Thomas Powers

  • Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire by Paul Sorrentino
    Harvard, 476 pp, £25.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 674 04953 6

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.’

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