Henry James went to prison on a December morning in 1884. He was a good walker and probably set out on foot from his flat off Piccadilly, cutting through London’s Green Park and then down through Westminster toward the river, heading for Millbank Penitentiary, today the site of Tate Britain. It had once held convicts waiting to be transported to Australia. Now it was on the verge of closing, but it was still busy enough to let James work up a scene for his new novel. You can read the results of that morning’s trip in the third chapter of The Princess Casamassima (1886), with its account of “a vast interior dimness” in which one could hear the “grinding of keys and bolts” and catch a peephole glimpse of a prisoner’s cell. Still, the characters James sends there are only visitors. Their errand is over as quickly as his own, and he contents himself with capturing the impression the place would make on people who had never been there before and had no intention of returning. His characters look at it, they think about it, but Millbank doesn’t enter them; its clammy walls never become a spot within the soul.
I thought of The Princess Casamassima while reading Stephen Crane this summer. Only seven years separate James’s novel from Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), but something new starts to happen in Crane’s novella, his first major work, something that marks a break between his generation and James’s. The two men liked each other, and certainly Crane learned from the older writer. Yet with Maggie he is within the tale, within its space and violence, in a way that James never is with Millbank.
The story begins with boys throwing rocks at one another and leering when one draws blood; its hallucinatory climax takes the title character on a streetwalker’s trip through Manhattan, with the face of one potential customer after another swimming up before her. Crane’s narrative voice is strangely formal throughout—the boys wait in “ecstatic awe” when a drunken father approaches to wallop his son. Yet none of his characters has anything like a Jamesian inner life, that ability to separate one’s self from one’s circumstances. We see what Maggie sees on that final walk, not what she thinks, and indeed she can barely be said to think at all. There’s no space between the character and the grime and cruelty in which she lives, as if she were entirely subsumed by the impressions her world makes upon her. Nor would it help if there were. The streets don’t care about one’s thoughts, no more than the waves Crane later described in “The Open Boat” (1897) or the cannon fire of The Red Badge of Courage (1895).
Crane is physically immersive in a way that James never was. He specialized in finding the place where sensation meets the psyche, though there’s another way to put it, as Carl Van Doren did almost a century ago in noting that “when Crane went into the slums he did not go slumming.” The paradox is that when he finished Maggie the twenty-one-year-old Crane knew little more of slum life than James did; little more, in fact, than he did of combat when a few months later he began to write about the Civil War. Born in 1871, he was the fourteenth and last child of a well-connected Methodist minister who died when Stephen was eight, and he dropped out of Syracuse University after his freshman year. He had spent only a few months in New York City, but while he was already fascinated by the Bowery’s saloons and prostitutes, the difference with James wasn’t primarily one of experience. It was, rather, a difference in artistic stance, an ability to let the physical world so saturate the consciousness that the mind itself seemed to vanish. And yet Crane would come to know those slums, just as he would later report from battlefields in Greece and Cuba, and find their terrors much as he had imagined: a double life, in Christopher Benfey’s phrase, in which his work seemed to predict his experience.
Paul Auster’s massively detailed new biography opens with a show-stopping first sentence:
Born on the Day of the Dead and dead five months before his twenty-ninth birthday, Stephen Crane lived five months and five days into the twentieth century, undone by tuberculosis before he had a chance to drive an automobile or see an airplane, to watch a film projected on a large screen or listen to a radio, a figure from the horse-and-buggy world who missed out on the future that was awaiting his peers, not just the construction of those miraculous machines and inventions but the horrors of the age as well, including the destruction of tens of millions of lives in two world wars.
Is it churlish to note that someone who died in June 1900 did not, by the usual definition, live into the twentieth century at all? Nevertheless, that sentence points to an essential truth: we think of Crane as a late Victorian. Really he was a modernist whose contemporaries included Willa Cather and Robert Frost, and Henri Matisse as well; someone who should have lived to Pearl Harbor and beyond. Instead he remains fixed in promise, with the ten volumes of his collected works as a down payment on a career that didn’t happen. Auster calls him “America’s answer to Keats and Shelley,” and it’s true that “The Open Boat” is very nearly as perfect as “To Autumn.”
