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Stephen Crane was one of the most gifted and influential writers of the late nineteenth century, noted for his innovative style, ironic sense of life, and penetrating psycho logical realism. He wrote his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), when he was only twenty-one and had his masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), published before he was twenty-four. When he died in 1900 at the age of twenty-eight, he had written six novels, over a hundred short stories, two books of poems, and voluminous journalism and war correspondence. His works have been credited with marking the beginning of literary naturalism in America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Youngest Child in a Large, Religious Family
Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, the last of fourteen children. His father, the Rev. Jonathan Townley Crane, was a well-known Methodist clergyman; his mother, Mary Helen Peck Crane, was active in church and reform groups, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Both his parents wrote religious articles, and his brother Townley was a journalist who operated a news agency for the New York Tribune. In the summers Stephen helped gather news and gossip from the Jersey shore for Townley’s column.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
An indifferent student, Crane had one unsuccessful year of higher education before deciding that ”humanity was a more interesting study” than the college curriculum. He began to work full-time as a reporter and writer. Crane met the writer Hamlin Garland in 1891, and followed his advice to immerse himself in the social problems of the city. He began to frequent the Bowery section of New York City and acquire a firsthand view of its bohemian life. He would shape this material into his first novel.
His first published fiction, however, depicted life in rural upstate New York. These stories, first collected and published in 1949 as The Sullivan County Sketches of Stephen Crane, develop a metaphor of man at war against nature. Crane’s irony is directed at the pomposity of his unnamed protagonist, the ”little man” who conjures demons in the landscape as he assaults caves, forests, and mountains.
In 1893 Crane privately published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets under a pseudonym after several publishers rejected the work on the grounds that his description of slum realities would shock readers. While Crane appropriated much of the novel from popular reports of slum life, his presentation of the depravities of poverty was brutally straightforward. Crane was certainly not alone in calling attention to the plight of the urban poor, however. The Progressive Era in American politics, usually dated from 1890-1920, was dominated by outspoken social activists, writers, and artists committed to promoting workers’ rights and helping the poor. One of these activists was reporter Jacob Riis, who had shocked New York high society with his groundbreaking work of photojournalism How the Other Half Lives (1890), which offered heart breaking pictures of tenement life. Other notable Progressives included Jane Addams, who founded Chicago’s Hull House in 1889, offering educational and social services to the poor, and Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle (1906) and many other novels critical of what he considered the worst social problems in the United States. The first edition of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets won Crane the support of such literary figures as Garland and William Dean Howells, but the book was not widely read until 1896, when Crane tempered the story in a second edition.
War Novel Brings Renown
Crane began a second novel of the slums, a satire eventually published as George’s Mother (1896), but he set it aside to finish a Civil War story he had begun. Again, the story line arose from conventional sources; Crane had no personal experience with warfare. Nevertheless, the work he fashioned, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), achieved a narrative vividness and sense of immediacy matched by few American novels. This short, essentially plotless novel consists of a series of memorable episodes in which a young soldier, Henry Fleming, confronts a gamut of emotions in his attempt to understand his battlefield experiences. The book quickly won its author international fame.
While writing The Red Badge of Courage, Crane was also finishing his first book of poems, The Black Riders (1895). Although not widely known, this volume of free verse foreshadowed the work of the Imagist poets with its concise, vivid images. More than half of the poems in this volume concern religious questions, reflecting Crane’s uncertainty about the nature of God and man’s relation to him. This religious impulse is also present in Crane’s war novel; from the beginning, Henry Fleming is thinking about how he measures up to nature, and by extension, to God. Crane deleted religious imagery from the novel’s concluding chapters, suggesting continued ambivalence.
During this time, Crane continued to work as a journalist. In 1895, a newspaper publisher sent him on a journalistic mission through the American West to Mexico. His dispatches ironically note the disparity between the romantic legends of the West and the reality of its modern cities, a theme that would appear in several of his later works of fiction. Returning to New York later that year, Crane wrote The Third Violet (1897), a bohemian comedy considered among his poorest works.
Wars and Stories
Crane continued to write war stories, with some reluctance, because editors demanded them. He itched for the chance to be a war correspondent and set off at the end of 1896 to cover an insurrection in Cuba. The Cubans were struggling to free themselves from Spanish control; two years later, the United States’ insistence that Spain relinquish control of Cuba helped to spark the Spanish American War. While he was on his way to Cuba, Crane’s ship sank near Daytona Beach, Florida. Crane survived the disaster and wrote about it in the New York Press and, later, in one of his best short stories, ”The Open Boat” (1897).
During his travels in 1896, Stephen Crane met Cora Taylor, the proprietress of a discreet brothel named the Hotel de Dream. In April 1897 she accompanied Crane to Greece, where she covered the Greco-Turkish conflict as the first female war correspondent. Together as common-law husband and wife they moved to England, where Crane formed literary friendships with authors such as Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells and wrote stories at a great clip. Along with ”The Open Boat,” two of his most celebrated stories are ”The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (written in 1897) and ”The Blue Hotel” (written in 1898). Both are Westerns that parody conventional preconceptions of the Wild West with great psychological insight.
