Stephen Crane: A Critical Biographyby John Berryman
This is the only biography by a leading American poet of the great American writer, Stephen Crane. John Berryman originally wrote this book in 1950 for the distinguished "American Men of Letters" series, and revised it twelve years later. This edition reproduces the later version.
In Stephen Crane, Berryman assesses the writings and life of a man/i>/p>… See more details below
This is the only biography by a leading American poet of the great American writer, Stephen Crane. John Berryman originally wrote this book in 1950 for the distinguished "American Men of Letters" series, and revised it twelve years later. This edition reproduces the later version.
In Stephen Crane, Berryman assesses the writings and life of a man whose work has been one of the most powerful influences on modern writers. As Edmund Wilson said in The New Yorker, "Mr. Berryman's work is an important one, and not merely because at the moment it stands alone...We are not likely soon to get anything better on the critical and psychological sides." It is Berryman's special insight into Crane as a poet that makes this book unique.
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One~BEGINNINGVery YoungWhen Stephen Crane was a freshman at Syracuse, at nineteen, a fraternity brother who happened to see the manuscript of an essay he had read to the chapter one night was astonished by its exquisite legibility, --knowing that Crane had already been a newspaper reporter,--and asked him about it. Crane explained. When he had begun writing, several years before, he had known that compositors' earnings depended on how fast they could set copy, and so on how fast they could read it, and he had kept this in mind. He had kept this in mind. The trait, like most expressions of grave consideration, entire commitment, seems all but affected. What it warns us toward is a recognition, however, without which Crane's life will be unintelligible, of an altitude and tenacity of purpose altogether extraordinary. He sometimes failed; but in this life's marriage of ideal and awkward fact, in the heroic character of its effort, in purposiveness, it seems often less like an author's than like the profound, marvelous lives of the most interesting and effective persons the country has till now produced, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. If Crane struck many of his contemporaries as a typically irresponsible "genius," his will strikes us--his patience and generalship and will. The livesof modern authors run invisible and eventless. What author, famous and young, is headlined repeatedly in the press of New York for personal heroism? or for a magnanimity is persecuted by the police of New York through years? Crane was a writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. He was even a very pure writer. Americans seem sometimes--until the transforming waves of immigration in the last two decades of the 19th century--to be all descended from Franklin and Jefferson, multifarious, inquisitive, factual. The documentary burden is nearly as full in Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass as it is in Walden and Life on the Mississippi. Stephen Crane has nothing of this anxiety; his work is wrung as clear as Poe's or Hawthorne's; and unlike theirs his revolt did not drive him at his best into fantasy and allegory. His eyes remained wide open on his world. He was almost illusionless, whether about his subjects or himself. Perhaps his sole illusion was the heroic one; and not even this, especially if he was concerned in it himself as a man, escaped his irony.A celebrated statement of Crane's for once brings to bear upon his work a third moral quality, which ranked for him with kindness and courage. "I understand" (he wrote to a friend) "that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes and he is not at all responsible for his vision--he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to this personal honesty is my supreme ambition." The rest of the passage is never quoted. "There is a sublime egotism" (he continues) "in talking about honesty. I, however, do not say that I am honest. I merely say that I am as nearly honest as a weak mental machinery will allow." First he was limiting the will to the administration of vision, and now he limits it further; in each case the material is "given," determinant; responsibility can operate only outside the realm of the necessary. A little surprising, this, because it seems to leave no role for the Chance whose exponent the 1920'S tookCrane to be. We hear of Liberty, we hear of Necessity, but of Chance we do not hear. Now it is one of Crane's claims to permanent interest as a writer that in certain works, among which "The Open Boat" stands highest, he handled an art intensely singular with a balance so confident as to produce an effect of inevitability, a classical effect. It is also true that his life, for all its velocity and color, impresses one as profoundly, if mysteriously, schematic--not perhaps in the pages of Thomas Beer, where it is agreeably incomprehensible, but in the materials now available, carefully looked at. Few other lives, since occasional individual human lives began to be recorded in detail about two centuries ago, can be so hard upon the view--apparently the current biographical view--that human existence is governed by habit and chance.It seems, on credible contemporary witness, that Cromwell was in the habit of smearing filth over ladies' gowns at dinner, howling meanwhile with laughter--a fact that has dropped out of his biographies. Trying to write an honest biography of Cromwell, how would one treat this lapse of consideration? An automatic impression of self-indulgence is unavoidable, but it would be a naive biographer who rested in the impression; the whims of a man of powerful character do not take this form casually, and the whim moreover was recurrent. A habit, we called it. "Habit" we use for the quotidian, the neither strongly resisted nor strongly willed pattern of usual life, not for the extraordinary, the willful. Willful is the mildest word our ancestors would have applied to such activity. To us, though, it looks much more obviously will-less. If no conscious action perhaps is quite will-less, at