BOOK REVIEW / Vanishing Point: The standard biography of Stephen Crane was 'a tissue of lies'. Discovering the truth about the author of The Red Badge of Courage is a matter of subtraction not addition

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'I GO THROUGH the world unexplained,' said Stephen Crane, 'I cannot help vanishing and disappearing and dissolving. It is my foremost trait.' His biographers would be inclined to agree. Crane left no diaries and memoirs, and no letters. There are great blanks in the chronology of his short life - he died aged 29 in 1900 - and although, as a newspaperman, he wrote many seemingly factual accounts of hisexperience, scholars have come to accept that very often he saw and chronicled what wasn't there. He sometimes 'lacked the patience to wait for something to happen'.

Another complication for writers of Crane's life is that the supposedly standard 1923 biography, by Thomas Beer, is now thoroughly discredited: 'a tissue of lies' says Christopher Benfey, Crane's new biographer, 'a forgery through and through'. Apparently Beer invented for Crane a number of lovers and 'close friends'. He discovered the drafts of non-existent short stories and said they were by Crane. He forged letters and did so with such skill that 'some of Crane's bracing and most often quoted literary and philosophical opinions' were only recently revealed to have been Thomas Beer's. The trick worked for seven decades, so that now the task of Crane's biographers is a business of subtraction rather than addition. We thought we knew quite a bit about Crane's childhood but now, thanks to modern scholarship, we don't.

Crane - the great vanisher - might thoroughly have approved of Beer's inventions, none of which was in the least malicious. After all, much of his fame was based on a sort of literary sleight of hand. When The Red Badge of Courage first appeared, it was generally supposed to be 'the work of a man of more than middle age who had been under fire in the great Civil War in America, and simply recorded the vivid impressions of actual experience'. So said a contemporary reviewer. But Crane was 22 when he wrote the novel, and had no first-hand experience of warfare. 'I have never been in a battle,' he confessed, 'but I believe I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.' His war book was convincing enough for at least one reader to be heard boasting that he had fought alongside Stephen Crane at Antietam.

The Red Badge is without doubt a remarkable feat of retrospective intensity, but it is not quite so freakish as is sometimes thought. Crane spent two years - aged 17 to 19 - at a military college and these were, he said, 'the happiest years of my life'. He listened keenly to the tales told by his instructors, many of whom were Civil War vets, and in the library he pored over eye-witness accounts of key battles.

Most important of all, the young Crane badly wanted to be a soldier - a fact somewhat played down by biographers who wish to promote The Red Badge as an anti-war text. He was forever examining his family tree in order to establish that the Cranes were a flamboyant, martial dynasty and not joyless Methodist preachers - as his father was. His mother, too, and his grandfather on his mother's side. In a household where most childish pleasures were prohibited, Crane - the youngest of 14 children - had plenty of time to daydream about what he called 'the heroic dimension'.

Crane's habit of secrecy ties in with his tendency to write his life before he lived it, to prefigure his experience in ficion. After The Red Badge came out, to great acclaim, Crane was in demand as a war correspondent, and he threw himself into this line of work with gusto, covering wars in South America and Greece. He told Joseph Conrad that these combat assignments would give him the chance to find out if his novel really had been true to life.

There was, of course, more to it than that. The hero of his book 'had been where there was red of blood and black of passion', he 'had been to touch the great death and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.' Crane wanted to know if, like his fictional Fleming, he too could conquer fear, could be a man. As it turned out, he was every bit as courageous as young Fleming and if anything more passionately self-neglectful. Crane's dreams were of high physical valour but his body was delicate, diseased. No one knows when or how the TB that killed him first took hold, but it was clear that the way he chose to live was guaranteed to finish him off pretty quickly. Even in Crane's last, relatively settled years, as a would-be English country squire, grand host to the likes of Conrad, James and Wells, he made sure that his manor was the dampest and draughtiest available.

So far as I know, Crane wrote no stories about damp, draughty English homes. Benfey offers other examples, though, apart from The Red Badge, of his write-it-then-live-it habit. The novel Maggie is about a New York prostitute and was sketched out before Crane had left his childhood home in New Jersey to set up as a big-city hack. The sympathy he felt for his invented fallen woman would be lived out later on, in the foolhardy campaign he waged against the New York Police Department on behalf of a wrongly accused prostitute, and in his common-law marriage to the owner of a Florida 'house of assignation'.

Benfey points out, too, that although Crane's famous story 'The Open Boat' was based on the author's real-life experience of shipwreck, the outline of the tale had been written months before. Benfey sounds fanciful when he says that 'something in the fact of shipwreck ran so deep in Crane's imagination that it seemed only a matter of time before he found himself lost at sea', but it can hardly be denied that this fiction writer did manage to make several of his dreams come true.

It is conjectured by Benfey that 'maybe the problem with biography has been put the wrong way round', that instead of trying to find out how the life shapes the work we ought to be wondering if the directions of an artist's life are not sometimes shaped by what has already been 'lived' in the imagination. It is an interesting line of inquiry, but Benfey is sometimes so keen to sniff out the predictive in Crane's writing that he ends up sounding like an old-style 1950s exegete. He notes that the ship Crane escaped from in his open boat was called The Commodore and that the two women in his life at that time were called Cora and Dora: 'It is as though a pun hidden in three names had been worked out: Cora is like Dora, Cora como Dora. Commodore.'

With the fictional Maggie, who Benfey suspects was pregnant when she died, there is a scene in which a child 'touched her dress, cautiously, as if investigating a red hot stove'. Benfey remarks: 'There may be a hint in the stove metaphor that something is cooking inside Maggie.' On the whole, though, Benfey keeps this tendency in check and is careful to assure us that this or that conjecture is being offered more out of 'curiosity' than conviction. He writes well and has dug up a good deal of material relating to Crane's parents. And when he forgets about the life, or hits a blank stretch in it, he can be subtle and illuminating on the work. He does not pretend to know where Crane's strangely 'modernistic' manner came from, in terms of literary influence, and this worries him no more than it should. Hard-edged, ironic, painterly, compressed: how did this boy in the 1890s learn to write as if he had been taught by Ezra Pound?

On this, as on so many aspects of his disappearing and dissolving subject, Benfey is happy to 'preserve the mystery'. We still don't know much about Crane, but what we do know could hardly have been presented more intriguingly.

Christopher Benfey's 'The Double Life of Stephen Crane' is published by Deutsch, pounds 17.99

(Photograph omitted)