Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire

The New York Times reviewed Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire by immediately reminding readers that Crane, “America’s first rock-star writer,” appears on the album cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In a comment posted to the Stephen Crane Society website, a frustrated reader inquired hotly what Crane’s image on the album cover had to do with Paul Sorrentino’s new biography. One explanation: therein Sorrentino, a professor of English at Virginia Tech and founding editor of Stephen Crane Studies, presents biographical and critical evidence that Crane, like John Lennon, was a sometimes conflicted but always constructive antitheist as well as a dedicated humanist.

A fair number of Americans would resist the idea that their best authors are atheists and antireligionists, but they will either swallow or choke on the reality that Stephen Crane’s generation was the first to come of age completely post-Nietzschean, after “the death of God.” Unmolested, Crane’s friend and mentor William Dean Howells deadpanned for Harper’s in 1896, “We know for the present the force which could remove mountains is pretty much gone out of the world. Faith has ceased to be, but we have some lively hopes of electricity.” Their cohort included Wallace Stevens (“After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption”) and nonbelievers Ambrose Bierce, Bertrand Russell, and H.L. Mencken. Indeed, Crane’s favorite book was Life on the Mississippi (1883), in which cynical literary forebear Mark Twain mentions God only twice—once ironically and once as “a swindle.”

The youngest of fourteen children, Crane was born in a Methodist parsonage in Newark in 1871 to the Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Peck Crane, high visibility religionists. When Crane was almost seven years old, his father was “advanced” to the ministerial pulpit at Drew Methodist Church in Port Jervis, New York, where prodigal Stephen, already literate, entered formal school for the first time and skipped ahead two grades. Two years later, Jonathan dropped dead between sermons. Within the next decade, before Stephen turned twenty, his nearest sibling Luther would be killed in a freak railroad accident, his sister Agnes would perish at twenty-eight, and his mother would die as well. Stephen, having tried college at Lafayette and Syracuse, was now virtually homeless. La vie boheme in New York City beckoned; it became his freewheeling apprenticeship in the arts and in life. But he soon became symptomatic with the metastasizing tuberculosis, in his metaphor “a dire red stain, indelible,” that within nine years would end him.

He made the most of his remaining time, however. He became “a man who lived a life of fire,” and what he rebelliously produced while being consumed by it is undying.

As if shot fully aware out of a one-way artistic cannon, Crane cared nothing for outward trappings—neither clothing, possessions, bank account, appearance, diet, nor even his spelling. He cared even less for the Methodist God worshiped with “vacuous, futile, psalm-singing” on both sides of his family, the same who had taken parents and siblings ostensibly without cause (unforgotten, four other siblings had died before Crane was born).

Responding to Yahweh’s normative threat to “visit the sins of the father upon the heads of the children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me” (Exodus 20:5), Crane sardonically called out God in poem XII of The Black Riders (1895): “Well then, I hate Thee, unrighteous picture; / Wicked image, I hate thee; / So, strike with thy vengeance / The heads of those little men / Who come blindly. / It will be a brave thing.” Sorrentino finds The Black Riders “a form of catharsis…writ[ten] in order to purge deep-rooted resentment against his religious upbringing.” With that hereditary God and all desire for self-centered bourgeois representation both removed, what remained was comprehensive art. Progressing from restive teenager to dying young adult all within about four years, Crane spent his entire remaining energy on his superb work, publishing twelve “Sullivan County Sketches” before his twenty-first birthday and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets before his twenty-second. He wrote The Red Badge of Courage before turning twenty-three.

Sorrentino presents Crane’s urgent existence as influenced by three pervasive domains: a long family heritage of deep religion; a chaotic, homeless, and disastrously—probably fatally—penurious personal life; and a plaintive psychological drive toward the word and page. Interactively, these three spheres exerted their effects at a time of historically riotous artistic and social foment coincident with the time-and-space-annihilating, conceptual/scientific/technological era we call Modernism. These inescapably stimulating circumstances in which Crane found himself led to his sublimely potent, poetic fictions, works “unlikely ever to surrender their place,” to paraphrase Daniel Hoffman, an editor of Crane’s works and an early champion of his poetry. Sorrentino simply calls Crane “the most innovative writer of his generation.”

