‘Burning Boy,’ by Paul Auster: An Excerpt

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new york sketches.

Crane needed work, and in the early months of 1894 he began to find it. Shut out from the New York papers since the calamitous article about the JOUAM parade in the summer of ’92, he had chanced upon the right person in Edward Marshall, and even if the encounter cost him a miserable week in bed, Marshall’s position as Sunday editor of the Press gave him the power to open the door and allow Crane back into the world of journalism. Marshall was just two years older than Crane, and beyond having the wit to recognize talent when he saw it, he was a generational ally who understood what was new and original in Crane’s work. Five days after Crane died at a sanatorium in the Black Forest on June 5, 1900, Marshall wrote a stunned, tight-lipped article for the New York Herald (“Loss of Stephen Crane—A Real Misfortune to All of Us”) that focused mainly on their wartime experiences together in Cuba but also touched on Crane’s first visit to the Potter Building: “One day . . . a young man came to my office with a letter of introduction. He was thin—almost cadaverous. He wanted work and got it. His article—written for a ridiculously low price—on tenement-house fire panics was one of the best things that he or any other man ever did. It was followed by other strikingly strong stories.”

[Return to the review of “Burning Boy.” ]

Marshall commissioned most of the pieces Crane wrote that year, but not all of them, and notably not the first one, which wasn’t commissioned by any newspaper or magazine editor but written on spec. Composed in February and published in the October issue of Arena, “The Men in the Storm” gives a close, firsthand look at the ravages created by the Panic on the city’s vulnerable working class. With unemployment continuing to rise and homeless men camped out on every downtown bench and street corner, New York had become the nation’s capital of breadlines, soup kitchens, and shelters. Garland had already thrown out the idea of writing about these conditions to Crane, and Crane, who was young and reckless and up for any challenge, seized his chance on February 26, 1894. At three o’clock that afternoon, an immense blizzard came crashing down on Manhattan, bringing a foot and a half of snow and forty-mile-an-hour winds that “began to swirl great clouds of snow along the streets, sweeping it down from the roofs and up from the pavements until the faces of pedestrians tingled and burned as from a thousand needle-prickings. Those on the walks huddled their necks closely in the collars of their coats and went along stooping like a race of aged people.” Crane rushed out into the storm and headed down to the Bowery wearing a thin jacket and no overcoat to carry out the assignment he had given himself: to keep watch on the locked door of a “charitable house” as men without work gathered in front of the door and waited for it to open. Inside, for five cents, “the homeless of the city could get a bed at night and, in the morning, coffee and bread,” and as more and more men continued to show up, they huddled together in a mass of undifferentiated bodies to protect themselves from the cold, “their hands stuffed deep in their pockets, their shoulders stooped, jiggling their feet” and pressing “close to one another like sheep in a winter’s gale, keeping one another warm by the heat of their bodies.” Before long, Crane began to notice that the men fell into two distinct categories—the recently unemployed and the habitually unemployed (“the shifting, Bowery lodging-house element”)—and that the out-of-work laborers “were men of undoubted patience, industry and temperance, who in time of ill-fortune, do not habitually turn to rail at the state of society, snarling at the arrogance of the rich and bemoaning the cowardice of the poor, but who at these times are apt to wear a sudden and singular meekness, as if they saw the world’s progress marching from them and were trying to perceive where they had failed, what they had lacked, to be thus vanquished in the race.” And yet, in spite of the gruesome weather and the bleakness of the situation, Crane was impressed by the jokes that circulated among the crowd, for “one does not expect to find the quality of humor in a heap of old clothes under a snowdrift,” and even as the “winds seemed to grow fiercer as time wore on” and “some of the gusts of snow that came down on the close collection of heads cut like knives and needles . . . the men huddled and swore, not like dark assassins, but in a sort of an American fashion, grimly and desperately, it is true, but yet with a wondrous under-effect, indefinable and mystic, as if there was some kind of humor in this catastrophe.” The men in the back of the line, fearful that the crowd was too big for everyone to be allowed in after the place opened, pushed forward against the ones in front of them, producing a ripple effect that closed the ranks at the head of the crowd and pinned the early arrivals against the locked door, but a policeman eventually turned up to maintain order, and no harsh words were spoken, no punches were thrown, and no one was injured. Long after darkness had fallen, the door of the shelter finally opened, and the men began to shuffle in. “The tossing crowd on the sidewalk grew smaller and smaller. The snow beat with merciless persistence upon the bowed heads of those who waited. The wind drove it up from the pavements in frantic forms of winding white, and it seethed in circles about the huddled forms, passing in, one by one, three by three, out of the storm.”

