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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 not
lose a great deal. The recognition he was accorded was rather languid
and given him grudgingly. The worthiest welcome he secured for his tales
in this country was from Mr. W. Henley in the _New Review_ and later,
towards the end of his life, from the late Mr. William Blackwood in his
magazine. For the rest I must say that during his sojourn in England he
had the misfortune to be, as the French say, _mal entoure_. He was beset
by people who understood not the quality of his genius and were
antagonistic to the deeper fineness of his nature. Some of them have
died since, but dead or alive they are not worth speaking about now. I
don't think he had any illusions about them himself: yet there was a
strain of good-nature and perhaps of weakness in his character which
prevented him from shaking himself free from their worthless and
patronising attentions, which in those days caused me much secret
irritation whenever I stayed with him in either of his English homes. My
wife and I like best to remember him riding to meet us at the gate of the
Park at Brede. Born master of his sincere impressions, he was also a
born horseman. He never appeared so happy or so much to advantage as on
the back of a horse. He had formed the project of teaching my eldest boy
to ride, and meantime, when the child was about two years old, presented
him with his first dog.

I saw Stephen Crane a few days after his arrival in London. I saw him
for the last time on his last day in England. It was in Dover, in a big
hotel, in a bedroom with a large window looking on to the sea. He had
been very ill and Mrs. Crane was taking him to some place in Germany, but
one glance at that wasted face was enough to tell me that it was the most
forlorn of all hopes. The last words he breathed out to me were: "I am
tired. Give my love to your wife and child." When I stopped at the door
for another look I saw that he had turned his head on the pillow and was
staring wistfully out of the window at the sails of a cutter yacht that
glided slowly across the frame, like a dim shadow against the grey sky.

Those who have read his little tale, "Horses," and the story, "The Open
Boat," in the volume of that name, know with what fine understanding he
loved horses and the sea. And his passage on this earth was like that of
a horseman riding swiftly in the dawn of a day fated to be short and
without sunshine.

Joseph Conrad