THE DOUBLE LIFE OF STEPHEN CRANE By Christopher Benfey, Alfred A. Knopf, 294pp., $25.
IF art imitates life, then why do we find it unsettling when life appears to imitate art? Turn about is not fair play, we protest. Coincidences are hard to come by.
Yet in his new analytic biography of American author Stephen Crane, Christopher Benfey maintains that Crane deliberately attempted to live his fiction. Write-it-then-live-it, he argues, was the predominant procedure of Crane's brief life.
Benfey's thesis rests on two of the author's best loved works. He asserts that a few years after Crane penned his first novel, "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" (1893), he took up with a prostitute. When Crane wrote the compelling Civil War story, "The Red Badge of Courage" (1895), his experience of conflict was limited mostly to playing baseball at Syracuse University. But, Benfey contends, the novelist made up for it later by toiling as a war correspondent in Cuba and Greece.
Benfey suspects that authors prescribe their lives through their art more often than we imagine. The written word becomes a script for whose veracity the author is retroactively responsible. Living one's fiction is product testing. So much for art for art's sake. So much for trust in the creative imagination.
On the face of it, such a disconcerting approach would not merit wide reading. But that is not all there is to this biography. In the age of intellectual logjams, the stream of Benfey's conjectures flows freely. His lean and frisky prose delivers the new thesis within the traditional configuration of biography.
For example, Benfey's account is chronologically rendered, tracing Crane's talents and interest to an origin in his parents' religious beliefs. Equally orthodox is Benfey's assertion that Crane was affected by his father's prolonged absences and early death.
The authentic innovation of this biography lies in the modesty, coupled with invention, with which Benfey takes on the task of illuminating the life of another. Benfey admits that most of the solid evidence about Crane - such as who he knew, what he read, when he wrote - has been lost to history. The biographer is ever mindful of that absence and advances with a caution belied by his inflammatory thesis.
Benfey proposes and speculates. He suggests, but does not insist. The biographer's reserve, and that of Crane, who left few clues about his more experimental fiction, gives the suggestions great authority. Inferentially, Benfey calls into question the extent to which we can thoroughly know another's life through art.
However much one appreciates Benfey's thoughtful humility and genial prose, there is little doubt that he is fixed upon the perplexing notion that Stephen Crane "lived his life backwards." Interestingly, the reach of Benfey's vocabulary and mental tool kit is almost always impeded when he takes up the theme. The words "obsession" and "obsessive" are as over-used as they are under-explained.
In the end, one is left with the observation that Benfey's interest in relating Crane's life to his fiction obscures the influence of Crane's extensive and successful journalistic life. It was not necessarily a preoccupation with "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" that brought Crane in direct contact with the urban underclass, but his occupation as a hotshot young journalist in the boisterous days of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Henry Fleming, the brooding farm boy hero of "The Red Badge of Courage," did not send Crane to Greece to cover the Greco-Turkish conflict. Hearst's New York Journal did. Even Benfey has to admit that Crane covered the Spanish-American War in Cuba for the New York World because his flamboyant lifestyle resulted in debts that had to be paid.
Still, it is a measure of Professor Benfey's skill that so large a caveat does not diminish the enjoyment of his rendition of Stephen Crane's meteoric career.