I asked my friend, the artist and scholar Blake Bronson-Bartlett, to write us a little essay about Stephen Crane. Blake and I had been discussing Crane’s curious status and reception in the history of American literature. Crane makes possible Hemmingway and Stevens, Jeffers and even Hart Crane, but how many remember that it was the poet John Berryman’s book, Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography, that, in Robert M. Dowling’s words, “single-handedly ensured Stephen Crane’s reputation as a major American author”? Crane’s poems, which on the whole seem over the top and decidedly “minor,” at their best remain potent imaginative reservoirs, pockets of singular and foreign seeing and feeling. Crane was an iconoclast and an original. He is, as Joshua Edwards once said to me, “sort of our Rimbaud.” Please welcome Blake Bronson-Bartlett writing on Stephen Crane.
“‘For my further undoing,’ Stephen Crane: There is Nothing to Say.”
This post was inspired by a previous post on Best American Poetry, which quotes a high school sophomore who took an interest in a poem by Stephen Crane. When I read the post, I had just finished teaching Crane’s prose and poetry to a class of college students who had never heard of him. So I was surprised and thrilled to discover that Crane’s poetry was being taught in high school and even capturing the attention of students.
Since then, I have become increasingly curious about what I consider to be the author’s “half-presence” in American literary history. His work is read, and perhaps always will be read—or at least The Red Badge of Courage will be. But, even then, the emphasis that is placed on Crane, within and without the classroom, whether in high school or in college, is lacking, I believe, when compared with the emphasis placed on American authors of equal or even lesser “impact.”
Crane’s poetry, in particular, has more to teach us about the grey area underlying the “classical” trajectory of American poetry from Whitman to the likes of Williams, Pound, Moore, etc. Although in recent decades cultural historians have proposed alternative narratives that complicate this trajectory, Crane’s poetry is relatively invisible and unheard. Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (1987) and Bill Brown’s The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play (1996) are significant works of scholarship in their own right, but exile the poetry to focus exclusively on Crane’s prose. Meanwhile, the single book-length work devoted to Crane’s poetry remains Daniel Hoffman’s The Poetry of Stephen Crane (1956). Why this silence about the poetry? Maybe it has nothing to say to us.
But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore it, as it waits obstinately, to be drawn out. To elaborate, I think it would be appropriate to share with the readers of Best American Poetry the second poem of the “Intrigue” cycle, from the latter half of War is Kind (1899), Crane’s second collection of poems.