December 15, 2017
Stephen Crane: Red Badge to White RibbonThe New Jersey shore-town of Asbury Park takes its name from the founder of American Methodism, Francis Asbury. When Stephen Crane was growing up there in the 1880s, the town enjoyed an odd double-boom, as Methodist retreat and noisy holiday resort.
Crane's parents were prominent among the devout, his mother a lecturer on Temperance and a writer for The Heathen Woman's Friend, his father an evangelical Minister. On their list of forbiddens were most of Stephen's present or future passions: alcohol, tobacco, women, baseball and novels. One of Reverend Crane's tracts reccomended "for the guidance of all, young and old, learned and unlearned, total abstinence from novel reading, henceforth and forever."
Reverend Crane died early and Mrs. Crane could only note that her son, "like the wind in Scripture, bloweth where he listeth." "He could never be told, tamed, trained or trammeled," said a classmate at one of the two universities where Crane never went to class. He went instead to the red-light district, and to police court, and at the age of nineteen wrote his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. His early book of poetry was called The Black Riders. Crane, like the other Asbury Park poet of a century later, saw himself as "Born to Run," as well as to write.
As a newspaper and magazine writer, his favourite topics certainly required trips, to anywhere he needed to take notes and his Smith & Wesson. He also took his belief that the worst literature is written by the foreigner in pronouncement upon the native. When the eyes of Asbury Park look into the Mexican pulque bar, they try to merely see the drunken caballeros with "spurs the size of rhinoceros traps." The Indian who sits inscrutably in purple blanket, on green grass, against low white walls, under blue sky, seems to want "not so much to get possession of some centavos as to compose the picture."
Most descriptions of Crane's writing talk of painting: he writes "sketches," he is a "colorist," an "impressionist." The research of sleeping in a Bowery flop-house, or staying up with street-walkers, or smoking opium, or going down the mine, or into the execution chamber at Sing Sing became "social realism," although there was often a brush-stroke of pity for the marginalized victim, or contempt for the elbowing egotist who put him there.
The Red Badge of Courage, published when he was just twenty-four was not Crane's usual investigative impressionism; he, like his young hero, had never been to war. But the book was an immediate, international hit even among those who had fought in the Civil War: veterans wrote him to say how accurate his battle details were, to say that they remembered fighting beside him; the War Department filed the novel among the official Archives. The critics marveled at Crane's camera eye: the book was a "photographic revelation," the writing about war better than Tolstoy or Zola, the beginning of a new style, proof of a genius in the making.
Crane would live just four more years. Much of that time was spent in pursuit of a real war -- to Greece, and twice to Cuba. This was partly a desire to see if his imagined battles rang true; mostly it was the desire of a restless and reckless temperament for any sort of firing line, frontier or unfiltered experience. He is reported to have said that his fondest desire was not to see a battle but to die in one, and there are many accounts of him in the Spanish-American war behaving as if this were true.
There was one modest attempt at normality. Crane became attached to the owner of a Jacksonville brothel, and the two took up residence in a dozens-roomed medieval mansion in Sussex, England. Life at Brede Manor seemed to suit Cora, the former madame of Hotel de Dream, but it bewildered Crane. Stories of her planting three hundred rare roses and attempting to hire a genealogist to prove that Crane was himself rooted in Sussex nobility are matched by stories of Crane playing Squire to the local villagers, or gun-toting Yank to Joseph Conrad and Henry James and H. G. Wells. Writing was a frantic and doomed attempt to pay the bills. When Crane disappeared for almost a year after one of his war trips, Cora seems to have been genuinely puzzled as to why he would not want to come back, to spend money he didn't have, on pleasures that were not his.
Or on a future that would not happen: when he did eventually return, he brought the news that he had known for some time, that he had tuberculosis, compounded by recurring malaria and a lifetime of self-neglect. Stephen Crane was 5'6" and 125 pounds and usually pale; he returned to England, said one friend, "a frayed, white ribbon."
He died a year and a half later, on June 5th, 1900. More than one critic has noted that Crane's talent was in writing about extreme situations or characters -- as if he did not have what it takes to write about ordinary life, or to live it.
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