Con­rad’s Judge­ment: Steven­son vs. Ste­vie Crane

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jef­frey Mey­ers

Robert Louis Steven­son (1850-94) and Stephen Crane (1871-1900) had strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties in their lives and work. Yet Joseph Con­rad, for com­plex rea­sons, dis­liked the older writer and ad­mired the younger. Both men came from pro­fes­sional back­grounds: Steven­son’s father was an en­gi­neer, Crane’s father a Methodist min­is­ter. Frail and sickly, the writ­ers al­most died in child­hood. They stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing at uni­ver­si­ties – in Ed­in­burgh and in Syra­cuse, New York. Ro­man­tic and leg­endary ex­pa­tri­ates, they re­belled against their fam­i­lies’ gen­teel val­ues and roamed the world. Just as Steven­son seems to wan­der be­yond the edge of John Singer Sar­gent’s great por­trait, he drifted out of Bri­tain to Amer­ica and the South Seas, and never re­turned. Crane trav­eled to Eng­land, Greece and Cuba. They led bo­hemian lives and had scan­dalous unions with older, pre­vi­ously mar­ried women, but did not have chil­dren. Crane never mar­ried his com­pan­ion, Cora Tay­lor, who had owned the en­tic­ingly named Ho­tel de Dream, a whore­house in Jack­sonville, Florida.

Crane, whom Con­rad de­scribed as ‘a young man of medium stature and slen­der build, with very steady, pen­e­trat­ing blue eyes,’ bore a remarkable re­sem­blance to Steven­son. Both had an oval face, droop­ing mous­tache, long thin nose and body wasted by tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. Friends felt obliged to pro­tect the sweet, lov­able and vul­ner­a­ble char­ac­ters of Louis and Ste­vie. They were flu­ent writ­ers with – at their best – a clear, suc­cinct, in­tense style. Both men wrote ex­tremely pop­u­lar books: Trea­sure Is­land and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Red Badge of Courage and The Open Boat.

Both death-haunted men wan­dered in search of good health and ex­pired far from home. Steven­son sur­vived tu­ber­cu­lo­sis but died, aged forty-four, of a cere­bral haem­or­rhage in Samoa. Crane died, aged twenty-eight, of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis in a Ger­man sana­to­rium in the Black For­est. (Four years af­ter

Crane, An­ton Chekhov died of the same dis­ease in the same health re­sort.) Con­rad never met Steven­son, who’d achieved en­vi­able pop­u­lar­ity and fame be­fore Con­rad pub­lished his first novel. The mar­itime epi­taphs on their grave­stones were no­tably sim­i­lar. Steven­son chose his own poem ‘Re­quiem’: ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea.’ Con­rad chose lines from Spenser’s The Fairie Queene: ‘Sleep af­ter toyle, port af­ter stormie seas.’

Con­rad got an­gry when re­view­ers per­sis­tently com­pared him to Steven­son. He felt the need to den­i­grate Steven­son’s ro­man­tic tales as an es­cape from re­al­ity in or­der to el­e­vate his own work and es­tab­lish his lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion. Speak­ing of him­self in the third per­son, he con­demned his ri­val as ‘su­per­lit­er­ary, a con­scious . . . vir­tu­oso of style in pic­turesque pre­sen­ta­tion, whereas Joseph Con­rad is much less of a lit­er­ary man and, in any case, a very dif­fer­ent per­son.’ Though Steven­son was a moral­ist, Con­rad se­verely ex­claimed, ‘I am no sort of airy R. L. Steven­son who con­sid­ered his art a pros­ti­tute and the artist as no bet­ter than one.’

