He wanted to become a writer, and as Christopher Benfey, another Crane biographer, has pointed out, he was in such a hurry that his life sometimes seemed to get ahead of itself. He began his first novel, “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” about a girl from the Bowery who drifts into prostitution, while still at Syracuse and before he knew much about either sex or the streets. He made up for it by heading to the Lower East Side and, while working as a newspaperman, immersing himself in bohemian life. He visited hashish parlors and opium dens, hung out with prostitutes, and for a while even lived with one.
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Similarly, Crane wrote “The Red Badge of Courage,” his great novel of the Civil War, at the astonishingly young age of 23, when he had never seen combat of any kind. He later got himself hired as a reporter during both the Greek-Turkish and Spanish-American Wars — partly for money but mostly to see what war was really like, and he made a point of putting himself in harm’s way. “Danger was his dissipation,” a colleague said. By then he had become improvident in just about every respect: with money, with women, even with his health.
In 1897, while waiting in Jacksonville for a boat to take him to Cuba, Crane took up with a woman named Cora Taylor. She was twice-married, a sort of professional mistress, and was then running a brothel called the Hotel de Dreme. “The least boring author’s mate in American literary history,” A. J. Liebling called her, and she — or, rather, the chaotic life she and Crane had together — gives the second half of Auster’s book a big lift. They left Florida for England, where it was easier for them to be together openly, but though Crane was by now a celebrity, more popular in England than he was here, they were always broke. They lived way above their means, with lots of servants, and were taken advantage of by mooching friends.
Auster is especially good on Crane’s last couple of years, which began with a sort of crackup. Assigned to cover the Spanish-American War, he stopped off first in Washington, where he seems to have sought out an old flame and possibly even proposed to her. In Cuba he behaved recklessly, almost as if he wished to get shot, and rarely bothered to eat or sleep. And then, when the war was over, he hid out in Havana for four months. Cora, besieged by creditors, feared he was dead.
Crane returned to England just after New Year’s in 1899, and he and Cora resumed their spendthrift social life — even more frenzied now because Crane probably knew he was dying. He enjoyed warm friendships with H. G. Wells, Henry James and Joseph Conrad — Conrad especially, who loved Crane like a younger brother and liked sometimes just to sit in Crane’s study and listen to him write. In the spring of 1900, Crane began to hemorrhage. Cora scrounged for funds to take him to a sanitarium in Germany, but he was beyond cure and died almost as soon as he got there. His last words to Cora were: “I leave here gentle, seeking to do good, firm, resolute, impregnable.” She returned to England, tried to make a go as a freelance writer, and when that failed, went back to Jacksonville and the business she knew best: She opened another brothel.