Monday, November 1, 2010

Willa Cather, 21, meets her first “man of letters” Stephen Crane, 23

Willa Cather was among the first readers of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. In November 1894 Crane sold the serialization rights to a shortened version of his novel to the Bacheller-Johnson Newspaper Syndicate. One of the syndicating papers, The Lincoln State Journal, employed Cather as its drama critic, even though she was then a senior at the University of Nebraska. The paper’s managing editor found “the grammatical construction of the story so faulty” that it required copyediting:
In this way I had read it very carefully, and through the careless sentence-structure I saw the wonder of that remarkable performance. But the grammar certainly was bad.
The paper ran its version December 4–9, 1894 (the book version would be published the following October). The Bacheller syndicate liked Crane’s writing so much it offered him a job as a traveling reporter and war correspondent. His circuitous route to his ultimate assignment in Mexico took him through Lincoln, Nebraska, which is how in February 1895 he crossed paths with Cather, a meeting she later dramatized:
I happened to be in the managing editor’s room when Mr. Crane introduced himself. . . I considered nothing of vital importance except good stories and the people who wrote them. This was the first man of letters I had ever met in the flesh, and when the young man announced who he was, I dropped into a chair behind the editor's desk where I could stare at him without being too much in evidence.
Just two years younger yet clearly starstruck, Cather gives us one of the most vivid contemporary first-person impressions of Crane (whose birthday is today, November 1):
He was thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven, a thin dark moustache straggled on his upper lip, his black hair grew low on his forehead and was shaggy and unkempt. His grey clothes were much the worse for wear and fitted him so badly it seemed unlikely he had ever been measured for them. He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie, and his shoes were dusty and worn gray about the toes and were badly run over at the heel.
Crane was notoriously reticent about talking about his writing and he rebuffed attempts to engage him. Yet “on the last night he spent in Lincoln,” a remarkable conversation took place when the two were alone in the newspaper office:
Other men, he said, could sit down and write up an experience while the physical effect of it, so to speak, was still upon them, and yesterday's impressions made to-day's "copy." But when he came in from the streets to write up what he had seen there, his faculties were benumbed, and he sat twirling his pencil and hunting for words like a schoolboy.

I mentioned The Red Badge of Courage, which was written in nine days, and he replied that, though the writing took very little time, he had been unconsciously working the detail of the story out through most of his boyhood. His ancestors had been soldiers, and he had been imagining war stories ever since he was out of knickerbockers, and in writing his first war story he had simply gone over his imaginary campaigns and selected his favorite imaginary experiences. . . "The detail of a thing has to filter through my blood, and then it comes out like a native product, but it takes forever," he remarked.
Cather published “When I Knew Stephen Crane” in the June 23, 1900, issue of the Pittsburgh Library, less than three weeks after Crane’s death from tuberculosis, and more than five years after their meeting. In her account, the narrator senses something fateful in a one-time encounter with the fidgety, anxious young writer:
At the close of our long conversation that night . . . I suggested to Crane that in ten years he would probably laugh at all his temporary discomfort. Again his body took on that strenuous tension and he clenched his hands, saying, "I can't wait ten years, I haven't time." . . . He had the precocity of those doomed to die in youth. I am convinced that when I met him he had a vague premonition of the shortness of his working day, and in the heart of the man there was that which said, "That thou doest, do quickly."
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry; Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, and Other Writings (includes "When I Knew Stephen Crane" and two reviews of Crane's works)

1 comment:

  1. Cather's description of Crane reads like a fictional flourish in a Dicken's novel. Wonderful. Cheers, Kevin

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