By the time Stephen Crane (1871-1900) died at 28, he had lived several writers’ lifetimes. In his early 20s he wrote two novels, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895), that remain perceptive studies of urban poverty and war. As a journalist, he covered rough-and-tumble New York as well as wars in Greece and Cuba. As a poet, his potent, imagistic verse presaged the modernists by decades. And he lived long enough not only to build that reputation, but to squander it with hackwork desperately produced to make ends meet. One critic, exhausted by his output, mockingly wrote, “The gayety of the nations / Would suffer not a whit / And life would be worth living still / If Stephen Crane would quit.”
There are many Stephen Cranes worth writing about, something Paul Sorrentino knows well now. Sorrentino, a professor of English at Virginia Tech and author of the new biography Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire (Harvard University Press), laughs at his innocence when, in the late ’80s, he figured that a writer with such a brief life would make for an easy study. “I thought, ‘I can knock a biography out in three years,’” he says. “That’s the book that just came out.”
Crane’s brief but prolific career is just one barrier to a Crane biographer. Another is the sparseness of the record and the apocryphal stories that have followed since his death. The most influential biography of Crane, published in 1923 by Thomas Beer, is riddled with errors and overstatement, Sorrentino argues. And despite Crane’s constant writing for newspapers and magazines, he didn’t keep a diary, and his letters shed little light on his personal life. “Crane disappears at times in his life, and those sections are difficult to write about because you don’t know what he’s doing or where he is,” Sorrentino says. “He misdated letters, so you can’t always use the letter as a means of tracking down where he is in any particular time.”
What Sorrentino has meticulously pieced together is a remarkable portrait of a writer whose concern for social justice often collided with his inability to realistically discern how physically punishing his adventures would be. (He died of tuberculosis, likely sped by ill-advised travel.) Born into a scholarly, religious family, Crane was a bright but haphazard student, dropping out of Syracuse University to become a writer. He was barely into his 20s when he wrote and self-published Maggie, an unsentimental novella about hardscrabble Bowery life. The novel sold poorly despite his best efforts—Crane paid people to read it on the subway to give the impression that it was a blockbuster. But it did attract the attention of William Dean Howells, the first of many leading writers and editors who were impressed by his ambition. (Willa Cather and Joseph Conrad also praised his writing during his lifetime.)
His next book, The Red Badge of Courage, made him a star. The novel was a potent vision of the Civil War that’s all the more remarkable considering that Crane was born after that war ended. But Crane struggled to make effective use of his fame and habitually overextended himself with editors and publishers. “Here’s this kid who becomes famous, and he’s still in his early 20s when he becomes a celebrity,” Sorrentino says. “He had a lot of life experience, but in other ways he was extremely naïve.”
That naïveté extended to his personal life as well as his professional life. Crane was insecure about women throughout his life, Sorrentino writes, often keeping relationships at a distance or preferring the company of prostitutes. (Despite much speculation that Crane was gay—Edmund White’s 2007 novel Hotel de Dream is premised on that notion—Sorrentino found no evidence to back up the claim.) Crane’s secret life would scar him just as The Red Badge of Courage was becoming a hit. In the fall of 1896, Crane came to the defense of a prostitute named Dora Clark, whom he witnessed being wrongly arrested. Crane’s involvement led to a public trial that consumed acres of real estate in the New York papers. During the trial, Crane disclosed that he’d spent time at a brothel, and the ensuing scandal tarnished his reputation and hobbled his ability to find reporting work.
Toward the end of his life, Crane had entered into a somewhat steadier relationship with his common-law wife, Cora. But Crane’s wanderlust was persistent: He went to Greece to report on the war with Turkey there in 1897, and against Cora’s wishes, he headed to Cuba the following year to write about the Spanish-American War. He remained incommunicado with her during much of that time, to the point where she feared him dead. Was the conflict all-consuming, or were there other women? Sorrentino suggests Crane may have had other relationships, but knowing Crane’s mind during this period was a particular challenge. “There are a lot of questions about why he was [staying in Cuba] and whether he was trying to run away from Cora,” he says. “I don’t have the smoking gun.”
Though Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire is not a critical biography, Sorrentino says he’s hopeful the book will elevate some lesser-known Crane works, including 1896’s George’s Mother (1896), a companion novel to Maggie, and the stories “The Third Violet” and “The Monster,” surprisingly contemporary-feeling takes on romance and race. “There are a number of ways in which Crane foreshadows what’s going to be called modernism and postmodernism,” he says. “Some of his techniques of writing, some of his shifting views of perception of reality, shifting perspectives, problematic endings of stories…his ambivalence is not the sign of a weak writer but a sensibility that differs from a lot of his contemporaries.”
Sorrentino has led the Stephen Crane Society since 1992 and has dedicated his career to Crane studies. So finishing the biography has been at once a career capstone and a bittersweet moment. “I had a tear in my eye when I had to kill Crane,” he says. “Obviously I knew that scene was coming up, and I didn’t want my last chapter to be melodramatic, but it was very difficult to write that last chapter. I realized that in many ways I was saying goodbye to this person who has made my career.”
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and regular contributor to Kirkus Reviews. He serves on the executive board of the National Book Critics Circle.