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KEITH GANDAL Stephen Crane's "Mystic Places" The first temple of the young creative mind is the abyss. Ferdinand Brunetière TEPHEN crane is a writer of remarkable—even disturbing— creative powers. The poet John Berryman claims that, at age twentytwo , Crane "initiated modern American writing," and thus "made possible . . . one whole side of Twentieth Century prose," and Richard Chase asserts that Crane "established the modern legend in this country of the literary bohemian."1 It can be argued, then, that he paves the way, on one side, for literary modernism in prose, and on another for the Beat writers: a sizeable chunk of the American writing in this century .2 He also revolutionized the short story. He reinvented the war novel and the slum tale, and he was a literary pioneer of our modern conception ofpsychology.3 How did a boy who never reached the age of thirty do this? Perhaps this is tantamount to asking, what is the nature of artistic genius?—a concept that we are no longer supposed to believe in. But if we are to understand Crane, it is not enough to reconstruct his historical context;4 we need also to attempt to understand his psyche and to return to literary studies some notion—though not the traditional romantic notion—of creativity. Crane is a particularly appropriate figure to approach in this manner because, while he is a notoriously anti-romantic writer, he himselfhas a mystic sense ofhis own artistic process. If any writers have had creative genius, then Crane must be considered among them; Carl Van Doren referred to him as "one of the clearest cases of genius in American literature."5 There is to begin with the unprecedented way in which he wrote prose; Berryman notes that Arizona Quarterly Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 1999 Copyright © 1999 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004- 1610 98Keith Gandal "Crane writes on the whole ... as if none of these people ever existed": "Shakespeare, Dryden, Defoe, J?hnson, Dickens, Arnold, Kipling . . . , Edwards, Jefferson, Hawthorne, Melville, James" (284-85). Then there is the otherworldly nature of his poetry, which, on one look, the reader realizes is not only unlike other poetry, but unlike poetry at all—yet still is galvanizing. There is also the oft-reported fact that Crane was able to produce this poetry spontaneously, on demand; he claimed it was residing in his head, waiting to be tapped. Finally, there is the dream-like quality of both his poetry and prose, as if he wrote in a trance; most recently the art critic Michael Fried has made claims about the odd "deliberateness" of Crane's handwriting in discussing his "unconscious fixation on the scene of writing."6 I think it is possible to show that Crane's prose and poetry issued out of an inner turmoil that also played a role in his illnesses and early death, a tragic human struggle between a mystic faith in self-revelation and a hard-boiled assertion of social and artistic conscience.7 I have also argued that Crane's prose is a rigorous—or obsessive—exploration of a new mental philosophy based, not on moral character, but on egotism or self-esteem, a mental philosophy that has become secondnature to us today (Virtues 94-1 14). But the origins of Crane's inner conflict and his new psychological theory—as well as their relation to one another—are quite another matter. The roots of his psyche still elude us. We know that he was able to reconceive mental philosophy without even traces of traditional moral notions—something even the greatest psychologist of the era, William James, was not capable of—and we know he managed to strip his characters of almost all of the emotions found in traditional novels, but we do not know how (94-1 10). We know that he was torn between an almost desperate desire for solitary freedom and a hunger for communion with others, but we do not know why. We know something about what killed him, but we do not know much about what put him into such mortal danger—psychically—in the first place. Thomas Beer long ago noted, quite rightly...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 97-126
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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