The Double Life of Stephen Crane

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A single arresting and indisputable fact lies at the heart of this highly speculative biography. Crane’s best-known work, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, has impressed generations of readers with its powerful rendering of the experience of combat, yet when he wrote the novel, Crane himself had no firsthand knowledge of war, as participant or observer. Only after the book was published did he gain this experience, as a war correspondent in Greece and Cuba.

This fact in itself is nothing new. What’s original is the significance that Benfey attaches to it. In Benfey’s view, the odd-seeming relationship between Crane’s literary depiction of war and subsequent experience of it was in fact paradigmatic. Many writers, of course, have described events they’ve never witnessed, places they’ve never been, but Crane—so Benfey contends—quite consciously established a pattern of first writing about an experience and then living it in actuality to see if he “got it right.” Seen from this vantage, Crane’s writings become “eerily predictive” of his life.

The problem with Benfey’s thesis is that he doesn’t provide evidence for it beyond a very subjective tracing of this alleged master-pattern in Crane’s life and work. Benfey claims that Crane deliberately set out to authenticate his writings, as it were, after the fact, yet there’s no indication that Crane himself acted with such purposeful intent. On the contrary, the record of his...

(The entire section is 402 words.)