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New biography seeks to prove Stephen Crane's place in the U.S. literary canon


Stephen Crane was born 150 years ago Monday. He's best known, of course, as the author of "The Red Badge Of Courage," and his own life was the stuff of an adventure novel. He lived in poverty with artists and writers. He survived a shipwreck. He was a war correspondent. And he died too soon. Now, a big new biography seeks to bolster Stephen Crane's reputation as one of the most original voices in American literature. From New York, Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: Five years ago, when Paul Auster finished his 20th novel, he says he needed to take a break from writing fiction. So he picked up a novella by Stephen Crane called "The Monster."

PAUL AUSTER: It was a very brave story. I mean, it's a story about race written in 1897. Such an electrifying work that I said, I have to read more.

VITALE: And he did, a lot more - novels, novellas, short stories, poetry and journalism.

AUSTER: So I thought I would write a little book about Crane.

VITALE: That little book turned into an 800-page biography called "Burning Boy" in which Auster argues that Stephen Crane was the first American modernist.

AUSTER: He got rid of the conventions of the 19th century novel. He stripped it all down. I mean, for example, "Red Badge Of Courage" is a novel in which, yes, we - everyone knows it's a war novel. The name of the war is never mentioned. The cause of the war is never mentioned. The word slavery never comes up. So what the book is really about is the interior life of an adolescent boy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's the matter, Henry? You scared?

AUDIE MURPHY: (As Henry Fleming - the Youth) Scared? Me? Of course not. What a dumb fool question.

VITALE: John Huston's 1951 adaptation of "The Red Badge Of Courage" starred Audie Murphy as the young soldier gripped with fear as he prepares for his first battle.


MURPHY: (As Henry Fleming - the Youth) How do you know you won't run when the time comes?

BILL MAULDIN: (As Tom Wilson - the Loud Soldier) Run? Me?

MURPHY: (As Henry Fleming - the Youth) Well, plenty of good enough men have thought they was going to do great things before the fight, but when the time come, they skedaddle.

VITALE: "The Red Badge Of Courage" describes an actual battle in the Civil War, but the real conflict is the battle the teenage soldier fights with himself.

Crane honed his craft for fiction by writing for newspapers. He was broke most of his life. To make money, he wrote sketches of street life. By the time he was in his 20s, his vignettes of the New York slums, tenements and Tenderloin were appearing in the big papers run by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Crane's compact style was a major influence on Ernest Hemingway and the writers who followed, like novelist Russell Banks.

RUSSELL BANKS: You couldn't have been a writer like me coming up in the 1950s and '60s without being influenced by Crane - a prose that is not florid and not rhetorically embellished, that you can be as quiet and straightforward and direct as possible and still be highly dramatic.

VITALE: Banks says Crane's work as a journalist gave him access to the lower classes, an experience 19th century literary writers never had.

BANKS: And he saw instantly, at a very early point in his life that the lives of ordinary, poor, impoverished, suffering, oppressed Americans were as dignified and important and worthy of attention as the lives of Edith Wharton's characters or Henry James' characters.

VITALE: Paul Auster says he called his biography "Burning Boy" because of the fervor with which Stephen Crane lived and wrote.

AUSTER: He offers us a position of absolute honesty. The bulk of Crane's writing is concerned with life and death, danger, urban poverty, war. And these are eternal subjects.

VITALE: Stephen Crane died from tuberculosis at a spa in Germany in 1900. He was just 28 years old.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Vitale