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The Courage of Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry

edited by J.C. Levenson
The Library of America, 1,379 pp., $27.50

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!”

For his own “psychological portrayal of fear,” as he called The Red Badge, he imagined a series of episodes during two days in the life of a new recruit in the Union Army. Private Fleming panics after the enemy’s second charge and tries to justify his cowardice by telling himself that he “had fled with discretion and dignity.” Amid the confusion of retreat, a Union soldier whom he asks for help hits him on the head with a rifle, and Fleming later allows the scar to be mistaken for a bullet wound—hence the “red badge” of the novel’s ironic title. In a charge the following day Fleming is conspicuously, if somewhat frantically, brave in capturing the enemy flag. During the “frenzy made from this furious rush,” Crane is careful to note the “temporary but sublime absence of selfishness” among the soldiers—the fierce absorption that drew him to war.

Crane’s battle scenes were so convincing that one confused veteran was moved to claim that he had been with Crane at Antietam. The ambiguous ending of the novel has provoked much debate, however. In American high schools The Red Badge is often, like Faulkner’s “The Bear,” used to illustrate a boy’s initiation into manhood, and much has been made of four sentences in the final chapter, in which Fleming reflects on his two days of bewildering warfare.

He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

Elsewhere, and intermittently, Crane treats Fleming with such savage irony that “He was a man” can be read as gently mocking. In his manuscript Crane first wrote “it was but the great death and was for others”—where Fleming’s pompousness seems clearer.

In 1896, the huge success of The Red Badge led a publisher to give a slightly expurgated Maggie another chance. Meanwhile Crane had turned his attention from the Bowery to the newer and tonier demimonde of the Tenderloin, announcing a forthcoming series of sketches for Hearst’s New York Journal on the daily life of the New York police. The events that followed, leading in effect to Crane’s expulsion from New York City, are still not entirely clear. In the early morning of September 16, 1896, Crane left a Broadway nightspot in the company of two chorus girls he’d been interviewing for the Journal. A prostitute he hadn’t met before, known as Dora Clark, joined them. While Crane escorted one of the chorus girls to a cable car the other two women were arrested by a policeman named Charles Becker and charged with soliciting.

Convinced of their innocence, Crane claimed that one of the women, the chorus girl, was his wife, but it was a defense he couldn’t use twice. Against the advice of his friends and of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (an admirer of The Red Badge), Crane testified at the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Dora’s behalf. He repeated his story a month later, when Dora brought charges against Becker for harassing her, thus exposing Crane to a scathing cross-examination regarding his sex life and rumors that he used drugs. (“RED BADGE MAN ON A POLICE RACK” was the New York Post headline.) His apartment was trashed by the police and he could no longer work as a journalist in the city. There is reason to suspect, though insufficient evidence to prove, that Crane was set up; the police had reason to believe that his newspaper articles would be critical of them. As for Officer Becker, he was convicted eighteen years later of murdering his gambling partner Herman Rosenthal, and was the first New York City policeman to die in the electric chair.

Fearing more trouble from the police—“my name in New York is synonymous with mud,” he is reported to have said—Crane accepted an assignment from the Bacheller news service in October 1896 to cover the nationalist uprising in Cuba. He hastily composed a will, and assured his brother in a cover letter that he had “acted like a man of honor and a gentleman” in the Dora Clark case. He joined other reporters on the Florida coast who hoped to elude the US naval vessels that were enforcing American neutrality. When he succeeded in arranging a trip on a filibustering steamer called the Commodore, the boat sank, and Crane spent thirty hours in a lifeboat with four other men before reaching shore.

The sense of comradeship in extreme circumstances was, Crane recalled, “the best experience of [my] life,” and in the story “The Open Boat” he achieved a more subtle concentration of vision than in The Red Badge:

None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea….

Many a man ought to have a bathtub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.

The contrast between the two opening paragraphs establishes the oscillating moods of the story, from sublime description to ironic, almost amused detachment. The brilliant detail of the bathtub—with its homely image of domestic safety opposing, and yet prefiguring, the perils of a swamped boat—is characteristic of Crane’s later prose.

Back in Jacksonville to recuperate and work on the story, Crane resumed his relations with Cora Taylor, the madam of the Hotel de Dream, a high-class brothel frequented by reporters, named for its former owner, one Ethel Dreme. Crane’s letters to Cora are missing, leaving the precise emotional tenor of their relations open to speculation. Much has been made of Crane’s need to “rescue” fallen women, from the fictional Maggie to the real Cora, and John Berryman developed such a theory at length.* It doesn’t fit Cora very well, however, for when Crane met her she had already escaped from a stifling marriage to an English officer called Captain Donald Stewart, son of a former commander in chief of British forces in India.

Six years older than Crane, Cora was born into a respectable Boston family, and was related on her mother’s Quaker side to the poet John Greenleaf Whittier; she had chosen a Bohemian existence as deliberately as Crane. She considered herself a “new woman,” and what she had to offer Crane was, among other things, an unhypocritical view of sex. “I wonder,” she wrote in her journal, “if husbands are so often unfaithful because their wives are good? I think so. They cannot stand the dreary monotonies and certainties.” When Crane made arrangements with Hearst to cover the Greco-Turkish War, in 1897, he took Cora along as the Journal‘s first woman war correspondent.

