November 3, 2021

Born to Write — Stephen Crane at 150

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m as much of a Jerseyman as you will find.

—Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Here’s how Stephen Crane happens. One late October day in the 1980s you’re in the Quadrant, a secondhand bookstore in Easton, Pa. You take down a first edition of Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (Stokes 1900), said to be the last of Crane’s books published in his lifetime. Standing there, you glance at the first story, “The Price of the Harness.” On the second page, you find yourself drawn into a paragraph that begins “The day wore down to the Cuban dusk, in which the shadows are all grim and of ghostly shape,” and that ends “From somewhere in the world came a single rifle-shot.” You jump ahead a few pages to this sentence: “As the infantry moved along the road, some of the battery horses turned at the noise of the trampling feet and surveyed the men with eyes as deep as wells, serene, mournful, generous eyes, lit heart-breakingly with something that was akin to a philosophy, a religion of self-sacrifice — oh, gallant, gallant horses!”

The book is $39, too high, but never mind, you’re committed, you have to have it, you’re in a state of happy confusion, and it’s not the gallant horses, it’s the way Crane’s excitement in the writing and your excitement in reading fused in that moment. Before you can say a word about the price, the owner lowers it to $20. Just like that. Like a single rifle-shot somewhere in the world.

The owner tells you that Crane went to Lafayette College, right there in Easton. According to Paul Auster’s biography, Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane (Holt $35), Lafayette was “a madhouse of violent hazing rituals and masculine mayhem, with constant battles between the sophomore and freshman classes.” A classmate is quoted recalling how a bunch of raucous sophomore “gangsters” broke into Crane’s dorm room one night and were “persuaded to leave” only after he “pointed a loaded revolver at them.”

The Red Universe

Auster calls Crane “America’s answer to Keats and Shelley,” and “if he continues to live on as they do, it is because his work has never grown old.” And because, like Keats, he lives again in his correspondence. In a letter from 1895 in the R.W. Stallman/Lillian Gilkes edition of Stephen Crane: Letters (NYU Press 1960), he tells a friend that he “fell in love with the straight out-and-out, sometimes hideous, often-braggart westerners” because he “thought them to be the truer men …. They are serious, those fellows. When they are born they take one big gulp of wind and then they live.”

Earlier the same year he begins a letter to a 16-year-old (“Dear Deadeye Dick”) he found “sobbing and penniless” on the Alamo Plaza in San Antonio after running away from Chicago “to be a cowboy.” Crane took the kid to a restaurant, fed him, and paid his fare on a homebound train. “Now, old man,” he writes, “take some advice from a tough Jay from back East. You say your family is all right and nobody bothers you …. So better stay home and grow a mustache before you rush out into the red universe any more.”

Making Old Things New

Crane’s impact on Joseph Conrad is evident in a December 1897 letter also quoted by Auster: “Your temperament makes old things new and new things amazing.” After reading the story “A Man and Some Others,” Conrad tells Crane, “You are an everlasting surprise to me. You shock — and the next moment you give perfect artistic satisfaction. Your method is fascinating. You are a complete impressionist. The illusions of life come out of your hand without flaw.”

“A Visceral Affinity”

The award-winning author of The New York Trilogy and The Music of Chance, Paul Auster is “one of our preeminent novelists” according to Crane scholar Paul Sorrentino. Burning Boy arrives with advance praise from other writers, including Russell Banks (“the most profound homage of one writer to another that I’ve ever read”); Judith Thurman (“a rare literary match — a visceral affinity”); and Michael Wood (“It’s hard to imagine a more perfect team”). A quote at the top of the dust jacket, from Crane’s story “The Blue Hotel,” slyly hints at Auster’s concept of his task: “Every sin is the result of a collaboration.”

At this writing, three-fourths of the way through a 750-page book, I know what the New York Times’ Charles McGrath is talking about when he says the biography is “seldom dull” and “often thrilling,” but “can be exhausting.” In his October 29 review, McGrath refers to Auster “unpacking Crane paragraph by paragraph, line by line,” in “lengthy passages of analysis that inevitably slow the book down and can make you forget that Crane’s was a life lived at a hectic, almost frantic pace.”

