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Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire 
by Paul Sorrentino.
Harvard, 476 pp., £25, June 2014, 978 0 674 04953 6
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The Red Badge of Courage is generally the only thing about Stephen Crane that readers remember now. The novel, first published in 1895 when Crane was only 23, is short and centres on the battlefield experience of a man younger still, Henry Fleming, who worries that in the test of war he will prove a coward, and then does. Some rough germ of an idea for the novel had been with Crane for years. As a child he fantasised about war and in his teens he contemplated West Point and a military career. In college while watching a football game he felt he was watching war: ‘The psychology is the same,’ he told a writer friend. ‘The opposite team is an enemy tribe!’ In the early 1890s he lived in New York off and on with a painter called Linson who had worked his way up the ladder of success to about the point where he could afford one square meal a day. Crane sold sketches to the newspapers from time to time but was essentially penniless. It was while lounging on the daybed in Linson’s studio that he began to think seriously about Red Badge.

Crane’s life was so short – he didn’t reach thirty – that Paul Sorrentino, like the rest of Crane’s biographers, focuses on the episodes Crane barely had time to live: harum-scarum education; the writing of Red Badge; stints of war reporting first in Greece, then in Cuba; a couple of years in England, where he made a deep impression on Conrad, Henry James and others; final illness and death. The chief woman in Crane’s life, Cora Taylor, belongs to the English period too. But it all hinges on Linson’s daybed.

The daybed was along a windowless wall covered with drawings, prints, oil sketches and a wooden artist’s palette. The room was full of late Victorian clutter: an end table holding a large kerosene lamp, on the floor a tall square ceramic vase stuffed tight with a cluster of brushes, a stout easel with a crank for raising and lowering heavy canvases. A photograph taken by Linson shows a cloth draped over the daybed and Stephen Crane draped over the cloth, his right elbow propped on a pillow – the picture of watchful languor. In various memoirs Linson and his artist friends all attest that Crane spent many hours on this daybed, smoking cigarettes and thinking silently or talking about art and life. One day an artist who’d come to see Linson’s work noted Crane lying full-length on the daybed breathing smoke at the ceiling and rumbled that laziness was a nice luxury. ‘I’m probably working a great deal harder just now,’ Crane shot back, ‘than either of you!’

It was Red Badge he was working on. Among the clutter in Linson’s studio were piles of back issues of the Century, a magazine Linson kept for the illustrations – he liked to know what his rivals were doing. For many months Crane had been reading a series of articles the Century published under the general title of ‘Battles and Leaders of the Civil War’. One that struck him recounted the battle of Chancellorsville. He thought a war story might sell. ‘Most writers are punk,’ he told Linson, ‘but they get the tin.’

But a potboiler about war took a cynical focus which Crane couldn’t maintain. The Century articles told him everything about a battle except what it was like. ‘I wonder,’ he said to Linson, ‘that some of these fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps.’ He circled the project for quite a while, then wrote Red Badge in pell-mell fury. In one account he got it all down in nine days. Finding a publisher wasn’t easy but when the book appeared the world took notice and Crane acquired the two things he had been conspicuously missing: money (some) and fame (a lot). Readers and critics both marvelled that a novel of such compelling immediacy could have been written by a man who had been born after the Civil War’s end and had never seen a battle. But the book’s fame and Crane’s place in the firmament had little to do with battle as a military or political event. It was the intensity of the turmoil buffeting Henry Fleming from the inside that distinguished Red Badge from previous books about war, and even from previous books full stop. It was like nothing else. Crane thought art meant getting close to the grit of experience and he got close enough to see in Fleming just about everything a man in panic for his life could feel. But Crane’s willingness to name and record his hero’s chaotic emotions was only part of the book’s power. Behind that he caught a glimpse of something else – something about life that helped to place man in the universe. It can be found most clearly, perhaps, in Fleming’s encounter with the spectral soldier: a friend from home, Jim Conklin, who was trying to outwalk death.

Red Badge is the most quotable of books, but the passage that lingers after all others is the five-page account of Henry Fleming’s hasty march beside the spectral figure he is slow to recognise – ‘Gawd! Jim Conklin!’

His grey, appalling face had attracted attention in the crowd … In a dogged way, he repelled them, signing to them to go on and leave him alone … There could be seen a certain stiffness in the movements of his body, as if he were taking infinite care not to arouse the passion of his wounds. As he went on, he seemed always looking for a place, like one who goes to choose a grave.

