Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry
Stephen Crane was twenty-three in the fall of 1895, when The Red Badge of Courage was published. An impoverished newspaper reporter living in New York, Crane watched the machinery of fame that had been perfected by his bosses Pulitzer and Hearst go to work for him. There was some grumbling from the New York press (an army general, writing in The Dial, accused the British of liking the Civil War novel because its hero was a deserter from the Union Army), but The Red Badge was well received in the US and English critics indulged in what H.G. Wells called an “orgy of praise.” During the next few years Crane worked as a journalist in New York and he wrote some now forgotten novels. He recovered the intensity of The Red Badge of Courage only in a dozen superb short stories. “People may just as well discover now,” he complained in 1896, “that the high dramatic key of The Red Badge cannot be sustained.” Four years later, exhausted from covering the Spanish-American War and claiming to be “disappointed with success,” Crane died of tuberculosis in a sanitarium in the Black Forest. He was twenty-eight.
To his contemporaries Crane’s short life had some of the allure of pulp fiction; “he actually lived what his average countrymen collectively dreamed,” J.C. Levenson, editor of the excellent Library of America edition of Crane’s work, remarks. Amid the apparent hurry of his life—he once told Willa Cather during a brief assignment in the West that he didn’t have time for clean clothes or proper spelling—a peculiar pattern emerges. If most writers write about their experience, however disguised, Crane did the reverse: he tried to live what he’d already written. His acquaintance with conflict was limited to football when he wrote The Red Badge; he became a war correspondent in Cuba and Greece to see, he told Joseph Conrad, whether The Red Badge was “all right.” Maggie, his first, and affecting, novel about a prostitute, shows more curiosity than knowledge; a few years later he took as his common-law wife the madam of a Jacksonville whore-house. One of his cryptic poems, “A man adrift on a slim spar,” predicts the accident at sea that almost killed him. The publication of Crane’s correspondence, in a handsome and painstaking two-volume edition, allows us to see how deliberately he chose what he called his “life of fire.”
Crane’s ancestry did not promise adventure. He was born in Newark in 1871, the youngest of nine children. On his mother’s side of the family, Crane wrote, “everybody as soon as he could walk, became a Methodist clergyman—of the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind.” She herself married a bland minister who wrote reformist tracts with titles like “Essay on Dancing” and “Arts of Intoxication.” He died when Crane was eight. “He was so simple and good,” Crane reportedly said, “that I often think he didn’t know much of anything about humanity.” Crane’s industrious but hardup mother wrote for Methodist journals to support the family and lectured for the New Jersey WCTU.
Like other literary sons of clergymen—one thinks of Emerson and E.E. Cummings—Crane learned early to despise religious hypocrisy, and ministers who (as he put it in Maggie) “save their own respectability” instead of other souls. His family’s devout generations meant less to him than what he could learn of its martial past. “The Cranes,” he claimed, “did their duty during the Revolution,” and in 1896 he applied for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.
Crane’s biographers have played down his military aspirations, perhaps out of the dubious but widespread conviction that The Red Badge of Courage is some-how an antiwar novel. Frail health kept Crane from attending school regularly until he was eight, but from childhood he dreamed of becoming a soldier, and retained the ambition for the rest of his life. He called the two years he spent at a leisurely military academy “the happiest period of my life,” but an older brother, arguing that the US was unlikely to fight a war during Crane’s lifetime, persuaded him to attend a civilian college rather than West Point. He spent a listless semester at Lafayette and another at Syracuse, where he starred on the baseball team, smoked a Turkish water-pipe, and, as he put it, “studied faces” instead of books. He had already begun to write stories, and his mother’s illness and death in 1891 gave him an excuse to move to New York to become a reporter.
Crane took a room in a cheap boarding-house on Avenue A and, inspired by popular investigations of tenement life such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, began roaming the theater districts and immigrant neighborhoods of the Bowery and the Lower East Side for material. “Of all human lots for a person of sensibility that of an obscure free lance in…journalism is, I think, the most discouraging,” Crane later observed. He was often hungry and usually broke during the early 1890s, but he relished a sense of living under cover. Of the former Art Students’ League on East 23rd Street, in which several artists he knew had studios, Crane observed that “this staid puritanical old building once contained about all that was real in the Bohemian quality of New York.” In his letters he hints at unspecified transgressions, but the truth may be closer to a bit of doggerel he wrote at the time: “We are too thin to do sin.”