least in this action of Cromwell's his will has suffered a defeat (after what struggle, we know not) as it is clear that in the instance cited of Crane's unusual consideration his will has enjoyed a triumph. Or is it? What have their wills been struggling with?Compulsion, call it, the representative of Necessity in the human character. Now the wills have not been struggling unaided.They also have on their side compulsion--other compulsions. But it is solely in the will's role in the battle that we can locate responsibility, and praise or blame it. The way in which we find out what this role was is partly direct, in the analysis of will, and partly indirect, in the description of Necessity as it works in the life. Without some such attempt made, a biography may have charm, aplomb, a hundred virtues, while leaving the life it deals with utterly meaningless. A matter of "habit and chance," in fact--instead of the war that perhaps it is, brilliant and dark, of Liberty against Necessity. We must say "perhaps," because it is by no means certain, and does not even appear probable, that all human lives are governed by the same forces. More honest biographies would tell us more about this considerable question. It may be that in lives where the will is huge, it forces itself outwards in many directions and thus comes more constantly or wrathfully into contact with Necessity than do the wills of most men; so that little space is left in the middle ground for the indifferent operation of chance and habit. Crane's appears to be such a life. His work, as the chief outcome of the life, has the same character, and he recognized this character in the activity that produced it. He was replying to a younger writer towards the end, when years of thought condensed: "An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways and every artist must be in some things powerless as a dead snake." The sentence would repay a long analysis, but it will have to suffice that the liberty of "move itself at will" is gravely conditioned. Everything was related in this man, will and living and work and fate, but the context was Necessity.Why did the child born belatedly into a peaceful Newark parsonage on November 1, 1871, spend his life imaging, chasing, reporting, remembering War? And it will be long before Crane's preference in his fiction for characters degraded or uprooted, ancestorless, relates itself to the coat-of-armswhose gloomy colors adorned the wheels of his trap in England, never explained by him--relates itself to the pride of race in this decided democrat which Beer remarks was one of his secrets. These colors had been seen on the saddlebag of a Stephen Crane prominent in Colonial and Revolutionary affairs. "We have named him Stephen," wrote the Reverend Dr. Crane, "for his ancestor who signed the Declaration." This ancestor didn't, having left Philadelphia a few months too early--In order to enter (at nearly seventy) the State Senate of New Jersey, where he had been Speaker of the Assembly before his two terms in the First Continental Congress. Two sons were killed, Stephen and Jonathan. But the family was twice as old as this in the state, tracing itself from another Stephen Crane who was settled at Elizabethtown by 1665, perhaps a son of Jasper Crane who helped settle New Haven (1639) before he went south. A Crane had come over long before that, with Drake; another was of the first company that landed at Massachusetts Bay. Montclair, New Jersey, was Cranetown once. The pride of race is an open secret in Stephen Crane's reply to a Newark newspaper in 1896: "My great-great-great-grandfather was one of the seven men who solemnly founded Newark. He was Jasper Crane ... . During the Revolution the Cranes were pretty hot people. The old man Stephen served in the Continental Congress (for New Jersey) while all four sons were in the army. William Crane was Colonel of the Sixth Regiment of New Jersey infantry. The Essex Militia also contained one of the sons. I am not much on this sort of thing or I could write more, but ... I am about as much of a Jerseyman as you can find." And he was one of the new race of displaced Americans; he had not been in his state for years when he wrote this and he never returned alive.The Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane, acting now in 1871 as presiding elder for the Newark district of Methodism, was widely respected, but his life had been and would be still a grinding one. The youngest of six children, left an orphan,he attended a Newark trunk factory in order to enter the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University); and since graduation except for a decade as principal of the Methodist Seminary at Pennington, he had moved as pastor every year or so to some new village in New Jersey or New York, with small pay, heavy duties, and a mushrooming, far from robust family. Neither cares nor the routine of preaching, baptizing, marrying, burying, conferring, visiting the faithful and faithless, from which he salvaged hours for study and writing, nor those hours, affected Dr. Crane's innocence of mind. This found quiet expression in earnest mild books reproving intemperance, card-playing, and theater-going, and it was worthy of an earlier condition of our society. "The Scriptures tell us," he mused, "that Noah planted a vineyard and on one occasion drank of the wine until he was drunken. Very possibly the process of fermentation had not before been noticed, the results were not known, and the consequences in this case were wholly unexpected." He was indeed "so simple and good" (his youngest son told an interviewer) "that I often think he didn't know much of anything about humanity. Will, one of my brothers, gave me a toy gun and I tried to shoot a cow with it over at Middletown when father was preaching there and that upset him wonderfully. He liked all kinds of animals and never drove a horse faster than two yards an hour even if some Christian was dying elsewhere." This sensibility his son inherited, and much of his forbearance, and some of his nobility--though little unworldliness except in regard to money.His force the boy got from his mother. She had been Mary Helen Peck, daughter of a line of Methodist clergymen in Pennsylvania, sister of others--herself