Did Stephen Crane read Emily Dickinson? And was he inspired by her poetry?
Gregory Laski (@ProfL12) asked about it this morning, and I responded “Yes, Howells read to him from Dickinson. It’s somewhere in Hamlin Garland’s memoirs” (or words to that effect) and also in Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire.” (It’s probably also in Stephen Crane Remembered, a copy of which I own but can’t find right now.)
This is what I’d always read and seen: one day in 1893, after Garland had introduced Crane to Howells, Crane visited Howells at home and Howells read to him from Emily Dickinson. It’s a pretty great story.
But what’s the source? Here’s one of those down-the-rabbit-hole searches that’s always more fun than whatever writing you’re doing at the time. Here are some of those paths, numbered so that you can see the process; if you’re not interested, skip to the end.
Mildly dead ends:
- Garland talks about meeting Crane in Roadside Meetings (1930), but he apparently didn’t discuss this. (I say “apparently” because I can’t find my copy of the book.)
- Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland (ed. Keith Newlin & Joseph McCullough) doesn’t mention Dickinson and Crane except to say that Garland mistakenly thought he had met Dickinson (he met her niece).
- Hamlin Garland: A Life (Newlin) doesn’t mention Dickinson in the index but does state that Garland “had arranged an introduction to Howells in April 1893, hoping that the senior writer could help Crane place his poetry with Harper’s Monthly” (192).
- The Stephen Crane Encyclopedia (Stanley Wertheim) has no entry for Emily Dickinson.
- Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson’s William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life does not repeat the WDH reading to SC episode, but it does report that Crane’s excursions into flophouses and breadlines were at the urging of Howells and Garland and includes this intriguing detail: “With Crane and other friends or by himself, Howells roamed New York’s ethnic neighborhoods” (342). Howells was about 60 at the time, but it’s a great image to think of him with Crane roaming the neighborhoods together, though WDH would probably not have gone at night when Theodore Roosevelt as police commissioner was checking up on the policemen on the beat.
Howells reading Dickinson’s poems to Crane is in the Sorrentino biography: “Garland insisted that Crane show the poems to William Dean Howells, who already knew of Crane’s interest in poetry from their meeting a year earlier, when Crane had been impressed with Emily Dickinson’s creativity as Howells read her poetry to him” (130). The note references The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 54
- On to the Correspondence (edited by Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino). Here’s what’s on p. 54 as a footnote to a letter from Howells to Crane dated April 8, 1893 that reads in part “Personally I know nothing of you except what you told me in our pleasant interview”: “Wearing a suit borrowed from his journalist friend John Northern Hilliard, Crane had tea or dinner with Howells in his home on what is now Central Park South one evening in the first week of April 1893. Howells read Crane some of Emily Dickinson’s verses at this time, and her terse, cryptic lines may have influenced the style of The Black Riders.” There’s no citation for this event, however.
In The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871-1900, p. 90, there’s more detail: “Early April. Wearing a suit borrowed from his friend John Northern Hilliard, Crane visits Howells in his home at 40 West 59th Street, New York City. At this time, or perhaps on a later visit, Howells reads some of Emily Dickinson’s poems to him, and Crane is deeply impressed (Barry, 148).”
- The citation is to John D. Barry, “A Note on Stephen Crane.” Bookman 13 (April 1901): 148. If you have access at the University of Virginia, or if you are time traveling in the year 2000 and looking this up prior to whenever they took all their public access stuff offline and hid it behind a firewall, you can get it here: https://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/u2739147. <editorial rant> A great resource was lost to literary studies once UVA sealed up its collections. </editorial rant>
Here it is!
Here is the original passage *that apparently inspired the anecdote about Howells reading Dickinson to Stephen Crane: “One evening while receiving a visit from Mr. Crane, Mr. Howells took from his shelves a volume of Emily Dickinson’s verses and read some of these aloud. Mr. Crane was deeply impressed, and a short time afterward he showed me thirty poems in manuscript, written, as he explained, in three days” (148).
How credible is this source?
John D. Barry knew Crane, and according to The Stephen Crane Encyclopedia, “On 14 April 1894 Barry read some of the poems that would comprise The Black Riders in front of the Uncut Leaves Society at Sherry’s since Crane was averse to public speaking and refused to read them himself. Barry believed that Crane’s poetry had been inspired by Emily Dickinson, whose verses, Barry maintained, had been read to him by William Dean Howells” (20). (bold for emphasis)
But look at Wertheim’s language here: “believed, maintained.” Wertheim has a point, which he emphasizes with this hedging language: All we really have is Barry’s word, not quite a year after Crane’s death on June 5, 1900, about Howells reading to Crane.
Should we believe it?
On one hand, Barry knew Crane and was quite severely critical of Maggie, calling it “morbid” and “unhealthful.” He believed in Crane’s poetry, however, and seems to have discussed it with him. It wouldn’t have been unusual for Howells to read aloud; to argue by analogy, Henry James and Edith Wharton did this all the time. Howells’s kindness to young authors was legendary, and Barry was writing shortly after Crane’s death when memories were fresh.
On the other hand, Barry was a novelist, a playwright, and an instructor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Perhaps the story was embellished because it would make more of an impression for the point he was trying to make in the article: that Stephen Crane should not be classed with the (French) symbolists because he was inspired by that most American of poets (aside from Whitman), Emily Dickinson.
*With a little digging, you can find Bookman (not The Bookman, published in London and available at Hathi Trust) at archive.org here: