Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Collected Stories of Stephen Crane

As the prime creator of Realism Stephen Crane shocked the world of letters both in his writing and his personal life. His first book was Maggie: A Girl of The Streets and he spent a good share of his adult life (as much of it as there was--he died at twenty-eight) living with Cora Taylor, the madame of a brothel. He wrote dozens of short stories as well as his masterpiece The Red Badge of Courage.

While he was accepted and praised by the literary critics of the time, he was frequently derided for the pessimism and violence of his stories. He brought "the stink of the streets" into literature as one reviewer said. But his streets could be found all over America, not just in the cities.

The Open Boat, The Blue Hotel, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, Shame and The Upturned Face give us portraits of different Americas. As I was rereading them lately I realized that they all have two things in common--their utter sense of social isolation and the intensity of their telling. Hemingway always put up The Blue Hotel as one of the most intense-"bedeviled"--stories in our language and man he was right. The fist fight in the blizzard on the blind side of the barn is one of those most hellish insane scenes I've ever read. And the ironic words at the last honestly gave me chills, even though I knew what was coming. His years as a journalist gave him a compassion for society's discards no matter where they lived or what color they happened to be.

His sense of place changed writing. Whether he was writing about the slums of Brooklyn or the endless ghostly plains of Nebraska in winter, his early years as a poet gave his images true clarity and  potency. One critic of the time said his stories were possessed of "a filthy beauty" and that nails it.

Only a few of his stories are taught today; Red Badge is mandatory in schools. But in the many collections available of his stories you find a passion for life and language that few writers have ever equaled. Too many American masters get lost in the shuffle of eras. Crane is not only an artist he's one of the finest storytellers I've ever read.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Got it. The first college paper I ever wrote was on Crane. Actually my husband, then boyfriend, now professor, helped me write it and I got a c+. The comment was I was reading too much into it.

charlie stella said...

Just ordered a collection of his short works. Only read Red Badge many moons ago. Thanks for the tip, Ed.

Todd Mason said...

Crane and Bierce. Not enough credit in the world for what they gave us, and for what they had to go through to give that. "The Open Boat" is hard to over-invest (hack prof, Patti, your old English?).

Juri said...

Some years back I was elementary in bringing a collection of Crane's western stories for the first time in Finnish. I really liked some of his short stories, but I remember being a bit bored by Red Badge, don't really know why, probably because of the old translation. Should read it in English.

Ron Scheer said...

Nicely put, Ed. I have a collection of Crane's western stories that I'm ready to read now. Crane was writing at a pivotal moment in American fiction. I'd be interested in a study that brings together the disparate personalities and talents that produced the fiction of that time. We might find ourselves reflected in it.

Robert Lopresti said...

Love Crane. In fact a fondness for his utterly unromantic poetry was one of the first things my future wife and I found we had in common.

You say he was a pioneer of realism. In school they used to call his style naturalism, which referred to the way Nature is an element of the stories, and a hostile one. see The Open Boat, frinstAnce.

A writer who reminds me of Crane is Australia's Henry Lawton. Some of his stories are fluff but try The Drover's Wife, or The Union Buries Its Dead, both free on the web.