Paul Auster on Stephen Crane

One of The Top Ten’s aims is to let esteemed writers be fans – to acknowledge and celebrate their own literary heroes.

The novelist, poet, memoirist, essayist and screenwriter Paul Auster does that in spades with his splendid new biography, Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane. Although he lived just 28 years (1871-1900), Crane remains one of America’s best known writers, thanks, in no small part, to his realist novel, The Red Badge of Courage, which was a staple of high school reading lists. But his star – like those of his contemporaries such as Jack London and Frank Norris – has faded in recent years.

Auster’s biography tries to restore Crane to what he considers his rightful place in the American canon. While his 734-pages of text detail the up and downs of Crane’s personal life and never-ending money problems, its heart is Auster’s close reading of Crane’s work – both his fiction and journalism.

“Auster,” Charles McGrath wrote in the New York Times, “makes the case for his book’s existence, first, by his sheer enthusiasm for Crane, whom he calls ‘the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word.’ ”

Steven Donoghue illustrates this approach in his piece in Open Letters Review:

Auster will present a chunk from some Crane book, like this quick moment from Maggie: A Girl of the Streets:

“What?” said the woman, her mouth filled with bread.

“Mag’s dead,” repeated the man.

“Deh hell she is,” said the woman. She continued her meal. When she finished her coffee she began to weep.

Then he’ll react to what he’s quoted, with that reaction ranging from purely visceral to highly detailed. And no matter what you might think of Auster’s own fiction, his reactions to Crane’s writings are invigoratingly thoughtful, the kind of genuine appraisals that will prompt even long-seasoned Crane aficionados to return to his work. Take the beginning of his reaction to that little snippet above:

“This is extraordinary. A hundred things have happened in eight short sentences, and they have happened so fast that it’s almost impossible to read slowly and deliberately, sentence by sentence, with brief pauses between the sentences in order to digest the full import of what they contain. The prose can be choppy and disjointed, an unpredictable style that stuns and stings rather than charms, and because it does not induce the spell created by the grand, flowing novel of earlier decades, works by Dickens or Balzac or Tolstoy, you cannot curl up on a sofa and settle into a book by Crane. You have to read him sitting bolt upright in your chair.”

This kind of electrically honest stuff is the real heart of Burning Boy, the thing that makes it a curiously indispensable Stephen Crane biography, passionately different from anything else that’s appeared about this writer. 

“At its best,” Mark Athitakis wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Burning Boy delivers the uncanny sense of simultaneously inhabiting Crane’s prose while reading about it. The book’s chief pleasure is the experience of a veteran novelist going deep on another fiction writer, much as Vladimir Nabokov did in his lectures on Dickens and Austen.”

Paul Auster’s Top Ten List

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615)
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)
5. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27)
6. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
7. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
8. The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926)
9. Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54)
10. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67)