TABLOID NEWS SERVICES, INC.
MATT WELCH writes from LOS ANGELES · Sept. 11, 1998
Stephen Crane died broke in 1900 at the age of 28.
With deteriorating lungs that eventually ruptured, he nevertheless spent the last four years of his life publishing "five novels, two volumes of poetry, three big story collections, two books of war stories, and countless works of short fiction and reporting," writes Linda H. Davis in the new biography "Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane" (Houghton Mifflin).
While tubercular, he was not what you would call bedridden.
"Rarely idle, Crane, a frail-looking, chain-smoking, boyishly handsome author-correspondent, had gone off to rebellion in Cuba (well, almost: the boat taking him there sank in a storm); covered a war in Greece; established and furnished a large brick villa in Oxted for an illicit wife; [and] cultivated an array of celebrated literary and artistic friends," Angell wrote.
Regulars at Crane's "debt-ridden, ramshackle, but wildly attractive literary household" included Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, American novelist Harold Frederic, and especially Joseph Conrad, who considered the decade-younger Crane to be his literary mentor.
Before bursting to international fame with the publication of "The Red Badge of Courage" at age 22, Crane spent a semester at Syracuse (where he became captain of the baseball team), declared "College life is a waste of time," then elbowed his way on to the New York Tribune as a cub reporter.
Besides ambition, Crane had, in the words of his colleague John Northern Hilliard, "a hankering for the women." At 20 he proposed to a married woman, at 22 he lured noted Chicago drama critic Amy Leslie to move in with him -- a relationship which ended after a "misunderstanding" surrounding 800 dollars. Meanwhile he remained a "loyal customer and friend of the Tenderloin hookers," Angell wrote.
Even in later years, after settling down with an undivorced American woman in London, Crane still had trouble behaving.
"When the [Spanish-American] war ended, Crane weirdly disappeared in Havana for a few weeks; then he was glimpsed, very run-down, in cafes and on the street," Angell wrote. "He was in love again (no one ever found out the name of the woman), but also, one must guess, was not anxious to get home and look at what lay ahead. His tuberculosis had been diagnosed."
We Could Be Heroes
In his article, Angell argues that Crane was a product of his times, and that he was likely spared from embarrassment by dying young before the 20th century got ugly.
"He was at home, one senses, in a time when the world felt local and intimate, and when journeys tingled with the unexpected," Angell wrote. "I cannot find it in me to wish Stephen Crane still at it in his fifties, caught in a more modern time and forced to write about death on an even more enourmous scale."
Fortunately for the rest of us, the 20th century produced many writers who picked up where Crane left off, flinging themselves headlong into the latest domestic or global mess, emerging with novels, nonfictions, poems, paintings and other beautiful lies. Driven by equal parts restless curiousity, crass glory-seeking and a weird sense of duty toward civilization, they brought us back lasting pieces of art and reportage that do more to explain, say, the Spanish Civil War than any history book.
And for readers with adventurous spirits, they held up a giant sign saying "See? This is how life can be lived."
Crane, Conrad, John Reed, Hemingway, T.S. Lawrence, Orwell, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, Graham Greene, Lawrence Durrell, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson. For the first 75 years of this century you felt safe knowing that, no matter what the problem, a smart and evocative writer/journalist would go there, come back and tell you what the newspaper correspondents were missing.
Now, I'm afraid I don't know who to turn to, and civilization seems that less safe.
In America, the end of the Cold War caught both sides dug-in and off-guard, looking suddenly ridiculous. Rather than re-examine their own excesses during 40 years of bitter struggle, most just quietly changed the subject. The most astounding story since 1968 -- the Bosnian genocide, Europe's last truly horrifying war -- was left to hyper-specialists, like Timothy Garton Ash, or stringer/correspondents like David Remnick, who were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time.
I have met literally dozens of journalists or hands-on Cold Warriors who developed their worldview and specialty in 1970s and '80s Central Europe, only to feel perfectly helpless and unhappy when the collapse of Communism toppled their certainties overnight.
The war in the former Yugoslavia was frequently referred to as "our generation's Spanish Civil War," but where were our Orwells and Hemingways, getting shot in the neck and trapped behind enemy lines, only to emerge with "Homage to Catalonia" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls"? I asked a few friends to remember which writer/artists of standing plunged themselves into Sarajeveo, for example, and the only names we could come up with were gasbag Susan Sontag -- who embarrassed herself by writing a long article for the New York Review of Books about how heroic she was for going there and directing a play -- and Bono of U2.
There are explanations for this, something about the spread of television, the closing down of foreign news bureaus, and the end of great ideological struggles. There are also dozens of fine journalism books, largely written by stringers & shoestring correspondents who became passionate about a story, such as Peter Maas' "Love Thy Neighbor," Thomas L. Friedman's "From Beruit to Jerusalem," and even Christopher Hunt's "Waiting for Fidel" -- the only book on Cuba I've seen that discards rhetoric in favor of pure detailed description of the place.
And yes, many of the very hero-journalists whose passing I lament descended into self-parody, impotence and delusion (especially John Reed, who could never reconcile his colossal ego with the proletarian ideals he championed, and thus fabricated more reporting than Steven Glass or any other disgraced journalist to be fired over the last few months). In fact, the whole concept of artist-as-reporter approached parody in the late '60s and early '70s, when every half-important news event and political convention was covered by an army of novelists and poets, and erudite fluffery like Mailer's laughable "Of a Fire on the Moon" filled the bookstores.
Still, the world's headed into a rough stretch, and I don't know who I can trust to tell me about it with style and class, while making me laugh at loud at their exploits. P.J. O'Rourke ain't gonna do it, nor is Paul Theroux. If you have any candidates, please e-mail me at email@example.com.
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