educated, ambitious, dogmatic, influential in women's affairs as speaker and journalist. Her religion was evidently much narrower and more insistent than her husband's. Quite the strongest expression in a late, surviving diary of his concerns a difference of opinion: and yet how little zealous: "We did not so much argue,"he recorded after a ministerial meeting, "as simply state our positions, with all good humor. I confess that I was surprised to find the most repulsive features of old style Calvinism advanced with scarce an apology for their deformities. Mr. Clark declared that he does not believe in the doctrine of free agency ... ." Perhaps Dr. Crane had been always thus gentle, though his conversion at eighteen from the Presbyterian faith, upon the question of infant damnation, attests an independence. As for Mrs. Crane, "You could argue just as well with a wave"--and this is her favorite son speaking, adored because unexpected and frail and final. Five of thirteen much older children she had lost already. She alone when home combed Stephen's fair hair and nursed him through recurrent colds. Pampered him? No. The summer he was introduced to waves at Ocean Grove, a new Methodist settlement where she had carried him, he had a dream he never forgot--of black riders on black horses charging at him from the surf up the shore--and woke again and again screaming, to be rebuked. He was either two or three. Even before this she simply told him not to be afraid when he was held one day on the back of a white horse that he remembered long after as a savage beast. She had courage herself, a combative nonparochial charity. "My mother was a very religious woman," he recalled carefully, "but ... my brothers tell me that she got herself into trouble before I was old enough to follow proceedings by taking care of a girl who had an accidental baby ... . Mother was always more of a Christian than a Methodist and she kept this girl at our house in Asbury until she found a home."The world was smaller then. When he was .about two, a young fellow named Gilder whom we shall meet again called at the red-brick parsonage at 14 Mulberry Place, Newark, with a young lady, whose red skirt Stephen followed unnoticed out of the front door, down steep steps and to the corner. Delighted, gift-bearing next day, but not in red, she was ignored; red again, he loved her. One handkerchief used for his colds was a great red silk affair he loved, howlingwhen it dropped into the aisle--his stories glow with affectionate childhood reds, red-topped boots, a mother's scarlet cloak. His first known inquiry, however, was practical and professional. Sitting up scrawling in imitation of his brother Townley, who as a reporter sometimes asked Mrs. Crane a spelling, "Ma," said the baby, "how do you spell O?"After a second laborious period as presiding elder, this time for the Elizabeth district, Dr. Crane moved his family from Bound Brook to Paterson, where he had been appointed to the Cross Street Church at a salary of $2,000, in the spring of 1876. Aside from listening at the Catholic church to a "brief Sermon on the dignity and powers of the Priest," looking thoughtfully at pictures in New York and at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, reading Herbert Spencer (who he suspected was "better at collecting facts, than reasoning on them"), illness, writing, and fatigue, he devoted himself to his congregation so strenuously that by October he had visited six hundred at their own homes, and on February 3rd, during a revival, he felt "Much encouragement in my work ... . Still, thus far, no wave of power has come sweeping all before it, as we sometimes see. Perhaps it will, if we hold on our way, doing our duty ... ." This spring his salary was fixed at $1,800 "and a determination was expressed to make up $200, to add to the $1,600 paid last year." Of the new salary $1,250 was paid. In March 1878 he noted without a word of resentment that though they promised him $150 more, "The brethren talked despondingly, and seemed to take it for granted that they can not give me what they know I need." That week therefore, close on sixty, he was appointed pastor at Port Jervis, an attractive, fairer town in the New York hills near the junction of New Jersey and Pennyslvania."Our people seem to be good listeners," he smiled on Easter. The whole family were happier and Stephen's health improved. On September 2nd his father recorded: "Stevie began his public school education today." Kept out the yearbefore, he was nearly seven now and could read and write, humiliated among tots. "They tell me that I got through two grades in six weeks which sounds like the lie of a fond mother at a teaparty but I do remember that I got ahead very fast and that father was pleased with me. He used to take me driving to little places near Port Jervis where he was going to preach or bury somebody." No explanation is wanted for anyone's moving rapidly, if not feeble-minded, through an American grammar school, and here are two--preparation and motive; but so little has been known of the Crane family that we might see here whether an analogy will not make one son's later, spectacular precocity seem less surprising. The precocity of Coleridge, also the last of a clergyman's fourteen children, has been accounted for as a response to the others' resentment and hostility towards him as his parents' darling. This suggestion as transferred to Crane will be interesting particularly because it sees genius not in the light of will but of stimulus to will--few writers having displayed ever less will than Coleridge or more than Crane. Beer's picture of the family is uniformly affable, but one of the most intelligent children called it (Agnes): "such an oyster-like family." Its warmest heart was probably the father's undemonstrative heart. "Held the Love Feast: many present, and an unusually melting time," says a rare note of September 21st, 1879.Dr. Crane next month "Began to try my ideas down on paper, in regard to a very interesting, but difficult subject, the original state of man, his fall, &c." Stephen had been very ill in the summer at Hartwood, a hamlet fifty miles north in Sullivan County where part of the family vacationed. Mrs. Crane rushed down for medicine and flew back. But