Paul Auster on the Poem He Can’t Get Out of His Head
In Conversation with Mitchell Kaplan on The Literary Life Podcast
On today’s episode of The Literary Life, live from the 2021 Miami Book Fair, Mitchell Kaplan talks to Paul Auster about his masterful new book, Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane, out now from Henry Holt and Co.
From the episode:
Paul Auster: Yeah, that one poem [“In the Desert”]. It’s unforgettable, really? You hear it once and you can’t get it out of your head. And you know, he was just twenty-two years old when he wrote it. The depth of the psychological wisdom of this. I mean, I think there are probably 50 ways to interpret it, and one of them seems to be how persistently we cling to our own misery, how we actually fall in love with our own unhappiness.
Mitchell Kaplan: And I’m wondering when you first got this notion of wanting to write about Stephen Crane, did you think you would end up with an 800-page book?
Paul Auster: I never imagined myself doing this. It started when I finished writing 4 3 2 1, which was in 2016. The book came out in early 2017, but it was the spring of ’16, and I was exhausted. I had just spent three and a half solid years, seven days a week for the most part … writing this immense novel and I had no energy left. I knew that I would have to take a break. I needed the time off and for the first time really in decades, I said, I’m not going to write anything for a while. I’m just going to go on on a kind of holiday. And I spent that time reading books, particularly books that I had always meant to read and never gotten around to, watching films that I’d always wanted to see and had not. So just kind of, what’s the term people say, recharging your batteries. Is that the conventional cliche? But I really felt I needed to do that.
On my shelf, I had one book of Stephen Crane’s. It was the Viking portable edition that I took in college and I too, like you, read The Red Badge of Courage in the 10th grade. But I loved it, and I remember I had a wonderful English teacher in my public high school in New Jersey, same state where Crane grew up. And she not only gave us that, but I remember we read The Open Boat as well, and we read some of the poetry, and that’s when I first read that poem. And we also watched the John Houston version of The Red Badge of Courage, which is so-so. I mean, it’s not terrible. It’s not great, but the book was really a big experience, and I remember how much everyone liked it in the class. Not just the boys, but the girls, too. It’s a book about a teenager, after all, and we were all teenagers.
But for some reason after that, I really didn’t read Crane. I knew he was there. I felt tremendous admiration for him. But I was involved with other things, and years and years and years went by. And therefore, I saw this book on the shelf and I said, I’m going to take another look at Stephen Crane. And the first thing I opened to was a novella entitled The Monster, and I had never read it nor had ever heard of it. I mean, I was just like you, Mitch. I really didn’t know much about Stephen Crane at that point at all. Vaguely, I knew he had worked as a journalist as well as written novels and poems, and that he had died young. That was about it. So I read this sixty-page novella, and I was flattened by it. It’s so powerful. It is so extraordinary and so unexpected, since it is essentially a story about race in America at that time. And that time when he wrote it in 1897 was exactly the beginning of the institutionalization of Jim Crow.
And, you know, because that had been codified by the Supreme Court decision the previous year, Plessy v. Ferguson, everyone knows about this now. You know, establishing the so-called separate but equal loss, and Crane, unlike many people of this moment, had a lot of sympathy for black people. His parents were very religious. His father was a Methodist minister, in fact, and his mother was very devout. But after the Civil War, they then moved to Port Jervis, where Crane spent part of his childhood, which is a small town, small city of about nine-thousand people right at the border at the juncture of New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. And in this town, they set up two schools for black people, one for women and children and the other for men. And so Crane grew up with this, and I think it made him somehow innately less prejudiced than most white people from his Anglo-Saxon backgrounds were, especially at that time.
Paul Auster is the bestselling author of 4 3 2 1, Sunset Park, Invisible, The Book of Illusions, and the New York Trilogy, among many other works. In 2006 he was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature. Among his other honors are the Prix Médicis étranger for Leviathan, the Independent Spirit Award for the screenplay of Smoke, and the Premio Napoli for Sunset Park. In 2012, he was the first recipient of the NYC Literary Honors in the category of fiction. He has also been a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (The Book of Illusions), the PEN/Faulkner Award (The Music of Chance), the Edgar Award (City of Glass), and the Man Booker Prize (4 3 2 1). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His work has been translated into more than forty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.