BOOK REVIEW / Symbols crashing in the symphony of war: The double life of Stephen Crane: Christopher Benfey - Andre Deutsch, pounds 17.99

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The Independent Online
THE UNKNOWING progenitor of Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and Paul Bowles, Stephen Crane, didn't simply want to write books, but to live them. Like George Orwell 40 years later, he disguised himself as a tramp and took anonymous 'urban rides' through New York's inner city, investigating beer halls and tenements in order to authenticate his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

He went on to become one of Greenwich Village's first Bohemians, a war correspondent, a literary celebrity and a world traveller. According to Christopher Benfey, during all this furious activity Crane lived two separate lives - one in the world and one in his writing. Often he searched the world for material that he could incorporate into novels; at other times he just wanted to prove to himself that what he had already written was true.

The son of a high-profile Methodist minister, Crane dropped out of one university and flunked out of another; then he went to New York and made his living as a journalist. His first novel, Maggie, was written at 20 and published through a vanity press. His second, The Red Badge of Courage, was written two years later and became a bestseller that Crane feared he might never match ('I have invented the sum of my invention in regard to war,' he once wrote). He never lived long enough to prove himself wrong, and died of tuberculosis at the age of 28 while resident in England. In the intervening years, however, he managed to produce a book of unfairly neglected poetry, a lot of excellent journalism, and several of the best short stories ever written by an American.

Though Crane had yet to witness a battle, and was born long after the Civil War ended, he wrote about it with so much conviction in The Red Badge of Courage that he provoked at least one veteran to claim he had fought beside Crane at Antietam. Crane was skilled at manufacturing poetic illusions, and he mistrusted that skill far more than any other writer I can think of. Just as his Civil War soldier, Henry Fleming, roams through a vague and bloody conflict trying to live up to the ideals of war he read about in a book, Crane's eventual career as a war correspondent made him reflect repeatedly on the existential paucity of his own fine prose. He recorded some of his first impressions of conflict in Thessaly in 1897: 'The roll of musketry was tremendous . . . It was a beautiful sound - beautiful as I had never dreamed. It was more impressive than the roar of Niagara and finer than thunder or avalanche - because it had the wonder of human tragedy with it. It was the most beautiful sound of my experience, barring no symphony. The crash of it was ideal.'

This is one point of view. Another might be taken by the people who died there.

The slippage between reporting and living haunts most of Crane's best work. 'I go through the world unexplained,' he once said. 'I cannot help vanishing and disappearing and dissolving.' Like Zola or another American, Frank Morris, Crane thought that a good writer didn't use personal experience to tell about himself, but to conduct impersonal literary experiments into human nature.

According to Christopher Benfey, all the previous biographies of Stephen Crane have been based on the 'fraud' of Crane's first biographer, Thomas Beer (in fact, he even claims that many personal letters attributed to Crane were actually forged by Beer). The purpose of Benfey's Double Life, then, is to sort the myths from reality. Unfortunately, though, he spends more time on the texts Crane left behind than he does on the life Crane lived. And many of his long readings of texts are excruciating. As a result, no sense of Crane's voice or character emerges, and no sense of narrative continuity is established.

At one point, trying to defend his thesis that Crane's life always moves from 'literary to literal', Benfey performs some of his most industrious stretching exercises, linking two of the women in Crane's life with the Commodore, a passenger ship that sank when Crane tried to take it to Cuba. Benfey even concludes one chapter with the following quip: 'Cora is like Dora. Cora como Dora. Commodore.'