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

Tonight’s Reading Plan: Lawrence and Lebowski

I’m reading Lawrence, Hemingway and Anderson.

Tonight, I will read a few chapters in the Sun Also Rises and perhaps a little more of St. Mawr. 

I’m also reading The Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance of Two Gentlemen of Lebowski.

You’re going to want to check that out.  Full disclosure:  I get a small percentage if you buy it through the link. 

I hadn’t heard of this work by Adam Bertocci until my wife bought me a copy as a surprise earlier this week.  The opening scene alone is worth the cover price.

100 Words at a Time

I have always loved to write.  I first started writing creatively as an adult sometime during Divinity School, in my early 20s.  I wrote stories and poems in high school of course, but most of what I wrote in college was more academic. 

Between finishing my Master of Divinity and starting my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, I wrote many small pieces of fiction and prose poems.  I grew fond of writing things that were exactly 100 words.  It was a good practice in rhythm, word choice, and brevity.

This piece, which I rewrote yesterday from an older draft that didn’t go where I had hoped, is 98 words:

There’s nothing to say now to Eugene Victor Debs or William Jennings Bryan.  No spring under iron wheels and no thaw in the concrete borders of compassion.  No dispersing from the lock-step forms of ill-formed fear, fear of self, of other, fear of washing rain, revealing living oneness, fear of drowning in it.  There’s no green in our window-boxes, no stray cats in alleys and nothing left to feed them. Only fat birds always eating and the statues of our past, the ideal likeness of forgotten shapes and forms, fat birds always eating, bleaching white our skin-toned stories.

I have also found that I inevitably tend to write paragraphs of about 100 words in my fiction, especially why I’m attempting a birds-eye view seeking to balance external and internal settings, or when I’m doing an extremely close third-person read. 

After quite of bit of struggle with one story yesterday, I read and took a break.  Later, I revised the poem above.  Then I went about the other things I had to do. Later still, I wrote a post about DH Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson (both very good at the external/internal balance and the shift from mundane to sublime) and Ernest Hemingway (ever a muse for brevity).  Then I returned to another story, one I had been avoiding for personal reasons, and wrote this, which is, not surprisingly, about a hundred words:

On his ten-speed, the new present from his father, Riley arced and waved, his course unfettered and unhinged, free from the attraction of large bodies, the fundamental laws of physics. The nurses crossed the Fairgrounds. Birds roosted in the trees. The Sisters of St. Catherine were called to daily office, everywhere the brides of Christ were moving to the music of the set-in-motion world. In the Market lot, where the families sold their wares, where the men had trained to serve in war, where the Milltown Fair lit August sky with fireworks and neon, on that swath of pavement bordered by the hospital and graveyard, a boy, still small, still boyish, rode his brand-new bike.

I’m sure I’ll revise and refine that, but for now I rather like it.  In the context of the story, it’s a sort of capstone.

For whatever reason, I tend to write more or less 100 words at a time.  There are days when these bursts add up, 1000 or 2000 words.  There are days like yesterday, where I revised 98 and wrote 120 more.

Dialogue is like the 12-point Courier New of daily word goals.  Even in the piece I struggled with yesterday, I managed 300 words of decent dialogue in service of the story. 

Some days net a ton of words you cut down later.  Some days net a ton of words you keep.  Some days are more about the planting, some days about the harvest.

If you’re writing and/or reading today (and I hope you are), happy sewing, watering, reaping.

Horses In Midstream: DH Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and Sherwood Anderson

I’m reading a three-story collection of DH Lawrence that anthologizes “The Woman Who Rode Away,” St. Mawr (really a novella), and “The Princess.”

I’ve finished “The Woman Who Rode Away” and am a third through St. Mawr.  All three tales involve horses.  The first and last are about women who leave their normal lives on horseback, and St. Mawr is, himself, a horse.

Given where I am in the collection, this is something of a review in midstream.

“The Woman Who Rode Away” has many admirable qualities.  James Lasdun, who wrote the collection’s introduction, does a very good job discussing them. He also notes Lawrence’s interest in pulp fiction, and for me, that’s what the narrative arc finally becomes, with all of that genre’s attendant problems of sexism, racism, colonialism. There is more to like about much of the writing than about the balance of the story. 

