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

Stephen Crane On Boyhood Dreams: Most Men Blush. I Don’t.

There’s a newer version of this post live at my new Substack. (Which is free, because who do I think I am?)

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.

Stephen Crane to Viola Allen

The context here is Crane’s recollection of Allen and other classmates at Claverack Seminary, including one 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 to Allen, as published in Burning Boy by Paul Auster, pp 37-38.

Indeed.

Good Advice is the Hardest to Take

In Ann Hood’s workshop, she tells students to “blow it up.” Same idea. Oh, how we resist!

The Gospel According to John and Eugene

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” – from East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” – Eugene Victor Debs

These strike me as very Christ-like statements. Statements Christ Himself would have made (and basically did).

The so-called Christian Nationalism we see paraded around by cynical politicians (and others) isn’t Christ-like. It’s Christian-ism, and is anathema to the ethos, mission, vision, calling, and expectations the Crucified had for Himself and His followers. I’m just saying.

Mommy and the Dada Wilderness

Somehow, I’m only now reading Hotchner’s memoir/Hemingway biography. Take a look at this:

“But you know, Papa, despite poor Jake and his tragic fate, I never really felt anything ‘lost’ about that group. Maybe it’s just a reflection of my debauched state, but by the end of the book I felt a certain survival strength in those people, not at all the utter hopelessness of a ‘lost generation.’”

 “That was Gertrude Stein’s pronouncement, not mine!” he snapped. “Gertrude repeating what some garage keeper in the Midi had told her about his apprentice mechanics: une génération perdue. Well, Gertrude … a pronouncement was a pronouncement was a pronouncement. I only used it in the front of Sun Also Rises so I could counter it with what I thought. That passage from Ecclesiastes, that sound lost? ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever …’ Solid endorsement for Mother Earth, right? ‘The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose …’ Solid endorsement for sun. Also endorses wind. Then the rivers—playing it safe across the board: ‘All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.’ Never could say thither. Look, Gertrude was a complainer. So she labeled that generation with her complaint. But it was bullshit. There was no movement, no tight band of pot-smoking nihilists wandering around looking for Mommy to lead them out of the dada wilderness. What there was, was a lot of people around the same age who had been through the war and now were writing or composing or whatever, and other people who had not been through the war and either wished they had been or wished they were writing or boasted about not being in the war. Nobody I knew at that time thought of himself as wearing the silks of the Lost Generation, or had even heard the label. We were a pretty solid mob. The characters in Sun Also Rises were tragic, but the real hero was the earth and you get the sense of its triumph in abiding forever.”

“There was no movement, no tight band of pot-smoking nihilists wandering around looking for Mommy to lead them out of the dada wilderness.” Damn, bro.

How to Read More (by Leveraging Compulsions)

There are two ways to become a better writer.

  1. You have to write.
  2. You have to read.

Those are the rules, and you have to do both.

If you’re a writer, I’m going to assume you have a set of hangups and compulsions. Some are idiosyncratic, some are things you have in common with a million other people.

I have OCD. People who don’t have OCD think it’s some kind of Marie Kondo superpower. If only.

I treat my OCD and I would say I’m healthy. But I still have compulsions. They’re no longer all-consuming, thankfully, but they’re there in many ways, just below the surface.

Last year, I decided I was going to read the most books ever. I started strong with James Baldwin, Willa Cather, and Bessel van der Kolk. I read a good bit of Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens and other poets. But somewhere, let’s call it March, I lost my zeal. Something happened somewhere; something else took precedence, I got distracted, and I forgot about my big plans for reading thirty million books.

Writers and other creatives talk a lot about flow. It’s real and it’s ecstatic. It turns out my flow state is best primed by really good reading. I suspect as much is true for almost any writer. Sometimes I feel out of words, completely tapped. Reading fills the cistern with new images, new idioms, new ways of seeing things.

I’m reading a lot this year. I know it’s only the end of January, but there’s something different about my appetite. I am more energized and more committed than I was at this point twelve months ago. I think there are three reasons:

  1. I’m reading more widely. Great literature, stellar nonfiction, books on craft, even the kind of motivational books I’ve tended to avoid.
  2. I don’t force myself to finish one book before starting another. I keep a relatively even pace across a few different titles and genres, and I’m incrementally getting closer to finishing them all.
  3. To keep track of my progress, I use an e-reader. Knowing exactly how close I am, percentage-wise, to my goal of finishing a book allows me to redirect idle, time-sucking compulsions toward a goal I actually want to achieve and actually helps me. Seeing my progress helps my subconscious mind create and recreate the compulsive itch into something worth scratching.

I’m not saying this will work for everyone, and it’s not some cure-all suggestion for managing your mental health. I’m not making light of compulsions worse than mine. I do, however, think that learning to rewire our neural pathways through positive habits is a good thing, and I know how it’s helped me. A word about those self-help books. They basically teach the same thing. The reason the habits of highly effective people work is because neuroplasticity is real.

If you struggle with compulsions, depression, anxiety or other things, please seek proper care. The right help will make a world of difference, and you’ll be freer than you’ve ever been to train your mind to work in tandem with your heart and spirit.

That’s been my experience.

Thanks so much for reading.

Ray Bradbury Could Work Anywhere

I love this image:

“I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.

Pay typewriters. Who knew? Reminds me of the computer stations in the Sbarro in Port Authority. If I missed the early bus, I’d log on for a while. I don’t remember if I wrote anything decent, but the thing was just to write. Still is. Off we go, then.