Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane

Image of Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane
Release Date: 
October 26, 2021
Henry Holt and Co.
Reviewed by: 

A splendid appreciation, from one master to another, written with great warmth, fervor, and intelligence.”

Best known for his acclaimed The New York Trilogy and other works of fiction, Paul Auster in Burning Boy shares his obsessive admiration for the work of novelist Stephen Crane (1871–1900), whose The Red Badge of Courage was once required reading in American high schools.

His book is brilliant, bloated (at 800 pages), and bound to spark the renewed interest of serious readers in the work of this major author.

Ironically, Auster set out to write a short book. Instead, after spending two years rereading Crane’s novels, short stories, poems, and letters as well as books about him, and after bonding with leading Crane scholars in conversations, he produced this monumental homage.

Auster says he hoped to reach readers unacquainted (or barely so) with Crane’s writing. In fact, such individuals are likely to find Burning Boy overlong and daunting. That is unfortunate. They will miss out on a remarkable tribute from “an old writer in awe of a young writer’s genius.” Not just any old writer: Auster has shown his own genius in a career that has given us some 20 novels.

Crane died at the age of 29. He was a chain-smoking bohemian, inveterate risk taker, and gambler—who was dead serious about his writing.

“I find myself just as fascinated by Crane’s frantic, contradictory life as by the work he left us,” writes Auster. “It was a weird and singular life, full of impulsive risks, an often pulverizing lack of money, and a pigheaded, intractable devotion to his calling as a writer, which flung him from one unlikely and perilous situation to the next.”

Much of the book recounts those situations, often involving Crane’s career as a journalist. There was “a controversial article written at twenty that disrupted the course of the 1892 presidential campaign, a public battle with the New York Police Department that effectively exiled him from the city in 1896, a shipwreck off the coast of Florida that led to his near drowning in 1897, a common-law marriage to the proprietress of Jacksonville’s most elegant bawdy house, the Hotel de Dreme, work as a correspondent during the Spanish-American War in Cuba . . . and then his final years in England, where Joseph Conrad was his closest friend and Henry James wept over his early death.”

Crane’s adventures intrigued Auster, as did his birth and childhood in Newark, New Jersey, where Auster also grew up. But the main attraction was Crane’s realistic, non-judgmental, and bare-bones prose writing—unheard-of in the 19th century. He was “the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the was we see the world through the lens of the written word.”

Writing out of deep understanding and admiration, Auster is at his best in describing how this “burning boy of rare preciousness who was blocked from entering the fullness of adulthood” created his art. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, his Bowery novel about a girl forced into prostitution by poverty, which Auster deems “a weird visionary poem,” the reader is “not told what to think—only to experience what happens in the book and then to draw his or her own conclusions.”

In the celebrated short story “The Open Boat,” Crane fashions from his experiences in a shipwreck off the Florida coast “a piece of music, a fugue in which the separate voices or strands increasingly overlap until they begin to merge.”

Auster’s explications of the novels and other writings may grow tedious for some readers, but they reveal much and introduce us to little-known aspects of Crane’s work. The stark and vivid poem “War Is Kind,” for instance, begins, “Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.”

Then there is the startling “In the Desert”:

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good, friend?”

“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it

“Because it is bitter,

“And because it is my heart.”

As for The Red Badge of Courage, Auster calls it “the most celebrated novel in our war literature,” and reminds us that details on why the war was being fought, who was fighting, and so on are all withheld. “As he did in Maggie, Crane strips out everything that is not pertinent to the story he means to tell.”

That made his storytelling timeless.

“Perhaps the moment has come to dig the burning boy out of his grave and start remembering him again,” writes Auster. “The prose still crackles, the eye still cuts, the work still stings. Does any of this matter to us anymore? If it does, and one can only hope that it does, attention must be paid.”

A splendid appreciation, from one master to another, written with great warmth, fervor, and intelligence.