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A burning sensation: The short but full life of Stephen Crane

Updated: Jan 8, 2022


Burning Boy, The Life

and Work of Stephen Crane By Paul Auster | Henry Holt and Company | New York | 2021 | 783 pages

By Joe Martin | Contributing Writer

Illustration by Jon Williams

In his short eventful life, writer Stephen Crane leamed incandescent. Early enkindled, his vocation as a writer was evinced at 8 years old in a poem of touching precocity about his desire for a pet dog. Later, as an apostate from his family’s strict Methodism, he remained alert to the world’s injustices and maintained compassion for the underdog. He excelled at baseball. Crane could plunk proficiently on the banjo. As a war correspondent he displayed equanimity in the midst of danger. With bohemian nonchalance, he was generally easygoing and slow to anger.

In 1900, when he was 28 and sickened with tuberculosis, Crane died in Germany where he had gone in a futile attempt to bolster his waning health. Born in New Jersey, his body was returned there. His remains are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in the township of Hillside. Reads the plaque on his gravesite: “Stephen Crane — Author — 1871–1900.” Too soon was America and the world deprived of this scintillating luminary of words.

Crane has been called “the herald of twentieth century literature,” a writer who “made a clean break with the past.” The Pulitzer Prize winning author Hamlin Garland came to know him before fame struck. The perceptive older man was deeply moved by Crane’s early story “Maggie, A Girl of the Streets.” It is an unsentimental portrait of a young woman entrapped by poverty in a stultifying New York City slum. Indigent, abandoned and fearful Maggie eventually turns in desperation to prostitution. A riveting work, it is considered to be the first foray into modern American realism, a shocking and harsh rendering of urban life’s darker side. Crane had to borrow money to publish the tale himself under the pseudonym Johnston Smith. Garland was duly impressed by Crane’s style stating: “The author had the genius which makes an old world new.”

Crane’s raw impressionistic perspectives pried open the door for others who would follow. Ernest Hemingway was born the year before Crane’s death. According to one of Hemingway’s biographers the trajectory of their lives was remarkably similar. Consider that Crane and Hemingway “chose journalism instead of college, both were personally and professionally interested in the lives of prostitutes and criminals. Both covered a Greco-Turkish war (Crane in 1897, Hemingway in 1922); both spent considerable time in Key West and Cuba; both became romantic and legendary figures; both had the unusual experience of reading their own obituaries.” And each was “fascinated by violence.”

Paul Auster looms large on today’s international stage of arts and letters. An acclaimed and prolific author of novels, essays and poetry, Auster has also written screenplays and directed films. His latest offering is the sprawling biography of Stephen Crane entitled “Burning Boy.” Up until a few years ago, Auster admits he had only a limited acquaintance with Crane’s work. Curious to revisit the author Auster embarked on what became a gratifying immersion in the life and artistry of Crane. In his unanticipated enthrallment, he was drawn ever more deeply into the man’s fiction, poetry and journalistic reportage. He found Crane to be a master psychologist and a forerunner of the existentialists. Originally, Auster intended to compose a modest appreciation. Ineluctably that evolved into a sweeping and captivating chronicle, a homage to the first American modernist. Auster wants to reignite interest in Crane and his luminous legacy, to get people reading his work again. Throughout this vibrant narrative Auster reinvigorates the alluring figures of Crane, his family and friends, lovers and enemies, and vividly evokes a raucous historical era.

For anyone vaguely acquainted with the name of Stephen Crane the immortal Civil War story “The Red Badge of Courage” likely comes to mind. After having been serialized, it was published in book form in 1895. Its impact was sensational. Many Civil War veterans were still alive. The consensus was that Crane must have been a frontline combatant in the murderous conflict. Only a veteran, a war-scarred infantryman who fought amid bullets, blood, smoke, fear, madness, chaos and carnage could limn convincingly the psychic vertigo that was the sanguine stuff of battle. Aging vets and other readers were astonished to learn that the author was born six years after the war’s end and had never yet been in any war, not even close to one. It was a work of an extremely keen, empathic and emotionally sophisticated imagination. His friend Garland would recall that Crane said the making of the story was a mystery he could not articulate. Garland believed that was probably so, stating: “It literally came of its own accord like sap flowing from a tree.” In bringing forth the fictional depiction of the young soldier Henry Fleming, Crane gobsmacked readers with the story’s power and realism. Hemingway said it plainly: “It is one of the finest books of our literature.”

The reception of “The Red Badge” carried Crane’s name into many corners of the land. On the clamorous tide of the book’s popularity his life changed course. Crane had been a penurious artist with frequently empty pockets barely able to secure adequate food and other necessities. Writes Auster: “By then, his book was beginning to circulate around the country, and before the month was out, the life he had been leading for the past four years came to an abrupt end. Without warning, and with scarcely a breath between them, Crane’s next life began.” Though the novel sold briskly, despite his burgeoning fame, Crane was fleeced. In England, the book was a huge hit but not one coin from those sales fell into Crane’s hands. The attainment of financial stability would elude the writer to the end. There seemed to be a perennial hole in his wallet through which money slipped effortlessly.

