The incident set the tone for much of Crane’s subsequent life: he did things that might have seemed crazily provocative with a certain kind of innocence, not expecting the world to punish him for the provocation. It is a character type not unknown among writers—the troublemaker who doesn’t know that he’s making trouble until the trouble arrives, who then wonders where all the trouble came from. Crane seems, on the surface, to have maintained his composure in the face of the scandal. In a letter to one of his brothers, he wrote, “You must always remember that your brother acted like a man of honor and a gentleman and you need not fear to hold your head up to anybody and defend his name.” But, as he noted elsewhere, “there is such a thing as a moral obligation arriving inopportunely.” Auster thinks the affair shook him badly, and doubtless it did. To further complicate things, Amy Leslie—whom Crane genuinely seems to have loved, addressing her as “My Blessed Girl” and “My own Sweetheart,” in one tender love letter after another—sued him for stealing five hundred and fifty dollars from her. (Auster supposes that much of this was money that Crane had received as royalties—it was a lot of money, and makes sense as a check from a publisher for a hit book—and promised, and then failed, to give to her.)
To add a note of grotesque comedy, which Auster addresses in an exquisitely intricate footnote, this Amy Leslie was easily confused with a more literary friend of Crane’s, also named Amy Leslie; for generations, Crane students were convinced that they were one and the same. The literary Amy, to the end of her life, was left strenuously protesting that she hadn’t been involved in the Tenderloin affair, to the smug skepticism of Crane scholars. “You can’t fight fate,” Crane’s implicit motto, ended up ensnaring her as well.
And not her alone. Auster, who is very good at picking out superb stuff from Crane’s mostly submerged journalism, includes a shiveringly cool account of the electric chair at Sing Sing, with a tour of the graveyard below, where the executed bodies were buried. “It is patient—patient as time,” Crane writes of the newly enthroned electric chair:
Fate having its way, Crane’s nemesis, Charles Becker, was executed in that chair two decades after his run-in with Crane, for helping to arrange the murder of a gambler. He is still the only New York City policeman ever to be put to death.
The New York scandal helped propel Crane out of the city. He began a long period of wandering, most of it with his new and devoted common-law wife, Cora—a business-minded woman who once established what may have been a brothel, in Florida. Crane’s journey took several strange turns that commentators have found darkly exemplary of the plight of the American writer. He went to Greece, in 1897, to report on the Hellenic battles with the Turks, and then to Cuba, to cover the Spanish-American War, which his previous employer, Hearst, had helped start, and his current employer, Pulitzer, wanted readers to enjoy. The fame he had earned so young kept him busy with journalistic and newspaper jobs. As a writer who had shown an unprecedented mastery of writing about a war that he had never seen, he kept getting jobs reporting on wars that he could see, and ended up writing about them much less well.
His final years were largely spent in a leased country house in England, where, as the author of “Red Badge,” he was more celebrated by the British literary establishment than he had been by the American one, but still unable to make a steady living by his pen. Conrad became an intimate, and James referred to him as “that genius,” but it was H. G. Wells who most succinctly defined Crane’s contribution as a writer: “the expression in literary art of certain enormous repudiations.”
Crane never stopped writing, pursuing both journalism, with spasmodically interesting results, and poetry, in bursts of demonic energy. His second volume of poems, “War Is Kind,” is as good as his first and, again, eerily prescient. Crane learned in reporting what another generation of poets would learn only in the Great War:
Crane’s last months have always confounded scholars. In a way, they are as piteous as Keats’s last stay in Rome, with poor Crane dying of tuberculosis at a time when no one could cure it. He coughs up blood all over Auster’s final fifty pages. Yet he kept up what has always seemed to his admirers a heavy tread of partying, with amateur theatricals and New Year’s assemblages.
A. J. Liebling, in an acidic and entertaining commentary on Crane’s final days, published six decades ago in this magazine, insisted that he died, “unwillingly, of the cause most common among American middle-class males—anxiety about money.” Liebling put together the incompetence of turn-of-the-century doctors with the brutality of turn-of-the-century publishers, two of his favorite hobby-horses, and acquitted Crane of the self-destructive behavior often attributed to him.
Crane was as famous as any young writer has ever been, but it didn’t make him rich. The jobs he could get, like writing for Hearst and Pulitzer, paid well but depended on his being out there, writing. No one lived on advances. The one moneymaking scheme that Crane pursued was the one in which a writer, having written a popular thing, is asked to write something else that bears a catty-cornered relation to it. So Crane, the author of a great novel about war, accepted a lucrative commission to write a magazine series called “Great Battles of the World”—a task for which he, hardly a historian, was ill-equipped.
There is something heroic in the desperate gaiety with which Crane and Cora insisted on living well until the end. Though Crane confided to his agent in America that he was “still fuzzy with money troubles,” Auster tells us that in England “not even their closest friends had any inkling of how hard up they were, and by spending more and more money they did not have, the couple affected a magnificent pose of nonchalance and well-being.” Then, long through the night, Crane would “lock himself in his small study over the porch,” sliding finished work under his door, for Cora to type a clean copy.
Really, the bacillus was to blame. Had Crane been healthy, he would have found a way to live and write. The famous sanatoriums of the era—Crane ended his life at one in Germany—had, at least, the virtue of sealing patients off from others, but the cruelty of the disease was that there was nothing to be done. Despite our own recent immersion in plague, we still have a hard time understanding how much the certain fatality of illness affected our immediate ancestors; Hemingway suffered in the war, but it was the Spanish influenza that made him acutely aware that death and suffering could not be turned off when wars ended.