Conrad’s Judgement: Stevenson vs. Stevie Crane
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.