‘The passion of his wounds’! The novel is like this pretty much all the way through; on every page there is something that has never been said before. Jim Conklin walks stiffly on, waving away the other men. ‘Leave me be – don’t tech me …’

Hastening up, they perceived that his face wore an expression telling that he had at last found the place for which he had struggled … He was waiting with patience for something that he had come to meet … Finally, the chest of the doomed soldier began to heave with a strained motion. It increased in violence until it was as if an animal was within and was kicking and tumbling furiously to be free.

When Conklin falls his body hits the ground left shoulder first and bounces a little. Henry can barely speak. Crane’s account of the death of the spectral soldier ends with a line that writers loudly loved or hated all over the English-speaking world: ‘The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.’

The American novelist Joseph Hergesheimer, who read that sentence at the age of 15, ‘was appropriately amazed’. He repeated the line to everybody who would listen. ‘There was no doubt about my opinion of such a remarkable and modern paragraph – I was convinced it was marvellous.’ Paul Sorrentino pretty much agrees: it’s the originality of the writing that dazzles, not only the language itself but what the writer chooses to see. ‘Crane,’ he says, ‘blazed across the sky as the most innovative writer of his generation.’ Crane himself was never casual about the choosing of words, but the thing that arrested him, that he kept thinking about, that he glimpsed and tried to get down, was the animal within that kicked and tumbled furiously to be free.

Sorrentino, a professor of English literature at Virginia Tech, has been preparing to write Crane’s life for more than twenty years. In that time he has published three volumes of basic source material, the first two with Stanley Wertheim, another Crane scholar: The Correspondence of Stephen Crane (1988) and The Crane Log (1994), a 450-page chronology which imposes order on the spotty record of Crane’s life. Stephen Crane Remembered (2006), which includes 62 reminiscences of Crane from every stage of his life, is the third of Sorrentino’s preparatory volumes and deserves to be read on its own from first page to last. Among the writers are relatives, fellow students and Linson’s artist friends in New York, literary figures like Willa Cather and H.G. Wells, and leading news correspondents Crane met in Cuba such as Charles Michelson, Ernest McCready and Richard Harding Davis.

These are rich materials but at the same time they are incomplete and sparse. Crane was not a prolific letter-writer and he left no diaries or memoir. Further confusing matters was Crane’s first biographer, Thomas Beer, whose Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (1923) had two virtues and one substantial demerit. The virtues were a carefully written introduction by Joseph Conrad, which treated Crane as a major writer, and Beer’s lively and vigorous prose, which made for a readable book. The substantial demerit, slow to emerge, was that Beer had made parts of it up, sending later biographers down wrong roads for decades. Sorrentino concluded, but in many cases could not firmly prove, that Beer had fabricated letters, invented anecdotes, imagined characters, suppressed some information and altered the chronology of events. The problems were so many and serious that Sorrentino adopted an unforgiving test: if any story, claim, letter, literary judgment or colourful remark attributed to Crane had no source but Beer it had to be discarded. Out went an early love interest, Helen Trent, whose white arms were ‘the most beautiful … I ever saw’. Out went Crane’s dismissal of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata – ‘an old maid’s picnic’ so boring, Crane said (maybe), that he couldn’t finish it. Out went several significant details in a story about the origin of Crane’s decision to write Red Badge. Sorrentino tells us that Crane had dismissed a Civil War story, saying he could do it better himself. ‘Why don’t you then?’ said a friend. ‘By Jove,’ Crane replies, ‘I believe I will.’ Beer tells substantially the same story but names the friend who issued the challenge: Acton Davies, an admirer of Zola and a writer for New York’s Evening Sun. They were in the studio of the painter William Dallgren, who was painting a portrait of Davies (maybe). Out with Davies! Out with Dallgren! Out with the bit of tooth Crane lost in a fistfight at 17 after he described a Tennyson poem as swill! Banishing Beer brings some sad losses but Sorrentino sticks to his standard – Beer alone is not enough.

What is gained is trust. Beer’s book has an energy a little like Crane’s own but it is filled with problems – things that don’t quite make sense, or contradict other accounts. Sorrentino’s A Life of Fire is a quieter book, faithful to the record, free of bossy instruction to the reader on what to think or feel. The portrait that emerges is familiar from the personal histories of writers: early years of not quite fitting in, watchful interest in the doings of grown-ups, some remarkable utterance, eventually words on paper that capture attention, all in retrospect pointing clearly enough to work people will go on talking about more or less for ever. Sorrentino is good on the particulars of Crane’s progress: Crane with his mother (full of pious Methodist desire to fix the world) and father (Methodist circuit rider, who died of a heart attack when Crane was eight); Crane’s cool indifference to pretty much everything in school and college except baseball; startling early proficiency in swearing and smoking; an introduction through his brother to newspaper work; sudden notoriety when his sardonic account in the New York Tribune of a tradesmen’s parade in New Jersey was noticed by the paper’s owner, Whitelaw Reid, then running for vice president. The paper backtracked and Crane and his brother were promptly fired – a fact noted all over the country. Crane meanwhile was writing furiously: sketches and stories and then a short novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which he published at his own expense. It was roundly denounced as immoral and failed to sell but caught the attention of established writers including Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells.