Con­rad’s first two nov­els, Al­mayer’s Folly (1895) and An Out­cast of the Is­lands (1896), were set in Malaya and had the same el­e­ments he crit­i­cised in Steven­son: an ex­otic set­ting, a strained ro­mance and an over-elab­o­rate style. De­spite his caus­tic com­ments, Con­rad’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ford Ma­dox Hu­ef­fer on Ro­mance (1903) was a lame at­tempt to cap­i­talise on and out­sell the ad­ven­ture fic­tion per­fected by the au­thor of Trea­sure Is­land and Kid­napped. Con­rad en­thu­si­as­ti­cally de­scribed his book as a ‘ro­man­tic nar­ra­tive of ad­ven­ture where the hero is a Kent youth of good birth, the hero­ine a Span­ish girl, the scene in Eng­land, Ja­maica, Cuba, and on the sea – the per­son­ages in­volved be­sides the Hero and Hero­ine smug­glers, planters, sailors and au­then­tic pi­rates.’ (Con­rad’s pi­rates would be real.) Frank McLynn noted sim­i­lar themes in Steven­son’s The Beach at Falesa (1892) and Con­rad’s early work: ‘anti-im­pe­ri­al­ism, the fa­tal im­pact of Euro­peans on the Pa­cific, mis­ce­gena­tion, colo­nial men­tal­i­ties, the cor­rup­tion of “civil­i­sa­tion” by ‘bar­barism”.’ Both writ­ers por­trayed the themes of alien­ation, iso­la­tion and the dou­ble in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and in ‘The Se­cret Sharer’. Many of Con­rad’s friends – Ford, Ed­ward

Gar­nett, Cun­ning­hame Graham, Henry James, Edmund Gosse and Sid­ney Colvin – ad­mired, even wor­shipped Steven­son, who first was missed as dis­tant, then mourned as dead. Though Con­rad dis­liked Steven­son’s way of life and re­sented his work, he had to sail care­fully when op­pos­ing the pre­vail­ing tide and his post­hu­mous cult, also nour­ished by Steven­son’s wi­dow Fanny and her son Lloyd Os­bourne.

When Crane pitched up in Eng­land in 1897 and a pub­lisher asked if he par­tic­u­larly wanted to meet any­one, he men­tioned Con­rad, whose Nig­ger of the ‘Nar­cis­sus’ was then be­ing se­ri­alised. Crane later wrote that in the novella Con­rad ‘comes nearer to an own­er­ship of the mys­te­ri­ous life on the ocean than any­body who has writ­ten in this cen­tury.’ Dur­ing lun­cheon with Con­rad, Crane provoca­tively de­clared that he was bored by Steven­son, the dar­ling of the English lit­er­ary world, who had re­cently died. Con­rad also thought that Steven­son’s rep­u­ta­tion – based more on his charm­ing per­son­al­ity and ex­otic life than on his ro­man­tic nov­els – was in­flated and agreed with Crane’s cheeky crit­i­cism.

Like Con­rad, Crane had been a coura­geous man of ac­tion, had risked dan­ger and come close to death. He had been ship­wrecked off the Florida coast in 1896 and had pre­car­i­ously sur­vived for sev­eral days in a lifeboat. He had re­ported the Greco-Turk­ish War in l897 and the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War in Cuba in 1898. Both men recog­nised their sim­i­lar tem­per­a­ments, and Con­rad wrote there was in Crane ‘a strain of chivalry which made him safe to trust with one’s life.’ Crane re­cip­ro­cated Con­rad’s ad­mi­ra­tion and friend­ship, and con­stantly praised him in let­ters, print and con­ver­sa­tion. The Amer­i­can writer James Gib­bons Huneker, who knew both au­thors, re­marked that Crane spoke of Con­rad as if he were the Vir­gin Mary.

