane (both edited with E. R. Hagemann). Now we have Professor Stallman’s 664-page biography of Stephen Crane, replete with many quotations from his other studies of Crane, twelve appendices on such topics as early reviews of Crane, parodies of Crane, the condition of the sea after the Commodore disaster (this experience led Crane to write “The Open Boat”), sixty-one pages of notes, and a checklist of writings by and on Stephen Crane.
Whatever Beer’s overlookings and evasions—he was essentially writing a period piece—he did suggest the enormous amount of incident, travel, and evasiveness in Crane’s life. Another thing he did was to make it clear that Crane always “drawled,” so that forever after one imagined Crane making clever conversation, which was Beer’s 1923 idea of a book anyway. But since that innocent time in our literature the inquest into the mysteriousness of the deceased—with Professor Stallman in the lead but by no means the only professor in the field—has piled up many raw files, as they say in the F.B.I., on Crane’s early loves, his scrape with the New York City Police Department over his defending the prostitute Dora Clark, the disaster to the bad ship Commodore, his relations with Cora, Henry James, Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Harold Frederic, his constant need for money, his crazy hospitality to many English freeloaders when he and Cora were living at a drafty and ghost-ridden English manor house, Brede Place, because it was easier in England to live in sin than in McKinley’s America. In the present biography alone, for example, one wades through many such little dumps of fact as these:
During his childhood he was afflicted with constant colds, and he dried his nose on a great silk handkerchief of red. Blue and red remained his favorite colors. He once followed the red skirt of a young lady visiting the family, and, unnoticed, walked out the front door and down the steep steps to the corner of Mulberry Place. With the lady in red was a young man whom we shall encounter in after years as the Editor of the Century Magazine, Richard Watson Gilder….
Four years after leaving Claverack College Stephen met Wickham in Hagen’s drugstore in Middletown and, ignoring the snubbing Wickham had given him because of his unwashed sweater a year or two previously, kidded him (without Wickham’s being aware) by boasting that he was planning a camping expedition in a far country where women displayed a “very fetching zone” of nakedness by way of the waistline, with other attractions beyond the ordinary. Wickham, who probably impressed him as a fatuous ass, solemnly declares in his 1926 reminiscences of Crane at Claverack that this excursion never was achieved. (It took place at Camp Interlacken that summer of 1894. The girls were young innocent things, the camp was supervised by parents or wives, and no “fetching zone” was exposed.)
Now the point of these details, for Professor Stallman, is not so much that the great silk handkerchief of red on which little Stevie Crane dried his nose has some relation to a certain novel where the color “red” figures a great deal (of course it must!), but that no one ever knew about that handkerchief before. Think of the picnic at Camp Interlaken that summer of 1894 and the fact that no “fetching zone” on the young innocent girls at the picnic was exposed. Think of the time, the travel, the patience, the research, that went into discovering, maybe sixty-five years later, that the girls at that picnic never showed a thing. This is the kind of thoroughness that has always fascinated me in Professor Stallman as a critic, too. Just as in this book he has displayed an unwashed sweater, a great silk handkerchief of red, and the fact that Crane kept score, when playing cards with Cora, on the empty portion of an unpublished page of The Red Badge of Courage that had imprinted on it the half-ring mark of a large beer mug, so he has for years been the head and fount of the many academic investigators who have been turning Crane’s hard and lean works into a system of symbols.
In his notes to The Red Badge in Stephen Crane: An Omnibus, Professor Stallman isolated and magnified the famous sentence that closes Chapter IX, after the hero’s friend Jim Conklin has died—“The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.” “This grotesque image, the most notorious metaphor in American literature, has been much debated and roundly damned by all Crane critics (excepting Conrad, Willa Cather, and Hergesheimer, who admired it, but failed to explain why), ridiculed as downright bad writing—a false, melodramatic, nonfunctional figure. It is, in fact, the key to the symbolism of the whole novel, particularly the religious symbolism that radiated outwards from Jim Conklin….I do not think it can be doubted that Crane intended to suggest here the sacrificial death celebrated in communion.” (Earlier, Professor Stallman explained about Jim Conklin that “even in the initials of his name,…he is intended to represent Jesus Christ.”)
