Book Review: Stephen Crane – A Life of Fire
By Paul Sorrentino
Harvard University Press, 2014
So ugly is the U.S. cover of Paul Sorrentino’s new biographical study, Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire – such a wretched, washed-out vomitous off-lime thing it is, only barely hinting at an image of its alleged subject – that you can only make out the vague outline of a person if you squint a bit. Whether or not it’s Stephen Crane, of whom there are at least a dozen sharp, clear photographs, will be up to each observer, but how many people will bother? The figure thus barely discernible on this ghastly mock-up of a cover is old, broken-down, walrus-whiskered, and zombie-eyed – it blazons to anybody who looks at it: “Very dismal reading awaits you within!”
It isn’t true; Sorrentino has in fact written an extremely enjoyable book, a fast-paced and handily authoritative biography of a young man who left behind comparatively very little material for such a work. Those few browsers of bookstore tables who’ll even be able to see this book past its horrific cover (no figure of speech! It’s actually noticeably difficult even to physically see this thing), those few who’ll commit to it, won’t be disappointed. Sorrentino has ranged over the whole of this brief, meteoric life and rendered it in novelistically vivid colors (not a washed-out vomitous lime among them).
He goes over the whole of Crane’s strenuous life, “the double-sided literary life, balancing hackwork with serious art,” and he’s well aware that his subject “never reconciled his conflicted persona: bohemian rebel and irresponsible lover, chivalric knight and country squire.” The result is a lighter, brighter thing than Linda Davis’s meaty Crane biography Badge of Courage, and although neither it nor any other attempt can match the hurtling probity of John Berryman’s study, Sorrentino’s book, with its lithe pacing and wit, stands very well as a definitive modern look at the author of The Red Badge of Courage and “The Open Boat.”
He was also, of course, the author of lots and lots of other things. As Sorrentino is only the latest to point out, Crane had an intensely prolific writing career before he died at age twenty-eight. Crane himself favored his gritty melodrama Maggie over all his other works, and it’s of this book that Carl Van Doren wrote in 1924 “Modern American literature may be said, accurately enough, to have begun with Stephen Crane thirty years ago.” (That “accurately enough” is typical Van Doren, acting like he was merely the well-intentioned messenger of some bookish Jehovah).
Sorrentino chronicles all the adventures of Crane’s life, the brothel-going, the war-reporting, the headlong love affairs, and of course his narrative turns and turns not only on Maggie but on The Red Badge of Courage, the publication of which in October of 1895, brought Crane to sudden wide fame and “trapped him in the exhausting limelight of celebrity over the next several months.” It sharpened the divisions already everywhere in Crane’s personality, as Sorrentino aptly points out:
Despite posing as a bohemian nonconformist, Crane was attracted to the social status that fame accorded because it confirmed his accomplishments. When poor and unknown in the fall of 1892, he had sarcastically labeled his boardinghouse the Pendennis Club, but he relished his association with clubs.
His celebrity brings income into thin fingers that could never retain a dime, and most of the balance of Sorrentino’s account deals with Crane’s endless financial problems and worsening health. The story is enlivened with all the choice anecdotes our biographer can find, including the oft-quoted and exquisite 1899 encounter between Crane and Henry James:
On another occasion, during a discussion in which Crane “was getting the better of the argument,” James asked, “How old are you?” Crane said he was twenty-seven. “Humph,” replied James (who was in his fifties), “prattling babe!”
Sorrentino, unlike many previous Crane biographers, is also not ashamed or hesitant to lay out his subject’s many quarrelsome negative aspects. Crane was inherently likable, one senses, and that makes the wincing all the worse when reading things like this stiffly indignant letter (one of many, one senses) Crane received from his publishers:
We note your reference to our distrustfulness.
This is hardly just. The difficulty is not one of confidence or trust, but one of adhering to an agreement already made …
You do not quite seem to appreciate, also, the fact that we have no easy task before us in trying to rehabilitate the commercial standing of your work in book form.
If we should show you quotations from the letters of our traveling salesmen, showing that for some reason or other the leading houses in the trade throughout the country have a strong prejudice against you and your work, you would we think have a little more consideration for us.
We do not care to discuss the reasons for this prejudice, and whether it is just or unjust, except that it is probably due to the comparative failure of your books since “The Red Badge of Courage” and to newspaper attacks on you, with which the writer certainly has no sympathy.
It’s not every young author who could justifiably provoke such a letter – it’s almost unthinkable to imagine writers like William Dean Howells or Hamlin Garland, who admired Crane, eliciting anything similar – but the headstrong wastrel genius who gets such letters in Sorrentino’s book simultaneously shrugs them off and takes them seriously, and as always in chronicles of this particular writer, it’s left to the reader to wonder how he might have changed if he’d had the time to do more than begin his mature career. Sorrentino’s account is mercifully short on such speculation, preferring instead to provide a spirited assessment of the facts. It’s all part of a very affecting portrait, highly recommended – once the dust jacket is removed and burned.