Still—Burning Boy? Auster’s title builds on that of Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire (2014), and it’s true that Crane pushed his own strength beyond what it could bear. He wrote fast and his physical existence was often punishing, and usually he had no choice about either. He consumed his own substance, though nobody knows precisely how he caught the tuberculosis that killed him. He didn’t have a hemorrhage until December 29, 1899, on the last night of a three-day party, when he was already weakened by the malaria he’d caught covering the Spanish-American War. But Auster’s title also alludes, I think, to Elizabeth Bishop’s 1965 “Casabianca,” her grim, playful revision of Felicia Hemans’s much-anthologized 1826 poem of the same title, the one in which “the boy stood on the burning deck.” Bishop’s boy begins by reciting the old lines about himself, and the poem ends by proclaiming that “love’s the burning boy.” Crane loved his work, and he loved his common-law wife, Cora, and he came to love danger too; but love itself was rarely his subject.
He found his material instead in what Auster describes as “extreme situations…matters of life and death: war, poverty, and physical danger.” He worked best “when he was afraid, trembling in his bones and scarcely aware of what he was doing.” Yet it’s perhaps more accurate to say that fear interested him, and perhaps because he knew so little of it himself. Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage because he wanted to see what physical fear felt like; later observers found him surprisingly cool under fire.
“The Open Boat” aside, that extremity rarely lay in the stories of man against nature that consumed his contemporary Jack London, and even in that story of a shipwreck he is interested not in the isolated individual but in the way the survivors find their common purpose. The dangers he wrote about were no less inimical for being social. There’s the poverty of Maggie and George’s Mother (1896), in each case exacerbated by alcohol; or the Civil War battlefield on which Henry Fleming first stands, and then runs, and then learns to stand again. Yet that’s hardly a simple triumph. What allows Henry to resume his place in the line is the red badge of a head wound that his regiment attributes to a Confederate bullet. In fact, it comes from the rifle butt of another Union soldier, who knocks him out of the way as they both flee to the rear.
In “The Upturned Face” (1900), a few infantrymen see to the battlefield burial of a comrade, even as the enemy’s aim comes closer, and steel themselves to drop a shovelful of dirt on the dead man’s face. Another short novel, The Monster (1898), relies on an entire set of horrors. It begins with a house fire in which Henry Johnson, a Black coachman, has his face burned off while trying to save the son of his white employer, a doctor. Then there’s the small town in which it’s set, whose Black and white citizens all recoil from the disfigured man and believe that the doctor should have let Henry die instead of nursing him back to life. And finally there’s the bleak lesson administered to the physician himself: however justifiable his actions, they have left his family in a social hell, cut off from the only community they know by the monster of public opinion.
If you begin these stories, you will finish them. You will want to know what happens; and that’s leaving aside the more obviously plot-driven tales Crane set in the American West. You so badly want to know what happens that it’s easy to ignore the writing itself, to look through instead of at it, at the word-by-word construction of a narrative. I quote at random, my book falling open to chapter 8 of The Red Badge of Courage:
The trees began softly to sing a hymn of twilight. The sun sank until slanted bronze rays struck the forest. There was a lull in the noises of insects as if they had bowed their beaks and were making a devotional pause. There was silence save for the chanted chorus of the trees.
Does twilight have a sound? No wind stirs those leaves, but many of Crane’s readers find a kind of synesthesia in him, and this fading light seems alive; it breathes and sings even as the insects fall still. Three of this little paragraph’s sentences stress the sound of silence. The fourth gives us a color, the bronze of the late-afternoon sun, and Crane once said, as Auster has it, that “every sound triggered off a color in his mind.”
Light and sound and color: they are all transitive, and emotions have their shades as well. So look at Crane’s titles, as Auster suggests. The Black Riders, “The Blue Hotel,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” Or, of course, The Red Badge of Courage itself, in which a “crimson roar” of artillery almost immediately breaks the trees’ song. He loved color. It was the verbal tool for which he reached most often, even or especially in the famous denial of it with which “The Open Boat” begins: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” The men in that boat don’t know it because they don’t have time to look; they’re too intent on the colors of the sea around them, waves “the hue of slate” with tips “of foaming white.” Later the black line of the shore will face a white painterly line of surf, and each will have its dangers.