In the sketches Crane began writing in 1892 for the New York Press and other papers, which he rightly considered among his finest work, he consistently saw the modern city as a place of disguise. Covering trials for prostitutes and petty thieves, Crane noticed the irony of a house of detention—the Jefferson Market Courthouse at Sixth Avenue and Tenth—masquerading as a church. He was appalled at the worshipers in this strange shrine who “wore an air of being in wait for a cry of anguish, some loud painful protestation that would bring the proper thrill to their jaded, world-weary nerves—wires that refused to vibrate for ordinary affairs.” Despite his sympathy for indigent defendants, Crane felt he was wired the same way.
For a sketch called “An Experiment in Misery,” published in the Press in the depression year of 1894, Crane dressed up as a tramp and spent the night in a flophouse. He was convinced that “you can tell nothing of [how a homeless man feels] unless you are in that condition yourself.” His description of his companions has a nightmare vividness, which would later find its way into the carnage of The Red Badge of Courage:
And all through the room could be seen the tawny hues of naked flesh, limbs thrust into the darkness, projecting beyond the cots; up-reared knees; arms hanging, long and thin, over the cot edges. For the most part they were statuesque, carven, dead. With the curious lockers standing all about like tombstones there was a strange effect of a graveyard, where bodies were merely flung.
Later he tried opium as part of his research for a sketch on opium dens. “When a man arises from his first trial of the pipe,” he reported, “the nausea that clutches him is something that can give cards and spades and big casino to seasickness. If he had swallowed a live chimney-sweep he could not feel more like dying.”
Crane set his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in lower Manhattan, choosing a theme that invited sentimentality—the fall of an innocent slum girl into prostitution and suicide. When Maggie was published pseudonymously in 1893, his characters were already, as the novelist Frank Norris noted, “old acquaintances in the world of fiction”: the alcoholic mother; the bartender, Pete, who introduces Maggie to the trashy glamour of Bowery music halls, then casually seduces her; her brother, Jimmie, who sees no connection between his sister’s “ruin” and his own abuse of women. Readers were shocked by the ironic, newspaper-like detachment with which Crane treated Maggie Johnson and Pete, her “beau ideal of a man”:
He sat on a table in the Johnson home and dangled his checked legs with enticing nonchalance. His hair was curled down over his forehead in an oiled bang. His rather pugged nose seemed to revolt from contact with a bristling moustache of short, wire-like hairs. His blue double-breasted coat, edged with black braid, buttoned close to a red puff tie…. Maggie thought he must be a very elegant and graceful bartender.
Crane refused to moralize about Maggie’s fate in the manner of reformist fiction. He deployed her grim surroundings like a trap, then let her spring it.
Unlike Zola’s Nana, Maggie never learns to convert her allure into power. She wanders the streets as a beggar rather than a seductress, and no one is charitable enough to have her. One customer turns away after discerning that she is “neither new, Parisian, nor theatrical.” Even her suicide is strangely passive. She is absorbed by her surroundings, extinguished like a last city light in the gathering darkness:
She went into the blackness of the final block. The shutters of the tall buildings were closed like grim lips. The structures seemed to have eyes that looked over her, beyond her, at other things.
She approaches the East River, past the personified buildings that seem more alive than she is:
The river appeared a deathly black hue. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence.
In the morning they pull her body from the river.
Maggie drew the somewhat guarded encouragement of William Dean Howells, to whom Crane sent a copy. But Crane’s stated allegiance to Howells’s realism was always less an aesthetic conviction than a commitment to intense experience. He dutifully concurred in Howells’s ambition to “picture the daily life in the most exact terms possible,” but the lives that interested Crane were those of people caught in extreme situations, too absorbed in their difficulties to indulge in hypocrisy and selfishness. (To make an analogy with painters, Crane’s realism is closer to Géricault’s feverish visions of shipwrecks. soldiers on horse-back, and social outcasts, than to the more serene pictures of, say, Winslow Homer.)
When Maggie failed to cause the stir he had anticipated, Crane began research for a war novel, examining eyewitness reports of the horrible fluctuations of the battle of Chancellorsville. Veterans’ accounts disappointed him, however: “I wonder that some of these fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps!” he remarked, returning a batch of Century magazines with a popular series on “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” “They spout eternally of what they did, but they are as emotionless as rocks!”