Last Tuesday, Paul Auster’s massive biography of 19th century author and New Jersey native Stephen Crane was released. If the publisher had waited one more week, the book would have arrived on Election Day, an appropriate tribute to Crane’s years as a New York City reporter that put him in the middle of the 1894 election in the Big Apple.
Crane is best known for The Red Badge of Courage, a U.S. Civil War novel praised for its realistic depictions of battles, quite an achievement since its author was born six years after the war’s end. Auster is a modern writer best known for such novels as The New York Trilogy, The Book of Illusions and 4 3 2 1. Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane is his first attempt at biography and, like his subject, he can effectively conjure an era he never saw first-hand.
Auster and Crane also exhibit a shared penchant for detail. For the former, it’s in both his fiction and nonfiction. For Crane it’s in his journalism, traces of which crept their way into his fictional prose and even his alluringly unconventional poetry.
As a reporter, Crane would work for newspapers published by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer but, on election night 1894, he was employed by the New York Press. Joseph Katz, in the Portable Stephen Crane, explains that the newspaper “tried to satisfy the demand for instantaneous [election] results by flashing the latest tallies onto a neighboring building by means of a powerful slide projector.”
Crane stood in front of the building jotting down what he heard uttered by those in the crowd milling in the street awaiting election results. As Auster puts it, he was reducing the mob to its components, “turning the jumbled horde into a collection of individuals.”
The election was emotionally charged thanks to investigations into alleged corruption of the Tammany Hall Democrats, who successfully controlled New York City and New York State, that resulted in, according to Auster, a 10,000-page report identifying the extent of the corruption. By election night, the politicians had everyone’s attention.
“The courtroom, where the returns were made public, was crowded with citizens eager to hear of the defeat of Tammany,” the New York Times reported in its November 7 edition. “There was a constant procession of people streaming into the building, and an immense crowd gathered in the street, shouting and cheering as the results of the voting were learned.”
Katz notes that Crane’s published piece, “Heard on the Street Election Night,” captured the emotions of the evening during which “partisan feelings were strong and general anticipation of the election’s outcome was high.” In the end, it was a Republican victory, with Hugh J. Grant losing the New York City mayoral race to William L. Strong and Levi P. Morton defeating David B. Hill for the position of governor.
“If Hill can’t carry this State at any time in any year, I’ll make you a present of the Brooklyn Bridge, and paint it a deep purple with golden stripes all by myself,” one voter proclaimed before the winners were declared. Another Hill champion cautioned, “you better wait until it’s a dead sure thing until you holler. I’ve seen a good deal of this sort of thing.”
Others took the opposite stance. “If Tammany wins this time,” one anxious voter offered, “we might as well all quit the town…If we don’t beat ’em now, we’re a lot of duffers and we’re only fit to stuff mattresses with.” Another was heard saying, “Tammany said she couldn’t be beaten, and everybody believed it.”
Near the conclusion of his piece, Crane quotes one individual whose take was noticeably broader than that of the average New Yorker: “Very surprising way the American people have of throttling a man just when he thinks he’s got ’em dead under his thumb.”