Crane had known poverty and homelessness up close. In one endeavor, he deliberately spent time as a tattered Bowery ragamuffin and stayed at shelters that served NYC’s destitute. Auster describes Crane and a friend setting “out to explore lowlife Bowery haunts ranging from seven-cent flophouses to bottom-of-the-barrel free lunch saloons, to mingle with drifters, drunks, and panhandlers in order to learn something about their world, which meant standing in their shoes both figuratively and literally … launching out on their mission as though they were secret agents in disguise.” Inspired by this experience his story “An Experiment in Misery” escorts the reader into the gloom of a sorry enclave of the weary and marginalized where “strange and unspeakable odors” assail a young homeless man “like malignant diseases with wings. They seemed to be from human bodies closely packed in dens; the exhalations from a hundred pairs of reeking lips; the fumes from a thousand bygone debauches; the expression of a thousand present miseries.”

That striking tale ends with the young outcast adrift aimlessly in a cold indifferent cityscape. Writes Crane, “And in the background a multitude of buildings, of pitiless hues and sternly high, were to him emblematic of a nation forcing its regal head into the clouds, throwing no downward glances; in the sublimity of its aspirations ignoring the wretches who may flounder at its feet.” Here it should be noted the tuberculosis that would eventually kill Crane was in his day a leading cause of death — known as the White Plague — that had intensified as industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries lead to increases in urban populations throughout Europe and the United States. Even today TB kills up to 2 million people annually. The cramped circumstances and stench endured by dilapidated denizens of cheap, overcrowded Bowery flops as described vividly by Crane were no doubt hotbeds of TB and other physical and mental health afflictions.

In one of his rambling explorations of nebulous sectors of NYC nighthawk Crane visited an opium den. The result is a 6-page vignette titled “Opium’s Varied Dreams.” According to Auster, the visitor provides a peak into “an aspect of New York life that was all but invisible to the rest of the world…” Crane notes that the majority of the smokers are actually white men and women, not Asians. Crane estimated that there were about 25 thousand users in the city. He described in meticulous detail the process of cooking the drug and the implements employed. Once the habit has become ingrained, the addict “has placed upon his shoulders an elephant which he may carry to the edge of forever,” wrote Crane.

Auster speculates that Crane may have given opium a try to authenticate and enhance his understanding of the drug’s enticement. He admits there is no way to prove this. Still Crane was sensitive to opium’s siren call and ethereal promise of respite from the travails burdening those beaten and bereft of hope. Crane wrote, “Opium holds out to them its lie, and they embrace it eagerly, expecting to find a definition of peace, but they awake to find the formidable labors of life more formidable. And if the pipe should happen to ruin their lives they cling more closely to it because then it stands between them and thought.” In our present time of the viral spiral, of economic and environmental uncertainty, of political turmoil and deaths of despair, pharmacological toxicity and addiction are widespread. Over the past year ending in April, 100,000 Americans died of overdoses due to opioids and other chemicals. Given this grim reality Crane’s words written over one century ago are poignant.

Crane made enemies in the New York City Police Force. Theodore Roosevelt was Police Commissioner at the time. The incident that sparked this animosity came about when Crane made a public defense of a young prostitute. He knew she had been wrongly accused of solicitation on the street one night. Whatever the young woman’s reputation, in the play of events witnessed by Crane she had solicited nobody. Questioning the veracity of the arresting cop and upholding the innocence of a sex worker was considered audacious, but it was typical of Crane. In the wake of his outspoken courtroom advocacy he became subject to harassment himself and eventually chose to depart the city.

There is a fascinating addendum to this story. Crane had been given a journalistic assignment to go to Sing Sing Prison and write a piece about the electric chair ensconced there. He did not witness an execution. And Crane turned down an offer to be strapped in the chair. Of this unique item Crane observed it to be a “commonplace bit of furniture” that waits silently for a condemned occupant. Crane muses: “It is patient — patient as time. Even should its next stained and sallow prince be now a baby, playing with alphabet blocks near his mother’s feet, this chair will wait. It is as unknown to his eyes as are the shadows of trees at night, and yet it towers over him, monstrous, implacable, infernal, his fate — this patient, comfortable chair.”

In an ironic twist long after Crane’s death, the mendacious policeman who had wrongly accused the prostitute was executed in the very chair Crane had described in his report. Charles Becker was a crooked cop convicted of orchestrating the murder of a bookie, a former accomplice. His execution in 1915 was the first of an American police officer for murder. Apparently, the deadly procedure was performed clumsily and took more than nine minutes to conclude, said to be the most botched in the prison’s history.

