Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Easton, Northampton County
Stephen Crane is a wellknown American novelist, short story writer, and poet. He is best known for his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Crane briefly attended Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, before deciding he wanted to be a writer and moving to New York. He lived an adventurous life before dying of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900, shortly before his twenty-ninth birthday.
Stephen Crane was born November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey. He was the youngest of fourteen children, only nine of which survived infancy, to Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane. Religion played a large role in Crane's life during his formative years. His father was a minister in the Methodist Church and a writer of reformist literature, a literature that forbade alcohol and dancing in favor of temperance. Crane's mother was a clergyman's daughter, as well as an active member of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Jonathan Townley Crane's position as a pastor required that the family relocate every few years before. They eventually settled in Port Jervis, New York, in 1876. Crane was a sickly child. His poor health and the family's frequent moves prevented him from formally enrolling in school until he was eight years old. Jonathan Townley Crane died on February 16, 1880, about a month after young Stephen began his formal schooling. After the passing of his father, Stephen Crane came under the care of various siblings, once again subjecting him to a nomadic existence.
In 1885, Crane entered Pennington Seminary located near Trenton, New Jersey. He left after two years to attend Hudson River Institute in Claverack, New York. Crane was gifted in extracurricular activities, but neglected his formal studies. Crane made up for lost time in the classroom by making use of his summers. During summer, he gained valuable experience by helping his brother, Townley, run his Asbury Park press bureau and write a gossip column for the New York Tribune. After two and a half years, Crane left the Hudson River Institute. He enrolled at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, on September 12, 1890. He planned to take a degree in mining engineering, but failed his classes, withdrew, and promptly transferred to Syracuse University. Townley got Stephen the position of Syracuse correspondent for the New York Tribune. At Syracuse, Crane once again neglected his studies. He spent more time exploring dance halls and abandoned tenements than he did exploring the classroom. He completed only one course, but his familiarity with the underbelly of Syracuse proved itself useful material for his first novel, Maggie: a Girl of the Streets, which he began to sketch in the spring of 1891.
The summers of 1891 and 1892 largely shaped Crane's writing career. He returned to Asbury Park and took over his brother's Tribune column, honing his skills as a journalist, as well as a creative writer. Crane would frequently submit satirical sketches to the Tribune in place of the news and gossip his brother assigned him. Also, in August of 1891 he attended a lecture by author Hamlin Garland. After the lecture, Crane got the opportunity to speak extensively with Garland. These conversations largely revolved around the topic of using fiction to explore social problems, which is exactly what Crane does in his work Maggie: a Girl of the Streets. While living in New Jersey, Crane would frequently make trips to New York to explore the realities of an urban city, before he eventually moved there in fall 1892.
In New York, Crane lived what could be described as a bohemian existence. He lived with a group of medical students and frequently dressed in tattered clothes to better facilitate his explorations of tenement life in the Bowery. Crane was a virtual 'starving artist.' He only sporadically sold his sketches, and was virtually unable to support himself. He used his Bowery exploration experiences to basically rewrite the manuscript for Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. The story tells the tale of Maggie, a tenement girl, whose life of hardship and neglect drives her to prostitution and eventually leads to her death. Crane's manuscript was continually turned down for publication by editors who were put off by Crane's depiction of the harsh realities of urban life. He eventually published the manuscript himself in 1893, under the pseudonym Johnston Smith.
Although Crane's aim in this work is to truthfully reflect urban city life, it doesn't quite fit into the categories of literary realism or naturalism. According to Steven Wertheim, in The Dictionary of Stephen Crane, Crane's "almost pervasive sense of irony, use of symbolistic techniques, narrative ambiguities, and sometimes deterministic, sometimes nihilistic view of natural and social universe also place his fiction beyond the commonly understood taxonomy of literary realism." Further, the label of literary naturalism doesn't quite fit either. For while Maggie's life is largely shaped by the hostile pressures of her environment, her downfall rests largely in Maggie and her family's tendency to project corollaries of middle class values onto their low class society. This leads to characters possessing incorrect illusions of self-righteousness and twists their morality to something self serving.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was almost universally ignored by critics upon release, but Crane was not deterred. The years after Maggie's publication proved to be some of his most creative and productive. He worked fervently and intensely, often on multiple projects at once. Crane published two important works in 1895. The first is his collection of poetry entitled, The Black Riders and Other Lines. Although Crane is primarily known as a novelist and short story writer, he held his poetry in higher esteem because he felt poetry not only provided a format to express his worldview, but that it was also a more ambitious venture. In The Black Rider and Other Lines, Crane tackles questions about God and man's relations with God. Crane's poetry was unconventional for its time in both composition and appearance. Crane wrote poetry in free verse, without rhyme or meter. Further, his poems lacked titles, only being identified by Roman numerals or the first lines of the poem. His lines of verse were also printed entirely in uppercase letters. For these reasons, Crane's poetry has remained largely ignored by the public and (albeit to a lesser extent) critics.
