Group Portrait

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In this interesting study, Nicholas Delbanco argues that five major novelists who lived within walking distance of one another in 1900 constituted a distinct literary group as significant as that in Bloomsbury. His candidates for this hypothetical community are Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells. Although his evidence does not support his thesis, Delbanco provides a number of insights into five diverse personalities and the ways in which these personalities interacted. Crane and James were Americans, Conrad a Pole; James and Conrad were practitioners of the novel as a comprehensive, in-depth examination of life; Crane and Wells represented a new generation of writers and fresh approaches to fiction. Ford was a man of generous impulses, indefatigable and optimistic, a highly talented writer whose work has only recently been given the recognition it deserves. These men knew and liked one another; they were convivial and met for social occasions. Otherwise, there are few indications of the shared activity characteristic of a literary “group.”

Delbanco begins with Crane, who had moved to England in 1897 and later, drawn by admiration for Conrad, relocated near the latter at Brede House in Kent. The initial discussion centers around a play put on by the Cranes at Brede schoolhouse, for the amusement of their friends and the local residents, on December 28, 1899. This play, entitled The Ghost, was a farce written by ten popular novelists of the time. It was of no literary significance and was written purely for fun, but the list of those who contributed to it is interesting. In addition to Crane, James, Conrad, and Wells, other authors included George Gissing, a novelist and exponent of naturalism; Robert Barr, a Scottish editor and novelist who later completed Crane’s unfinished novel The O’Ruddy (1903); A. E. W. Mason, best remembered for his novel of contemporary life, The Four Feathers (1902); and H. Rider Haggard, prolific and enormously popular writer of romantic adventure novels, among them King Solomon’s Mines (1885), She (1887), and Allan Quatermain (1887). Delbanco does not mention some of these authors again, and there are those among his readers who will wonder what associations may have existed between his chosen five and the others. Rudyard Kipling, who lived nearby, also receives scant attention. Delbanco states at the outset that he has been selective; his selectivity leaves many dangling questions.

Brede House was a fourteenth century manor, reputed to be a place of dampness and primitive sanitation, less than ideal for a man dying of consumption. Nevertheless, the Cranes hosted many parties there, and Crane seems to have been resigned to the certainty that his days were numbered. He and Conrad shared a genuine affection for each other, and it appears that this was the only really close friendship among the five.

Despite his affection for Crane and his appreciation of Crane’s genuine gifts, Conrad expressed reservations concerning the younger man’s ability to realize his potential as a writer. Delbanco, who shares Conrad’s estimate, notes in passing that Crane’s writing declined in quality after his arrival in England and suggests that American writers often fail to improve with recognition. The point may be well taken—Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett are examples of American writers destroyed by success—but it may be less appropriate in the case of Crane, whose rapidly accelerating physical decline could easily have impaired his creative abilities. Be this as it may, Crane’s brief career would seem to fit the implied pattern. Delbanco does not document any close relationship between Crane and James, although he notes that James was said to have been deeply distressed by Crane’s death.

More central to the writer’s craft is a collaborative effort between Conrad and Ford, to which Delbanco shifts in his next chapter. This partnership was one of convenience, with the hope of financial profit. The two men were essentially opposites. Conrad wrote painfully and with difficulty, distilling works of great depth from his experiences and internal conflicts; Ford was an extrovert who wrote easily, fluently, and well. Their...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The Atlantic. CCXLIX, May, 1982, p. 106.

Boston Review. VII, August, 1982, p. 25.

Christian Science Monitor. July 21, 1982, p. 17.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXIV, April, 1982, p. 108.

Library Journal. CVII, April 1, 1982, p. 730.

Listener. CVIII, October 28, 1982, p. 20.

New Statesman. CIV, October 8, 1982, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, May 30, 1982, p. 26.

The New Yorker. LVIII, June 21, 1982, p. 122.

Times Literary Supplement. October 22, 1982, p. 1148.