In Stephen Crane’s novel “Maggie” (1893), it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when the title character is first set on the path to prostitution. Maybe it happens when her brother’s friend Pete tells her that her figure is “outa sight.” Maybe it happens a little later, when her job making shirt collars on an assembly line begins to seem dreary. Is it a mistake when she lets Pete take her to a music hall? What about when she lets him spirit her away from her rage-filled mother, who has collapsed on the kitchen floor after a bender? Women in the neighborhood gossip, and a practiced flirt steals Pete away—perhaps they are instrumental. Or maybe the end is determined from the beginning, when the girl has the misfortune to be born into poverty with attractive looks and an alcoholic parent.
Crane tells Maggie’s story in a way that resists a simple answer. If he had cast her as a traditional heroine, he could have praised her resourcefulness or faulted her vice. Instead, his novel acknowledges the contingent world she lives in, where her intentions may not be as powerful as the labor market, her instinct for survival, or the influence of family and friends, and her own understanding of her intentions is at times partial. “She did not feel like a bad woman” is as close as she, or the reader, gets to insight.
Existential compromises fascinated Crane. Does an alcoholic choose to drink? Is a soldier blameworthy if he flees an attack that scatters half his regiment? In the eighteen-nineties, during a brief and fiery literary career—he died before he was thirty—Crane explored these questions with vividly imagined detail and little moralizing. In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing.
In “The Red Badge of Courage,” the novel that made Crane famous, at the age of twenty-three, the nonhero Henry Fleming desperately wants to be perceived as brave, even though he deserts in a moment of cowardice, and doesn’t really seem to believe in bravery except as a perception. When, after his flight from the front lines, he manages to return to his regiment unexposed, he adopts a virile attitude: “He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man.” And that’s only the outermost shell of his hypocrisy. A friend has entrusted Fleming with letters to his family, to be delivered in case of the man’s death. Fleming, desperate to keep his lapse secret, sees that these personal letters make the man vulnerable. He decides to taunt his friend about them if he gets too curious about Fleming’s absence. As it happens, the friend doesn’t get curious. When he asks for the letters back, Fleming tries to come up with a cutting remark but can’t, and hands them over without comment. “And for this he took unto himself considerable credit,” Crane writes, as Fleming’s self-serving consciousness turns a final pirouette. “It was a generous thing.”
Even when performing a small act of self-restraint, Fleming is, to the narrator’s eye, a cad. Crane writes of Fleming at one point that “his capacity for self-hate was multiplied,” and one senses that he saw himself in the character, and was correspondingly hard on him. Crane’s great literary innovation here is to combine intimacy of observation with antagonism—a play of antipathy rather than of sympathy. Mental calculations so unflattering and so familiar had rarely been made so visible in fiction before, except, from time to time, in villains. When, in a later short story, Crane says of one of his characters, a loner and a spy, that his “irony was directed first at himself; then at you; then at the nation and the flag; then at God,” he is describing his own sensibility.
Fittingly, it has been hard for biographers to figure out who this chronicler of the undermined self really was. “I cannot help vanishing and disappearing and dissolving,” Crane once told an editor. “It is my foremost trait.” He left no diary, and few of his surviving letters reveal much. In 1923, a biography by the novelist Thomas Beer claimed, among other things, that Crane as an infant cried for a favorite red handkerchief, and that as a young man he loaned money to a woman who threw a knife at him; lingered outside an opera singer’s window until the police chased him away; and quipped that Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” “goes on and on, like Texas.” Critics believed Beer’s anecdotes until 1990, when the scholars Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino reported that Beer’s archive contained rough drafts of letters ostensibly written by Crane that differed sharply from versions he eventually published. They concluded that scores of the letters were “concocted.” Scholars now think that more than half a dozen people in Beer’s biography were concocted, too—including many whom Beer had credited as sources.