A life​ of Crane at this point becomes a narrative with three themes: things written and published, a daily struggle for money, and restless travels in search of experience and a place where he might settle and work. There is a frantic quality to these years. Crane had time for only a fraction of what he wrote and did, but he wrote and did it all anyway. The work included four novels in addition to Maggie, which pushed American literature several substantial steps in the direction of candour, and The Red Badge of Courage, which established the inner life as a fitting arena for American fiction. Between novels he wrote scores of stories and newspaper sketches, many of them widely admired and imitated; and he travelled to Mexico, Greece and Cuba. To the newspaper-reading public, reacting to Maggie and rumour, Crane appeared a man with scandalous views and habits, a consort of prostitutes, a scorner of religion, a drunkard and drug addict. This was all completely crazy. Crane’s vices were of a different sort. He loved horses and dogs, he liked to write at night, he was careless with money, he smoked cigarettes obsessively and ‘his one absolute vice’ – if we can trust Beer – ‘was a habit of not sending books back.’ The public that believed the lurid tales shrugged and forgot him when he died. What survived were the sad drama of his life, the fresh vigour of his language and a handful of stories that changed the way Americans read and wrote them.

Crane, with his perpetual need for money, wrote many forgettable stories but he knew the good ones and often alerted his agent to one that deserved quick placement and a top price. Among the best were ‘The Blue Hotel’ and ‘The Open Boat’. In both, Crane captures a glimpse of something that refuses to be explained. Driving the first is the mad fear of a Swede who gets off a train in a Nebraska town on a winter night and makes his way with two other men to a hotel painted blue. After dinner a card game begins; one of the players whacks his cards down when revealing a winning hand. ‘A game with a board-whacker in it is sure to become intense,’ Crane writes.

During a lull caused by the new deal, the Swede suddenly addressed Johnnie.

‘I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room,’ remarks the Swede during a lull in the play.

‘What in hell are you talking about?’

‘Oh, you know what I mean all right.’

By slow degrees the Swede’s fear drives events until a hidden knife pierces ‘a human body, this citadel of virtue, wisdom, power … as easily as if it had been a melon. The Swede fell with a cry of supreme astonishment.’ With this story Crane introduces into American writing impulses lifted from the unconscious, dark and unfathomable.

‘The Open Boat’ is just as startling. It is the tale of a lifeboat, overcrowded with men, struggling through a night and a day to remain upright just outside the surf along the Atlantic coast of Florida. The story follows Crane’s own experience during his first attempt to reach Cuba on the Commodore, a decrepit steamer which foundered. In the story, lifeboats are lowered but things go wrong; the narrator’s boat has only six inches of clearance and the seas are heavy. A vision haunts the writing. The men in the boat are often in sight of land – at moments they even wave to men on shore – but the overloaded lifeboat, so close to beach and rescue, can’t possibly go in through the surf. They need help but no one comes. Life and death are touching fingers. Stated baldly this is just an abstract notion, but the immediacy of Crane’s writing so evident in the Red Badge doesn’t fail him here. Every moment is sharply illuminated. The men in the boat know they are looking from the land of the dead into the land of the living. Finally they do what they can’t but must. Not all live.

Crane of course lived. While recuperating in the Hotel de Dreme in Jacksonville, Florida, Crane met and won the heart of the proprietor, Cora Taylor, a woman of energy and bold enterprise. The hotel was in fact a bordello; without hesitation Cora left it to follow Crane to England. No other woman seems to have found a way into the life that remained to him. From England, frustrated by his failure to reach Cuba, Crane went to Greece for the final moments of the Greco-Turkish war. There at last he heard shots fired in anger and got a couple of fine stories out of it. In the spring of 1898, with war imminent between the United States and Spain, Crane recrossed the Atlantic for a second try at Cuba, leaving behind a deskful of unpaid bills, a tangle of legal troubles, a sheaf of stories editors were slow to take, and the penniless Cora. For eight months Cora wrote frantically to anyone who might have news of Crane but heard almost nothing in reply. These eight months – Crane’s longest and deepest journey of exploration – can be described as both the big thing and the last thing in Crane’s life.

