The best American art is often hidden. Sometimes, it conceals itself in pop culture, hiding in plain sight by disguising itself as a commercial product. Think muscle cars, comic books, or the middle seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. In these instances, high art dons blue jeans and a T-shirt and mingles with the proles. More often, though, the best American art, and particularly literature, dies from underexposure. Without insinuating itself into a market, there simply isn’t an audience for it. Such was the case with Moby Dick until it was resurrected by D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s. Who knows how many masterpieces have yellowed into dust, unloved and unread, while the cultural machinery of the republic fed off the basest drives of the lowest common denominator?
The writing of Stephen Crane has the somewhat cumbersome fate of being hidden in both senses. He enjoyed massive commercial success at the end of the 19th century with exciting, often prurient works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage. As celebrated novelist Paul Auster writes in his lush and fascinating new biography, Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane, “Once upon a time, almost every high school student in America was required to read The Red Badge of Courage.”
But Crane’s fortunes have changed. “Now,” writes Auster, “for reasons I find difficult to understand, the book seems to have fallen off the required reading lists.” Just as disturbing for Auster, none of his non-English-speaking literary acquaintances had ever heard of Crane, despite his work once being internationally acclaimed. Crane and his work, Auster tells us, “which shunned the traditions of nearly everything that had come before him, [and] was so radical for its time that he can be regarded now as the first American modernist, the man most responsible for changing the way we see the world through the lens of the written word,” has died a second death. Only a handful of specialists remain to pick over his corpse.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor