This will undoubtedly serve as the standard work on Stephen Crane’s life for many years. Paul Sorrentino was one of the first scholars to reveal the many inaccuracies of Thomas Beer’s 1923 biography, which was entertaining enough but thoroughly unreliable. John Berryman and R. W. Stallman wrote biographies of Crane that, in Sorrentino’s generous words, “reawakened scholars to Crane’s genius,” but neither author had access to all the primary sources Sorrentino has discovered.
In contrast to the works of Berryman and Stallman, Sorrentino’s biography emphasizes Crane’s life rather than his works. Sorrentino avoids “extended literary analysis” and almost always discusses “a work only to help the reader understand Crane’s life.” The result is a biography that certainly advances our knowledge of Crane’s life but does little to further our understanding of why Crane’s life is worth recording in such detail, at least if it is Crane’s writing that is the source of his importance.
Sorrentino’s subtitle implies, however, that Crane’s life has an independent interest of its own. It indicates that Crane was a romantic figure whose early death from tuberculosis was somehow the result of a refusal to allow bourgeoisconventions to curb his passions. In his introduction, Sorrentino suggeststhat Crane’s death was not the result of an unfortunate disease that could have happened to anybody; instead, Crane “burned out from his own intensity.” The book’s closing paragraph repeats this idea, implying that the interveningnarrative has demonstrated its truth: “And now the life of fire was burned out, extinguished by the intensity of his passion, which refused compromise. . . . He died with the certainty that he had lived in the moment.”
Sorrentino’s own research, however, demonstrates that Crane all too often compromised his own integrity in his financial dealings, his love life, and his art. According to Sorrentino, “the love of Crane’s life” was a married woman, Alice (“Lily”) Augusta Brandon Munroe, whom he met in 1892 and who, at an 1898 meeting at the Library of Congress, “asked . . . one last time to run off with him.” In the meantime, Crane had also pledged his love to Amy Leslie, a prostitute with whom he lived in a New York brothel—and later to Cora Taylor, who, when Crane met her in Jacksonville, was the manager of one of the town’s “most fashionable houses of assignation.” Sorrentino comments that Crane was never able to reconcile “his obsessive attraction to, even preference for, prostitutes” with his desire for the kind of social respectability that Lily represented.
More damaging for his literary reputation, though, was the fact that he was never able to reconcile his need for quick money gained through hackwork with his desire to become a great writer. He could not resolve what Sorrentino calls “the tension between the personal integrity of the artist and the demands of the literary marketplace.” Crane came to feel that he had to write second- and third-rate material in order to make the living that would allow him the leisure to write a masterpiece. He reportedly told a star-struck Willa Cather at their 1895 meeting in Nebraska that “he needed to support himself by writing marketable fluff because writing serious fiction was a painstaking process.” And unlike Ralph Limbert in Henry James’s short story “The Next Time,” who tries to make money by writing hackwork but can’t help producing unsalable masterpieces, Crane was very capable of turning out reams of second- and third-rate material. Going out of his way to avoid Beer’s undocumented tales, Sorrentino is careful to indicate when he is providing factual information and when he is speculating; the phrase “in all likelihood,” or some variant, appears and reappears throughout the narrative.
Occasionally, however, he offers as certainties what cannot be more than guesses—almost always in order to excuse Crane from an apparent moral failing. If Crane failed to help with the dishes when he stayed with Hamlin Garland and his brother, it was not because he was inconsiderate; instead “Crane never helped wash the dishes after a mealsimply because he never thought of it.” If Crane often failed to repay loans borrowed from people who trusted him, it was not because he was willing “to take advantage of family and friends; he simply never placed a high value on money.”
Likewise, Crane’s constant gambling “had nothing to do with a desire for instant wealth,” but, rather, his relationship with the universe: “In a game of chance, Crane confronted the universe with each toss of the dice, spin of the wheel, turn of the card.” Sorrentino’s assertions about Crane’s lack of interest in money and getting rich quick are belied by his conscientious reporting of the wheedling letters Crane constantly wrote to agents, publishers, and editors begging for (or demanding) money, often for work not completed and sometimes for pieces already published elsewhere. On the evidence of his own biography, Sorrentino understates considerably when he writes, “Crane was a poor businessman with bad luck, questionable ethics, and incessant financial problems.”
Sorrentino supports his claim that Crane “opened the gates to modern American literature” by asserting that Crane’s “reliance on personal experience for literary inspiration foreshadowed the fiction of Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and Thomas Wolfe.” Leaving aside the question of whether anticipating Thomas Wolfe should be taken as a sign of literary excellence, Crane’s career does not clearly demonstrate the value of relying on “personal experience for literary inspiration,” a notion that was already widespread when Crane embraced it. Yes, Crane presented himself as a writer who renounced what Sorrentino calls “idle speculation” in favor of “an honest interpretation of reality” based on “unmediated, personal experience.” And yes, “The Open Boat,” one of Crane’s most famous stories, follows almost exactly Crane’s experience as a survivor of an 1897 shipwreck.
Yet the work for which Stephen Crane is best-known today, The Red Badge of Courage, which tells the story of Union private Henry Fleming, is a triumph of imagination over experience. Crane had not been born when the Civil War ended; the closest he had come to experiencing war when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage was on the football field. But that was enough. Combat veterans might dispute Crane’s notion that football is “like war,” but there is no disputing the achievement of The Red Badge of Courage.
Crane’s masterpiece provides a practical refutation of the notion that good writing must be based on personal experience and seems, instead, to be a vindication of Henry James’s assertion (in “The Art of Fiction”) of the power of the imagination. James’s essay was a reply to a piece with the same title by the now-forgotten English writer Walter Besant, who contended that “the novelist must write from his experience.” For example, Besant asserted, “a young lady brought up in a quiet country village should avoid descriptions of garrison life.” James responded that it was far from impossible that a “young lady brought up in a quiet country village” might be able to write successfully about military affairs if only she possessed “the power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace theimplication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it.”
The author of The Red Badge of Courage and short stories such as “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” undoubtedly merits the scholarly biography that Paul Sorrentino has written. If reading the biography leavesone feeling that Crane’s activities during his short time on earth do not quiteadd up to the “Life of Fire” of the subtitle, that is itself a tribute to Sorrentino’s research and his scholarly integrity and in no way invalidates Crane’s literary achievement. John Keats, whom Crane admired greatly, knew that “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence.”
James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.