Friday, August 12, 2011

When I Knew Stephen Crane

Willa Cather (1873–1947)
From Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings

Irving Bacheller, the founder of the first major American newspaper syndicate, sent one of his young reporters, Stephen Crane, to Nebraska in February 1895 to report on the extreme drought and famine endured by the state’s residents during the previous two years. Only two months earlier the Nebraska State Journal had published the serialized version of The Red Badge of Courage. At the time, Willa Cather was a senior at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and the drama critic for the Journal, writing several articles each week. At some point during Crane’s stay in Lincoln, the 23-year-old author met the 21-year-old student, who was overwhelmed with a heavy course load and a full-time job requiring her to attend the local theater productions most nights of the week.

When Crane died five years later, in June 1900, Cather was living and working in Pittsburgh; under the pseudonym Henry Nickelman, she published a somewhat fictionalized account of their meeting. (The following month it was reprinted under her own name by a weekly paper in her hometown.) The piece is set on a warm spring day of 1894—before The Red Badge of Courage had been published—rather than during the cold winter months of Crane’s actual visit the following year. Stanley Wertheim’s Stephen Crane Encyclopedia notes, “The description of Crane's disheveled appearance seems true to life, but he is romanticized as having hands resembling those of [Art Nouveau illustrator] Aubrey Beardsley and carrying a little volume of Poe in his back pocket.” Biographer James Woodress remarks that it was Cather who was reading Poe at the time. Her portrait of Crane, then, seems somewhat modified to foretell his tragic fate and to reflect Cather’s own interest in writing and literature. Nevertheless, Woodress notes that their interview “sounds authentic” in part, especially when Crane discusses his double life as an author: how he wrote some things to please himself and how he wrote others to sell.

Our selection this week was suggested by an e-mail exchange with Dolores Schultz, an instructor at Saddleback College (Mission Viejo, CA), who finds that Cather’s “criticism and the book reviews she wrote for magazines were so brilliant compared with some of those written today.” And, in spite of whatever fictional elements may exist in her remembrance of Stephen Crane, the young Willa Cather still manages to offer her own opinions on Crane’s literary output (which she often admired and sometimes disdained) and on the writing of fiction and journalism in general.

One can only wonder what Crane might have thought of Willa Cather, only two years her junior. The only hint is a possibly apocryphal, secondhand account of Crane’s visit to Lincoln found in Willa Cather Living, the memoir published by Edith Lewis, Cather’s companion for forty years: “He was on his way to the Coast, and dropped into the Journal office one night about midnight. He was fascinated by the sight of a young girl . . . standing fast asleep. He said it was the only time he had ever seen anyone asleep on their feet like that.”

Notes: Mr. Howells (p. 933) is author, critic, and editor William Dean Howells. Mr. Davis (p. 934) is Richard Harding Davis, a prolific writer of fiction and journalism who is believed to be the model for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s male version of the famous “Gibson girl.”

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It was, I think, in the spring of ’94 that a slender, narrow-chested fellow in a shabby grey suit, with a soft felt hat pulled low over his eyes, sauntered into the office of the managing editor of the Nebraska State Journal and introduced himself as Stephen Crane. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.