Peabody’s Crane Exhibit: The New/Old Story of the Starving Artist

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Stephen Crane. Photo courtesy JHU.

Living a bit hand-to-mouth? Not particularly flush with the rush of economic recovery? Feeling singularly unappreciated for your artistic contributions?

Wander over to the new exhibit at the George Peabody Library, “For Love or Money: Art, Commerce & Stephen Crane.” You’re sure to be uplifted when you see that you are not alone; moreover, your problems are a cliché that’s a little more than 100 years old.

What better place than Baltimore, and what better time than now, to showcase the American literary genius who penned The Red Badge of Courage and saw himself as a soldier in the “beautiful war for truthful art?”

Crane, who was the quadruple threat of journalist, poet, short story writer and novelist, could have been the poster boy for the starving artist. In the turn-of-the century photographs on display throughout the exhibit, his lean, angular face has the faraway yet unflinchingly driven expression of an Amy Winehouse. It’s eerily, disturbingly familiar—almost as if there’s a genetic marker for the look of artists who die in their late 20s.

By the time he succumbed to tuberculosis at 28, Crane was arguably a critical success. The exhibit underscores his capacious body of work with more than 250 artifacts, including rare books, photographs, articles, handwritten letters and memorabilia.   As you walk around and peer into his personal life, you get the feeling that this fellow was no stranger to hard work. You might remember that your high school English teacher taught Crane before Hemingway, so you could note style and syntactical similarities between the former who inspired the latter. Hemingway might have been a “man’s man,” but Crane was the man.

Crane is credited with bringing a journalistic realism to fiction, and that is admirable. It is curious today that the inverse is happening—many contemporary American writers are bringing a flagrant fiction to journalism, and this is resulting in a whole lot of chaos, not clarity, on the Internet blogs and the network news. These are the somewhat scholarly thoughts that might come to mind as you walk through the exhibit.

But they are not the ones that you will leave with.

What you will get is a well-deserved and intensely personal punch in the gut when you read letter after letter from a literary genius who simply couldn’t make ends meet, a writer who admits in exquisite penmanship that he was “too poor to come to New York.”

The exhibit is free, thanks to the exceedingly generous donation of Johns Hopkins University alumnus and trustee Richard S. Frary and his wife, Irene. Stop in any day of the week.

Because everyone needs to see it, and ask himself why the artists who will be changing our lives a century from now are currently barely surviving on Kraft macaroni-and-cheese in a squalid apartment.

 



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