The close unobtrusive care of that writing—the precise detail that’s not quite an image, not yet Gatsby’s “yellow cocktail music”—set a template for the lean American prose of the century to follow. Crane had a gift for succinct, indelible similes: “The fog was as cold as wet clothes.” I gasped when I read that, and Auster singles out another one: “The sky was bare and blue, and hurt like brass.” Yet something else about his style drew attention when it was new, and it proved a source of controversy. “Eh, Gawd, child, what is it dis time? Is yer fader beatin’ yer mudder, or yer mudder beatin’ yer fader?” That’s from Maggie. A lot of American fiction in Crane’s day relied on what the critic Gavin Jones calls “strange talk,” the phonetic reproduction of speech patterns. It got Mark Twain into trouble: some of that era’s librarians banned Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that the voice of a barely literate teenager was not a model of good usage. Most readers were, however, willing to tolerate a departure from some presumed norm as long as it represented a form of regional and preferably rural speech, as with the Maine of Sarah Orne Jewett or the Louisiana of George Washington Cable.
Still, the biggest city and commercial capital of the country, the place that should set a standard? William Dean Howells admired Crane’s work but worried over his characters’ dialogue. “Not merely the grammar but the language itself, decays in their speech,” and he wondered if the spoken language of New York would continue to be a recognizable English at all. A British reviewer went further: if this was art, then so were mud pies. That makes me wonder what James thought about it. He admired The Red Badge of Courage, helped get it noticed in Britain, and would presumably have accepted that strange talk as a mark of verisimilitude. Yet the verbal tics he deplored in his 1905 lecture, “The Question of Our Speech,” were genteel versions of fader and mudder, and he thought that precise enunciation was a moral as well as a social necessity. Without it—well, what you got were the vulgar wounding shameless streets of modern New York, the polyglot world that so horrified him in The American Scene (1907). But then the things that appalled James about the city were precisely the ones Crane found most enthralling.
My favorite work of Crane’s is “The Blue Hotel” (1898), set in a whistle-stop town on the snowbound Nebraska plains. There’s a card game and a cowboy, some travelers from the East, a lot of whiskey too; and every character but one scoffs at the myth of the dangerous gunslinging West. Then comes the flash of a knife. All seems light and casual until it’s not, men just passing the time until one of them, suddenly, has no time left. Auster describes the story as an “existential puzzle,” one that makes us wonder just why things happen at all. How do the contingencies of character and circumstance shape our actions? It takes at least seven men to produce the death with which the tale ends, and the one with the knife bears the least responsibility of any of them. Reading it makes me think of Camus, of L’Étranger and “L’Hôte,” in whose work choices sometimes seem to come from nowhere, and at others make no difference whatever. “The Blue Hotel,” moreover, suggests a link between Crane and Auster himself, and yet on the face of it no two American writers would seem to have less in common than the author of Maggie and the metafictional magician of The New York Trilogy.
I’ll confess that I’ve never fully warmed to the magic, and I’m not sure Auster has ever done better than City of Glass (1985), that trilogy’s first book, the short parodic detective novel with which his career as a fiction writer began. He’s always readable, but his labyrinthine plots often lead to what seem like small conclusions, self-reflexive lessons about the book we’ve just finished. He did, however, once write a novel called The Music of Chance (1990), and what binds him to Crane is their shared sense of chance itself, chance at work in a world where events have no intrinsic meaning or purpose. But at some point, as Auster suggested in Leviathan (1992), chance changes its name, and we begin to call it fate. A series of contingent actions come together, as they do in “The Blue Hotel,” to produce a singular event, one that is necessitated by the very totality of those contingencies and therefore finally inevitable. Auster does that too. The difference is that in reading Crane, one cares.
