A Deeper Dive into Stephen Crane, with All My Adjacent Obsessions

I started a Substack (free). The first post is a longer look at my current fascination with Stephen Crane. It all started at The Stone Pony. Here’s the full text (but check out the Substack!):

In the administrative office at my undergrad alma mater, Ursinus College, hangs (or hung, I don’t know if they’ve thought better of it since) a letter from JD Salinger, recommending his children’s babysitter for admission. Salinger recalls his own time as a student at Ursinus fondly in the note, and elements of Ursinus do make their way into his fiction (the characters of Franny and Zooey, the oak tree in the endzone). Having read the small missive, you’d be forgiven for thinking Salinger spent more than a semester at the small liberal arts college in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. For all kinds of reasons, he did not.

Lafayette College sits mostly on a hill in Easton, Pennsylvania, some 55 miles north and east of Ursinus. The quickest route from one to the other approximates the indented Jersey coastline at Perth Amboy, 80 miles east of Allentown, where PA Turnpike exit 56 creates a near-identical vector. There are some personal coincidences here that make me bother: I was born in raised in Allentown, Lafayette is not far, and I never knew that Stephen Crane, late of Asbury Park, spent a sole semester on College Hill in Easton forty years before JD Salinger did the same thing at Ursinus. Incidentally, my grandfather also enrolled at, and did not finish, a course of study at Lafayette. You may know that Lafayette and Lehigh University in nearby Bethlehem own the nation’s oldest football rivalry, but you probably don’t know that both Hilda Doolittle and Stephen Vincent Benet have connections to Lehigh. All of this is to say that the Lehigh Valley, where I live, has done a poor job of broadcasting its literary history. Few people even know Sandburg’s magnificent poem that references the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, another local institution of national renown I grew up knowing well.

Anyway. I know about Crane at Lafayette because I’m reading Paul Auster’s meaty Crane biography, Burning Boy. My interest in Crane was piqued last summer by a visit to Asbury Park, a shore point I chose solely because of Bruce Springsteen. Not far from Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony and a bust of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I is the Crane home, now run by the regional historical society.

Anyway. I know about Crane at Lafayette because I’m reading Paul Auster’s meaty Crane biography, Burning Boy. My interest in Crane was piqued last summer by a visit to Asbury Park, a shore point I chose solely because of Bruce Springsteen. Not far from Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony and a bust of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I is the Crane home, now run by the regional historical society.

Auster’s book is long, exhaustive without exhausting. It has been a quick read so far, partly because of his deft surveys of the world into which Crane was born: 19th century Methodism, temperance, suffrage; the early movements for workers rights, the trust-busting of the gilded age. All things I’m already interested in. Among the gems (a six year-old Crane buying his first beer from “a fat Pennsylvania Dutchman” while his mother is giving lectures on temperance stands out) is this wry observation that you may feel as keenly as did Crane.

The source is a letter from Crane to his old classmate Viola Allen upon the publication of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane remembers Allen fondly, and gives a litany of other girls from his time at Claverack Seminary (really, a high school) he has not forgotten, including one Ms. Jennie Pierce:

Alas, Jennie Pierce. You must remember that I was in love with her, madly, in the headlong way of seventeen. Jennie was clever. With only half an effort she made my so very miserable. Men usually refuse to recognize their school-boy dreams. They blush. I don’t. The emotion itself was probably higher, finer, than anything of my after-life, and so, often I like to think of it. I was such an ass, such a pure complete ass–it does me good to recollect it.

Crane’s not looking back from 50 (he would only live to 29). He was about 24 when he wrote this, old enough to believe he’d likely been an ass, young enough to probably still have been one. And he’s obviously still flirty. I’d bet the town of Winesburg, Ohio, that Sherwood (I’m A Fool) Anderson was a Crane devotee. He could not have been aware of this letter, but he echoes the sentiments a generation later in stories like “I’m a Fool” and “Sophistication.”

As for Asbury Park, here we find Crane laying the gravel for what would eventually become Thunder Road.

The Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park. Image credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, M.D., CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Join the discussion!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.