THE RED AND THE SCARLET: The hectic career of Stephen Crane.
BY CALEB CRAIN
The New Yorker 6-30-14
In Stephen Crane’s novel “Maggie” (1893), it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when the title character is first set on the path to prostitution. Maybe it happens when her brother’s friend Pete tells her that her figure is “outa sight.” Maybe it happens a little later, when her job making shirt collars on an assembly line begins to seem dreary. Is it a mistake when she lets Pete take her to a music hall? What about when she lets him spirit her away from her rage-filled mother, who has collapsed on the kitchen floor after a bender? Women in the neighborhood gossip, and a practiced flirt steals Pete away—perhaps they are instrumental. Or maybe the end is determined from the beginning, when the girl has the misfortune to be born into poverty with attractive looks and an alcoholic parent.
Crane tells Maggie’s story in a way that resists a simple answer. If he had cast her as a traditional heroine, he could have praised her resourcefulness or faulted her vice. Instead, his novel acknowledges the contingent world she lives in, where her intentions may not be as powerful as the labor market, her instinct for survival, or the influence of family and friends, and her own understanding of her intentions is at times partial. “She did not feel like a bad woman” is as close as she, or the reader, gets to insight.
Existential compromises fascinated Crane. Does an alcoholic choose to drink? Is a soldier blameworthy if he flees an attack that scatters half his regiment? In the eighteen-nineties, during a brief and fiery literary career—he died before he was thirty—Crane explored these questions with vividly imagined detail and little moralizing. In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing.
In “The Red Badge of Courage,” the novel that made Crane famous, at the age of twenty-three, the nonhero Henry Fleming desperately wants to be perceived as brave, even though he deserts in a moment of cowardice, and doesn’t really seem to believe in bravery except as a perception. When, after his flight from the front lines, he manages to return to his regiment unexposed, he adopts a virile attitude: “He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.” And that’s only the outermost shell of his hypocrisy. A friend has entrusted Fleming with letters to his family, to be delivered in case of the man’s death. Fleming, desperate to keep his lapse secret, sees that these personal letters make the man vulnerable. He decides to taunt his friend about them if he gets too curious about Fleming’s absence. As it happens, the friend doesn’t get curious. When he asks for the letters back, Fleming tries to come up with a cutting remark but can’t, and hands them over without comment. “And for this he took unto himself considerable credit,” Crane writes, as Fleming’s self-serving consciousness turns a final pirouette. “It was a generous thing.”
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Even when performing a small act of self-restraint, Fleming is, to the narrator’s eye, a cad. Crane writes of Fleming at one point that “his capacity for self-hate was multiplied,” and one senses that he saw himself in the character, and was correspondingly hard on him. Crane’s great literary innovation here is to combine intimacy of observation with antagonism—a play of antipathy rather than of sympathy. Mental calculations so unflattering and so familiar had rarely been made so visible in fiction before, except, from time to time, in villains. When, in a later short story, Crane says of one of his characters, a loner and a spy, that his “irony was directed first at himself; then at you; then at the nation and the flag; then at God,” he is describing his own sensibility.
Fittingly, it has been hard for biographers to figure out who this chronicler of the undermined self really was. “I cannot help vanishing and disappearing and dissolving,” Crane once told an editor. “It is my foremost trait.” He left no diary, and few of his surviving letters reveal much. In 1923, a biography by the novelist Thomas Beer claimed, among other things, that Crane as an infant cried for a favorite red handkerchief, and that as a young man he loaned money to a woman who threw a knife at him; lingered outside an opera singer’s window until the police chased him away; and quipped that Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” “goes on and on, like Texas.” Critics believed Beer’s anecdotes until 1990, when the scholars Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino reported that Beer’s archive contained rough drafts of letters ostensibly written by Crane that differed sharply from versions he eventually published. They concluded that scores of the letters were “concocted.” Scholars now think that more than half a dozen people in Beer’s biography were concocted, too—including many whom Beer had credited as sources.
In the decades since, Wertheim and Sorrentino have labored to sift the truth about Crane’s life from the myth, editing his correspondence and a log of biographical documents. Now Sorrentino has written a biography, “Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire” (Harvard), that summarizes the research. Years of debunking seem to have left him reluctant to paint in bold strokes, however, and his book is a collection of facts rather than an interpretation. He also fills gaps in the record with reminiscences pulled from newspapers, books, and archives that in some cases seem no more trustworthy than Beer’s. Still, his book offers the most comprehensive picture to date, and it enables us to piece together a new Stephen Crane: a figure as driven to prove his manhood as Jack London; as plaintive about his broken faith as Herman Melville; and as ironic about his personal self, and as recklessly disinclined to take conventional sexual morals seriously, as Oscar Wilde.
