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 …