Auster writes that he has loved Crane’s work for almost sixty years, ever since he was assigned The Red Badge of Courage in high school. Every serious reader still knows his name, and yet, Auster suggests, few students now pick him up. Burning Boy hopes to change that, though I have to wonder if 783 pages about a man who died before he was thirty is the best way to do it. Auster notes that he doesn’t expect his readers to have ever “read a word of Crane,” but anyone who finishes this book will have read quite a lot of them. Eighteen pages on “The Blue Hotel,” and the same again on “The Open Boat”; thirty-two on an analysis of The Red Badge of Courage in addition to other sections on its composition and publication. Block quotations abound, sometimes two a page, and one chapter from a minor romantic comedy called The Third Violet (1897) “demands to be quoted in full.” Some of Auster’s readings seem marvelous, showing exactly how Crane got a particular effect or the way a seemingly inconsequential detail pays off on a story’s last page. Others plod.
For the “life” part of this “Life and Work,” Auster relies on the earlier and generously credited scholarship of Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino. They established the factual armature on which all writing about Crane now depends, and Sorrentino’s biography remains the standard. His prose is drier than Auster’s, or maybe just tighter, and his judgments have a pith that Burning Boy lacks; the minister’s son “fought with a distant God yet wished for His presence.” Auster is loose and baggy by comparison, yet there are compensations. He has the space to make the writer’s friends and especially Cora Crane into vivid presences, and he uses the memoirs those friends left behind to capture Crane’s life in mid-1890s New York.
He was poor then. He sold the occasional story or article, but no publisher would touch the scandalous Maggie, and he lost most of a small inheritance having it printed at his own expense. He finished The Red Badge of Courage early in 1894 but one editor sat on it for months and another paid him a total of ninety dollars to syndicate an abridged newspaper version. It made him famous, but the book itself didn’t appear until October 1895, and meanwhile he had to live. Sometimes he stayed upstate with one of his older brothers in the Delaware Valley town of Port Jervis. At others he shared a Manhattan apartment with a group of friends, most of them painters, who pooled their money to ensure that they all got almost enough to eat.
That life ended when The Red Badge of Courage became a best seller, and yet Crane’s financial situation never became secure. He was a bad businessman, or perhaps simply young, and publishers took advantage of him, above all the muckraking S.S. McClure. Willa Cather built her career on her relationship with McClure. Crane almost destroyed his. The Irish-born editor could spot talent, but he stands to Crane rather as Colonel Tom Parker did to Elvis Presley, buying his stuff and advancing small sums that he then had to work off. Later Crane wrote for both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst; he always needed money and they gave him as little as they could.
But the work he did for them! In 1894 he spent a February snowstorm outside a Bowery shelter where a nickel would buy a bed, deliberately underdressed and waiting in a crowd of men for it to open. He stood there for hours, surprised at the jokes they all made, for “one does not expect to find the quality of humor in a heap of old clothes under a snowdrift,” and once the doors were open he went home shivering and wrote through the night. Later, for the sake of other articles, he slept in flophouses and stopped in opium dens. He filed a report on the new electric chair at Sing Sing and another on Nebraska when it was caught between dust storm and blizzard; and then he went to war, Greece in 1897 and Cuba the next year.
Auster wonders if these pieces can really be called journalism. Few of them have “named sources,” and others use clearly fictional characters as a lens through which to focus their facts. It doesn’t matter, and in reading I think of Orwell’s days of down and out, of Joseph Mitchell, or of A.J. Liebling embedded on a D-Day landing craft; of the New Journalism, which Crane helped invent long years before it had a name. Auster speculates shrewdly that if he had lived, his later work would have been in the first person, and I wonder how much of it would have been fiction at all. Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa (1935) that he had tried to produce a strictly factual work that was as exciting as a novel. It wasn’t. Crane could have done it, and we can only dream about the dispatches he might have filed from the Western Front.
