Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stephen Crane—A Shooting Literary Star

As a war corespondent on his way to Cuba.

Stephen Crane, who had one of the most dazzling, if brief, careers as a writer in American literature, was born on November 1, 1871 in Newark, New Jersey.  It was a large family headed by the Rev. Jonathan Townley Crane.  One of eight surviving children, he was doted on by his parents and encouraged in his early interest in expressing himself in writing.  He reportedly began writing at age four. A sickly child, he was tutored at home until January of 1880 when he dazzled his teachers and completed two grades in just six weeks, pleasing his father who died that February.
His mother was distraught by the death and that of some of her children and   when Crane was only nine, let him live with his newspaper reporter brother in Asbury Park where he attended public high school for two years before enrolling in Claverack College, a military academy where he seriously considered a career in the Army in addition to his continuing interest in writing and in baseball.  In the summer of 1888 and for the next four years, he worked for his brother Townley on a New Jersey news bureau.  He had several stories published anonymously in local newspapers by the time he was sixteen. His first signed article on the African explorer Henry Stanley appeared in a Claverack literary magazine.
Crane spent one desolate semester in a Pennsylvania engineering school before he went to College of Liberal Arts at Syracuse University.  He didn’t last long there either, dropping out after his mother’s death in 1891 to devote himself to writing. 
In 1891 Crane wrote 14 unsigned stories about incidents and life in the Catskill Mountain area for the New York Tribune.  He continued to contribute stories to the paper, and began to chronicle the Bowery, one of the most desperately poor areas of the city.  A good deal of his research was conducted as what might be called a participant observer in the brothels he began to write about.    
Unable to find a respectable publisher for his grim story of the slow degradation of a working class girl into prostitution, he self-published Maggie, a Girl of the Streets: a Story of New York in 1893.  Now considered a classic and a landmark launch for a whole new naturalism movement in American literary, the book was a failure upon its release.  It did, however, impress Hamlin Garland who introduced him to William Dean Howells, an important literary critic.  Hoswells encouraged his work and that of other emerging writers of the naturalist school including Sarah Orne Jewett, and Frank Norris.
About the same time, Crane began to exhibit symptoms of tuberculosis and began a long running love affair with an older married but separated woman, Lily Brandon Munroe.  He repeatedly asked her to elope with him, despite the opposition of both families, and was just as repeatedly turned down due to his “poor prospects.”  
His relationship with the Tribune ended when members of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics objected to Cranes representation of them in an article on a parade.  Without a source of steady income, Crane struggled as a 21 year old free lance writer in New York.  The cost of paying for the publication of Maggie had eaten up his small inheritance from his mother.  He peddled stories to various New York Newspapers which paid him barely enough to keep from literally starving.
Crane began to read old magazine articles about Civil War battles.  He was fascinated, but frustrated because none seemed to be able to describe what war was like for a common soldier.  From the articles he was able to absorb a great deal of detail of Civil War uniform, equipage, camp life, and the ebb and flow of battle. 
But it was pure imagination that let him inhabit his young hero Henry Fleming, a callow young farm boy who marches to war with dreams of glory and his horrified and frightened by the reality he finds.  Crane began to write furiously, composing in longhand with little editing or re-writing.  Indeed he claimed that the first several pages of the novel came to him in toto with all of the detail, down to the punctuation in place.  He finished the manuscript in a few weeks in the spring of 1894 and rushed it to McClure’s Magazine, a leading periodical  which frequently published Civil War material.  They were intrigued, but did not know what to do with something so totally different.  The editors also doubted the young writer could have actually written such a detailed and realistic account of battle without even being in one.
Waiting for McClure’s to make up its mind, Crane continued to churn out journalism, including an assignment from the magazine to write about the life of Pennsylvania coal miners.  Crane was furious with cuts to the article which he felt soft peddled the grim reality of the miners’ work and lives.  In addition, Crane was writing six or seven poems a day, adopting a new free verse style. 
McClure’s finally decided that they wanted to publish Crane’s novel, but did not want to pay him for it.  Instead he sold it to the Bacheller-Johnson Newspaper Syndicate which offered it as a serial.  It was first published in the Philadelphia Press in December 1894.  It was an immediate, runaway success.  Newspapers across the country picked it up from the Syndicate and a full length book was rushed out by D. Appleton & Company in October 1895.  His first book of poetry, The Black Riders and Other Lines came out on its heels.
While awaiting the publication of the books, Crane was sent to the West and Mexico to file stories for the Bacheller syndicate.  He particularly reveled in the lives of Mexican peasants who, though as poor as the denizens of the Bowery, seemed content with their lives. 
Back in New York, Crane ate his one regular meal of the day at the Lantern Club, an eating and drinking gathering spot for young writers and reporters.  His health was tenuous and his tuberculosis worsened by heavy smoking. 
The publication of the novel finally brought some financial relief and in the wake of its great success, offers for more work.   He took an assignment visiting actual Civil War battlefields, which resulted in five more Civil War stories including Three Miraculous Soldiers, The Veteran, An Indiana Campaign, An Episode of War and The Little Regiment.
Just as Crane’s career seemed ready to take off, he was caught in a scandal that ruined his reputation, in respectable circles.  He was in the company of a suspected prostitute Dora Clark and two chorines when the women were accosted by a plain clothes detective and charged with prostitution, despite Crane’s plea that while with him “they behaved honorably.”  Eventually his testimony got Clark released.  But she subsequently brought suit against the arresting officer for false arrest.  The cop, Charles Becker, then searched out and nearly beat Clark to death for making the charge. 