he missed school this second autumn only a few days at the end of October, going down with her to Jersey City where the health of Townley's wife was failing, and getting home on his eighth birthday. Dr. Crane voted, wrought at a sermon on "Atheism triumphant, & what it led to," and was in New York collectingsignatures for a petition to get his eldest son George placed in the Jersey City Post Office. Some of the children home for the holiday from Hackettstown Seminary gave a literary and musical entertainment. All his children but the two senior sat down at home for Christmas dinner: Nellie and William and Agnes, Edmund and Wilbur and Luther, and Stephen. He continued very busy, though he enjoyed taking Stevie one Tuesday evening to "a little neighborhood festival, for my benefit, as a sort of return for my preaching at the Clove. Dreadful roads, & yet a house full of people." As February set in, "Cold & fierce winds, from the North, froze up everything." But on the 8th he preached from John 1:47("a Christian indeed") in the morning and then in the evening preached against the "Liberals"--"so long that we omitted the Prayer meeting." Thursday his wife was "tortured all day by nervous headache." Townley came to visit a day or two on Saturday, the 14th, and so was there in Port Jervis when Dr. Crane died on Monday. Coming back from seeing Aggie to Newark, where also he had hunted new work for a boy who had written asking help, he had just caught cold and it was enough. A saintlike life.Then the house was full of people. The whispering, the hymns, the heavy odors, the darkness, his tall brothers in black, were ghastly to a thin small boy, and he was terrified when one of his hands brushed a handle of the coffin, cold and silvern. Twenty years later to Stephen Crane this day was vivid. "We tell kids that heaven is just across the gaping grave and all that bosh and then we scare them to glue with flowers and white sheets and hymns. We ought to be crucified for it! ... I have forgotten nothing about this, not a damned iota, not a shred."For the rest of childhood Stephen had his mother. She moved for a few months to a boardinghouse in Roseville, near Newark, but he had scarlet fever here and they went back to Port Jervis. "After my father died, mother lived in and forreligion. We had very little money. Mother wrote articles for Methodist papers and reported for the [New York] Tribune and the [Philadelphia] Press. Every August she went down to Ocean Grove and reported proceedings at the Methodist holy show ... . She was always starting off when she felt well enough to some big prayer meeting and she spoke very well. Her voice was something like Ellen Terry's but deeper. She spoke as slowly as a big clock ticks and her effects were impromptu." Cherishing his long curls as she watched his health, she encouraged the boy's reading with worthy narratives like the Rev. James Dixon's tour of America, while Agnes gave him the comparatively rakish Sir Wilfred's Seven Flights, which he liked.With his plain, fifteen-year-older schoolteacher sister Stephen was close; they were sometimes rebels together in the family. Desiring to be a "Christian lady," Agnes desired also to "write," and from his dissertation at eight on Little Goodie Brighteyes she followed his stories and verses with pride for four years, which were all she had. Meanwhile the boy had been devouring Western paper-backs, becoming ingenious--as his health improved--in gang games based on them. Mrs. Crane saw no objection to his brooding on rainy days over Harper's vast illustrated history of the Rebellion, and Edmund (besides donating a quarter for the death of the curls) was giving him year by year Harry Castlemon's beloved "Frank" series--Frank here, Frank there during the War, like the Tom Swift and Don Sturdy of a later day. He marched his mother's buttons up and down in little regiments, absorbedly, into inscrutable battles. He must have hung on veterans' talk too. Aged eleven, on the Jersey shore, he was digging a corpse out of the sand when the corpse's aunt loomed: Stephen explained that Johnny had just been buried, carelessly, with a canteen of whiskey still on him. A civilian tragedy the following May was real, like the death of Agnes. Mrs. Crane had moved again, to Asbury Park, and riding hisaged pony past a roadmakers' camp outside town, Stephen saw a white girl stabbed by her Negro lover. He galloped home drenched with fear and said nothing.The corpse's aunt had spanked him but there was no question of that, now, from his mother. Perhaps the boy's reticence or consideration was growing in him, as Beer says, or he was silent for another reason. Mrs. Crane at fifty-seven was less active, though active enough still for some years, and more anxious. When in the surf one Methodist Sunday he had to save Wallis McHarg, he promised to punch the older boy if he told her about it. "Don't understand that mother was bitter or mean," Stephen Crane said slowly to a young admirer (Willis Clarke, who came to see him in England toward the end and took down in shorthand the memories to which we have been repeatedly indebted), "but it hurt her that any of us should be slipping from Grace and giving up eternal damnation or salvation or those things ... . I used to like church and prayer meetings when I was a kid but that cooled off and when I was thirteen or about that, my brother Will told me not to believe in Hell after my uncle had been boring me about the lake of fire and the rest of the sideshows ... ." This imagery is from the itinerant carnivals along the shore, bristling with characters who charmed the boy with tales and gestures: wiseacres, roustabouts, hearts of steel and gilt. When he was fourteen, "an organ grinder on the beach at Asbury gave me a nice long drink out of a nice red bottle for picking up his hat for him. I felt ecstatic walking home and then I was an Emperor and some Rajahs and Baron de Blowitz all at the same time. I had been sulky all morning and now I was perfectly willing to go to a prayer meeting and Mother was tickled to death. And, mind you, all because this nefarious Florentine gave me a red drink out of a bottle." Whether the boy's separation from the army of the faithful was so offhand as he recalled it will not appear for years.School