In September 1896 he appeared in court on behalf of a prostitute named Dora Clark, who had been arrested for solicitation. The charge was false. Crane was talking to her at the moment a plainclothes policeman appeared, and she had not at the time been working; the arrest was a bit of harassment, ordinary practice by a notoriously corrupt department. His testimony got her off, but though it made for a good article in Hearst’s New York Journal it also earned him some enemies. It cost him his new friendship with the city’s police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and made him a target for harassment as well. His apartment was searched, and a whispering campaign claimed that he was a drug addict. Cops stopped him in the street, and at the end of the year he decided to get out of town.
He went to Florida. Cuban rebels and their American allies ran guns out of Jacksonville, and Crane found a place on a boat stuffed with rifles and shells, knowing that even reporters were liable to be executed if the Spanish authorities intercepted them. The Commodore left port on New Year’s Eve and almost immediately grounded itself on a sandbar; it was leaking by the time it got out to sea. The ship then foundered, and Crane spent thirty harrowing hours with three other men in a small rowboat before reaching the shore. “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” appeared just a few days later and told the readers of the New York Press everything that had happened up to the moment he left the ship. “The Open Boat” took longer and told what happened once he did: a factual piece of fiction in which the only things missing are the characters’ names, and with a narrative that seems heroic and mordant at once: “A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important.” That shipwreck was not, however, the most important thing that happened to him in Florida. Meeting Cora was.
She was six years older than he was and had been born Cora Howorth in Boston, into a proper and prosperous family; and she had always been a serious reader, serious enough to have already read Crane. Yet with both parents dead, she had at seventeen become a rich man’s mistress and by 1896 had been married twice and divorced once. She now ran a Jacksonville nightclub. It was not a brothel, as many have claimed both then and since, but the Hotel de Dreme did have rooms, and prostitutes rented them. Crane met her before boarding the Commodore, and afterward she helped him recover. They never married—her second husband refused to give her a divorce—and there are gaps in what we know of their relationship. Nevertheless, they were bound to each other.
Only not in America. Cora accompanied Crane when in 1897 he went on Hearst’s dime to cover a vicious little war between Greece and Turkey, and they then took a house in the south of England; Britain was, oddly, a more tolerant place for a prominent unmarried couple. They made friends, above all with Joseph Conrad, whose career was just beginning and of whose loyalty Auster provides an attractive picture, and Henry James became especially fond of Cora. In 1898 Pulitzer sent Crane to report on the fighting in Cuba, the war that eventually put his nemesis Roosevelt in the White House. Cora stayed in England, broke and increasingly frantic for news after a rumor spread that he had died. Nor did his return the next January do much to ease their financial worries. They lived well on nothing a year, improvident, generous, and ruined. They had rich friends but never any cash; they kept open house at Brede Place, the fourteenth-century manor they rented in Sussex, but couldn’t pay their bills.
Crane published three books in 1899 and finished two others. It wasn’t enough. Novels might have paid more, but Crane never mastered the long form, and “not one person in the English-speaking world,” as Auster writes, “could earn an adequate living as a freelance writer of short stories.” And by now he was sick. The open boat and Cuba had between them ruined his health, overwork didn’t help, and the last photos of Crane show him looking far older than any man in his twenties should. At the end of the year he and Cora decided to throw a great party, as if they knew it would be their last. They hired an orchestra, put cots in the ballroom, arranged amateur theatricals. Their company stayed for days, and when at the end Crane began to spit blood, H.G. Wells rode his bicycle through the night for a doctor. It took him another five months to die; the end came at a sanatorium in the Black Forest. He left Cora his future royalties, and his family bilked her out of them.
One of the last things Crane wrote was a book about children that is not a children’s book. The posthumous Whilomville Stories (1900) is set in a small town in upstate New York, the landscape of Crane’s childhood. There’s a public school and separate spheres of play for boys and girls; occasionally there’s a new kid from the city. Middle-class boys from one neighborhood wander at their peril into other, identical neighborhoods, and their social hierarchy is defined by fear and the willingness to fight. Their quarrels are savage, and their parents never understand. As a narrator Crane sees them without sentiment. He keeps a cool distance and yet sinks into their experience even as he judges it; he ironizes their passions but steps as fully within them as he does with Henry Fleming or Maggie. Nothing I have ever read gives a more vivid picture of what it is like to be a boy of eight or nine.