The months that followed the end of the brief war were unusually domestic for Crane. He knew that his family would never accept Cora if they returned to the US; after traveling in Europe, he and Cora settled in a suburban villa in Surrey, where they received, in addition to an annoying gaggle of uninvited guests, such friends as Edward and Constance Garnett, Ford Madox Ford, and Joseph Conrad. Crane’s relations with the older Conrad were particularly close. He admired The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus,’ singling out for praise the “simple treatment of the death of Waite,” with its Crane-like detail of the “red thread lining from the corner of the man’s mouth to his chin. It was frightful with the weight of a real and present death.” Conrad confessed in return, “I am envious of you—horribly. Confound you—you fill the blamed landscape—you—by all the devils—fill the sea-scape. The boat thing is immensely interesting.”

Though he wrote some of his finest stories in Surrey, including his western “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” Crane was restless; and when the US entered the Cuban war, in the spring of 1898, he rushed to New York to enlist in the navy. He failed the physical exam, presumably because he was already suffering from tuberculosis. He followed troop movements in Cuba as a correspondent for Pulitzer’s World, and he was so brave under fire that some of his colleagues suspected him of harboring a death wish. He contracted a high fever, probably malaria or typhoid, and after lingering in Cuba he made his way back to England and Cora. “The truth is that Cuba libre just about liberated me from this base blue world,” he wrote to a friend in 1899. He survived another year before his first hemorrhage of the lungs.

Late in 1897 Crane had apologized to one of his brothers for not writing “long descriptions home of what I see over here [in England] but I write myself so completely out in articles that an attempt of the sort would be absurd.” Crane kept this balance throughout his life. Even the slightest of his newspaper sketches is worth reading, for his angular vision and luminous, unexpected sense of detail. One looks for a comparable intensity in the letters and is often disappointed. His best stories are brilliantly self-effacing; when he has to prepare a face for his correspondence, he can be surprisingly awkward and slack. He tries to impress older women with his blasé melancholy:

Dear me, how much I am getting to admire graveyards—the calm unfretting unhopeing [sic] end of things—serene absence of passion—oblivious to sin—ignorant of the accursed golden hopes that flame at night.

—or editors with his ennui:

Now that I have reached the goal for which I have been working ever since I began to write, I suppose I ought to be contented: but I am not. I was happier in the old days when I was always dreaming of the thing I have now attained.

In his best letters Crane drops his poses, and he can be surprisingly direct. To an aspiring writer he offers peculiar encouragement:

One thing I must say at once: Take the diamond out of that man’s shirt immediately. Don’t let him live another day with a diamond in his front. You declare him to be very swell and yet you allow him to wear a diamond as if he were a saloon proprietor or owned a prosperous livery stable…. Our fin de siecle editors have keen eyes for that sort of a mistake.

Frankly I do not consider your sketch to be very good but even if you do me the honor to value my opinion, this need not discourage you for I can remember when I wrote just as badly as you do now. Furthermore there are many men, far our superiors who once wrote just as badly as I do today and no doubt as badly as you.

Many of Crane’s best-known letters appear in Thomas Beer’s biography of 1923. These contain some of Crane’s rare literary opinions—his ambivalence toward Zola’s work, his remark that Robert Louis Stevenson “has not passed away far enough.” Beer also records Crane’s inscription in a copy of Maggie—“This work is a mud-puddle, I am told on the best authority. Wade in and have a swim”—and his laconic account of his loss of faith:

I used to like church and prayer meetings when I was a kid but that cooled off and when I was thirteen or about that, my brother Will told me not to believe in Hell after my uncle had been boring me about the lake of fire and the rest of the sideshows.

But of the roughly sixty letters Beer quotes, the manuscripts of only two have come to light, and Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino suspect the rest of being fakes—brilliant fakes, one feels like adding. Whether Beer rewrote existing letters and then destroyed them or fabricated new ones to flesh out an otherwise thinly documented life is unclear and, barring the discovery of lost letters, may remain so. They are consigned to an appendix of the meticulous new edition of the letters.

Later biographies, especially Berryman’s and the “standard” life by R.W. Stallman, relied heavily on Beer for the letters he included and for information about Crane’s childhood, even though much of Beer’s account of Crane’s later life was known to be false. Beer wrote his biography partly to defend Crane against the rumors of drug addiction and sexual profligacy that arose largely from the Dora Clark episode. One welcomes the skepticism Wertheim and Sorrentino bring to the facts of Crane’s life; they are surely right that “the authoritative biography of Stephen Crane remains to be written.”

But in making one point they may have missed another, for what is left to be explained is the need of Crane’s contemporaries to turn his life into a legend, and his own partial acquiescence in this conversion. He had tried all his short life to blur the distinction between the man of action and the sedentary writer—hence his appeal to Hemingway, among others. At times he seemed to prefer a soldier’s career, but settled for the more modern heroism of the star war correspondent. By the end of his life he had earned the epitaph that Henry James, in a letter to Cora, bestowed upon him: “What a brutal, needless extinction—what an unmitigated, unredeemed catastrophe!” If the achievements of that life were partly based on illusion, we won’t get at their truth by simply stripping the illusions away.

  1. *

    John Berryman, Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (Sloane, 1950; reprinted in paper by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982).

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