St. Mawr is likewise full of brilliant moments, but so far seems to drag on.  How many times must Lawrence tell us about the other planes of existence the horse seems to occupy?  How many times must he tell us about the darkness in the stallion’s eyes, and in that darkness, fire?  How many times must he remind us of Phoenix’s high cheek-bones and other “Indian” features?  How long must poor Rico suffer?  I am midstream in this story, but feel like changing horses. 

Don’t get me wrong. Lawrence was supremely gifted.  I should say that I’m concurrently reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published two years after these Lawrence stories were written.  Though the two writers shared many things in common (Hemingway does go on about the streets and restaurants of Paris,  both men name-check the Rotonde, both deal in their ways with the aftermath of World War I), their styles are like the glyphs of different planets.  Reading them together helps modern readers, almost a century on, understand why The Sun Also Rises was considered such a departure and, for that reason, such a landmark. 

That’s not to diminish Lawrence, nor to compare this collection (not a masterpiece) to Hemingway’s best-known and most critically acclaimed work.  But since I happen to be reading these pieces in tandem, I can’t help seeing them in light of each other, to an extent.

Lawrence’s prose is rich and layered and often very beautiful.  He was, as Lasdun points out, a master at transmuting setting into psychological revelation.  All of that is here.  Hemingway can seem too stark by comparison.  Sherwood Anderson, who Hemingway parodied in The Torrents of Spring (also published in 1926) is stylistically somewhere in between.  Winesburg, Ohio is a current happy place of mine.

Literature, Fandom, and Fantastic Beasts; Stan Lee and Sherwood Anderson

I finished a new short story last week.  I’m mentally preparing for the next one by doing some reading and by catching up on other kinds of work.  Tomorrow, I’m going to start a story inspired in part by Sherwood Anderson’s “Godliness: A Story in Four Parts.” 

Yesterday, I posted a short, positive review of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.  Had Flannery O’Connor written “Godliness,” I suspect that David Hardy’s arc would bear more of a thematic resemblance to Credence Barebone’s.  

Since posting my Grindelwald review, more of the negative hot takes I was expecting have started coming in from people who are paid to write about these things.  So have some positive ones.  One critic is arguing that JK Rowling should not have been allowed to write the Fantastic Beasts movies, because George Lucas.

Some of the negative reviews boil down to consternation over seeming violations of Rowling’s canon.  I wonder what people who have those kinds of issues make of the countless retcons and reboots we see in the comics medium.

This post is something like six years old, and is woefully out of date.  It’s also one of the most-read posts I’ve ever done.  Why?  Because most readers understand what Bill Maher doesn’t: comic books, sci-fi, fantasy, these myth-making genres and their creators, don’t really stand outside and apart from the Andersons and O’Connors of the world.

Graphic Policy shared this quote from Lee, which is apropos:

“They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading, and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all — old time fairy tales and heroic legends — contained moral and philosophical points of view…None of us lives in a vacuum—none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us — events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist — but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains while we read it!”

With respect to Potter or Star Wars or Star Trek or other properties fans attach themselves to and imbue with personal meaning, remember that  Marvel and DC reboot entire mythical universes every other year.  Fans grumble and complain.  But the iconography of Batman, Superman, and Spider-man is never tarnished.  Their continuity has become a sort of choose-your-own-adventure, and these characters, far older than Rowling’s or Lucas’s or Roddenberry’s, are all the richer for it.

Graphic Policy shares another timely quote:

“Finally, what does Excelsior mean?  Upward and onward to greater glory!” 

That’s what Stan Lee had in mind for his readers.  Not a glory of overmen and jingo, so common in modern politics, not some fanatical appeal to the real-life analogues of Gellert Grindelwald’s “greater good.”  Rather, to the making of big, important stories, life-giving tales of love and justice.  Those are the things that resonate in print, on screen, on mix-tapes.  In comic books and any other thing called literature.