fooled along. He had high marks except in algebra, never forgot a word, and was absorbed in baseball, decidingat fifteen to be a professional ball-player. "But ma says it's not a serious occupation," he admitted to McHarg, "and Will says I have to go to college first." He was master already of outlandish words like "pyrotechnic" and "irascible," which he had used right in an essay written hastily one day the summer before--between games--for a prize of a quarter. Beer was told he made one up, higgle--to behave in the manner of a schoolteacher. It is not recorded that any teacher ever much liked this indifferent boy with steady blue ironical eyes. "Stevie" (his mother worried to friends) "is like the wind in Scripture. He bloweth where he listeth." Military training in a decent Methodist school was what was wanted, so off at sixteen went a lean fair boy who could catch barehanded any baseball thrown in Asbury Park.But Claverack College, absorbed by then into the Hudson River Institute, had entered a carefree era under the founder's son. Stephen Crane found the coeducational school in its tiny Dutch village across from the Catskills near Hudson, New York, "simply pie" and he stayed two and a half years. "I never learned anything there," of course. "American private schools are not as bad as our public schools, perhaps, but there is no great difference." He can't have treated it seriously, because after so long, in the "academic" department to be sure --three years in the "classical" let one enroll as a junior at a major university--he would still enter Lafayette as freshman in the fall of 1890. He arrived bristling with pipes and signed the school register first on January 4, 1888. Beer places in this spring the fight, costing him part of a tooth, which started when he called Tennyson "swill." This was less a critical estimate, presumably, than residue of an agony earlier in having to memorize and recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade"--an experience so acute that he devoted long afterward a whole small story to it ("Makin' an Orator"). What a "league" was, who the mystic six hundred were, the schoolboy had no idea, but he learned the lines with dreadful distinctness and feared so the ordeal of recitation that "If he could have engagedthe services of a real pain, he would have been glad ... ." This summer, sixteen, he began helping his mother and Townley with newspaper items, cycling dusty miles for a piece of resort news.At Claverack "it was his pose," says Harvey Wickham, who entered in the fall, when Crane was already a first lieutenant, "to take little interest in anything save poker and baseball, and even in speaking of these great matters there was in his manner a suggestion of noblesse oblige." He drilled Wickham hard, however, and sang hard as leading tenor for the younger boy, who was proxy-choirmaster. There were a number of Cuban pupils and "as they qualified very well as social outcasts, Crane was much among them, acquiring that liking for things Spanish and that smattering of their language which afterward stood him in good stead." Smattering, say, not stead, for Crane acknowledged: "I tried to learn French because my mother thought it important but no foreign language will ever be my friend." On the other hand his roommate and chum Earl Reeves was the richest boy in school, Wickham says. "In the slums or among aristocrats he could breathe. With the middle class he was always a little David throwing stones at the collective Goliath ... . He held aloof, too, when an indignant undergraduate mob hanged a certain unpopular student in effigy. He was rather given to holding aloof, especially if the human animal was manifesting its capacity for collective action." When one Cuban, named by his mother Antonio but by Crane "Chick," one night tried to cut Wickham's throat with his own razor and then fled shouting murder, Crane paid no attention: it was just one little boy after another. But when after challenging another boy Chick kicked him in the shin, Crane "insisted upon a formal Queensbury affair. He had, poor genius, the insane idea that the world might be regulated by justice."Just before his interest in a redheaded Miss Mattison with an adorable Irish nose, "our best pianist," we hear of his membership briefly in a secret society of six, misogynist. "S. S. T.Girlum" this was called, formed by the boys after a walk with their girls all together one bright fall afternoon, blue-and-gold uniforms and fluffy ruffles. The girls had refused to dally in a byway when the boys insisted, and must be punished. Sic semper tyrannis! for several weeks. Harriet Mattison drew him away--so markedly that the school Vidette printed a comment: "Stephen was the first martyr. He seems also to be the last. Anyway, these red sunsets must be very Harrying. Why, oh why, did the S. S. T. Girlum have to be, just now when Indian Summer is coming on?" It cannot be said that Crane, during the strange life he would have, in some part of his mind ever forgot this; in the last of the Whilomville Stories he wrote dying, the little boy who had had to recite Tennyson is undergoing now an ordeal in a new Sunday school, where, casually--not casually when we shall get there --"Behind the superintendent's chair hung a lithograph of the martyrdom of St. Stephen." The Vidette also created the first of a procession of epithets: "the Stephen cranium." Then Miss Mattison died. There was friendship, some recalled, with a tall dark girl from Sioux City, later with another redhead. Jennie Pierce he loved "madly" (his word years later) at seventeen, and she tortured him. Into the students' wicked city, Hudson, he never went; nor often to one pie shop relished because of its dark stairway. "I hear you're bad--I hear you're damn bad," somebody heard him declare to a young Don Juan."But heaven was sunny blue," Stephen Crane remembered, "and no rain fell on the diamond when I was playing baseball. I was very happy, there." At a battalion drill, colored ribbons were seen tied--startlingly--to the officers' swords when the first company marched onto the field; in companies following, the ribbons grew to bows; then Crane came on at the head of his men with a whole blue silk sash. There was a poolroom swirling with smoke and beer-fume; his drawled ejaculation was "Ho hell." We see him collecting tobacco with Reeves through the dormitory, one dressed in the heightof collegiate fashion, the other in a dirty aged sweater under a "whimsical, wistful" expression. He was always a listener and he probably listened to a white-haired old elocution teacher when chance put Crane at his table in dining hall. The very popular Reverend General John B. Van Petten liked to reminisce during meals, he got excited, and he had something to reminisce about. He had been chaplain of the 34th New York Volunteers from the beginning through the rout with Sedgwick's brigade at Antietam on September 16, 1862, when it got separated on the extreme left of the Union line under terrific fire, losing nearly half its men in the flight (150, and four officers)--though most of them found their way finally back to the command. One who did not was the color-sergeant. Struck five times and compelled to drop his colors, he called upon his comrades to seize them, and fell dead. A few days later Van Petten had been commissioned lieutenant-colonel of the 160th New York and gone through the war with it, commanding a brigade once in 1863, being severely wounded the next year at Opequon and complimented in general orders for conspicuous gallantry. He was a sort of hero.When the boy wrote, it was not about war. A two-column sketch by "S. Crane" of the explorer Stanley appeared in the Vidette for February 1890, probably his first signed work. But if he had a slightly sheepish air on the parade ground--which Wickham attributed to his fear of ridicule, especially his own--he was a serious, severe drillmaster, with "enough of the true officer in him to have a perfectly hen-like attitude toward the rank and file." Wickham, who never became his friend, he exasperated with rebukes. But the unspeakably important prize-drill on Washington's Birthday this year was won by his company, and in the evening there was a reception. He reported baseball for the May Vidette, after playing it. "The village dominie, who ordinarily is looked upon with awe and reverence, sinks gloomily behind the pall of favoritism on these occasions, and may be seen to complacentlystand for more than an hour beside the worst boy of boarding school fame, and look admiringly upon his sin stained brow, as he explains a new feature in the game ... . Crane, catcher, was tendered the office of captain, but declining, Jones, ist base, was elected Captain." He may have shunned the honor, but probably he declined because he knew he was not coming back. The school didn't: in June the Vidette recorded his promotion to Captain (military)--so that if he had returned, the British reviewers of a book later on who made him "Captain Crane" would have been more nearly right.These summers he spent on the Jersey shore chasing news, more and more helpful to his brother Townley who was building up a news agency at Asbury Park. Townley helped in turn with his stamp collection. Crane later wrote that he did his first fiction this last year ("at eighteen"), for the New York Sunday Tribune--sketches; but nothing is known of these, and no doubt the stories of two years later are meant, for he was as careless always about dates as about money. When a circus broke up one summer, he borrowed five dollars from his mother to start a lost cowboy back to Wyoming, and the man endowed him with a real revolver alleged to have slain six Indians. A Canadian lady he adored, with seven children, gave him a paper-bound Sevastopol.Then Stephen Crane sat out a year of our higher education. He registered at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, on September 12, 1890, and was initiated on the 18th into Delta Upsilon. A week later he had a bad fright in 170 East Hall where he roomed alone. Hazing was atrocious. "Steve tried to play possum by not answering a loud summons"--a contemporary describes it--"and the usual practice followed by battering in the door. The sophomores crowded in, lighted a lamp ... . Steve was petrified with fear and stood in a grotesque nightgown in one corner of the room with a revolver in his hand. His usual sallow complexion seemed to me a ghastly green. Whether he ever pointed the revolver or not, I do not know, but when I saw him, both arms were limp andthe revolver was pointed to the floor." They left him alone. As a "technical" freshman--preparing for mining-engineering --he took algebra, chemistry, French, and lesser doses of drafting, Bible, elocution, theme-writing; or rather he didn't take them. At term's end in December three grades were not returned at all and he had zero in theme-writing. He played intramural baseball, boxed, seemed to smoke incessantly (few boys smoked at this period), and was "very reticent"--except apparently to a young civil engineer convalescing in Easton, with whom Beer reports his playing bad pool and pronouncing on authors. Count Tolstoy was the world's foremost writer. There was also one Flaubert who had written Salammbô, too long, but better than anything the English were capable of. Stevenson he didn't like; Henry James he didn't know. He now tried The Reverberator, unluckily, and was bored; odd chance, that sent him to one of James's dullest stories and one of his few studies of journalism. Crane seldom went to class, was advised by the faculty to leave, and early in January quietly did. He treated schools very much as he did, all his life, cigarettes: he would light one after another, hold them, watch them burn, but would scarcely ever puff on them. Perhaps just lighting them was rebellion enough against his father--as not studying was rebellion against his mother, whom he loved.But Syracuse University, where Townley got him a job as city correspondent for the New York Tribune, was the last try. He registered for the winter term on January 9, 1891, attended the first meeting of Delta Upsilon that night, and after staying for a little with the widow of his mother's uncle, Bishop Jesse Peck, a founder of Syracuse, he moved "in a cab and a cloud of tobacco smoke" to the D.U. house at the top of Marshall Street hill. His favorite subject is said to have been history, but the one grade recorded this term was an A in English Literature under Dr. Sims, the Chancellor. He "devoted