Stephen Crane (1871-1900), an American fiction writer and poet, was also a newspaper reporter. His novel "The Red Badge of Courage" stands high among the world's books depicting warfare.
After the Civil War, William Dean Howells, Henry James, and others established realism as the standard mode of American fiction. In the 1890s younger writers tried to enlarge the territory of realism with impressionist, symbolist, and even new romantic approaches. Of these pioneers, Stephen Crane was the most influential.
Crane was born on Nov. 1, 1871, the fourteenth and last child of Mary Helen Crane and the Reverend Doctor Jonathan Townley Crane, presiding elder of the Newark, N.J., district of the Methodist Church. A frail child, Stephen moved with his family from one parsonage to another during his first 8 years. In 1880, with the death of his father, his mother moved her family to Asbury Park, N.J. Stephen was exposed early to writing as a career: his mother wrote on religious topics and lectured for the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and his brother Townley worked as a newspaper reporter.
In 1888 Crane entered military school, where he made an impressive record on the drill field and the baseball diamond but not in the classroom. Without graduating he went to Lafayette College, then to Syracuse University. He flunked out, but whatever his academic record, his time had not been wasted: in his fraternity house Crane, aged 20, had written the first draft of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Returning to Asbury Park as a reporter under his brother for the New York Tribune, Crane attended Hamlin Garland's lectures on the realistic writers. Garland was interested in the young writer, read his manuscripts, and guided his reading.
In 1891 Crane's mother died. Crane spent much of the next year in Sullivan County, N.Y., where another brother practiced law. Five "Sullivan County Sketches" were published in the Tribune and Cosmopolitan (his first magazine appearance). He went frequently to New York City, haunting the Bowery in search of experience and literary material. When he returned to Asbury Park, he lost his job on the Tribune (and his brother's too) by writing an accurate description of a labor parade that undermined his Republican publisher's standing in an election campaign. This year also brought unhappy endings to two romances.
In autumn 1892 Crane moved to New York City. By spring he submitted a second version of Maggie to a family friend, Richard Gilder, editor of the Century. Gilder tried to explain his rejection of the manuscript, but Crane interrupted bluntly, "You mean that the story's too honest?" Honest the story is, and blunt and brutal. It shows Maggie as a simple, ignorant girl bullied by her drunken mother, delivered to a seducer by her brother, driven by the seducer into prostitution and, finally, to suicide. In approach the novel is akin to the "veritism" of Garland and the realism of Howells, but it differs stylistically in its ironic tone, striking imagery (especially color imagery), and its compression."Impressionism" is the term often applied to the very personal style Crane was developing. Convinced that no publisher would dare touch his "shocking" novel, Crane printed it at his own expense, using the pseudonym Johnston Smith. The book went unnoticed and unpurchased, except for two copies. Garland, however, admired it and called it to the attention of Howells, then America's most influential man of letters, who recognized Crane's achievement and tried unsuccessfully to get the novel reissued.
By summer 1893 Crane was well into what was to be a Civil War novel. As research he read Century magazine's series "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War" and, it is believed, traveled in Virginia to interview Confederate veterans. What he found missing from the history books was the actual sensation any single individual experiences in battle; this is what The Red Badge of Courage conveys. Just as Maggie represents every girl victimized by a slum environment, so Henry Fleming represents every recruit who reels through the noise and glare of war. Neither character had a name in Crane's first drafts: they are "every woman," "every man," buffeted by forces they neither control nor understand. Though there were delays—painful ones for the penniless author—this book was destined for early success. A shortened version was serialized in the Philadelphia Press and hundreds of other newspapers in 1894. The instant critical and popular enthusiasm spread to England when the complete book was published the following year. A revised version of Maggie was issued along with an earlier novel about slum life, George's Mother, in 1896. The syndicate that had arranged newspaper publication of Red Badge of Courage sent Crane to the West and Mexico to sketch whatever struck his fancy.
Crane's first book of poems, The Black Riders, was on the press before his departure. "A condensed Whitman," the Nation aptly called him. His "lines," as he called his poems, are terse, natural, and forceful; ironic and unsentimental. Their language is in the best sense journalistic, just as Crane's reportage had been from the beginning poetic.
The excursion west and to Mexico produced sensitive sketches and materials for a number of Crane's finest stories. Back in New York, he published newspaper articles critical of the city's corrupt police. The police made New York uncomfortable for Crane, so he departed for Cuba to report the anti-Spanish insurrection there. Enroute he stopped in Jacksonville, Fla., where he met Cora Stewart, a handsome New England woman in her late 20s, separated from her husband, the son of a British baronet. She was the owner of the Hotel de Dream, an elegant boardinghouse-cum nightclub-cum brothel and gave it all up to become (quite without clerical or legal formalities) "Mrs. Stephen Crane."
In spite of this "marriage," Crane left for Cuba aboard a small steamer. It sank on its first day out. Crane's heroic role in the disaster—he barely escaped with the captain and two other men—evoked his best short story, "The Open Boat."
For the Hearst newspapers Crane covered the war between Greece and Turkey. Crane, it appears, wanted to see if war was really as he had depicted it in Red Badge of Courage: it was. But the trip yielded mediocre war reportage and a bad novel, Active Service (1899). Cora had followed Crane to Greece; they next went to England, where Crane finished his powerful novella The Monster and three of his finest short stories, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "Death and the Child," and "The Blue Hotel."
The Spanish-American War in 1898 provided new employment. Crane sent distinguished reports to the New York World. He was with Cora in England when his second volume of poems, War Is Kind, appeared in 1899. Sick and aware of nearing death, he wrote furiously. That spring Cora took him to the Continent, where he died on June 5, 1900, in Badenweiler, Germany, of tuberculosis. His haunting tales of childhood, Whilomville Stories, and Cuban tales, Wounds in the Rain appeared later that year.
Robert W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (1968), is the authoritative source on Crane's life. The two most interesting studies—one biographical, the other critical—are by poets: John Berryman, Stephen Crane (1950), and Daniel G. Hoffman, The Poetry of Stephen Crane (1956). Also recommended are Maurice Bassan, ed., Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays (1967), and, for views of Crane in the context of his period, Warner Berthoff, The Ferment of Realism (1965), and Larzer Ziff, The American 1890s (1966). □