- The Pluralistic Philosophy of Stephen Crane
Dooley’s study of Crane’s work and ideas is a brave and on the whole successful venture into the often murky waters of the possible philosophical system underlying the nonphilosophical discourse of a creative writer. Dooley is not content, as have been most critics of Crane, to concentrate on the philosophical cast of ideas in a specific Crane work. Rather, he is inclusive in that he deals with the full range of Crane’s writing—from prose to fiction to poetry, and from early to late expression—and he is systematic in that he finds a close similarity between Crane’s basic beliefs and the formal philosophical system of William James.
To the reader well-traveled in Crane criticism, much in Dooley’s account of this similarity has a familiar ring. Crane, like James, posits the absence of God in any traditional sense of a supreme being and therefore the uncertainty of ascertaining truth. We live in a world of multiple realities and distinctive perspectives in which, however, the individual, despite the flux of both experience and perception, can still assert the humanistic values of compassion and fraternity. The value of Dooley’s reading lies less in its freshness than in the range and rigor of his demonstration of its centrality and pervasiveness in Crane’s work. What was before a body of suggestive insights into this or that work by a wide range of critics is here, in Dooley’s perceptive exploration of every nook and cranny of Crane’s writing and belief, brought into clear and persuasive focus.
This is not to say that The Pluralistic Philosophy of Stephen Crane is the last word on Crane’s ideas. Dooley’s method of dividing his discussion of Crane’s belief into the traditional philosophical categories of metaphysics, epistemology, and so on produces an impression of uniformity in Crane’s expression of his ideas, whereas there is in fact great variety. Some of Crane’s writing achieves its approximation of Jamesian belief more cogently and with greater literary success than other works containing similar ideas. And Crane’s early work often differs significantly from his later writing in the kind of ideas it engages and in its degree of commitment to specific beliefs. Dooley’s argument that Crane had a coherent system of belief, in other words, tends to obscure the distinctive form which his beliefs took in particular works. But this criticism aside, Dooley, with his judicious review of previous discussions of Crane’s ideas (his notes are especially rich in this regard), his carefully modulated responsiveness to the philosophical implications of fictional scene and action, and his sympathetic identification with James’s beliefs, has made a major contribution both to Crane studies and to an understanding of the dimensions of late nineteenth-century American modes of thought.