Stephen Crane, a Study in American Letters

by Thomas Beer, with an Introduction by Joseph Conrad. New York; Alfred A. Knopf. 1923. 12mo. viii+248 pp. $2.50.
IN the body of an author may be found the battleground whereon a banal environment duels with his naked spirit and sometimes with his life. In Stephen Crane’s ease life snuffed out when the owner was twenty-nine years old, but the disembodied part of him—winged by his adjectives and adverbs - has grown in effective life each passing year. Those have even dented the American literary tradition. It is hard enough to-day to get publishers to print, and harder for American readers to read, realistic truths upon war or upon any of the really grim episodes in the social comedy.
How much more shocking it must have been to the American 1890’s of Frank R. Stockton and Mrs. Humphry Ward when a frail youth of twenty-four put down unforgettably in The Red Badge of Courage the dirt, horror, tinseled romanticism and physical repulsions of actual carnage. Yet the book appeared, was a success, and endures. Not, of course, until the critics of England acclaimed it, was Crane really appreciated in New York, though Howells had declared that here was a writer who had sprung full-armed into being.
Now Thomas Beer, through an industry that must have busied itself with the most elusive biographical data in the world, and with great imagination, has given us the man, — and the boy, — Stephen ; Vane. Joseph Conrad in thirtythree pages of introduction puts into equable, permanent prose, the story of their extremely brief but perfectly mature friendship: ‘in a manner of speaking, Crane and I had never been strangers.’
Mr. Beer begins the story of this ‘fourteenth child of a Methodist preacher’ in a chapter that includes orthodox forbears, youthful irreverence, a growing passion for words and baseball, a frail body.
In a series of chapters that brim with the American scene. Crane becomes a newspaper reporter and a bad one; falls in love with New York saloons, gambling hells and the Bowery’; pay’s for the printing of his first novel, Maggie; starves; writes The Red Badge; meets Hamlin Garland, Richard Watson Gilder, Howells; goes to London, finds the English like to believe lies about their American cousins; goes to Cuba,, and almost dies through fever and exhaustion. Then England again, and life in a ramshackle house, where everyone visits him, from Henry James to H. G. Wells, and then, growing more and more consumptive as the day’s pass, he dies in Badenweiler in the year 1900.
This book about him is like a novel in its absence of even the neobiographical manner. It is jammed with research, which appears neither in footnotes nor in appendices, but in adjectives and the color of sentences. At times, however, I found myself observing the design woven with skill and taste into the surface of his style, when I should have been noting form and movement beneath.
The boy Crane, sick and feverish, intent on observing fleets, battles, and medical operations in Cuba, is one of the best bits, and the interspersed paragraphs that analyze Crane’s ideas on art, courage, middle-aged women, war, the English, and so on are satisfying in their restraint. This is a mere sample: ‘ He loved babies, horses, oceans, or anything, that offered enigmatic surfaces to his thought..’
The last pages, detailing last days, are done in a manner worthy of Crane, and the book as a whole gives us the substance and spirit of a man for whom we had feared that, save for his writings, he was doomed to disappear into the shadows for ever.