himself to athletics," as the Latin professor put it later on, and he haunted the Central Railroad Station andthe police court, watching, listening. After lunch he usually retired to the cupola of the D.U. house to read, smoking his water-pipe, and write sketches for the Detroit Free Press or the Syracuse dailies. He was writing stories also and posting them about in vain. But one about a dog named Jack, though St. Nicholas returned it, was praised by the editor; and a fraternity brother, Frank Noxon, got the impression that "Stephen regarded this as friendly not only to him but to the dog; and his gratitude in literary defeat had a note of affectionate pride." He coasted and played poker and expressed angular opinions. "Tut tut, what does Saint Paul say, Mr. Crane?" observed the psychology professor. "I know what Saint Paul says, but I disagree with Saint Paul." This created an impression at the Syracuse of 1891 which was painfully augmented by his declining to meet the celebrated reformer Miss Willard on the ground that he thought her a fool. He was reading constantly, late into the night, and thinking. "I cannot see," he wrote, "why people hate ugliness in art. Ugliness is just a matter of treatment. The scene of Hamlet and his mother and old Polonius behind the curtain is ugly, if you heard it in a police court. Hamlet treats his mother like a drunken carter and his words when he has killed Polonius are disgusting. But who cares?"He was ill for a week in February. Seldom so unhealthy as he looked, Crane had exceptional stamina as well as physical strength unusual in a man so slight--he was about five feet six and weighed one hundred twenty pounds or less. Child of age, nevertheless, feeble in childhood, he certainly bore into the years of privation and negligence to come an unenviable constitution; and tuberculosis killed him, worn out, at twenty-eight. He ate and slept irregularly from now on. His teeth are mentioned by men who knew him a little later as among the worst they ever saw; of course he refused to do anything about them. Crane's stoicism prevents our having a clear image of what he endured and overcame in order to do his work--or to do, for that matter, any of the things he requiredof himself. But squatting in his crimson sweater, catching, he was "so light that he seemed to bound back with every catch." The pitcher for whom he caught, Mansfield French, noticed: "His throwing arm was weak ... the strain upon the ligaments of his shoulder would, at times, cause him to double up with pain." When Crane in a rare, open moment wrote of The Red Badge of Courage that it was "an effort born of pain, of despair almost," one burden of the words is physical.With spring, in the intervals of baseball, he captained the fraternity cricket club, but what he did academically during this second term--if anything--is unknown. A story "The King's Favor" is signed "S.C." in the University Herald for May: the experience of a New York tenor who when performing before King Cetewayo in British South Africa sings a war-song so brilliantly that he is acclaimed a great warrior. He can have the six-foot-two Mursala, one of Cetewayo's wives. Alarmed and wishing to decline, he has to offer the Zulu as propitiation a red-and-white sun-umbrella and a toy pistol, a pair of suspenders and an opera glass, a jackknife and a bottle of red ink, a pack of cards and a silk handkerchief, a dozen clay pipes and a banjo--but we shall return to this far from meaningless story. Mainly Crane played baseball that became legendary: at short stop, sometimes as catcher, in one game at first base and in left field. He played with "fiendish glee ... a good batman, although not a hard hitter ... a fast base-runner," French remembered, and found him free in speech on the ball field, sarcastic but generous and companionable. His roommate too calls him "volatile, entertaining, and giftedly profane ... his countenance usually displayed an amused, satirical, but kindly grin."But this man notes as well a "very gentle and diffident way of speaking," and there can be no doubt that Crane struck his friends generally, hereafter, as mild, taciturn except now and then, deliberate in speech and movement. Of course testimony varies and his conduct did. Thus he seems to haveunited from the beginning an iron self-assurance with a deep shyness, and the first did not always govern the second. So with his irreverence and carelessness, which were interrupted by a spasmodic, extreme attention to "form." Crane was already a Bohemian in regard to dress; but we are told that on the night of the big Delta Upsilon party in the winter, after getting into his own evening dress, he went about the house with a box of shirt-studs and a punch, attending carefully to brethren whose starched bosoms had neither stud nor hole. So with his supernatural consideration for other people, in some matters, was combined a distinct absence of respect for human beings wholesale, and a certain coldness: Crane had perhaps never any intimate friends.As often with such men (Chekhov, as his character is illuminated by recent studies, was another), affection inspired bore small relation to affection given. Certain traits based deep in character, like Crane's passionate tenderness for children and dogs and horses, made him beloved--this is the word that is used--by most of the people who knew him at all well, now or later. Others were impressed by him, liking him with an eagerness for which they could not account. There were his abrupt vivacity of speech, his sublime air of independence, his short-circuiting thought; but these weren't it. He "wasn't like anybody else." Very early he seemed to many who met him a genius. To others he seemed disagreeably indifferent, arrogant, shocking. Opinions of his character, from now on, vary wildly, and even impressions of his appearance do, though neither character nor appearance changed much for years and he is described as "boyish" almost to the end. Crane was sallow-complexioned, with a pointed face, weak probably about the mouth, and a thin nose. His light brown hair--it photographed dark--was as untidy usually as his dress and posture. Most women were to think him handsome. Nearly everyone mentions his eyes, even to such refinements as (this is a man, French