Bringing vitality to Stephen Crane

August 02, 1998|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,Special to the sun

"Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane," by Linda H. Davis. Houghton Mifflin. 384 pages. $35.

For one Baltimore teen-ager in 1895, Stephen Crane's "ThRed Badge of Courage," an agonizingly vivid tale of Civil War battle, exploded "like a flash of lightning out of a clear winter sky; it was at once unprecedented and irresistible."

To 15-year-old H.L. Mencken, more remarkable than the riveting "Red Badge" was the fact that its author was "a drunken newspaper reporter in New York," a 23-year-old stripling who had never even been in battle but imagined it so tellingly that grizzled veterans praised the book's authenticity. "This miracle lifted newspaper reporting to the level of a romantic craft, alongside counterfeiting and mining in the Klondike," Mencken recalled in 1926.

The power of Crane's vision was not reserved for precocious Baltimore youngsters of Mencken's youth. According to Jeff Korman of the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Maryland Room, "The Red Badge of Courage" was on the required reading lists maintained by the city's public schools from 1930 to 1970. Indeed, generations of students across the country were captivated by what Crane's latest biographer, Linda H. Davis, calls his "impressionistic, ironic, often dazzling ... prose," which frequently "delved below the surface to expose painful psychological truths," not just in "Red Badge" but in such classic short stories as "The Open Boat" and "The Upturned Face," as well as the novella "The Monster." Joseph Conrad, Henry James and H.G. Wells (all close friends of Crane), as well as Edmund Wilson, Eudora Welty, H.E. Bates and A.J. Liebling, acknowledged Crane's impact on literature and journalism.

Now with Davis' superb "Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane," the first full-scale biography in 30 years, readers can be captivated anew by the personality and story of this strangely charismatic, tragically doomed novelist, poet and journalist, who succumbed to tuberculosis at 28, just five years after his greatest triumph.

The son of a Methodist minister who wrote extensively against such sins as novel-reading and a mother who was a "zealous" advocate of temperance, Crane proved preternaturally literate (attempting to write at 3) and rebellious, smoking his first cigarette at 7 and quaffing his first 10-cent beer shortly thereafter.

A college drop-out, he became a habitue of New York's demimonde, a freelancer for the city's newspapers, a correspondent during the Greek-Turkish conflict and Spanish-American War, and a compulsive poet and story-writer.

four years, he published five novels, two poetry volumes, three large collections of short stories, two books of war reportage and countless pieces of short fiction and journalism. He swiftly shifted from extraordinary literary efforts to hackdom and back, always seeking - and unfortunately, rarely receiving - what he called "sure and quick money." (In three years, he earned only $1,200 for works sold in the U.S. - including "Red Badge.")

Davis' great achievement is in making the reader care about Crane - to share his frustrations, be annoyed by his shortcomings and genuinely regret his early demise. Cynics today might call his premature death a good career move, but as Liebling wistfully observed, Crane might have been "the great correspondent that the First World War failed to produce."

A journalist and caricaturist for more than 25 years, Neil A Grauer is the author of five books; including "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber." A former reporter for the News American, he now is senior writer for Vanguard Communications in Washington, D.C.

Pub Date: 8/02/98

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