Notes on Life and Letters
7. Stephen Crane--A Note Without Dates—1919
My acquaintance with Stephen Crane was brought about by Mr. Pawling, partner
in the publishing firm of Mr. William Heinemann.
One day Mr. Pawling said to me: "Stephen Crane has arrived in England. I asked
him if there was anybody he wanted to meet and he mentioned two names. One
of them was yours." I had then just been reading, like the rest of the world,
Crane's RED BADGE OF COURAGE. The subject of that story was war, from the
point of view of an individual soldier's emotions. That individual (he remains
nameless throughout) was interesting enough in himself, but on turning over the
pages of that little book which had for the moment secured such a noisy
recognition I had been even more interested in the personality of the writer. The
picture of a simple and untried youth becoming through the needs of his country
part of a great fighting machine was presented with an earnestness of purpose, a
sense of tragic issues, and an imaginative force of expression which struck me
as quite uncommon and altogether worthy of admiration.
Apparently Stephen Crane had received a favourable impression from the
reading of the NIGGER OF THE NARCISSUS, a book of mine which had also
been published lately. I was truly pleased to hear this.
On my next visit to town we met at a lunch. I saw a young man of medium stature
and slender build, with very steady, penetrating blue eyes, the eyes of a being
who not only sees visions but can brood over them to some purpose.
He had indeed a wonderful power of vision, which he applied to the things of this
earth and of our mortal humanity with a penetrating force that seemed to reach,
within life's appearances and forms, the very spirit of life's truth. His ignorance of
the world at large--he had seen very little of it--did not stand in the way of his
imaginative grasp of facts, events, and picturesque men.
His manner was very quiet, his personality at first sight interesting, and he talked
slowly with an intonation which on some people, mainly Americans, had, I
believe, a jarring effect. But not on me. Whatever he said had a personal note,
and he expressed himself with a graphic simplicity which was extremely
engaging. He knew little of literature, either of his own country or of any other, but
he was himself a wonderful artist in words whenever he took a pen into his hand.
Then his gift came out--and it was seen then to be much more than mere felicity
of language. His impressionism of phrase went really deeper than the surface. In
his writing he was very sure of his effects. I don't think he was ever in doubt
about what he could do. Yet it often seemed to me that he was but half aware of
the exceptional quality of his achievement.
This achievement was curtailed by his early death. It was a great loss to his
friends, but perhaps not so much to literature. I think that he had given his
measure fully in the few books he had the time to write. Let me not be
misunderstood: the loss was great, but it was the loss of the delight his art could
give, not the loss of any further possible revelation. As to himself, who can say
how much he gained or lost by quitting so early this world of the living, which he
knew how to set before us in the terms of his own artistic vision? Perhaps he did