Crane continued to write fiction and took what newspaper assignments came his way. While on a ship headed for Cuba to report on the insurrection by the island’s inhabitants against Spanish rule, the vessel sank off Florida. Crane and three others had to keep alive in a small rowboat imperiled by a thunderous unrelenting sea. Prodigious waves threatened at every moment to swamp the four. For 30 hours they kept afloat eventually navigating their tiny craft till they could finally aim for the surf-battered shore. One of their number — the heroic one most responsible for reaching land — was mortally injured and died on the sand. The experience impelled Crane to write one of the most moving of his tales “The Open Boat.” In Crane’s telling the concordance of human solidarity and survival is implicit. Camaraderie and cooperation are indispensable in the face of nature’s fury. Auster asserts that Crane believed truly “we are all responsible for one another, and if we fail to assume that responsibility, life on Earth becomes a living hell.”

Of Crane’s many compelling fictional creations “The Monster” stands out. An earlier Crane biographer Linda H. Davis — whose book “Badge of Courage” was published in 1998 — was another, like Auster, who came late to the works of Crane. She writes: “Somehow Crane and I had missed each other through all my long years of schooling. I was thirty-five years old when I read ‘The Monster’ and it stunned me.” It is a story of a Black man named Henry Johnson. The setting is a fictional place called Whilomville. Henry is a hired hand working as a hostler for a white physician, Dr. Trescott. One night a fire breaks out in the home of the good doctor who is away attending to patients. His wife is dragged forcibly out of the flames by a neighbor. Hysterically she cries that their only child Jimmie is trapped in the conflagration. It is Henry who braves the inferno to save his little friend. He succeeds but Henry is burned horrifically, his face deformed beyond recognition. Henry will likely not survive. Yet he does.

The injustices and violence of Jim Crow were manifest when Crane wove this searing tale. Auster states that valorous Henry becomes a symbol of “black sacrifice. As with his ancestors, the cost of martyrdom will not be death, pure and simple, but a symbolic death that robs him of his humanity and turns him into a faceless idiot, shunned, feared, and hated by the righteous citizens of the American anywhere called Whilomville.”

Trescott feels a duty to care for Henry and in doing so he ensures his survival, though his appearance has been transmogrified. He is grotesque. Old Judge Hegenthorpe says to the doctor: “No one wants to advance such ideas but somehow I think that poor fellow ought to die.” The judge goes on: “Perhaps we may not talk with propriety of this kind of action, but I am induced to say that you are performing a questionable charity in preserving this negro’s life. As near as I can understand, he will hereafter be a monster, a perfect monster, and probably with an affected brain. No man can observe you as I have observed you and not know that it was a matter of conscience with you, but I am afraid, my friend, that it is one of the blunders of virtue.” The venomous repercussions vitiate the lives of Henry, Trescott and his family, and the whole town.

Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man” — one of the great novels of the past century — expressed his admiration for Crane. In his introduction, written in 1960, to a collection of Crane’s stories Ellison says “The Monster” denotes a “failure of social charity.” He states: “Here Crane presents the cost of two acts of human loyalty and courage when they occur in a small, smug Northern town. Henry Johnson’s self-sacrificial act, which destroys his face and his mind, is repaid first with applause and then with demands for his death or banishment. Dr. Trescott’s loyalty to his oath as a physician and to the man who has saved his son’s life costs him his practice, his friends and ultimately his social identity. In short, “The Monster” places us in an atmosphere like post-Civil War America, and there is no question as to the Negro’s part in it, nor to the fact that the issues go much deeper than the question of race. Indeed, the work is so fresh that the daily papers tell us all we need to know of its background and the timeliness of its implications.”

Ellison’s commentary reverberates today. Though the shooting had ended he spoke of the American Civil War still festering: “In this sense the conflict has not only gone unresolved but the line between civil war and civil peace has become so blurred as to require of the sensitive man a questioning attitude toward every aspect of the nation’s self image. Stephen Crane, in his time, was such a man.”

Crane’s final days were spent in England where he escaped the caviling confines of America with his common-law wife, Cora Taylor. A self-possessed woman who had her own sparkle, she was once described as the “least boring author’s mate in American literary history.” In their new home Crane and his wife would befriend literary lights Henry James and H.G. Wells. Neighbor Joseph Conrad grew very close and became Crane’s best friend. Physically diminished Crane knew his days were numbered. When his death came finally, it was said that James wept on getting the news.

Auster’s impressive tome is no dry analytical academic treatise. It vibrates with all of the zest and vitality Crane packed into his 28 years. At the book’s end Auster muses on the dis-ease and darkness that permeates much of our nation and the world at large. Maybe a new pondering and revived perusal of the genius of Stephen Crane will bring forth some needed light. Those moved by this splendidly wrought reflection will perhaps, in Auster’s words, “dig the burning boy out of his grave and start remembering him again. The prose still crackles, the eye still cuts, the work still stings. Does any of this matter to us anymore? If it does, and one can only hope that it does, attention must be paid.”

A marvelous book.

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