[(essay date 1993) In the following excerpt, Dooley examines Crane's poetry and contends that the author's philosophy is theistic, not nihilistic, agnostic, or atheist, as it is often characterized by critics.]
I detest dogma.Crane to Nellie Crouse, February 1896Personally, I like my little book of poems, The Black Riders, better than I do The Red Badge of Courage. The reason is, I suppose, that the former is the more ambitious effort. In it I aim to give my ideas of life as a whole, so far as I know it, and the latter is a mere episode,--an amplification.Crane to the editor of Demorest's Family Magazine, late April-early May 1896
The term philosopher, when used to refer to Crane's idea of life as a whole, is used in a nonspecialist's sense. It is, as a friend once wrote to me, "the sense of 'philosophy' you understood before you became a philosophy major." Or, as William James remarked in "The Sentiment of Rationality," when humans philosophize, "they desire to attain a conception of the frame of things which shall on the whole be more rational than that somewhat chaotic view which everyone by nature carries about with him under his hat" (The Will to Believe 57).
Inevitably, total views involve, even if by way of denial, reference to God. Crane's total view is no different. Although some have contended that his philosophy is nihilistic, agnostic, even atheistic, I argue that his stance is fundamentally theistic. Given Crane's heritage, God had to be faced, and he found interesting ways to involve God in his worldview. Initially, the religion poured into Crane came out sideways as swearing.
Crane and the Art of Fine Swearing
At his knees José was arguing, in a low, aggrieved tone, with the saints. José's moans and cries amounted to a university course in theology."One Dash--Horses"
Crane, the preacher's kid, was used to God-talk. Outside the parsonage he heard frequent references to God, too. He was fascinated by the vernacular of the streets and became proficient at it. At Syracuse University, his profane performances were legendary.1 Sorrentino (1984) even argues that Crane was "obsessed with profanity" (181). As evidence he cites accounts of Crane's daily swearing about the steepness of the hill to the Delta Upsilon fraternity house and an anecdote about how Crane's baseball teammates, hearing a game was canceled, waited for his arrival and reaction. The wait proved worthwhile--"that day Crane broke all his previous records in that line" (182).2
Apparently, however, some of his family were unaware of his swearing skills. On October 30, 1922, Thomas Beer, making final revisions of his biography of Crane, wrote a long letter to Edmund B. Crane. Among the several detailed questions that Beer asked of Stephen's elder brother was: "11. Do you remember that about 1894 he partly composed a dictionary of profanity. In a letter dated 1895 he says: 'Used to sit around last year on Ned's [Edmund B. Crane] kitchen steps and think...