Crane was born in Newark in 1871, into religion and conflict. His mother came from a family of Methodist ministers. He joked that they were “the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind,” but in fact a great-uncle was a bishop. His mother gave temperance lectures: after cracking the white of an egg into a glass, she showed the audience how a squirt of alcohol curdled it. Crane’s father, too, was a minister, as well as the presiding elder of Newark’s Methodist churches, and he wrote treatises denouncing intoxication, theatre, frivolous novels, and dance.
The youngest of fourteen siblings, only nine of whom survived infancy, Crane did not have an easy childhood. The family moved often, and his father died, of what seems to have been a heart attack, in 1880. In 1886, the local paper reported that his mother was “suffering from a temporary aberration of the mind.” Sorrentino suspects that Crane contracted tuberculosis quite young. But he was precocious in his pursuit of pleasure. By the time he was four, he was already reading novels. When he was six, a friend watched in admiration as he smoked a cigarette on the way to a temperance lecture and drank a beer at a fair the next day.
He was sent to a Methodist boarding school, but he dreamed of a career in the military, and when, in a dispute over a hazing incident, a teacher called him a liar, he dropped out. His mother agreed to send him to a semi-military academy instead. He loved it. He memorized Tennyson, taught younger boys about poker and romance, played baseball, and rose to the rank of captain in the school’s military corps. In the summers, he worked for an older brother, a bandanna-wearing eccentric who ran a news bureau in Asbury Park, which supplied the New York Tribune with reports of socialites’ visits to the town, then a fashionable resort.
In 1890, another brother persuaded Stephen to give up on the military, arguing that there wasn’t likely to be a war in his lifetime. He enrolled at Lafayette College, in order to study mining engineering. It was a practical idea, but he failed five of his seven classes. In writing, he got a zero. His only achievement seems to have been joining the Delta Upsilon fraternity, and, after a desperate transfer to Syracuse, a semester later, he arrived at the frat house on the new campus, as a friend recalled, “in a cab and a cloud of tobacco smoke.” By then, the only thing he took seriously was baseball. “Mr. Crane, what are you in this university for?” one of his professors asked. He admitted to an interest in journalism.
He began to write for a college paper, and an old friend of the family hired him as the Syracuse correspondent for the Tribune. Sorrentino believes that Crane began to explore Syracuse’s slums, police courts, and bordellos as a reporter, and that it was during his one semester at Syracuse that he shaped this material into a first draft of “Maggie.” The novel as published, however, is set in New York. Crane might have gleaned some of his urban details from literature—New Yorkers had been writing about waifs and prostitutes for half a century—but he no doubt came by many of them firsthand. He explored New York in forays during the next two years, while living with his brothers upstate. In October, 1892, he moved to the city, renting a room in a boarding house on Avenue A with a fraternity brother, and revised the manuscript extensively.
To signal that the characters in “Maggie” were not necessarily in charge of their life stories, Crane deployed an irony that verged on scorn. When Maggie is impressed by a bartender’s boast of having “plunked” a “blokie” who challenged him, Crane writes that she “perceived that here was the beau ideal of a man.” The contrast between the characters’ dialect and the narrator’s formal diction can become heavy-handed, but Crane relished linguistic texture, allowing it to take the foreground in a way that his contemporaries William Dean Howells and Henry James almost never did. Maggie’s mother takes a drink from what Crane calls “a squdgy bottle,” and she dismisses her daughter’s fall from grace with the squawky line “She goes teh deh bad, like a duck teh water.” Crane worried over every sentence, according to friends. “Not until it had been completely formulated would he put pen to paper,” his first New York roommate recalled. Sometimes he wrote just a polished phrase on a scrap of paper, only afterward figuring out where to lodge it.
Unable to find a publisher, Crane scraped together the money for “Maggie” to be printed. He chose yellow covers and the pseudonym Johnston Smith, and his friends threw him a raucous party. The novelist Hamlin Garland was enthusiastic about “Maggie,” and Howells, though apprehensive about the profanity in the dialogue, invited Crane to tea. He had to borrow a pair of pants from a friend in order to look presentable.
To advertise the book, Crane hired four men to read it as conspicuously as possible on the elevated train, which, unfortunately, had little effect on sales. “It fell flat,” he later admitted. But praise from a writer of Howells’s prominence gave Crane the feeling of having been launched. “Well, at least, I’ve done something,” he wrote to a married woman he was flirting with. He was fighting, he told her, in a “beautiful war,” and he was on the side of the realists—those who believe that “we are the most successful in art when we approach the nearest to nature and truth.” The woman stopped writing back, but Crane’s spirits remained high.
He fell in with a bohemian circle of artists, writers, and medical students, and an illustrator named Corwin K. Linson invited him to bunk in his studio. “The joint is open house,” Linson said. At night on Linson’s roof, they listened to echoes of Shakespeare being performed in a theatre around the corner. It was a milieu in which eros went largely unpoliced. One night, when leaving a late poker game, a friend noticed a girl in Crane’s bed and, referring to his novel, asked, “Is it Maggie?” “Some of her,” Crane said. A photograph from the period shows Crane and another man nestled together asleep, a pile of shoes on the floor beside them. (But a rumor that Crane tried to write a novel about a male prostitute seems to derive from one of Beer’s fabrications.) “We just about lived on potato salad for days at a time,” Linson recalled, but sometimes they went out to a Sixth Avenue restaurant called Boeuf-à-la-Mode (nickname: Buffalo Mud), where the food was cheap, the napkins soiled, and the Spanish waltzes loud. In one building where Crane rented a room, a quote from Emerson was chalked onto a ceiling beam: “Congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age.”
Linson kept a shelf of back issues of the magazine The Century, to which he contributed illustrations, and Crane became fascinated by a series of Civil War memoirs that it published. But he felt that the recollections lacked immediacy: “I wonder that some of these fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps!” Between the summer of 1893 and the spring of 1894, as he wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” Crane imagined these feelings so thoroughly that he fooled some reviewers. “The extremely vivid touches of detail convince us that he has had personal experience of the scenes he depicts,” a critic wrote in the Saturday Review. When Crane’s narrator explains that the men in Fleming’s regiment don’t yet look battle-hardened, because, despite several long marches, “there was too great a similarity in the hats,” it sounds like an observation that only someone on the spot could have made. When Fleming, hiking back toward the front, gets caught in some brambles, the sense that they are holding him back makes him think that “Nature could not be quite ready to kill him.” The thought is so peculiar and so striking that it seems reasonable to conclude that Crane himself must once have been in similar circumstances.
Crane told a journalist, “I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field,” which may have been a joke. His explanation to Willa Cather was that “he had been unconsciously working the details of the story out through most of his boyhood,” in fantasies about men on his father’s side of the family who had been soldiers: an ancestral Stephen Crane had served in the Continental Congress, and he and his sons had fought in the Revolutionary War. Photography might have been another source. Because exposure times in the eighteen-sixties were too long to capture soldiers in combat, the iconic images of the Civil War are of corpses after battle. When Crane writes, of the torn sole of a soldier’s shoe, that death “exposed to his enemies that poverty which in life he had perhaps concealed from his friends,” or when he writes that on the face of another dead soldier “there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn,” it is easy to imagine him studying the images of Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner.
The heart of his realism, however, is psychological rather than photographic. As a contemporary critic put it, “He stages the drama of war, so to speak, within the mind of one man, and then admits you as to a theatre.” Before Fleming’s courage is tested, his mind is a porridge of sophomoric generalizations (“Greeklike struggles would be no more”) and schoolboyish anxiety about his potential for valor (“He tried to mathematically prove to himself that he would not run”). In the moment of running away, he doesn’t think much at all, forming only a single mental impression: a lieutenant who waves a sword in an attempt to stop him must be “a peculiar creature to feel interested in such matters upon this occasion.” Alienation sets in only after Fleming’s flight. “He could never be like them,” Crane writes of Fleming’s state of mind when he sees a column of undisgraced soldiers. “He could have wept in his longings.” Crane may have been drawing on the mind-set of the sinner as expounded to him during his Methodist childhood: a sin harms the sinner by making him believe that he’s no longer worthy of God’s grace or of Christian fellowship.
