- Like that of Robert Kennedy, the anniversary of the death of an American who died too young occurred this past week.
Part of our collective conversation this past week has been remembering the death of Robert Kennedy, which happened 40 years ago. Kennedy, shot by an assassin in Los Angeles on the night he won the California Democratic primary, died too young. He was 42 years old.
Those who die too young provoke particular sadness.
Six decades before Kennedy was killed, on the same day that Kennedy died, American letters lost one of its brightest and briefest flames — Stephen Crane.
Crane’s one novel was the Red Badge of Courage, which contained descriptions of the confusion and terror of a Civil War battle so real that veterans of the conflict said Crane got it exactly right. Crane had never been in a battle when he wrote the book. He had been born six years after the war ended.
Crane did see action after the book was published and after he had achieved fame because of it. He took on the role of celebrity reporter for Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World when they were trying by any means to one-up their rival William Randolph Hearst and the New York Herald in covering the Spanish-American War in 1898. The World sent Crane to Cuba, and while he was there, the editors demanded “hair-raising dispatches (and) bombastic scoops on heroism,” he said.
The young writer did see action and described it well, even helping fellow reporter Edward Marshall to safety when he had been shot. Crane recorded the last dispatch from the dying Marshall and filed it before he filed his own, which eventually landed him in some hot water with his editors, who accused him of disloyalty when he returned to America.
Crane quit the World and moved to England and continued to write fiction. He had come under heavy criticism from proper Victorians because of his choice of a mate — a former brothel keeper from Miami who helped him run up massive debts while in Europe. Crane faced a tougher foe than critics or bill collectors, however. He contracted tuberculosis and spent his last months in a desperate attempt to find relief.
That attempt failed, and on June 5, 1900, he died. He was 28 years old.
(Much of the informtion here about Crane’s journalism comes from Denis Bryant, Pulitzer: A Life, John Wiley, 2001.)
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