Crane, who had stood out there shivering in the cold for many hours, walked back to his room on East Twenty-third Street, spent more hours writing his seven-page article, and then crawled into bed and collapsed.

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    The next morning, Linson came by to see him:

    At the end of February there came a driving blizzard, and after a bitter night I found Steve in bed in the old League Building looking haggard and almost ill. All the others were out. Pulling a manuscript from under his pillow, he tossed it to me and settled back under cover to watch. It was that breadline classic, “The Men in the Storm.” . . . I had known he was going out that night, and was anxious to know how he had come through, but I hardly expected to find him so exhausted.

    Linson then asked, “Why didn’t you put on two or three more undershirts, Steve?” Crane’s answer, which was delivered quickly and without hesitation, can be read as a gloss on everything he believed he stood for as a writer: “How would I know what those poor devils felt if I was warm myself?”

    As a piece of writing, “The Men in the Storm” is a trenchant, skillfully handled bit of work, especially when you consider the harsh conditions under which it was conceived and carried out, but even though it comes closer to what we would call “authentic journalism” than any of the other New York pieces Crane wrote that year, it does not conform to today’s journalistic standards. A contemporary reporter witnessing a scene similar to the one Crane observed in 1894 would be obliged to mention the Panic and the growing unemployment rate in the city, and then, while standing among the destitute figures gathered around the door of the shelter, talk to some of them and include their statements in the article, supplying their names whenever they chose to give them, and, on top of that, the reporter would have to go into the shelter once the door was opened and describe what he or she saw there (how many rooms, how many beds, how clean or dirty), and then, finally, talk to one or more of the people who worked at the shelter to learn how the place was funded (by public charity or a private philanthropist) and how many people they served per day, per week, per month. Crane did none of that. He simply planted himself among the men and watched what they did and listened to what they said. Then he went home and sat down to record his impressions as faithfully as he could. Not once while reading the article do we suspect Crane of embellishing what he saw or intentionally making anything up, but for all that I would hesitate to classify the article as a piece of reportage. It is a piece of writing, and as such it sits squarely inside the realm of Crane’s literary work and deserves the same kind of scrutiny as his novels, stories, and poems. “Sketch” is the term he and his editors used, and it is a good term precisely because it is so hard to pin down, an ambiguous term for an ambiguous form of writing that falls somewhere between fact and fiction, or facts set down by using the methods of fiction or, if you will, a story that does not tell a story but presents a picture (a sketch) of something that has happened or, in some cases, of something that happened more than once and is then told as if it were happening for the first time, as with the piece Marshall referred to in his article on Crane, “The Fire,” which was not written about a single tenement fire but several fires that Crane had seen in New York and which he then distilled into the account of one fire—an imagined fire, yes, but not an imaginary one, and while the result is not journalism in the strictest sense of the word, it is nevertheless the truth, the imagined truth of something real—even if some elements in it are not based on actual events.

    How would I know what those poor devils felt if I was warm myself ? The comment to Linson prefigures the “little creed of art” Crane would refer to in the letter he wrote to Lily that spring, the conviction that “we are the most successful in art when we approach the nearest to nature and truth.” After tramping out into a blizzard and then standing half frozen in the ice-needle wind for several hours—for the sole purpose of writing about a crowd of abject, homeless men—Crane would seem to be arguing for the primacy of lived, personal experience over the truth-telling powers of the imagination. He might have believed it at the time—and put himself at risk because of that belief—but to carry such an argument to its logical end would eliminate novels and short stories from consideration and reduce fiction to a form of autobiography, and with Crane still hard at work on The Red Badge of Courage just then, a novel set in a time before he was born that tells of a war he did not participate in or even witness, his own book would have been a flagrant contradiction of what he purported to believe. Fortunately, he wasn’t much of a theoretician about literature. He was a practitioner of literature, and at one time or another he followed various, often contradictory paths to accomplish his work. With “The Men in the Storm,” he felt that walking out into a blizzard minus an overcoat and scarf would help him to understand his subjects more intimately and lead to a more truthful account of that frigid night than if he had bundled up to protect his body from the cold. He was probably wrong, but who are we to question the enthusiasm of a twenty-two-year-old boy burning to test his will against the elements? Crane was living the adventure of being himself, and the emotional value of such an act (courting pneumonia in order to write the best story possible) should not be discounted, for by passing the test he had imposed on himself, he had won an inner victory, and victories produce confidence, and confidence produces better and stronger work.

    [Return to the review of “Burning Boy.” ]

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