Finally, some proper reporting on a great journalist
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.