A few months after publishing his collection of poetry, Crane published his most famous and arguably best work, The Red Badge of Courage. The work is frequently considered to be the most realistic novel about the American Civil War, despite the fact that Crane was born six years after the war ended. The Red Badge of Courage is quite innovative because it chronicles war through a psychological narrative and focuses on emotional states instead of tactical matters. The novel follows the protagonist, a young soldier named Henry Fleming, through battle and explores the psychological effects war can have on an individual. Specifically, how one deals with fear and death in the military cult of courage. In this work, Crane once again utilizes irony. Fleming's desire for heroism motivates him to join the military. He fantasizes about performing heroic feats in battle, but unconsciously responds cowardly during battle. He finally is able to perform a heroic act when he places in himself a dangerous position instead of his comrade, Wilson. The irony is that Fleming's act of self-sacrifice was not motivated by moral constitution, but was an unconscious response, much like cowardice.
Crane's ability to write so convincingly about a war he had not experienced made his work a critical, as well as public, success upon publication. The book had reached eighth place on the International Booksellers' list by March of 1896 and enabled him to quickly rise to the ranks of literary celebrity. Crane's work was slightly better received in England than in America. In The North American Review, English author, H.G. Wells, refers to Crane as a "natural genius" and describes the "orgie of praise" the English public and critics were bestowing upon the book. The book was less well received in America because some thought it was unpatriotic. In the Dial, J.L. Onderdonk claims that "The trend of the whole work — [is] to prove the absence of such a thing as a gentleman in the union army." Crane's work is both a coming of age story, as well as a war story. The dual nature or the book has worked to give it a position on the required reading list of many intermediate and high schools.
Stephen Crane's curious and slightly rebellious nature led him to live a life rife with adventure, and at some points, scandal. One such scandal involved Crane testifying on behalf of an alleged prostitute, a woman named Dora Clarke. Clarke attempted to press charges of false arrest against the officer arresting her for prostitution. Crane further involved himself in the scandal when he agreed to testify against the officer on Clarke's behalf. Despite Crane's claims that he was in such an area with such a woman for research purposes, his reputation suffered, so much so that he never lived in New York City again.
In 1896, Cuba was on the verge of war with Spain and Crane was to cover the story as a correspondent. Crane awaited passage to Cuba in Jacksonville, Florida, where once again his name became associated with scandal. In Jacksonville, he toured the city; night clubs and brothels were included on his tour. It was in one such establishment that he met a madam named Cora Taylor. The two were quite taken with each other and Cora Taylor eventually came to be Mrs. Crane. Cora Taylor was to accompany Crane to Cuba upon the SS Commodore. The ship hit a sandbar and the damage, combined with pump complications, caused the boat to take on increasing amounts of water. There were not enough life boats on the Commodore for all its passengers. Crane and others were forced to attempt to navigate a dinghy to shore. The waves overturned the small vessel and one of Crane's companions died. Crane fictionalized this experience in his short story, "The Open Boat." Carrying on the themes of previous works, this short story is rife with irony and examples of the ambivalence of nature toward human affairs.
"The Open Boat" is generally considered to be Crane's finest short story. Some critics praised Crane for his writing style, some praised him for his subject matter, and some critics praised both. Crane's writing style in "The Open Boat" has been labeled impressionistic, as opposed to descriptive. He can vividly conjure a scene in the mind's eye through well chosen phrases and details. In some critics' opinions, his ability to vividly present a scene negates the fact that his subject matter is frequently uninteresting. Other critics found Crane's subject matter fascinating. Similar to Crane's psychological mapping of a youth at war in The Red Badge of Courage, "The Open Boat" explores the psyche of a man lost at sea. This recurring thematic concern has caused one anonymous critic writing in Academy to declare him "the analytical chemist of the subconscious." Crane's work remains popular and "The Open Boat" is highly anthologized, an example of a masterful short story.
Although Crane never truly recovered from his shipwreck experience, he was anxious to get back to work. In Spring 1897, he arrived in Greece to cover the fighting between the Greeks and the Turks. He left Greece in June and permanently settled in England with Cora Taylor. In the winter of 1898, Crane returned to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War. He wanted to join the Navy, but failed the physical examination. Instead, he traveled with the Marines and reported on his experiences with them. Crane's health became even more fragile during his time in Cuba. Crane always walked the line of poverty and debt, but his decreasing health began to bury him in it. He and Cora were forced to move to a dilapidated Sussex home that lacked basic conveniences, such as plumbing. Despite his setbacks, Crane continued to write furiously. Many of his works showed promise, but sadly, he was ailing too quickly to fully realize them. Stephen Crane passed away from tuberculosis on June 5, 1900.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, as Johnston Smith. New York: Privately printed, 1893.
The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Appleton, 1895.
George's Mother. New York & London: Edward Arnold, 1896.
The Third Violet. New York: Appleton, 1896.
Active Service. New York: Stokes, 1899.
The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War. New York: Appleton, 1896.
The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure. New York: Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898.
The Monster and Other Stories. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1899.
The Black Riders and Other Lines. Boston: Copeland & Day, 1895.
War is Kind. New York: Stokes, 1899
Academy. 14 May 1898: 522.
"Crane's Defective Impressionism." Literature. 7 May 1898: 535-536.
Benfey, Christopher. "The Double Life of Stephen Crane." New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1992.
Onderdonk, J.L. "Letter Defending McClurg." Dial. 1 May 1896: 263-4.
Quartermain, Peter. "Stephen Crane." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 54:American Poets 1880-1945, Third Series. Detroit: Gale, 48-57.
Wells, H.G. "Stephen Crane. From an English Standpoint." The North American Review. Volume 0171: Issue 525 (August 1900): 233-243.
Wertheim, Stanley. "A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia." Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
For More Information:
Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography by John Berryman (1950).