In the early winter of 1924, a young man named Clarkson Crane left California and went off to Paris to write a book. He came from an affluent Chicago family that had suffered financial reverses while he was in high school. And so he had enrolled at Berkeley instead of going East to Yale, the traditional seat of higher learning of Crane men. After graduation in 1916, a short story of his was published in the Atlantic Monthly, and this, combined with the frequent appearance of his work in student publications and small magazines, persuaded him, modest though he was, that his writing career was off to a good start.
Many other young impecunious Americans were in Paris at that time, and for the same reasons: The exchange was strongly in their favor, and the atmosphere of this particular foreign city promised to be conducive to creative work. But the book that Crane was to write was very different from any written by his compatriots.
In an informative introduction to this new edition of "The Western Shore," Oscar Lewis describes Crane's self-imposed "Spartan routine" living for almost two years in a barely heated Left Bank hotel room, his long hours of work broken only by solitary walks through the city. (Crane wrote home that he had "a very good room and board for .80 a day.") He already knew quite a bit about discipline, however, and also about France, for he had spent one summer as an engine-room helper on a San Francisco freighter, and two years in the U.S. Army Ambulance Corps, attached to the French army in World War I. But when the book he had worked on with such dedication was published by Harcourt, Brace in 1925, it was "greeted with dismay by readers and critics alike."
That "The Western Shore" bore no resemblance to the books being written by other American expatriates (who often followed a writer named Joyce up the Boulevard Montparnasse, and who yearned for an invitation to Gertrude Stein's celebrated tea parties in the rue de Fleurus) is easily explained: Crane had brought Berkeley to Paris with him, and his mission there was to find out why its presence had never ceased to trouble him. He wanted to write of it before uneasy memory would so distort the farce and the tragedy of campus life (as he saw it) that in the end, only the tragedy would remain.
"The Western Shore" consists of 20 "Episodes," in none of which the author plays a part. Crane is the silent witness, his eye so sharp, hearing so keen that he serves equally well both prosecution and defense. Each voice is startingly authentic, each episode believable beyond question, each instance of failure or bravado, of compromise or capitulation, is that of student or faculty member (or an occasional visitor), but never Crane's. In the tradition of the finest writers, he transfers his uncertainties to the women and men he writes of, and the cast is complete. We have known them all, and recognize in them our own proclivities.
Crane's family was deeply distressed by his book. Novels about campus life in America had, until then, presented the college scene as a four-year ball, an innocent round of parties, football games, fraternity dances and romance. And here was a ruthless, if gently proffered, would-be expose of that scene. A great-aunt, who had sent Crane $50 a month during the writing of the book, now asked his parents indignantly if it was possible that "the young man" disapproved of fraternities, and was he actually "poking fun at college life?"
But might not concerned parents of the time have been upset by Crane's presenting the testimony of student Milton Granger (whose mother had "traversed Theosophy and Christian Science" and now ate all her food raw), lest this fictional mother and son might be caricatures of themselves? Granger's father had been "a Yale man, a member of Skull and Bones," and his widowed mother had asked him to wire her as soon as he was "tapped."
And was not Crane casting doubt on the justice of our democratic system when we see student Carl Werner, a veteran of World War I, seeking health compensation from a reluctant government? Or might not improvident student George Towne, who has twice "flunked out," and now congratulates himself on having borrowed notes from a friend and feels sure in his lackadaisical way that he will pass, be prototype of far too many sons? And what of student Bert Hudson, and his stark terror of the hazing to come, the traditional near drowning of the victim that in his case almost became a reality? And could not Crane's encouraging of creative writing student Mabel Richards to reveal her continuous affairs to us be a shameless vulgarizing of all physical love?