Friday, May 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 24: Willa Cather, When I Knew Stephen Crane (#85)

Willa Cather, "When I Knew Stephen Crane" (1900) from Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings:

These sorts of journalistic pieces offer a double pleasure: we seem to learn about Stephen Crane, the romantic young author doomed to die young; and about Willa Cather, the talented amateur at this meeting. In reality--and "in reality" will be a constant refrain here--Crane was 23 when he went through Nebraska and Cather was an overworked 21-year old. (In another journal, we hear that Crane was surprised to see a young girl at the newspaper office in Nebraska because she was sleeping on her feet.)

But the portrait we get of Crane is a little cliche: he seems feverishly busy, as if he knows he's going to die and is trying to fit more work into the little time available; his clothes are a mess (they don't even look like they were measured for him!) but his hands are delicate and sensitive; and he offers advice about how writing isn't done mathematically but comes from an itch that can't be scratched--and if you don't have that itch, you'll be better off.

In short, this is the classic vision of the writer-as-romantic. It's possible that Crane really was this cliche (some people are); or that Cather's view of Crane was really this blinkered. (For god's sake, she even compares him to children who know they're going to die young and thus pack all of life and innocence into a short time.)

There is one thing that interests me in this recollection, though, which is Crane's discussion of how it takes him time to process thoughts; which Cather then demonstrates by comparing his boring next-day article on a shipwreck with his great story "Open Sea" which came months later. That might fit the trouble artist vision that Cather builds here, but it's a specific addition to that cliche that makes it stand out.

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