Today in History: Famous Syracuse Writers, Part II

On Saturday, our post on Famous Syracuse Writers created quite the conversation surrounding literature coming out of, and by people from, Syracuse. We received comments, emails, and messages asking why we didn’t include a specific author or to add insight on one we already mentioned. The excellent engagement sparked us to continue to write about this topic, but we don’t want your comments to stop. If we missed an author, play, movie- whatever you know, we want to hear it. Email or leave a comment here with the information and we’ll consider adding it to a future post.

With that, here’s our second installment of Famous Syracuse Authors:

Today in history, in 1928, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Price-winning author, Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel, is born in what is now known as Romania. One of Wiesel’s internationally known memoirs is based on his time spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland during World War II.

As for writers from Syracuse, John Berendt was born December 5th, 1939 and is best know for his book, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, published in 1994. The book spent over four years on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and has sold 2.7 million hardcover and 1.3 million paperback copies and was made into a movie in 1997 by Warner Brothers and, directed by Clint Eastwood. Berendt was also the editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979 and wrote a monthly column for Esquire from 1982 to 1994.

team-Stephen Crane - front row, center, HL, 1891

Stephen Crane (front row, center) with baseball teammates at Hall of Languages, Syracuse University, 1891.

This next writer was debated in our comment section in the previous post and isn’t from Syracuse. However, Stephen Crane does warrant some exploration, despite his questionable alumnus status from Syracuse University, as he was more focused on baseball than studying. However, Syracuse may have been more influential to the writing of The Red Badge of Courage, celebrating its 124th anniversary this October, than previously thought

The following is by by Rick Burton:

“There is little indication that when Stephen Crane enrolled at Syracuse University in January 1891, a great  American novel was percolating in his baseball-mad cranium. After all, it was still three years before he would publish his Civil War masterpiece,  The Red Badge of Courage.  Yet during his six months in Syracuse, Crane, an aspiring journalist born to a Methodist minister in Newark, New Jersey, was probably exposed to a series of sights, sounds, and sensitivities that would influence his future—and famously realistic—writing.

Crane signed up for English literature, history, and Latin classes, but acknowledged in a January 1896 letter to John Northern Hilliard, a journalist friend and author, that academia was not his forte, “I did little work in school, but confined my abilities, such as they were, to the diamond. Not that I disliked books, but the cut-and-dried curriculum of the college did not appeal to me. Humanity was a much more interesting study. When I ought to have been at recitations I was studying faces on the streets, and when I ought to have been studying my next day’s lessons I was watching the trains roll in and out of the Central Station.”

His Latin professor, Frank Smalley, later the dean of liberal arts, confirmed this sentiment in a letter to Crane’s widow in August 1900, noting that the author “devoted himself to athletic sports with ardor, especially base-ball and was our finest player.”But Crane also had a passion for writing, whether it was fiction, journalism, or poetry. While his early work received modest praise, it was The Red Badge of Courage that would place Crane in the same breath with such noted literary giants of the time as Mark Twain, Henry James, Jack London, and Edith Wharton.

However, new evidence, drawn from research at SU Library’s Special Collections Research Center and the University Archives may reveal just how important Syracuse University, its geography, and baseball were to the creation of a book still selling more than a century after its release. In fact, in a November 1895 letter to the editor of Leslie’s Weekly, Crane wrote, “When I was at school, few of my studies interested me, and as a result I was a bad scholar. They used to say at Syracuse University, where, by the way, I didn’t finish the course, that I was cut out to be a professional base-ball player. And the truth of the matter is that I went there more to play base-ball than to study.”

And have fun. The 1891 Onondagan offers six distinct references to Crane, noting he not only played baseball and pledged DU, but also served as the alumni association secretary and treasurer of Claverack College, a quasi-military boarding school he attended from 1888-90. Crane also captained the DU cricket club, served as a member of the DU winter coasting club, and joined an eating group called the ‘Toothpick Club.'”