Cover Image: Burning Boy

Burning Boy

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Member Reviews

I chanced upon the work of Stephen Crane in an unusual way, not by being required to read his famous novel The Red Badge of Courage, but by finding his volume of poetry on the shelves of my high school library. It knocked my socks off and it became one of the first books I purchased for my library. I was perhaps sixteen.

Over the years I read his most famous short stories and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, but still have not read Red Badge! (I will correct that soon.) I knew that Crane was the son of a Methodist pastor and that he had died young of tuberculosis. Then came Paul Auster’s book Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane.

I had expected it to be a brief book, as brief as the writer’s life. Instead, I happily read it for over two weeks. For Auster also introduces readers to Crane’s work, including excerpts and critical insight. Readers do not need to be familiar with Crane’s work because it’s all covered. The novels, the poems, the short stories, the news stories, the first hand accounts of war.

Auster intends to resurrect an interest in Crane, whose star has risen and fallen over the years. “The prose still crackles, the eye still cuts, the work still stings,” Auster writes. I know it struck me.

Reading the excerpt from Crane’s short story The Blue Hotel, I read the line, “Every sin is the result of a collaboration.” It was like a revelation. Crane was twenty-six when he wrote that line. Sin is not what an individual commits; it is what a community commits when we deny our interdependence. “We are all responsible for one another,” Auster interprets; “No American writer since then has formulated anything that surpasses it.”

Crane’s beloved father was a Methodist pastor. His early death send Crane spiraling into disbelief. He left home for New York City, where he shared an apartment and lived in poverty, sometimes without proper clothing to wear and eating one meal a day–a meal that came free with a 5 cent glass of beer. He hung out in bars and enjoyed the company of prostitutes. He fell for society women, a victim of unrequited love. He had a child and pledged his love to the woman, then left them. On the surface, he looked self-indulgent, a drop-out, but he was writing all of the time, thinking long before he set pen to paper. He wrote what he saw around him, telling the shocking truth.

He was also brave, ignoring flying bullets while a war correspondent, and his actions during a shipwreck were heroic. (Leading to the story The Open Boat.)

He was a loving uncle. He enjoyed music and silliness and fun. He loved dogs. He found his life partner late in life, a woman who had given up proper society for freedom. Cora became a mistress at seventeen, and had two failed marriages when she met Crane. She was running a Florida hotel with a salon that attracted society visitors. She walked away from it all to follow Crane. She thought Crane was a genius. “They were fine people,” wrote a woman who lived with them for some months; “They were good….They were ethically good. They were kind.”

Crane was so good that it got his name into the New York City paper’s headlines. He had been with several women of the street when one was accused of solicitation by the police. Crane insisted she was under his protection and innocent and volunteered to be a witness at her court trial. The famous author of The Red Badge of Courage became a pariah. Even the police were on the lookout for him and he was on police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt’s bad side. He had to leave NYC.

Crane was not a good businessman and his publishers, especially McClure’s Magazine, took advantage of him. Consequently, he was eternally in debt and in desperate need of cash. Always restless and always needing an income, Crane took jobs writing stories about world events, traveling to Greece and Cuba and to the Western states of America. He and Cora ended up in England where he hung out with the likes of Henry James, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad. They believed Crane was a genius. A friend called him “the greatest genius America has produced since Edgar Allan Poe.”

Auster shows how Crane’s writing broke new ground and was year ahead of its time. His love for Crane is infectious. I admit I was moved at the description of Crane’s death. And spurred to revisit the work I have read and to read the many stories I have not read.

received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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Four stars
Wow!  This book is 800 pages long, but I highlighted and turned pages like they were on fire.  Stephen Crane didn't live to be thirty years old. His dedication to writing brought him years of poverty, reducing him to wearing clothes too shabby to be seen in public.  He had relationships with prominent authors who held him in extremely high esteem and were devastated by his early death.  Despite the fact that he was born six years after the end of the American Civil War, his masterpiece is The Red Badge of Courage, a gripping and vivid novel of the emotional experiences of a young man in that war.  Auster’s style is always vivid and entertaining, but he also treats Crane with the seriousness he deserves.  Auster points out that, amazingly, Crane's work (especially Red Badge) is no longer taught in schools except at the college level.  After reading Auster's marvelous book, I fully agree that young students should be exposed to this American genius.
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I’ll be honest with you, I’m commenting on #BurningBoy after only reading the first half. I fully intend to continue on at some point, but not until I have the chance to read more of the subject’s, Stephen Crane, works. I majored in English in college (‘67-‘71), but in my curriculum Stephen Crane fell through the cracks and therefore  I’m not well versed in his life or works. In the interim I’ve discovered I enjoy late 19th/early 20th century American Literature. I’ve also become a fan of Paul Auster, so when I heard about the publication of #BurningBoy I jumped at the chance to read it. The book is impeccably researched and very well written. Unfortunately for me it is a work as much literary criticism as biography and I became aware early on that I would enjoy it more after I had a chance to familiarize myself with more of Crane’s works. For those aficionados of Stephen Crane, this book will be a treasure. For those who have a cursory knowledge of his life and writings this in depth book will be enjoyable but leave you with a desire to read or reread more of Crane’s writings so you have as much enthusiasm for the subject as Auster has. Either way #BurningBoy belongs on your to read lists.
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