A Restless Eye

Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage was published on this day in 1895. Crane said that he had “deliberately started in to do a potboiler,” but then “I got interested in the thing in spite of myself, and I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I had to do it my way.” Like his young hero, Crane had never been in battle, but the book was an immediate hit even among those who had. Civil War veterans wrote him to say how accurate his battle details were, even to say that they remembered fighting beside him, and the War Department filed the novel among its official Archives. Some critics said that the war scenes were better than Tolstoy’s or Zola’s, that Crane’s camera eye was a “photographic revelation,” the beginning of a new style, proof of 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 or unfiltered experience. When not a war correspondent, Crane spent as much time as he could tolerate in a medieval mansion in Sussex, England with his common-law wife, Cora Taylor. As told by Crane’s biographers, life at Brede Manor seemed to suit Cora, the former madame of a Jacksonville, Florida brothel, 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 the gun-toting Yankee to Joseph Conrad, Henry James and H. G. Wells.

Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream (2007) takes its title from the name of Cora’s Florida brothel. White’s story makes use of an unfinished and unfound novel which Crane purportedly wrote — the only references to it are in unreliable memoirs by several of Crane’s contemporaries — about a young male prostitute in New York City. As Hotel de Dream has it, Crane’s Red Badge might not have been written. When shown the prostitution story, Crane’s friend, the writer Hamlin Garland, advises Crane to give the novel up because the sensational topic would end the young author’s career. Years later, with the career and the life now ending, Crane dictates the rest of his tale to the devoted Cora from his deathbed.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.