War, the novel suggests, is “an immense and terrible machine.” It relies on a soldier’s wish to belong and to be well thought of, in imitation of a sinner’s reconciliation to the church, but, unlike the Christian God, it doesn’t care about any individual soul. It can function perfectly even if no soldier has one. In a world with such a machine, and without any overarching theological significance, the noblest remaining use for the human virtue of courage is the pursuit of experience where it is most intense. Fleming feels drawn to return to the front; Crane writes, “He must go close and see it produce corpses.”
“The Red Badge of Courage” first appeared at the end of 1894, in an abridged form that was syndicated to newspapers across the country. A full-length book version appeared the next year, as did a volume of Crane’s poems, and the syndication company sent him to report from the West and Mexico. During this first flush of success, Crane wrote his most enjoyable and least characteristic novel, “The Third Violet.” It’s a literary meringue. An earnest young artist falls for a pretty socialite, while his best friend, a once serious writer who has become “a trained bear of the magazines,” supplies badinage. For pages and pages, there is almost nothing but dialogue. The best scenes feature a group of bohemian friends in New York, who stare, for example, at two eggs and half a loaf in their larder, in the hope that a miracle will multiply them into dinner. “The Monthly Amazement may pay me to-morrow,” a freelance artist in the group says. “They ought to. I’ve waited over three months now.” In real life, Crane lamented that “of all human lots for a person of sensibility, that of an obscure freelance in literature or journalism is, I think, the most discouraging,” but in “The Third Violet” the struggle has a happy-go-lucky charm. The hero is torn between the heiress and a model who poses for the artists and whom they have nicknamed Splutter. Crane is unexpectedly tender in his treatment of Splutter. She pretends not to have a romantic interest in the hero; she comes over to cook his friends spaghetti. She isn’t exactly in control of her destiny, but neither is she anybody’s victim. Somehow, Crane’s narrator has let go of his need to demonstrate his superiority to his characters.
Crane tried to continue the tone that winter, in love letters to a real-life socialite, Nellie Crouse. “I never encourage friends to read my work—they sometimes advise one,” he quipped. But when he wrote, not quite seriously, that he was “an intensely practical and experienced person,” she thanked him for the warning and, not long afterward, let him know that she preferred society men to high-minded ones.
Perhaps it dawned on Crane that he was addressing the wrong character—that he would have a better time talking to an artist’s model—because he became bolder about crossing the line that separated respectable people from the demimonde. Before long, though, he discovered that if you go too far across you may not be able to come back.
William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal hired him to write about the Tenderloin, a New York neighborhood, between Madison Square and Times Square, famous for night life, drugs, sex trade, and police corruption. One night in September, 1896, he met two chorus girls at a hashish parlor, and, as he was leaving, a woman who called herself Dora Clark joined his group. She was a prostitute—according to Sorrentino, Crane knew this—and while Crane was helping one chorus girl onto a cable car a policeman tried to arrest Clark and the other chorus girl for soliciting. To save the chorus girl, Crane claimed to be her husband. Saving Dora Clark was more of a challenge. “She hasn’t done anything wrong since she has been in our company,” Crane insisted, but the policeman took her to the station house anyway. A desk sergeant warned Crane, “If you monkey with this case, you are pretty sure to come out with mud all over you.” Crane, however, thought it unfair to punish even a prostitute for a crime that she hadn’t committed, and, after he testified on her behalf the next morning, she was set free. He justified himself in a newspaper article. “Do citizens have no duties?” he asked, omitting both the hashish and his previous knowledge of Clark’s profession.
Newspapers across the country covered the scandal. “Stephen Crane is respectfully informed that association with women in scarlet is not necessarily a ‘Red Badge of Courage,’ ” the Chicago Dispatch said. Teddy Roosevelt, who was New York’s police commissioner at the time, had been an admirer of Crane’s writing, but their friendship ended. A couple of weeks later, Dora Clark sued the police officer for wrongful arrest and named Crane as a witness. The police searched his apartment and found a set of opium-smoking paraphernalia. He kept it on a plaque on the wall, or so he told an interviewer from his own paper, implying that it was a souvenir. Under cross-examination during the court case, however, his story became more ambiguous, to judge by a newspaper report:
“Did you ever smoke opium with this Sadie or Amy in a house at 121 West Twenty-seventh Street?” asked Lawyer Grant.
“I deny that,” said Mr. Crane.
“On the ground that it would tend to degrade or incriminate you?”