It’s true, a shorter book might have had a better chance of alerting the “general reader” to the work of a great American writer. And “analysis” isn’t a fair word for what Auster does at his best, particularly with his in-depth readings of Crane’s first novel Maggie and the stories inspired by his adventures in the West, Cuba, and Mexico.

After guiding the reader through Maggie with a sensitivity to the language that at times does verge on the “sin” of collaboration, Auster refers to “prose that can be choppy and disjointed, an unpredictable style that stuns and stings rather than charms …. You cannot curl up on a sofa and settle into a book by Crane. You have to read him sitting bolt upright in your chair.”

Even so, I can remember numerous times curled up on a sofa reading Crane while being charmed and stung and moved, all at once, as I was that day at the bookshop in Easton reading about the Cuban dusk and the horses in Wounds in the Rain.

Who Is This Guy?

I have to admit having mixed feelings about the color-tinted photograph of Crane on the cover of Burning Boy, big as life, with holstered pistol in evidence, taken when he was a war correspondent in Greece. I hope enough readers responsive to the cover and the title (about which I also have mixed feelings) buy the book. My favorite photo of Crane can be found in Auster’s biography, although it’s much smaller than the version that caught my attention many years ago in a book of vintage New York City photographs. Who is this guy? I wondered, and what’s he doing lounging (maybe dozing) on a sofa in a friend’s studio in the old Art Students League building? He resembled a gunfighter cooling his heels between showdowns in an old western, with that mustache, laid back, but ready to hit the road out there somewhere in the red universe.

When I showed the photo to my son, he said, “Looks beat, like a hippie, a rocker.” Yes, fast forward to the sixties and he’d be right at home in a picture of The Band. Auster actually seems to be headed in this direction when he drops a line in passing, cramming it into a parenthesis (“Crane, mad for music, played the guitar, the flute, the banjo, and the melodeon,” and “sang tenor”). Later in the book there’s a photo of Crane with a banjo in his lap during a Pendennis Club celebration of the first appearance of Maggie, where the expression “outta sight” is repeated often enough that you begin to think Crane coined it.

Crane and Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is not the only creative force to hail from the Jersey Shore. Born in Newark 150 years ago this Monday, Stephen Crane was in Asbury Park during the original glory days, another New Jersey native born to run (“I’m as much of a Jerseyman as you will find”). He lived and went to school in the resort town and got his start in journalism writing for the local paper. While it’s true that few if any show-stopping rock and rollers were around in 1893, Crane was the literary equivalent of one, a young visionary with a fierce lyric sense and a wholly unique style, his insights edged with irony, his imagery inimitable.

There’s a definite connection between the Boss and the author of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane’s version of “Born to Run” is an Asbury Park story called “The Pace of Youth,” in which a boy who works on “Stimson’s Mammoth Merry-Go-Round” conducts a silent romance with Stimson’s daughter, their love enhanced by the subtle signals and innuendo forced on them because they were so often under the father’s suspicious eye: “They were the victims of the dread angel of affectionate speculation that forces the brain endlessly on roads that lead nowhere.” In the end, however, the road leads to a rendezvous on the beach and then their escape, with the father in pursuit before surrendering to the pace of youth, “the power of their young blood, the power to fly strongly into the future and feel and hope again.”

The Stephen Crane House

Springsteen and Crane both figure in Asbury Park’s ongoing renaissance. The house at 508 Fourth Avenue that the Crane family moved into when Stephen was 11 is still there, with the entire first floor and four public rooms on the second floor serving as a museum dedicated to the author. According to the museum website, “the generous donation given by Mr. Bruce Springsteen and friends has been of enormous help in making it possible for recitals, lectures, and poetry readings to take place there.”

On November 7 at 3:30 p.m., the Stephen Crane House will mark the author’s 150th birthday with the premiere of Cora & Stevie: Heaven and Hell, a new one-woman show written by and starring actor-playwright and longtime friend of the Crane House, Marjorie Conn. There will be one performance only. According to Paul Auster, Crane’s common law wife Cora was his “hidden strength, the steady, encouraging voice that kept his confidence up and helped him forge on with his work …. In her eyes, everything he wrote was a masterpiece.”