While he lived Crane was described by critical readers as a realist, an impressionist, a visionist, symbolist, expressionist, and ironist. He was memorialized posthumously by critics who read him as a nihilist, existentialist, a neo-Romantic, a sentimentalist, and a proto-modernist. At midcentury Hoffman called him a “pre-disciple of the New Criticism” and “a proto-deconstructionist anti-artist hero.” By century’s end postmodernist critic Michael Robertson said Crane had “leapfrogged modernism and landed squarely in postmodernism.” In between, Sergio Perosa wrote (in 1964), “The critic wanders in a labyrinth of possibilities, which every new turn taken by Crane’s fiction seems to explode or deny.” In Life of Fire Sorrentino creates a contextualized personal history that allows a firmer grasp of Crane’s complex art as well as of his notoriously “elusive” self.

Of the hundreds of creative types Crane knew in New York, including supporters Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells and rivals Frank Norris and Richard Harding Davis, not one sustained visibility into our time as Crane has. His artistic power radiates as if his family’s profound spirituality—its bloodline predisposition toward metaphor and belief—precipitated into him as a pure, allegorizing force. Neatly stated by Sorrentino, the “reject[ed] dogmatism of his ancestors…shaped his mind and imagination,” especially when “family, church and conventional society seemed at best outmoded trappings offering a veneer of hope and stability.” His compensatory art, to which he devoted complete faith, is as imaginative as their religion, as thorough and comprehensive as any pseudo-explanatory orthodoxy. To Crane this equally descriptive secular work was as holy and metaphysical as their fundamentalism, an interpretation supported by his heartfelt, martyr-like sacrifice of all the things and possibilities of his world for it.

Sorrentino notes that Crane even likened himself to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. A lithograph, “The Martyrdom of St. Stephen,” hangs on a Sunday school wall in The Monster, set in the Port Jervis of Crane’s childhood. Sorrentino identifies Crane’s existential anomie with hero-monster-god Henry Johnson’s forbidding facial disfigurement in that tale, and Sorrentino identifies Henry’s life-saving rescue of Jimmie Prescott as allegorical of Crane’s vital creative pursuit in his distinctive isolated microcosms. In his letters Crane self-reveals as stigmatized and persecuted for his virtuosic liminality, a shamanism of marginality like that of an epiphanic saint or lonely promethean god, a role he did not, after all, choose for himself. “Vanishing and disappearing,” he wrote, the defacement (as Henry Johnson’s, literally, in The Monster) of remote yet inseminating authorship, suited him. In myth, no one, not even Moses, sees the invisible creator’s face. Alone in an indifferent world but in absolute control of his purposefully isolated narratives, Crane performed as ultimate auteur in order to accomplish a humane intervention: he projected dazzling, internally consistent and enduring visualizations onto the void.

One paramount conjuration, revealed in “The Open Boat,” is the humanistic, “comradeship” that for Correspondent (Crane) transforms near-death on cold and slanting seas into “the best experience of his life.” Pointedly, neither god nor religion is invoked in achieving this exaltation.

Paul Sorrentino, currently the world’s foremost Crane authority, has provided the keys to this understanding in his rich, encyclopedic biography. In the end, Sorrentino denominates Crane, wasting away, as a fatalist. Inevitably, we are, like the pre-salvific Captain in the first chapter of “The Open Boat,” “buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes…to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy-nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down.” Humanistically, only our art and our ideas, those that ultimately define us, signify. All else—the failing firm, the losing army, the sinking (relation)ship, the tubercular body—falls away.

Meanwhile, Crane-like, we nurture what gets us through. This is not a new idea. How Stephen Crane did it, however, was completely new, and it was done in a new, godless age.

[Disclosure: Sorrentino accepted Splendora’s essay, “Crane, The Train, and Pat Scully,” for publication in the journal Stephen Crane Studies, and for minor contributions acknowledges him in A Life of Fire.]