Sometimes the roots of enthusiasm, the genetic influences on an author’s imagination are obvious, but other times, and indeed, often, they are hidden or obscured. When they are revealed, we might then see that author in a wholly new light. Take, for instance, the novelist and essayist, Paul Auster, one of the most acclaimed prose writers of his generation. From “The New York Trilogy” to “Leviathan,” from “Invention of Solitude” to “Winter Journal,” one reads Auster’s indebtedness to such figures as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and even Dashiell Hammett throughout his allusive, complex, heady narratives, which explore urban existentialism and the fraught role of chance and happenstance in the shape of our all too human lives. What a surprise then to discover that Auster’s newest work, “Burning Boy,” is a mammoth, searching biography of the late 19th-century writer Stephen Crane, whose masterful meditation on war, the novel “The Red Badge of Courage,” was a staple of junior high school English classes for decades. Auster tells the reader that he first encountered Crane’s novel at in 1962 the age of 15, and it was “an explosive, life changing discovery.” Given that Auster has spent his life as an author, that is a powerful admission, and suggests that Crane helped create the momentum that would propel Auster throughout his life. Yet, the surprising nature of that admiration lingers. Auster is often categorized as “postmodern.” Whatever that term might mean, it seems a far cry from Crane’s social realism.
Crane certainly warrants the attention, and his life was often a harrowing study of perseverance and fortitude. He became a writer almost by sheer dint of will, dropping out of Syracuse University, surviving years of soul-deadening pennilessness in New York, and eking out a living by working freelance writing jobs before finding a brief view of success before his untimely death. Not only was Crane, against all odds, determined to become a working writer, he found that his impoverished circumstances, his very environment, would not only be the topic of his writing, but it would be the very source of his creativity. Whether he was stubborn or steadfast is for others to judge.
Crane, like Auster, hailed from Newark, New Jersey. Born the son of a minister and the youngest of fourteen children, the prolific writer died of tuberculosis at the age of just 29, leaving behind an intense and wide-ranging body of work in the form of poems, novels, essays, and short stories, with “The Open Boat,” being perhaps his most enduring, certainly most anthologized piece. Crane was classified, for whatever such things matter, as a realist writer and was a protégé of William Dean Howells. His three novels and dozens of stories, essays, and poems, are shaped not by complex narrative textures, but by close observations of details, of particulars. Crane used the imagination as a tool for distilling and making precise the world in all its meanness and reality. “I understand that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes and he is not at all responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to my honesty is my supreme ambition,” Crane once observed.
To write, at least for Crane, was to participate in the possibilities of a moral vision. His form of realism was less a direct, unadorned, rough-hewn sense of style and something more like a belief that whatever else they might to do, literary authors needed to depict unalloyed social realties caused by unjust disparities of wealth and power. From such an understanding of the uses and potential social value of literature, in whatever form it might take, we can understand Crane’s impulse to confront the grittiness of American life, from the horrors of combat to the intensities of living in spiritual and economic destitution. Auster sees Crane as something more than a reformer or a politician in author’s clothing and illustrates how all of Crane’s “most important works of fiction would concern themselves with extreme situations, with matters of life and death: war, poverty, and physical danger.” It is in these material conditions of existential crisis that human beings, for good and ill, are revealed in their brilliant vulnerabilities and their blazing hypocrisies. Crane wanted to get at who and what humanity really is, and yet that clear seeing comes at a cost. Shorn of the defenses that self-delusion provides, there is nowhere to hide. In a letter written in 1892 to his first true love, Lily Brandon Munroe, an otherwise married woman, Crane knew the stakes. “I am doomed, I suppose, to a lonely existence of futile dreams. It has made me better, it has widened my comprehension of people and my sympathy for what they endure.” When I describe Crane as a moralist, this is what I mean: his belief that writing fiction is an act born out of searching empathy remained the engine of his art.
“Burning Boy” is thorough in its research, yet hurtles forward in its often intense, often moving enthusiasm for the subject. This is not a scholar’s biography. It is a fine novelist’s plunge into the life and mind of another artist. Auster continually makes it clear that Crane’s art matters to him and his own work, and has something vivid and authentic, something vital to offer our current fraught moment, a moment marked by too much evasion of reality, and not nearly enough compassion.
Richard Deming is a poet and essayist who teaches at Yale University.
“Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane”
By Paul Auster
Holt, 800 pages, $35