De­spite his gen­uine fond­ness for Crane’s ap­peal­ing per­son­al­ity, Con­rad’s first es­say about him in 1919 was cu­ri­ously neg­a­tive. Though Crane had packed an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of travel and ex­pe­ri­ence into his short life, Con­rad em­pha­sised ‘his ig­no­rance of the world at large – he had seen very lit­tle of it.’ He stressed Crane’s good na­ture as well as the weak­ness in his char­ac­ter that al­lowed him to be surrounded by a par­a­sitic and even

treach­er­ous ret­inue. Declar­ing that Crane was only ‘half aware of the ex­cep­tional qual­ity of his achieve­ment,’ he main­tained that his early death was ‘a great loss to his friends, but per­haps not so much to lit­er­a­ture.’ Af­ter Crane died the re­spectable Con­rad was shocked to dis­cover his friend’s dark se­crets. Crane and Cora were not mar­ried and she had ac­tu­ally been a pros­ti­tute.

In his sec­ond and much longer es­say, an in­tro­duc­tion to Thomas Beer’s bi­og­ra­phy of 1923, Con­rad stressed the mis­for­tune and mor­bid­ity of his beloved ‘Ste­vie’ (he never called Henry James ‘Hank’): ‘Crane had not the face of a lucky man. . . . He had the smile of a man who knows that his time will not be long on this earth.’ On his final visit to Crane on May 23, 1900, Con­rad, who had seen his own father slowly die of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, knew that Crane was doomed: ‘He had been very ill and Mrs. Crane was tak­ing him to some place in Ger­many, but one glance at that wasted face was enough to tell me that it was the most for­lorn of all hopes.’ The next day Con­rad wrote emo­tion­ally and tele­graph­i­cally to John Galswor­thy: ‘Went to see Crane yes­ter­day at Dover. Been with him 20 min­utes. Sup­ported move from Brede [in Kent] pretty well. I was aw­fully shocked of course and had to put on jolly manners. He may yet es­cape.’

Crane’s last let­ter, writ­ten im­me­di­ately af­ter see­ing Con­rad on his last day in Eng­land, was a chival­ric plea to a mu­tual friend to as­sist Con­rad. The dy­ing Crane self­lessly wrote, ‘My con­di­tion is prob­a­bly known to you... I have Con­rad on my mind very much just now. Gar­nett does not think it likely that his writ­ing will ever be pop­u­lar out­side the ring of men who write. He is poor and a gen­tle­man and proud. His wife is not strong and they have a kid. If Gar­nett should ask you to help pull wires for a place on the Civil List for Con­rad please do me the last fa­vor.’ Two weeks later Crane died in Baden­weiler.

How ironic, Con­rad felt, that he lived while Crane, four­teen years younger, died by a cruel twist of fate in his twen­ties. Re­fer­ring to his sec­ond es­say on Crane, Con­rad ob­served, ‘I was pleased to pay my lit­tle trib­ute to the mem­ory of my first Amer­i­can friend, for whom I had a great af­fec­tion.

Not­with­stand­ing the dif­fer­ence of our ages Crane and I were very in­ti­mate.’ In an­other sad rec­ol­lec­tion of his friend, Con­rad twice re­ferred to ‘Poor Crane’ and be­lieved his char­ac­ter was re­flected in his fea­tures: ‘Poor Crane was at one time “puffed,” but he was never prop­erly ap­pre­ci­ated. We were great friends from the first, af­ter his ar­rival in Eng­land. The lower part of his face was rather weak but he had the fore­head and eyes of ge­nius. . . . Poor Crane was such a good fel­low that it was al­most im­pos­si­ble to per­suade him that ev­ery­body was not as straight as he was him­self.’

Out of friend­ship and loy­alty Con­rad for­gave Crane’s weak char­ac­ter and lit­er­ary faults – his all-too-easy imag­i­na­tion, lack of artistic per­fec­tion and ab­sence of res­o­nant depths – which he could not for­give in Steven­son. Con­rad wanted to purge ev­ery as­pect of his own fic­tion that had been in­flu­enced by his ri­val, whose suc­cess­ful ef­forts to ap­peal to a pop­u­lar au­di­ence were quite dis­tinct from his own creative ag­o­nies and exalted stan­dards in art.

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