When I read these passages in 1952, I was sure that Professor Stallman had been saying these things to his students, that the students dutifully copied these pearls of the New Criticism into their notebooks, and that still another little intellectual despotism in the classroom was flourishing, thanks to the indifference, ignorance, and lack of fight characteristic of literary undergraduates. What made The New Criticism in the academy so depressing was the fact that it never criticized anything but ransacked a small list of OK works for symbols, myths, allegories whose final illumination was always that Stephen Crane or Henry James was almost as sound a moralist as Professor X. Professor Stallman, for his part, drove his investigative machinery into every corner of Crane’s text, connected “Gawd!” with “God,” Henry Fleming with Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, “sun” with “Son,” the forest with the “treachery of ideals,” the red badge with Henry’s “conscience reborn and purified.” Everything got explained, illuminated, moralized, sacramentalized, ritualized.
Poor Conrad and Willa Cather merely admired Crane’s famous image about the sun but failed to explain why. Professor Stallman, however, could explain anything and everything, and what English major could be ungrateful for that? I did not understand why Professor Stallman, like some medieval churchman demanding the recantation of a heretic, needed to torture Crane’s “sun” into “Son”—why so iconoctastic a mind and so sharp an eye had to be turned into just another conventional believer. But I suspected that Professor Stallman’s concentration on detail was really his way of establishing an academic property in Stephen Crane, as witness the obsessive derision of Beer and Berryman. Now we have The Book, and the subject is closed.
In the chapter on The Red Badge in the present biography, Professor Stallman has simply recopied his handy guide to the symbols of Stephen Crane, and in case you missed this before, you can learn here that Crane’s famous line originally read: “The [fierce] red sun was pasted in the sky like a [fierce] wafer.” Fierce in both instances was cancelled by Crane. “Although eliminated, the repeated word fierce underscores the fact that Crane intended the sun to personify the wrathful gods of Henry Fleming’s insult and worship.” On the next page we are told that “Red is the color of war,…but also red is the wine of the sacrament and the red wafer is the white wafer saturated by the blood of Christ. It seems clear that Crane intended to suggest the sacrificial death celebrated in Communion and the Mass. Henry Fleming curses the God of War, who offers redemption through bloodshed.” Hemingway’s statement that The Red Badge “is all as much one piece as a great poem is” is “doubly revelatory because it defines not only Crane’s novel but Hemingway’s own Farewell To Arms. Hemingway’s novel starts, as it were, where Crane’s left off. Frederic Henry, who has for surname the same given name as Crane’s hero, begins as the already maimed hero, the idealistic Henry Fleming turned cynic.” Earlier, we are told that Maggie is really Crane’s “Bowery version of Madame Bovary, substituting for the as yet unexplored demi-world of the Bowery his knowledge of Syracuse’s red-light district.”
What is all this explaining and connecting but an excess of academic ambition over taste and common sense? What is this need to recopy one’s own dicta on Crane from book to book but the teacher’s way of making sure that he will own Crane as a novelist or poet owns the creation of his imagination? The mechanical piling up of detail is only a way of staggering the reader into accepting this as the final word on Crane. We have nothing here of the literary intelligence that went into Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, that model biography both in its feeling for the subject and its own discretion. Whatever complaints the specialists may have against the psychoanalytic theory behind Leon Edel’s Henry James, it is in form and style a work of art and marked by personal passion. It is indeed a pity, as Edmund Wilson recently complained in these pages, that Justin Kaplan did not acknowledge Van Wyck Brooks’s The Ordeal of Mark Twain in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, but this is a book marked by a great personal sense of history.
