Friday, June 26, 2015

Stephen Crane squeezed lots of living into a short life: died of tuberculosis at 28

Stephen Crane was the kid your parents warned you not to play with. A Methodist minister’s son, born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871, he was experimenting with smoking and drinking by the time he was six. He was sent to a Methodist boarding school, but dropped out when a teacher accused him of lying. Next it was military school and then Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he failed five of the seven courses he took—including writing. He switched to Syracuse University, but failed to graduate there as well. 

Crane managed to squeeze a lot of experiences into his brief life of less than three decades. When he was sixteen, he wrote and privately printed for limited circulation a novel about a prostitute, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. After that he worked at various newspaper jobs in New York City, until one day in 1983 at the studio of an artist friend, he mentioned he had been reading a war story in a magazine and told his friend he could write a better one himself. 

“Why not do it?” said his friend. 

Crane, who had never done military service and knew nothing about the American Civil War, spent three days reading every book about the war he could find in the public library. Then he wrote The Red Badge of Courage, which was rejected by every book publisher he sent it to and finally was serialized in a magazine, in condensed form, for which Crane was paid ninety dollars. Critics later hailed the book as a masterpiece, speculating that its author must be a veteran soldier.

Crane went to Cuba to cover the uprising against the Spanish in 1897, but was shipwrecked. He was originally reported dead, but survived by swimming to shore. The experience resulted in his most famous short story, “The Open Boat.”

Back in New York, he became a devotee of bohemian circles, and he was hired by the New York World to write a series of articles about the seamy side of city life in the area known as the Tenderloin. He became involved with a prostitute on whose behalf he testified in court, resulting in a search of his apartment, in which opium was found. In court he was asked, “Do you smoke opium?” “I deny that,” he answered.  “On the grounds that your answer would incriminate you?” continued the prosecutor. “Well…yes,” Crane admitted. His career as an investigative reporter was over, and he fled to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American war.

Stopping off in Jacksonville, Florida, he met Cora Taylor, proprietress of the Hotel de Dreme, an upscale brothel. He moved in with her, and then the pair went to England, where they lived as man and wife, although Cora was slightly encumbered by a previous husband. Crane and Cora lived the high life on an estate in Essex, and lavishly entertained such literary lights as Henry James, H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford. In England Crane wrote several stories, including “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” In all, Crane’s literary output includes five novels, two books of poetry, and many short stories.

Crane and his lady went to Greece, where he covered the Greco-Turkish war for various newspapers, and then they landed back in Cuba, where Crane collapsed during a party with a pulmonary hemorrhage. He was diagnosed with yellow fever, but he suspected it was really tuberculosis and went to a spa in the Adirondacks, where that diagnosis was confirmed. Cora then took him to the same spa in Badenweiler, in the Black Forest of Germany, where Anton Chekhov was to die four years later of the same disease. Crane died there on June 5, 1900, at the age of twenty-eight. 

Cora returned to Jacksonville and opened a new bordello.

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