Willa Cather, When I knew Stephen Crane

American author Stephen Crane in 1899

Stephen Crane, 1899 (Photographer unknown; Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

I haven’t reviewed a Library of America offering for a while and so have decided it’s time I dipped again into its offerings. Willa Cather‘s essay/journalistic piece “When I knew Stephen Crane”, which they published last month, appealed to me because of a couple of synchronicities. One is that Lisa of ANZLitLovers reviewed Crane’s The red badge of courage a few days ago, reminding me that I have yet to read Crane. The other is a little more obscure. Colleen of Bookphilia wrote a post earlier this week in which she complained about Anthony Trollope‘s admission that he would, in order to meet a deadline, submit work that he believed was not very good. The synchronicity is that in her essay Cather writes that Crane

gave me to understand that he led a double literary life; writing in the first place the matter that pleased himself, and doing it very well; in the second place, any sort of stuff that would sell. And he remarked that his poor was just as bad as it could possibly be …

Not having read Crane, I don’t know whether he really did present poor stuff, but Colleen, I suspect, would not be impressed with this admission!

“When I knew Stephen Crane” was first published in 1900, two weeks after Crane’s death. It documents 21-year-old Cather’s meeting with 23-year-old Crane in 1895 at the offices of the Nebraska State Journal not long after the journal had published The red badge of courage. The introductory notes state that she changed some facts and suggests she did this “to foretell his tragic fate and to reflect [her] own interest in writing and literature”. I can believe this may be the case as the article is peppered with foreshadowings of his early death. Nonetheless, the notes argue that her report “sounds authentic”.

Certainly, she doesn’t try to present him in a heroic light. She describes him as “thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven … His grey clothes were much the worse for wear … He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie.” He had, in other words, “a disreputable appearance”. She writes that she had read and helped edit, for the journal, The red badge of courage:

… the grammatical construction of the story was so faulty that the managing editor had several times called on me to edit the copy. In this way I had read it very carefully, and through the careless sentence structure I saw the wonder of that remarkable performance.

She writes eloquently of her moment of revelation from Crane, saying that

The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention … It selects its listeners wilfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour.

Hmm … I think there’s a lot of truth in this, at least in my experience as a giver and receiver of such “messages”. Anyhow, Cather, on a night when “the white, western moonlight threw sharp, blue shadows below us”, felt lucky to have had such a moment with Crane, one in which he talks about his craft, “his slow method of composition”. He tells her that while The red badge of courage had been written in 9 days, he had been unconsciously working on it throughout his boyhood. He also tells her that it would be months after he got an idea for a story before he’d feel able to write it:

‘The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever’, he remarked.

Cather also briefly refutes the criticism by some that Crane is “the reporter in fiction”, arguing that his newspaper account of a shipwreck he’d experienced was “lifeless” but his “literary product” (“The open boat”) was “unsurpassed in its vividness and constructive perfection”.

She concludes the article on a somewhat sentimental note which is not surprising given its publication so soon after his death … but even this sentimentality is expressed in the robust language that we know Cather for:

He drank life to the lees, but at the banquet table where other men took their ease and jested over their wine, he stood a dark and silent figure, sombre as Poe himself, not wishing to be understood …

It is for Cather’s own writing and her insights into character, as much as for what I learnt about Crane, that I enjoyed reading this offering from LOA. I will still, however, read Crane one day.

21 thoughts on “Willa Cather, When I knew Stephen Crane

  1. I had to read Red Badge of courage in high school and found it boring and pointless but that is most likely because 15 year-old me didn’t have any experience or care about what Crane had to say at the time. I imagine I would feel differently about the novel now especially since I have read and liked the Open Boat. I never realized Crane and Cather were contemporaries. And how interesting that she helped edit the book!

    • Stefanie, I’m guessing it’s one of those more contemplative books that probably suits an older mind? As for editing – I did a quick google when i was writing the post and couldn’t find much on this but that’s what she wrote. I think she edited the serialization in the Nebraska journal rather than the final published book. But that in itself is interesting I think isn’t it?

  2. I think that Red Badge is one of those books one reads in high school, and probably shouldn’t. Since high school I’ve read “The Open Boat”, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets and some of his poetry.

    Ford Maddox Ford wrote of his acquaintance with Crane; however, Ford’s recollections were apt to be terribly unreliable.

    • To be honest, I had really only ever heard of The red badge of courage, George, and now you and Stefanie recommend The open boat. Sounds like one to add to the TBR list. As for Ford … I hope to review his The good soldier in the next little while – having read that, I can imagine, perhaps, his view not being totally reliable!

  3. I read The Red Badge of Courage after All Quiet on the Western Front, gifts from a friend who thought they were terrible absences from my reading history. I thought they were both chillingly effective.

    Ps This seems like a great blog!

    • Oh the embarrassment! These are two gaps in mine, both on the TBR. A book that I think has an equivalent impact to those two but is way less well-known is David Malouf’s Fly away Peter. And, thanks for the compliment on the blog. Lovely to “meet” you.

  4. I’ve loved every David Malouf book I’ve read but haven’t read this one. Must order. Lovely to meet you too. I’m an Australian reader/writer lo ing in Italy and love book blogs that go beyond the norm!

    • Oh I wondered … I popped over and read a couple of your posts (but didn’t have time then to comment) and noticed that one of your characters was Australian. That made me wonder. Italy is a great place …

      And, if you’ve loved Malouf, then you will love Fly away Peter I’m sure.

  5. Pingback: Book – The Red Badge Of Courage by Stephen Crane « Raymond M. Towers

  6. Much to think about there! I was intrigued by the Trolloppe admission – I read about him being the most professional of writers who’s attention to detail was second to none and whose self-discipline was quite astonishing. However, perhaps Trolloppe’s “less than perfect” was equal to the “very good ” of other writers.

    I have never heard of Stephen Crane (although I had a colleague with that name). The Red Badge of Courage sounds familiar though but I’m not sure in what context. Those Library of America things are really worth reading by the sound of it and I must revisit them – the last time was when you last wrote about them.

    I look forward to visiting more regularly now my hectic summer is over!

  7. That’s interesting, I’m sure Cather named a character Crane in her novel, The Professor’s House. I’ve not got the book to hand but I’ll check. I’ve read many Cather novels, but not her essays and I’d like to read more. I believe she wrote an essay called ‘Not Under Forty’ which I’d love to read. A truly wonderful writer.

    • Hi Nicola … you’re right, she did. I’ve just checked my copy as I don’t recollect things like that. Mrs Crane comes to the Professor to ask him to intercede on her behalf re monies from a patent that were bequeathed to his daughter but that she thinks her husband has some claim on. I’ve read just three of her novels – My Antonia, Death comes for the archbishop and The professor’s house. I want to read more, particularly O Pioneers.

  8. Pingback: My Ántonia « Xingu, Volume 2

  9. Pingback: My Ántonia « Ruined for Life: Phoenix Edition

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