Fi­nally, some proper reporting on a great jour­nal­ist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son

Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire By Paul Sor­rentino Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 454pp, $45 (HB) STEPHEN Crane’s life was a short life but also a prodi­giously pro­duc­tive one. Though be­set by poverty and suf­fer­ing from the tu­ber­cu­lo­sis that would kill him in 1900, aged 28, he pro­duced at least two master­pieces of prose ( The Red Badge of Courage and Mag­gie: A Girl of the Streets), a lot of po­etry and much ex­cel­lent jour­nal­ism.

The Li­brary of Amer­ica’s Crane: Prose and Po­etry num­bers 1400 pages and fea­tures a cover pho­to­graph taken in Athens in 1897 of the hand­some for­eign cor­re­spon­dent look­ing like the young Ernest Hem­ing­way or, per­haps more ap­po­sitely, the young and slen­der Or­son Welles of Cit­i­zen Kane. ‘‘More ap­po­sitely’’ given Crane wrote for the news­pa­per pub­lisher on whom it was be­lieved the char­ac­ter of Kane was based.

Crane cov­ered his­tory in the mak­ing in Cuba, and re­ported in 1897 from the Gre­coTurk­ish War. From Athens, on board the St Ma­rina: “We are car­ry­ing the wounded away from Domokos. There are eight hun­dred bul­let­torn men aboard, some of them dead. This steamer was for­merly used for trans­port­ing sheep, but it was taken by the govern­ment for am­bu­lance pur­poses. It is not a nice place for a well man, but war takes the fini­cal qual­ity out of its vic­tims, and the soldiers do not com­plain.’’

Lit­tle won­der Hem­ing­way, born a year be­fore Crane’s death, ad­mired this man and his

June 7-8, 2014 writ­ing. For Hem­ing­way, Crane’s Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) was “a great boy’s dream of war … one of the finest books in our lit­er­a­ture’’.

Per­haps, out of grat­i­tude for his re­mind­ing us of that tes­ti­mo­nial, we ought for­give Paul Sor­rentino for his con­jec­ture that Crane met Grace Hall, the fu­ture mother of Hem­ing­way, in New York in the mid-1890s. “It is,’’ Sor­rentino ex­trap­o­lates, ‘‘as though he [Ernest] grew up to be Stephen Crane.’’ ‘‘Might Ernest Hem­ing­way have first be­gun to ad­mire his lit­er­ary fa­ther af­ter hear­ing about the fa­mous au­thor his mother had known, and per­haps fallen in love with, in New York City?’’ This is lu­di­crous and un­help­ful, be­ing only too un­for­tu­nately typ­i­cal of pro­fes­so­rial bi­og­ra­phy.

Crane’s jour­nal­ism was not all wars and ru­mour of wars. He was a ded­i­cated real­is­tic re­porter of the streets of New York and its denizens, as Mag­gie: A Girl of the Streets bears wit­ness. Any rushed reader who wishes to be con­vinced of Crane’s distinc­tion should, at least, read chap­ter 17 of that novel, which charts Mag­gie’s demise and demon­strates the ge­nius of the au­thor’s nar­ra­tive pow­ers. He was also a dab hand at slighter, less se­ri­ous sub­jects. In a piece ti­tled New York’s Bi­cy­cle Speed­way, he con­tem­plates the im­pact of the ve­loci­pede on the Bow­ery and Lower Man­hat­tan at large. The bi­cy­cle crowd has com­pletely sub­ju­gated the streets. The glit­ter­ing wheels dom­i­nate it from end to end. The cafes … are oc­cu­pied mainly by people in bi­cy­cle clothes … Down at the Cir­cle where stands the pa­tient Columbus, the stores are crowded with bi­cy­cle goods. There are in­nu­mer­able re­pair shops. Ev­ery­thing is bi­cy­cle.

But the mean streets of Man­hat­tan held haz­ards even for an ex­pe­ri­enced jour­nal­ist. In 1896 Crane met po­lice com­mis­sioner Theodore Roo­sevelt. Af­ter in­ter­view­ing ‘‘cho­rus girl’’ Dora Clark, Crane wit­nessed her ar­rest for solic­it­ing and ap­peared in court for her de­fence. Tes­ti­fy­ing against the ar­rest­ing of­fi­cer, a mem­ber of pos­si­bly the most cor­rupt po­lice force in the world, made him per­sona non grata with the po­lice, in­clud­ing Roo­sevelt. Crane felt he had acted ‘‘like a man of honor and a gen­tle­man’’.

Partly due to these events, Crane spent much of his life from 1897 to his death in 1900 in Eng­land, where he be­friended, and was be­friended by, Ed­ward Gar­nett, Ford Ma­dox Ford, Joseph Con­rad and Henry James. Con­rad felt Crane was ‘‘the only im­pres­sion­ist and only an im­pres­sion­ist’’. With which one would not wish to dis­agree while re­main­ing con­vinced that Crane was also cru­cially a re­al­ist. James, who had just mailed the Crane fam­ily 50 to ease their fi­nan­cial bur­den, on hear­ing of his friend’s death, wrote: ‘‘What a bru­tal, need­less extinction — what an un­mit­i­gated unre­deemed catas­tro­phe! I think of him with such a sense of pos­si­bil­i­ties and pow­ers.’’

Sor­rentino, not Crane’s first bi­og­ra­pher, re­gards his sub­ject as ‘‘the most con­tro­ver­sial Amer­i­can au­thor of the late 19th-century’’. Poet John Ber­ry­man was of the opin­ion that ‘‘no one will ever be able to ca­su­ally work at Crane’’. Sor- rentino sees any bi­og­ra­pher of Crane to be con­fronted by scant pri­mary ev­i­dence; gar­bled chronolo­gies; un­dated, mis­dated and miss­ing cor­re­spon­dence; un­ver­i­fi­able ru­mours; and con­tra­dic­tory wit­ness ac­counts. ‘‘No other Amer­i­can writer, with the ex­cep­tion of Poe, has left a life-record with more opac­i­ties and in­con­sis­ten­cies than Crane.’’ His first bi­og­ra­pher, Thomas Beer, on fin­ish­ing Stephen Crane: A Study in Amer­i­can Letters (1923), de­clared: ‘‘Bi­og­ra­phy is a deadly job and not for a mil­lion dol­lars would I tackle it again.’’

Sor­rentino ar­gues that Beer’s book cre­ated a prob­lem in un­der­stand­ing Crane’s life and work. Though sub­se­quent bi­og­ra­phers, his­to­ri­ans and schol­ars ques­tioned its ac­cu­racy, they ac­cepted anec­dotes, de­tails and ex­cerpts from Crane’s letters found only in Beer’s pages; no con­crete ev­i­dence sug­gested other­wise. “No one knew how dam­ag­ing the book was to Crane schol­ar­ship un­til Stan­ley Wertheim and I demon­strated that Beer had sup­pressed in­for­ma­tion, al­tered the chronol­ogy of Crane’s life, in­vented anec­dotes, cre­ated fic­tional per­sons, and fab­ri­cated vir­tu­ally all of the letters to and from Stephen and Cora Crane that ini­tially built the foun­da­tion for un­der­stand­ing Crane’s life.’’

So Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire de­mands to be read as a cor­rec­tive bi­og­ra­phy and can per­haps be judged ad­e­quately only by Crane schol­ars who, one as­sumes, are not legion. If it sends read­ers to or back to Crane’s writ­ing it will have per­formed a valu­able ser­vice.

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