Stephen Crane was only 28 when he died of tuberculosis in England in 1900. He packed into that time, however, enough highs and lows, achievements and disappointments, as well as adventure, for several lives. Almost a century after his death, his best novels, The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, are American classics. His short stories, “The Open Boat” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” among others, are widely read and enjoyed. It confirms what Crane’s friend, H.G. Wells, said at his death, “I do not think that American criticism has yet done justice to the unsurpassable beauty of Crane’s best writing. And when I write those words, magnificent, unsurpassable, I mean them fully. He was, beyond dispute, the best writer of our generation, and his untimely death was an irreparable loss to our literature.”
Crane was a complex man of great personal charm whose work was a combination of his imagination and experience. Red Badge was set during the Civil War, although Crane was not born until 1871. He drew on his work as a war correspondent in Cuba and Greece for later work including his last novel, Active Service. He was, as Linda H. Davis writes in her outstanding new biography, Badge of Courage, a writer who was always pretending to be someone else. Davis begins with the early influence of Crane’s parents. His father, a Methodist minister, wrote ten pages a day, primarily, it seems, to impress his children with the importance of writing. More importantly, his mother, who bore 14 children, was a social activist and the author of several published short works.
During his brief period as a college student, Stephen began to write seriously and left school to become a newspaper reporter. In 1895 he explained to Willa Cather that he led a double literary life; writing in the first place the matter that pleased himself and doing it very slowly; in the second place, any sort of stuff that would sell. It was a pattern he would follow all his writing life. Although he lived modestly, even in virtual poverty at times, he seems to never have been free of debt. This was due in part to the fact that although he was widely acclaimed as a writer, he earned little from it. Davis notes that “In four years [he] had published five novels, two volumes of poetry, three big story collections, two books of war stories, and countless works of short fiction and reporting.” And yet in three years he had earned just over $1,200 for his entire American output, at a time when the country’s per capita income was $1,200 annually.
Crane was sensitive to the plight of others. His sympathies, as novelist and war correspondent were with the wounded and the private soldier. His defense of a prostitute wrongly arrested by a corrupt New York City policeman cost him the friendship of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. At the same time, he did not write or talk about his feelings for Cora [the bordello madam he met in Jacksonville, Florida, and who lived with him as his wife] yet friends described him as devoted and protective of her. Cora was devoted to him as well. His happiness, well-being, and work were of paramount importance to her something that endeared her to his friends, whether they actually liked her or not. In discussing his life Crane wrote to a friend, “I cannot help vanishing and disappearing and dissolving. It is my foremost trait.” To an admirer he did not know, he wrote “I am clay very common, uninteresting clay. I am a good deal of a rascal, sometimes a bore, often dishonest.” Of particular interest are Crane’s relationships with other writers. In the United States, these included Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells. Later, in England, they were H.G. Wells, Ford Maddox Hueffer (last name later changed to Ford), Henry James, and, most importantly, Joseph Conrad.
Because of his tuberculosis, Crane was convinced that he would die young. Davis speculates, Given Stephen’s personality, his feverish approach to his work, and his penchant for risk-taking, one wonders whether he lived and worked on the ragged edge because he knew he hadn’t much time. Drawing on the latest Crane scholarship, Davis captures all of these aspects of his life and work. Her book is beautifully done, and I finished reading it with the appropriate response to a good literary biography I wanted to read or reread Crane’s work.
Roger Bishop is a monthly contributor to BookPage.