Crane agreed to testify at Becker’s trial.  He defied the advice of his acquaintance, New York Police Superintendent Theodore Roosevelt to stay out of the case.  His living quarters were raided and rand sacked and his life investigated in detail to find a way to discredit the testimony of the now famous writer.  On the stand he was furiously cross examined and painted to be a “whore monger” whose low morals could not be trusted.  Not surprisingly detective Becker was acquitted.
To escape the firestorm of controversy in New York, Crane accepted an assignment to travel to Cuba to cover the insurrection against the Spanish.  With $700 in gold for expenses, Crane went to Jacksonville, Florida to seek a boat to the island.  He registered in a local hotel under an assumed name in order to avoid publicity surrounding his recent lurid court case.  While in town he, as was his custom, frequented brothels.  In one local establishment he met and fell in love with 31 year old Cora Taylor, a twice divorced madam who had been raised in a proper Boston family but reveled in the life of a Bohemian.  The relationship quickly blossomed. 
With pledges to re-unite with his new love, Crane finally booked passage to Cuba on the SS Commodore, a rundown sea going steam tug doing business as an arms runner.  After running onto a sand bar trying to leave the harbor, the ship was freed but took water later off the coast and foundered. 
Crane escaped the sinking ship with three others, including the captain in an open dingy.  They drifted for a day and a half before the boat turned over as they tried to come ashore in surf near Daytona.  One of his companions was killed.  Once safely ashore Crane wired Cora to come for him, as he had lost his gold in the ship wreck.  
The incident was widely reported in the press and Crane was painted as something of a hero, partly restoring his reputation. The episode became the basis of The Open Boat, one of Crane’s most admired short stories.
After dallying awhile in Jacksonville with Cora, Crane returned to New York to finish The Open Boat and arrange for its publication in prestigious Scrivener’s MagazineHe tried to find a way to get to Cuba, but determined a blockade was making it almost impossible to reach the island. 
Instead he signed on with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal as a war correspondent.  His first assignment was the Greco-Turkish War of 1897Cora Taylor sold her whore house and accompanied him on the voyage to Europe.  Once in Greece, Taylor settled in Athens, where she covered the conflict for the Journal under the nom de plume while Crane went to the front and experienced his first actual war.  After the brief 30 day conflict came to a close, the couple left Greece for England.
The couple took up open residency in Oxted, Surry as man and wife.  Crane had a great reputation in England and enjoyed the company of other writers.  He became particularly close to Polish born Joseph Conrad, who later acknowledged his literary debt to the young American.  H. G. Wells also befriended him and introduced him into the society of his Fabian friends. 
Crane had to work constantly to meet his expenses, especially after his novels George's Mother, a return to the Bowery, and The Third Violet, a romance frankly written for popular mass appeal, received poor reviews and tepid sales.  He churned out scores of short stories, and what he called tales and sketches.  Some of the stories were destined to become classics of short fiction including The Monster, A Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, Death and the Child and The Blue Hotel.
Despite his deteriorating health, the outbreak of the Spanish American War provided a much needed opportunity for paid employment.  He accepted the assignment from a British magazine and went to New York leaving Cora in England to fend off their howling creditors. 
By June 1898, Crane was accompanying the Marines as they attacked and occupied Guantanamo Bay.  Despite his admitted terror of combat, soldiers reported him calm and collected under fire and when he volunteered to carry dispatches to the front, received official commendation for “materially aiding” the force.  He continued to follow the action, and, despite old tensions with Theodore Roosevelt, covered the Rough Riders with admiration and was among the first to report the Battles of San Juan Heights. 
After three months, Crane, who was using an alias to avoid becoming a target for the Spanish, had to be evacuated to the States suffering both Malaria and Yellow Fever.  While recuperating he was fired for not fulfilling his contract to cover the war.  With Cora desperate and penniless in England, Crane returned to resume his coverage covering the largely uneventful invasion of Puerto Rico and then reporting from Havana this time for Hearst’s Journal.
Crane finally left Havana and arrived in England on January 11, 1899 in broken health.  Rent had not been paid on their Oxted home in a year and he and Cora had to hire solicitors to fend off creditors.  They relocated to Brede Place, a 14th century manor in Sussex with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing.  He wrote furiously for the English market.  The Monster and Other Stories, Life is Kind, and In Active Service, a novella based on his experience in the Greco-Turkish war were all published in the States to indifferent reviews and so-so sales.
In December Crane felt well enough to entertain Wells, Conrad, Henry James, and other literary friends for an extended several day Christmas celebration.  But on December 29, his health went into crisis with a severe hemorrhage of the lungs.
By January he recovered enough to rush work on his final novel,  The O'Ruddy, and he even desperately angled for an assignment to cover the Boer War.  Those plans were scratched by more massive hemorrhages in March and April. 
Cora began writing all of their acquaintances begging for money to get Crane to a healing spa on the Continent. In May the couple made it to Badenweiler, Germany, a health spa on the edge of the Black Forest.  Crane died of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900.  He left everything, mostly debt to Cora.  She took his body back to the United States facing his disapproving family so that he could be buried with his loved ones.
Cora returned to Jacksonville and opened up another fashionable bordello.  She married one more time, a union that ended when her husband shot and killed a lover.  She used the name Cora Crane to launch a moderately successful career as a writer in magazines like the Smart SetAnd staked out a semi-bohemian lifestyle. She died of a stroke in Pablo Beach, Florida in 1910 at the age of 45.
Despite his early success, Crane was almost forgotten as a writer until his great admirer Earnest Hemingway republished The Red Badge of Courage in his 1942 anthology Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time.  The neglected Maggie, a Girl of the Streets was also revived and Crane’s short stories have been widely anthologized.  His poetry influenced the Imagists of the next generation.
And that’s quite a lot to crowd into 29 years.

No comments:

Post a Comment