In her preface to Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, Linda Davis attributes her interest in Crane to The Monster (1898), a novella about a black man who is horribly disfigured by fire while saving his employer’s son. This “evoked” the death of the biographer’s own father in similar circumstances, a slightly uncanny coincidence that left her determined to learn more about Stephen Crane. Unfortunately, her book never really illuminates the more obscure corners of Crane’s genius. Like the many people who knew Crane, Davis has been seduced by his charm, which served all of his life as a shield for his mystery.
Davis begins the first chapter in 1890, with an incident from Crane’s nineteenth year during a brief stint as a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. There a group of sophomores, out for a night of hazing, broke in on the new student—to find him quaking with fear behind a gun. Apparently, this is how Crane saw himself, but he masked his fear with the many roles he played: rebellious preacher’s child, reporter, writer, cowboy, war correspondent, lover. Although he usually found a receptive audience, he remained isolated.
The Monster, for example, concerns an only child, based loosely on Crane, who was in fact the youngest child of a family of nine. Yet the isolated hero is such a common feature in Crane’s fiction that a biographer should deal with these entangled issues of isolation and fear. Davis leaves that work to the reader, unfortunately, but she does provide substantial intriguing material to help in the process.
Though he would later affect a Western drawl and be most at ease among society’s marginal elements, Crane was born into a middle-class family proud of its heritage, education, and faith. His father was a popular Methodist minister and his mother an ardent prohibitionist. Though his mother was strictly religious and distant, his father was highly regarded for both his personal integrity and his sense of humor.
It is never possible to explain genius, but Crane, like many writers, remained fixated on the unresolved issues of his childhood, in his case the death of his father when the boy was eight. In his fiction, death replaces the father as the force against which the hero must measure himself in the act of rebellion. The inevitability of death so overwhelms every other fact that it stripped Crane of all illusion about religious and social conventions, which, in his view, blind people to the realities of existence.
He credited his father with the kind of moral probity and personal integrity that he felt most people lacked. His mother’s piety, on the other hand, almost ensured rebellion. Still, that by itself cannot explain Crane’s complete disillusionment with religion. Nor was it the usual rebellion of the preacher’s child, although there was always something adolescent in his desire to shock. Crane, however, saved himself and his writing from fatuous self-indulgence by the power of a most remarkable clearsightedness.
Still, the fact remains that he never grew up. This may have been partly the result of his being the baby of the family; in addition, his health was never good. Davis believes that Crane had the tuberculosis that killed him from the time he was a child, but there is no proof that he had the disease until near the end of his life. Davis bases her guess on Crane’s famous disregard for safety and his repeated prediction of an early death for himself, but these could just as easily derive from the sickly child’s need to overcompensate, a drive that made him a standout catcher in college.
There is also more than a small element of adolescent bravado about Crane that accounts for his lifelong restlessness. He was always on the move, away from things as much as toward them. He wanted to live in the moment, a loud, action-packed moment. This suited his taste for war, but until he actually saw military action, he had to settle for adventures of a different kind. He always loved the outdoor life and spent his summers as a very young man camping out in Sullivan County, New York, listening to the local stories that he used in his first published fiction.
He went to college, first Lafayette and then Syracuse University in New York, but did not stay long. In Syracuse, he got a job through his older brother Townley as a stringer for the New York Tribune. Covering the police beat, he became drawn into the social life of petty criminals. He then moved to New York City and quickly established himself in bohemian circles.
To gather the material for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Crane exposed himself to the more authentic poverty of the...