The trouble with Professor Stallman’s book is that he is so intent on Crane, so eager to pile up the facts and to show the correct “reading” of his works, that he cannot give us what Thomas Beer at least started with and what is most obviously required of anyone writing on Crane—a sense of his period, of the new atmosphere in the Nineties that at least puts into relief (nothing can in itself “explain”) Crane’s cockiness, his love of sensation and violent language, his conscious insolence toward his father’s and America’s gods. After all, Crane is even more than most gifted men a stranger to us and as a creative imagination he was certainly a stranger to his own generation. To read him with any knowledge of the historical sequences on which he drew and which he helped to break up is to realize how little he has in common even with the first-class people—James, Conrad, Wells—who admired him sans peur et sans reproche, and why Howells said of Crane that he sprang into literature fully armed. Crane is a phenomenon, a specialist in the intense privacies of the creative imagination as it burns down to itself a world that exists only along the personal angle, in the hot red language of continuous psychological emphasis. Crane learned the personal response so well that he put everything into style, became the least political of writers though (or because) he was a newspaper man always looking for a war. Like so many gifted American writers in this “personal” line, from Fitzgerald to Mailer, Crane was brilliant by definition, he wrote in brilliance, but suffered from that tendency to moral fatigue and even seediness that comes from wearing yourself out in the service of too highly colored a style. He came to write a lot of trash, but did it with so much of his mysterious native flair that in the end one becomes as personal about him as he was about the world. That is the measure of his influence as you read him and the nature of the literary example that he set. He cut the self off to make it more powerful as a literary instrument, but now we are stuck with a self we love to analyze but in the lack of Crane’s human connections cannot “explain.”
Crane is ultimately perhaps too literary a creature to be “explained,” though it is understandable that one should have tried. Nor can any critic explain everything that is so arresting in Crane. Professor Stallman does not understand that critical interpretation, especially when practiced on undergraduates who may not have finished The Red Badge, is not an exact science. There are times, to paraphrase Freud on Dostoevsky, when a critic must resist the tendency to know about everything. What the biographer of so vivid but enigmatic a writer as Crane can do is to portray him—to show the reporter of war against the concentrated image of imperialist war in the Nineties, the personal cockiness and “drawl” against the “clever” school of Kipling which Crane said he was giving up, but never did.
Original imaginations can discuss one another as fellow imaginations, but scholars and critics and historians should not pretend to understand every mystery of art but should write as scholars and historians. Professor Stallman tells us that “The Red Badge is a literary exercise in language, in the patterning of words and the counter pointing of themes and tropes and colors,” and this sentence he fancies so much that he has copied it word for word from his Crane Omnibus. By contrast. Lillian Gilke’s straightforward biography of “Mrs. Stephen Crane,” written in sympathy for Cora’s position, shows us what it was like for common-law couples like the Cranes and the Harold Frederics (and must have been like for the George Gissings and the H. G. Wellses).
H. G. Wells said in his elegy on Crane that he was “the expression in literary art of certain enormous repudiations.” That is the kind of recognition that only another novelist living “in sin” could have given Crane. He has this cutting edge—he turned himself into the cutting tool that all those older writers who survived him, like James, never would. The fin de siècle is so much Crane’s world, it at least comes through so clearly in everything he writes about, that in a biography you naturally want to see the mores of the time. The novelist Harold Frederic, the New York Times correspondent in England, died without a doctor because his common-law wife Kate was a Christian Scientist. Kate was actually indicted for manslaughter and spent some time in prison; obviously she was being punished for her sins. How all that lights up the period in which Crane and Cora had to remove themselves to England! But even in England Cora could be snubbed by James, and Frederic could say that James was “an effeminate old donkey who lives with a herd of other donkeys around him and insists on being treated as if he were the Pope.” The story of the Frederics and of James’s rudeness to Cora is in Mrs. Gilke’s biography; the intensity of it would never be guessed at from Professor Stallman’s account, for he simply has too much other material to get through. All the facts are there, but Kate Lyon Frederic’s story is divided between the text and the notes, and on page 431 Professor Stallman tells us that Cora “took in Kate Lyon upon her release on bail from the court charge of manslaughter,” without explaining how she could have been indicted in the first place. Still, in no other book on Crane will you learn so much about conditions in the Greek Army during the Greek-Turkish War.