again) that "his eyeballs were of the same deep cream tint but the iris was of a cold,bluish gray color." They were intense and prominent--bulging even, in one account, shortsighted in another. He was to see much with them, and in June of 1891 he was through with American education. Beer says that he was made captain of the baseball team, after a vehement argument. If so, the title was most of what he had to show for his official year in two colleges."Not that I disliked books," he wrote later on, "but the cut-and-dried curriculum of the college did not appeal to me. Humanity was a more interesting study ... . So, you see, I had first of all to recover from college; I had to build up ... ." The extent of Crane's reading has always been understated, as with other very original authors. For short, scattered periods Crane read curiously, and instinct or luck or fate led him early to what mattered for him. But it is true that it is not easy to think of another important prose-writer or poet so ignorant of traditional literature in English as Stephen Crane was and remained. Besides Tolstoy and Flaubert in his mind, the unavoidable master Shakespeare, and a crowd of authors English and American whom he disliked, there was the English Bible heard through childhood, there were Emerson, Whitman, Mark Twain and Kipling. Poe's rhythmical prose he is said to have liked as a boy. The sole influence besides Emerson that we might trace to his college year is also critical, not narrative. He told Noxon that a passage in Goethe "analyzed the effect which the several colors have upon the human mind. Upon Crane this had made a profound impression and he had utilized the idea to produce his effects." Conceivably he came on this passage in his psychology course; but Noxon dates the conversation years later and the report is uncertain--as uncertain as any profit from Crane's thirteen years of schooling. No doubt his time for reading would be limited; he wrote an immense amount in the nine years to come. He is said too to have refused to read on principle, for fear of imitating; but other writers have confessed to this qualm, including poets as polar to each otherand as idiosyncratic as James Whitcomb Riley and Wallace Stevens. It was the persistent indifferent failure to read which mattered, and for which his education must bear the blame.What an artist requires to know it is not indeed easy to determine. A useful indolence seems to be an equipment. "Art comes only when there is abandon," said John Butler Yeats, "and a world of dreaming and waiting and passionate meditation." Probably no education would have affected this character in Crane. Less than any other American writer of the century had he a sense of tradition or continuity in letters, whether English or American; the sense grew in him intermittently only toward the end of his life. And certainly the image of a lean boy lounging on the beach at Asbury, studying the late afternoon bathers, dreaming, is more agreeable than the image of our novelists and poets clamped in universities about the country now or preparing themselves to be. "My complaint is--" wrote further from New York the elder Yeats, and long ago, "My complaint is that all literature has gone over to the side of the schoolmaster and that it used to be carried on by the boys themselves." Stephen Crane scooped up a handful of sand and tossed it to the sea breeze, watching it. "Treat your notions like that," he said sideways to Arthur Oliver lazily. "Forget what you think about it and tell how you feel about it ... ."Small glowing pebbles Thrown on the dark plane of evening Sing good ballads of God ... .Though a better training might have soothed his grammar, it could hardly have helped him toward the style he was now to develop with bizarre velocity. As Goethe informed young Eckermann, the art of putting things shortly is not assisted by education; and this was one of Crane's arts. There was very little, after all, to "recover from." He was left free to move in the direction of what H. G. Wells profoundly terms his "enormous repudiations."He had decided to become a writer. "I could never do what I didn't feel like doing--not even writing," an acquaintance quotes him, "but as I felt more often and more intensely like writing than like anything else, I thought I'd better try newspaper work." How Mrs. Crane accepted his failure in college we can guess, but she is said to have been willing for him to be a writer. With this son's character, if she knew it, she might have felt a satisfaction few parents ever can. Let us name the three fronts upon which this character seems to be advancing--or had advanced, for perhaps Stephen Crane was never, as this chapter has been pretending, very young. His mind was acrid. Irony, says one of Jou-handeau's characters, is "a form of reserve, of prudence, of experience; a premature old age. Not to be ironical ... is the only real youth." "He was old at twenty," said a friend of Crane's. But if false values were being burnt up in this mind, values were burning in another sense. He was independent. Emerson's "Self-Reliance" never had a tougher exponent. He was preparing himself for courage--unsparing of himself, illusionless, rigorous.And he was the master now at nineteen of an idea of consideration, a practice of consideration, so little common in human beings that one alludes to it with diffidence. But Crane, who made a point of impatience with ideals, himself once mentioned that he thought human kindness paramount among the virtues towards which our nature lets us struggle. Of the strength of the boy's purpose actually thus engaged, and of his commitment by the way to his profession, we learn from Frank Noxon the singular instance with which we began.Copyright 1950 by Kate Berryman
Meet the Author
John Berryman won the Pulitzer Prize for his work 77 Dream Songs. He was the recipient of the National Book Award for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest.
John Berryman (1914-1972) was an American poet and scholar. He won the Pulitzer Prize for 77 Dream Songs in 1965 and the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize for His Toy, His Dream, His Rest, a continuation of the Dream Songs, in 1969.
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