This life of probably the most original and possibly the most enigmatic of America’s major fiction writers shatters the rule that literary biography runs long. Discounting index and notes, white space, the twenty-six superb photographs, and the copious quotations from Crane and other sources, fewer than two hundred pages of text remain. The volume also raises the question of just how much biography can do to elucidate literature. The answer depends less on the erudition and skill of the biographer than on the nature of the subject. The fiction of Charles Dickens, for example, is so deeply embedded in his time and place and in the author’s own well-documented social concerns, springing so clearly out of the traumas of his childhood, that biography is critical to understanding it. The case of Stephen Crane could not be more different. For most of his brief lifetime he was an outsider, a social and cultural exile, despite his lionization for The Red Badge of Courage (1895). At crucial times he was actually an expatriate. Moreover, whereas Dickens’ life is revealed almost day to day by thousands of letters and by the periodicals he edited, few of Crane’s letters are preserved and most of those are unrevealing. For long stretches, not only during his childhood, he virtually disappears. The challenge he offers a biographer is formidable.
It is so formidable, in fact, that Crane’s early biographer Thomas Beer, in his Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (1923), met it by invention. According to articles published in 1990 and 1991, which Benfey cites, Beer himself forged many of the letters from which he “quotes.” Thus “half the clues to Crane’s life have gone up in smoke.” It would have been interesting to learn more about the extent of and evidence for the forgeries; in any event, the situation Benfey reveals suggests something of the nature of his own contribution. Inasmuch as biographers since 1923 have drawn heavily from Beer, Benfey is able to do a good deal to clear the air. If he himself at times goes fairly well out on speculative limbs, at least he is engagingly tentative about it. The informal and undogmatic tone of this biography, in fact, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of it.
The Double Life of Stephen Crane is by no means thesis-bound. The author adopts the sensible course of tracking down clues as he comes to them, even if sometimes into blind alleys. The volume does, however, proceed from a basic premise: that Crane, instead of writing about experience, “did the reverse: he tried to live what he’d already written.” The biographer’s challenge, therefore,
is to make sense of Crane’s fascinating attempts to live his fictions, to make his life an analogue of his work.… This doesn’t mean we can dispense with psychological explanations in making sense of Crane’s life and work. On the contrary, we must deal with a psyche so powerful that it shaped events according to its own, mainly literary, patterns.
In demonstrating that this pattern exists, Benfey clearly succeeds; the evidence is irrefutable. Inevitably, he is less successful in answering the difficult analytical questions to which it points: why did Crane live this way, and what are the implications for appreciating his work?
Since little is known directly of Crane’s childhood, Benfey begins by deducing what he can from the lives of Crane’s parents. Crane’s father was a Methodist clergyman “opposed to dancing and the reading of fiction”; his mother, a “lecturer and pamphleteer for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.” Crane, growing up in this household in New Jersey and rural New York, would seem to have experienced a straitlaced but fairly ordinary childhood. Benfey, however, speculates convincingly on the later effects of a variety of traumas. Crane, to begin with, was the last of fourteen children, of whom the four preceding him had died in infancy. Given the emotional exhaustion inherent for his mother in such a situation as well as her interest in the Temperance Union (founded in 1874, just as Crane turned three), Crane may well have had very limited mothering. When Crane was four, his father was demoted to the itinerant ministry as a result of a question of doctrine. The demotion probably caused familial stress. Crane’s father died when Crane was eight years old. “Crane’s works,” Benfey points out, “are notable for their absent fathers, their harassed and difficult mothers.” Crane’s mother, in fact, “suffered some sort of mental breakdown in 1886.” Benfey makes no pretense of defining the precise effects of these events. If art is an attempt to exorcise ghosts or heal wounds, however, Crane was surely in no want of either.
Crane’s formal education began late and ended early. Benfey suggests that he associated the written word with grief: His father died when he was learning to read, around the age of eight; his mother, in 1891, when he was learning the writer’s craft. Certainly the mood of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1896; privately printed, 1893) supports that...