The imaginary lives of an American realist
Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By JAMES SEATON
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.
Bill Mauldin, Audie Murphy in ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ (1951)
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 bourgeois conventions to curb his passions. In his introduction, Sorrentino suggests that 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 intervening narrative 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 meal simply 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.”