Poet of the Extreme

A noted novelist considers the life of an American master

If Stephen Crane had not died at age 28, American literature might now look quite different. (Wikimedia Commons)
If Stephen Crane had not died at age 28, American literature might now look quite different. (Wikimedia Commons)

Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane by Paul Auster; Henry Holt, 800 pp., $35

The life and work of Stephen Crane derived gravity from brevity. Not one of his novels is much more than a hundred pages long, and they and his short stories strip language to its potent minimum. Crane’s short but prodigious life—he died, of tuberculosis, five months before his 29th birthday—observed the same concision. His hold on the public imagination has also lacked longevity. Crane’s most famous novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), is no longer required reading in American schools, and his other greatest hits—Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), “The Open Boat” (1897), The Monster (1898), “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898), and “The Blue Hotel” (1898)—have fallen out of the cultural conversation.

Novelist Paul Auster aims his new book about Crane at “those who know little or nothing about him,” which, apart from a small cadre of scholars, is the entire species lector americanus. Describing his subject as a “burning boy of rare preciousness who was blocked from entering the fullness of adulthood,” he invites the reader to share his own intense reactions to Crane’s writing and the twists and turns of the man’s abbreviated career. Auster acknowledges his debts to about a dozen earlier Crane biographies, especially Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire (2014), and offers his own as a metabiography—a long rumination on a short existence and the many radiant texts it produced. At 800 pages, Auster’s volume is longer than all of Crane’s novels and novellas put together.

Burning Boy is suffused by a melancholy over contingency, wistful wonder at what Crane might have accomplished had he lived to Auster’s age of 74. Born, like Auster, in Newark, New Jersey, Crane was by age eight producing poetry that would not embarrass an adult. Nevertheless, resisting the temptation to call Crane the Mozart of American literature, Auster insists that because it requires “years of living before one can feel at home in the labyrinthine complexities of language … there are no prodigies in the domain of writing.” (Thomas Chatterton, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Raymond Radiguet, and Arthur Rimbaud might stand as refutations.) Auster’s own most recent novel, 4321 (2017), offers four scenarios for the course of its protagonist’s life, and one of the attractions that Auster finds in Crane, an early talent that culminated in an ellipsis, is the allure of alternative histories. If Crane had not been as reckless with his health as he was with his finances, American literature might now look quite different.

As it is, Auster can still make the extravagant but plausible claim that Crane was “the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word.” A similar claim might be made about Ernest Hemingway, but Hemingway learned from Crane to “say as much as you can by saying as little as you can,” as Auster puts it. About Maggie, Auster writes: “For the first time in American fiction, the reader is not told what to think—only to experience what happens in the book and then to draw his or her own conclusions.” The immersive writing Crane produced on assignments to cover labor strikes in coal mines, wars in Greece and Cuba, and the squalor of urban flophouses and saloons anticipated the course of modern journalism.

Crane is often classified as a “naturalist,” but Auster is more interested in him as an expressionist and absurdist. He sees Maggie not primarily as documentation of life among the lowly but as “a weird visionary poem,” and “The Open Boat,” which draws on Crane’s own experiences shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, as “a piece of music, a fugue in which the separate voices or strands increasingly overlap until they begin to merge.” A Francophile who, during four years in Paris, made a living by translating French poetry and prose, Auster compares Crane to Samuel Beckett.

Calling Crane “a poet of extreme situations,” Auster identifies several scrapes that Crane got himself into—none more bizarre or consequential than the Dora Clark affair, in which Crane witnessed the arrest of a woman accused of soliciting. Convinced she was innocent, he insisted on testifying on her behalf in a trial rigged against her. His quixotic gesture succeeded only in antagonizing the New York City police department and its commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and forcing him to flee New York. He spent his final, ailing years in England, with Cora Taylor, a former brothel madam who insisted on calling herself “Mrs. Crane” despite being married to another man.

While praising Crane for withholding judgment on his characters, Auster is not shy about his own verdicts. He calls George’s Mother (1896) a “painful little book” and Active Service (1899) “unfortunate and admittedly bungled.” For the most part, he marvels at the extraordinary energy of a “burning boy” who, despite and because of insurmountable debt, managed to take on several projects simultaneously. Much of Burning Boy takes the uninitiated reader through Crane’s novels, short stories, poems, and journalistic sketches. It quotes extensively from those works and will leave some readers sated but others eager to read Crane on their own.

This is a writer’s book, and much of its interest lies in the opportunity to see how one brilliant writer responds to another. Though Crane counted Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells among his friends, they rarely talked shop. In fact, Auster asserts as a general rule that “contrary to what readers of novels might imagine, novelists rarely talk about their work when they are together, especially the ones who are most deeply in harmony.” Burning Boy gives Auster the chance to converse with an incandescent predecessor. Although he has been married to another novelist, Siri Hustvedt, for 40 years, Auster, who titled his 1982 memoir The Invention of Solitude, describes writers as “the strangest, loneliest people on earth.”

This generous book breaches that solitude.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Steven G. Kellman’s books include Rambling Prose, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, and The Translingual Imagination.


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