The life wasn’t over when Crane got back to England in January 1899, but it was ending. It seems evident that he had long suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis, a commonplace disease that in the 1890s was killing a hundred thousand Americans a year. Diagnosis should have been routine but no evidence survives that a doctor ever seriously examined him. The sole medical report to reach Cora cited ‘a slight evidence of activity in the trouble in his lungs’. And yet everyone Crane knew remarked on his wasted fragility. ‘He had always been delicate,’ one of his brothers said. Willa Cather, while still a student at the University of Nebraska, met Crane in 1895 and described him as ‘a slender, narrow-chested fellow’ who was going to Mexico to ‘get rid of his cough … He was thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt.’ In Cuba, the reporter Charles Michelson noted ‘the wreck of an athlete’s frame – once square shoulders crowded forward by the concavity of a collapsed chest’. Ralph Paine, another correspondent, noted ‘there was not too much flesh on his bones’ and he was ‘incessantly smoking cigarettes, the long fingers straying to the straggling brown moustache’.

Crane smoked as if cigarettes alone were keeping him alive. ‘He could not talk,’ a niece wrote, ‘unless he was walking up and down the room with his hands stuffed into his pockets and a cigarette balanced on his lips.’ It is this niece who gives the fullest report of the progress of Crane’s illness. ‘I am sure he had tuberculosis in his lungs before he went a-filibustering,’ she remembered, ‘and that the experience caused the infection to spread to his intestines.’

But of all this Cora was oblivious. They had moved into a house too big, too old and too expensive. She bustled to make it comfortable, planted a garden, organised parties, scrounged for money, talked up Crane’s new work. Conrad was often about. Henry James would cycle over for a visit once a week, eight miles each way. Tuberculosis was notoriously tricky at the end: the patient might feel stronger, the glow of fever looked like ruddy health. Cora embraced every hopeful sign. As late as May 1900 she wrote happily to H.G. Wells: ‘Lung trouble seems over!’ But Wells wasn’t deceived. ‘He did his utmost to conceal his symptoms and get on with his dying,’ Wells wrote. ‘Only at the end did his wife wake up to what was coming.’ A frantic, final dash to Germany for the cure achieved nothing. Conrad believed the only reason he went was to please Cora. ‘When you come to the hedge,’ Crane told a friend, pausing constantly to catch his breath, ‘that we must all go over – it isn’t bad. You feel sleepy – and – you don’t care. Just a little dreamy curiosity – which world you’re really in – that’s all.’

He died in Germany on 5 June 1900. His friends were sorrow-struck but accepting. Edward Garnett and Hamlin Garland, one of Crane’s first admirers, both concluded that as a writer Crane was pretty well burned out: there was nothing further to expect. Looking back, Conrad remarked that Crane’s death ‘was a great loss to his friends, but perhaps not so much to literature. I think he had given his measure fully in the few books he had the time to write.’ For this strange conclusion I can find no explanation: Conrad had been reading what he wrote in Cuba, and that should have been enough.

Cuba​ was a ten-week war, from early June to mid-August 1898. Crane went ashore at Guantánamo Bay on 10 June. Guerrillas attacked the Americans the following night, killing several. Crane described the death of one of them in ‘War Memories’. A few days later he joined a detachment of marines which marched six miles down the coast to attack a guerrilla camp. That night Crane watched a marine sergeant signalling to American ships offshore with flags, called ‘wig-wagging’. He described the cool bravery of the sergeant, standing up in plain sight for minutes on end, in ‘Marines Signalling under Fire at Guantánamo’. On 24 June, Crane participated in a battle at Las Guásimas, a spot otherwise of no significance where two jungle trails crossed. Part of this fight found its way into a story called ‘The Price of the Harness’. On 1 July, Crane watched the battle at El Caney. A week later, suffering from a fever, he was put aboard a ship carrying wounded soldiers back to Virginia. In late July, recovered from his fever, he was in New York negotiating a collection of Cuban war stories later published as Wounds in the Rain, the best of his books after Red Badge. By the end of August the fighting was over and Crane had returned to Cuba. Correspondents were forbidden to enter Havana, where the Americans and Spanish diplomats were negotiating a final end to the war, but Crane slipped past whatever checkpoints there were, settling himself in the city first at the Grand Hotel Pasaje, later at a boarding house run by a motherly Irishwoman called Mary Horan. ‘I came into Havana without permission from anybody,’ he wrote in the New York Journal on 30 August. ‘I simply came in. I did not even have a passport.’