Although his health was poor, the outbreak of the Spanish-American war fired his imagination, and he sailed from England to Cuba in 1898. He exposed himself needlessly to Spanish fire at Guantanamo and San Juan, but won the admiration of senior war reporters for his work. Afterwards, he busied himself in Havana writing stories and completing another unsuccessful novel, Active Service (1899). Crane continued writing fiction when he returned to England, to satisfy his artistic needs and to earn money. But by 1900, his health had rapidly deteriorated due to general disregard for his physical well-being. Crane died of tuberculosis at the age of 28.
Works in Literary Context
Stephen Crane developed his powerful writing style from numerous influences, including the theories of realism advanced by Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells, the ideas expressed by the realist painter-hero of Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Light That Failed, and the ironic voice and psychological realism of Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol. Crane adapted all these ideas and methods to serve his own vision and purposes. He downplayed the importance of plot, shifting the focus from the drama of external events and situations to the drama of thoughts and feelings in the psychological life of his subjects. By the age of twenty-one, when he was writing The Red Badge of Courage, Crane already commanded formidable literary resources: a journalist’s training in keen observation and concise expression; an attitude toward conventional material shaped by theories of realism; a character developed in his Sullivan County studies of the ”little man”; and, a vivid impressionistic style.
Realism and Naturalism
Crane wrote that his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, ”tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world and frequently shapes lives regardless.” Some critics call Maggie: A Girl of the Streets the first American naturalist novel. Literary naturalism derived from Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, viewing character and behavior as a product of a person’s surroundings. Naturalist literature shares with realist literature a focus on everyday settings characters and careful representation of natural speech. Naturalism can be seen as a somewhat more pessimistic form of realism in that naturalist literature often features characters that are trapped or destroyed by their environments.
Critics have long debated the literary movement under which to classify Crane’s masterwork The Red Badge of Courage; realists, naturalists, symbolists, and impressionists have all claimed the novel as their own, each with some justification. While it can be broadly classed as a work of realism, Crane’s book is marked by an almost painterly style in some sections, and Crane’s skillful use of complex symbolism has been the subject of much critical attention.
Irony and Perception
Crane was a master of irony, employing a technique that reveals the gap between an individual’s perception of reality and reality as it actually exists. Some of his characters, like the Swede in The Blue Hotel,” are done in by their preconceived notions, suggesting humanity’s radical alienation in a problematic world. Others are more conscious and introspective, like the correspondent in ”The Open Boat,” who realizes that the sea, like nature, appears sometimes cruel and deadly, sometimes beautiful and picturesque, and other times stolidly indifferent. All these characteristics are simply projections of the narrator’s own shifting inner state.
A relativist, ironist, and impressionist, Stephen Crane anticipated the modernism of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner by thirty years. Like Hemingway, he was preoccupied with violence, finding in the reaction of his hero under extreme duress the mystery of the hero’s character and fate. Like Fitzgerald and Faulkner, he dramatized the power of illusion to shape events and destinies. He seems closer to these writers in manner and spirit than to the writers of his own day. His novels, stories, and poems all left a lasting mark on the development of twentieth-century literature.
Works in Critical Context
The Red Badge of Courage
The Red Badge of Courage became an international sensation in 1895 and made its young author a famous man. Critic Bernard Weisberger said that the novel ”paints the experience of all young men who go into battle, familiar with fright but strangers to themselves.” Interestingly, most of the early praise for Crane came from English, not American, critics who stressed the realism of the novel and often incorrectly assumed that Crane was a Civil War veteran writing from personal experience (many actual veterans who read the novel made the same assumption). By the mid-twentieth century, critics such as R. W. Stallman were taking a new approach to The Red Badge of Courage, emphasizing its imagist and symbolist elements. Stallman’s focus on the Christian subtext behind Crane’s description of a setting sun as a ”communion wafer” sparked ongoing controversy. Still, whatever their interpretations, critics have been nearly unanimous in hailing the work as one of the greatest war novels of all time. As Eric Solomon wrote: ”Stephen Crane’s novel is the first work in English fiction of any length purely dedicated to an artistic reproduction of war, and it has rarely been approached in scope or intensity.”
Rediscovery in the 1920s
Crane remained well-known and widely admired until his untimely death. His reputation was greatly diminished for the next twenty years, but he was rediscovered in the 1920s by poets and novelists such as Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, who recognized in his experiments with new themes and subject matter something of the spirit of their own literary aims. As scholarship on Crane’s work has proliferated, his reputation has swelled. Contemporary critics generally agree that Crane was at his best in short works of fiction, and that his bold imagery and frankness advanced a robust, modern form of literary realism.
- Baum, Joan H. Stephen Crane. New York: Columbia University Libraries, 1956.
- Bergon, Frank. Stephen Crane’s Artistry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.8
- Berryman, John. Stephen Crane. New York: Sloane, 1950.
- Bruccoli, Matthew J. Stephen Crane 1871-1971. Columbia, S.C.: Department of English, University of South Carolina, 1971.
- Cady, Edwin H. Stephen Crane. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
- Holton, Milne. Cylinder of Vision: The Fiction and Journalistic Writing of Stephen Crane. Baton Rouge,La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1972.
- Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane: Journalism and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
- Solomon, Eric. Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
- Stallman, R. W. Stephen Crane: A Biography. New York: Brazillier, 1968.
- ”Stephen Crane (1871-1900).” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Paula Kepos. Vol. 32. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. 132-190.
- Weatherford, R. M., ed. Stephen Crane, The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
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