Amy Leslie and Sadie Traphagen were sisters who went by a variety of last names and lived on a block known for its brothels and opium dens. After a janitor in their building testified that Crane had shared Amy Leslie’s apartment for six weeks during the summer, the policeman was acquitted. As Sorrentino writes, “Crane’s career as an investigative reporter had been ruined.”
Crane fled. There was an uprising in Cuba, and he went to Florida to write about people who were smuggling arms to the rebels. Amy Leslie rode the train with him as far as Washington. He entrusted five hundred dollars to a friend, asking him to help Leslie through what he called “a great trouble,” and in the next four months she received more than three hundred dollars. (It’s unclear if he gave her the money so that he could abandon her with an easy conscience, or on account of a pregnancy that didn’t come to term, or whether, as she later claimed, the money was hers to begin with.)
On reaching Jacksonville, he checked into a hotel under an assumed name, sent one of his brothers an informal will and testament, and wrote to Leslie that “I want you to be always sure that I love you.” But a few days later he was making overtures to Cora Taylor, the madam of the Hotel de Dream, the city’s toniest brothel. On the flyleaf of a book he gave her, he wrote, “Brevity is an element that enters importantly into all pleasures of life.” She became his common-law wife for the years remaining to him.
He embarked for Cuba on a steamer carrying arms smugglers, but the ship sank, and, for thirty hours, he and three other men took turns rowing a dinghy back to land, in danger of capsizing whenever they swapped places. In “The Open Boat,” Crane’s short story based on the experience, the hero glimpses in nature the cosmic indifference that Henry Fleming had seen in war. To describe his hero’s confusion and anger, Crane came up with a self-destructing metaphor: “He at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.”
After the brush with death, Crane pursued experience even more avidly: the final three years of his life were an exhausting round of travel and work. He asked Hearst to appoint him and Cora war correspondents, and, in the spring of 1897, he at last witnessed combat, reporting on the Greco-Turkish War. A roll of musketry struck him as sublime. “The crash of it was ideal,” he wrote, though he acknowledged that the soldiers it killed might have had a different opinion. He and Cora moved to England and, that fall, when they were living in a damp, pretentious house, in Surrey, he told Joseph Conrad that he now knew that the battle scenes in “The Red Badge of Courage” were “all right.”
In England, spending more than he could afford, and writing newspaper fluff about society life to pay for it, he still managed to create some memorable fiction. He drew on his childhood for “The Monster,” about a black man stigmatized by a small town after his face is maimed in an act of heroism; he drew on his visit to Greece for “Death and the Child,” about a journalist who romanticizes war but then loses his nerve; and he drew on his time in the West for “The Blue Hotel,” about a traveller intent on provoking his own murder. During the Spanish-American War, he travelled to Cuba and witnessed combat again, developing a bare, rhythmic style to describe it. “I heard somebody dying near me,” he wrote of a marine landing at Guantánamo Bay. “He was dying hard. Hard. It took him a long time to die.” During the assignment, Crane became dangerously ill. The first diagnosis was yellow fever; the second, malaria. But Crane must have suspected a third possibility, because he made a long detour to the Adirondacks, where he consulted a tuberculosis specialist. “He looked like a frayed white ribbon,” a journalist who observed him after he returned to the Caribbean wrote. He holed up for three months in Havana, and Cora wrote panicked letters in search of him to one of his brothers (who seems not to have known of her existence until then), to his literary agent, and to the American secretary of war.
When at last he returned to England, he moved with Cora to an even grander house, which lacked plumbing, gas, and electricity and was said to be haunted by a Tudor-era ghost. The household now included half a dozen servants and a late friend’s two illegitimate children. Most of what Crane wrote to provide for them, as he died of tuberculosis, was hackwork. Two exceptions were “War Memories,” an essay whose loose, bittersweet style anticipates Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” and “Manacled,” a short story about an actor trapped in handcuffs and leg irons as a theatre burns down. The idea for “Manacled” came to Crane in a dream, according to a young woman then staying with the family, and he asked Cora and her to bind his wrists and ankles so that he could know what it felt like. “I don’t know whether he published the story,” the woman recalled, “but he lived it.”
In May, 1900, friends paid for Crane to go to a sanatorium in Germany, but it was too late. As his mind wandered on his deathbed, scraps of his fiction surfaced. “It is too awful to hear him try to change places in the ‘open boat,’ ” Cora wrote in a letter to a friend. He was twenty-eight. A few years after burying him, Cora returned to Jacksonville and opened a new brothel. ♦