Sorrentino’s fifty pages about Crane in Cuba are filled with incident, conversation, canny evaluation of men’s characters, drama and sorrow, and, emerging slowly between the lines, a silence begging notice. Crane had no interest in politics. ‘If he cared anything for the Cuban cause he never showed it,’ a fellow correspondent, Otto Carmichael, later wrote. Crane had none of the instincts of the journalist. ‘The haste to file cable dispatches never troubled him,’ Ralph Paine said. At Guantánamo, Paine listened while another correspondent, Ernest McCready, extracted a story from Crane for the New York World about the battle. Once talking, Crane started to put in the stuff that mattered to him most but protested when he saw that McCready was leaving most of it out. ‘Forget the scenery and “effects”,’ McCready told him. ‘You can save your flub-dub and shoot it to New York by mail. What I want is the straight story of the fight.’

But it was the flub-dub that separated Crane from journeyman reporters. Richard Harding Davis, who had known but not much liked Crane in Greece, came away from Cuba with a changed view. In Harper’s Magazine after the shooting ended he wrote that Crane was the coolest man under fire, the one who saw the most and the best writer: Crane’s account of a man bleeding to death near San Juan (‘The Price of the Harness’) was ‘the most valuable contribution to literature that the war has produced’. Conrad responded in the same way. When he wrote to Cora in early December he said that ‘Harness’ was Crane’s best writing since Red Badge. ‘He is maturing. He is expanding. There is more breadth and somehow more substance in this war picture.’ He wasn’t just being nice to Cora; he told the publisher William Blackwood that he found the story ‘broader, gentler, less tricky and just as individual as the best of his work’. Why Conrad took a different view after Crane died is a mystery.

Something had changed in Crane since the publication of The Red Badge of Courage. It can be seen in all of the Cuban pieces but most clearly in ‘War Memories’, a partly fictionalised account as long as a novella. In it, along with much else, Crane describes the fate of Dr John Gibbs, a naval surgeon shot in the night when guerrillas attacked Crane’s detachment at Guantánamo:

I heard somebody dying near me. He was dying hard … The darkness was impenetrable. The man was dying in some depression within seven feet of me. Every wave, vibration, of his anguish beat upon my senses. He was long past groaning. There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out in a clear penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence … I thought this man would never die. I wanted him to die. Ultimately he died. At that moment the adjutant came bustling along erect among the spitting bullets. ‘Where’s the doctor?’ … A man answered briskly: ‘Just died this minute, sir.’ Despite the horror of this night’s business, the man’s mind was somehow influenced by the coincidence of the adjutant’s calling aloud for the doctor within a few seconds of the doctor’s death. It – what shall I say? It interested him, this coincidence.

Crane had caught a clear glimpse of what he was seeking, the thing beyond ordinary experience. It wasn’t just the death of Gibbs, but the coincidence, and the man’s interest in the coincidence, despite the horror of the night’s business. The change in the writing, the ‘maturing’ noticed by Conrad, is the addition of Crane himself, what he is feeling and experiencing – ‘no longer a cynic. I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into a vat of war.’ He is not only describing war but using himself as an instrument to calibrate the quality and effects of war. Over time this has become a principal technique for writing about war and other extreme experience, widely used by writers as different as Salinger in ‘For Esmé – with Love and Squalor’ and Michael Herr writing about Vietnam in Dispatches.

During the months he lingered in Havana, Crane frequented a number of bars, cafés and cantinas, listening to the talk, smoking incessantly and nursing a beer or two into the evening hours, when he went home to work. There he sat at his desk until he had written his daily six hundred words, according to Otto Carmichael. His landlady, Mary Horan, watched over him carefully, bringing him food, insisting he eat it while she watched, commanding him to get up from his desk at 11 o’clock every night and go outside for air and exercise. During the months Crane remained in Havana, American officials often received letters for him but he ignored them. Exactly what he was writing and why he had gone to ground, keeping silent, are both unknown. He told Carmichael the letters were probably from tradesmen hoping to get payment on a bill, but it is clear that his family and Cora Taylor in England were both desperate for word, and that Crane knew it. His silence was deliberate, prompted by something about the war, or something about the things he knew were lying just ahead. His life in Havana is like a play, built around a tense inner drama whose text has been lost. But whatever held Crane in Havana released him at last, and the day before Christmas 1898 he started back for England and the business of dying.

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