David Halliburton: On Stephen Crane

Crane, Stephen (1 Nov. 1871-5 June 1900), writer, was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Jonathan Townley Crane, a prominent Methodist minister and author of books denouncing popular amusements, and Mary Helen Peck, a Methodist church writer. The youngest of fourteen children, Crane rebelled against the ecclesiastical/moral tendencies of his elders, indulging in such forbidden activities as baseball, smoking, drinking, going to the theater, and reading novels. Among his favorite "respectable" activities were bicycle riding and horsemanship.

Crane's upbringing was largely in the hands of his sister Agnes, to whom he was devoted. Fifteen years his senior, Agnes encouraged Crane to write. She was also, like him, a rebel. Around the time she died, in 1884, Crane, who recalled enjoying "church and prayer meetings when I was a kid," turned away from "the lake of fire and the rest of the sideshows." He never returned to the fold, but, as many readers have noted, the Bible exerted a lifelong influence on his writing. His poetry in particular attests to his ongoing concern with eschatological questions.

After early schooling in a New Jersey seminary (1885-1887), Crane attended a quasi-military academy where he gained some sense of martial life. In 1890 he briefly attended Lafayette College (Pennsylvania) before switching to Syracuse University, where he was in residence for a little more than a semester in 1891, displaying more prowess as a baseball catcher and shortstop than as a scholar. He reported on college and city affairs for the New York Tribune, being especially intrigued by the red-light district and the police court, and wrote the first version of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. At this time he became involved with Helen Trent, an already engaged singer from an established New York family. In Asbury Park, New Jersey, where he reported on resort activities for his brother Townley, local bureau chief for the New York Tribune, Crane met and fell in love with Lily Brandon Munroe, an unhappily married woman who returned his affection but, on the advice of her family, decided not to elope with him. In Asbury Park Crane had a memorable meeting with Hamlin Garland, who quickly became an enthusiast of his writing.

Crane's sketches and tales of Sullivan County began appearing in print in 1892 (a complete collection was not published until 1968). While they are slight treatments of outdoor life in upstate New York, some of the pieces already demonstrate the author's skill and vision. In "Killing His Bear" the paradigmatic figure of the Little Man, a combative egotist, tests himself against a variety of challenges, the biggest of which are the game of pursuit and the emotional impact of bringing the bear to a violent end. In "The Mesmeric Mountain" the Little Man, feeling threatened by the mountain of the title, climbs to the top to show that he cannot be cowed. About midyear, having forsworn the clever, Kiplingesque style that he had previously employed, Crane reported on the contrast between the bent, workworn marchers in an Asbury Park parade and the affluent spectators. Rival journalists accused him of satirizing organized labor, their aim being to embarrass Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid, who was running for vice president on the Republican ticket.

Fired by his newspaper, Crane settled into a New York boardinghouse where in 1892 he wrote poems, revised Maggie, and further familiarized himself with urban life. The ensuing sketches are among the most enduring of his early productions. In "The Men in the Storm" the down and out are exposed to the harshness of the elements, while "An Experiment in Misery" portrays a nightmarish stay in a flophouse.

Failing to find a publisher for Maggie, Crane paid for the publication of the book in 1893 (it cost $700), but the book had virtually no sales. It offers a glaring representation of social conflict in a modern urban environment, ending with the death of Maggie, either as a suicide or as a murder victim, depending upon the textual reconstruction. William Dean Howells found in it the sense of tragic fate characteristic of ancient Greek tragedy. Maggie is the only 1890s slum novel that is still read because Crane portrayed graphically and colorfully the realities of big-city "lowlife," balancing compassion for the abused heroine with the detachment necessary for conscientious reporting.

In 1894 Crane completed George's Mother and presented Garland with a manuscript of The Red Badge of Courage, the conception of which probably goes back to his boast, in 1891, that he could write a better battle story than Zola's La Débâcle. A short version of Crane's war novel was published in newspapers in 1894, and a complete version appeared the following year. His most popular work, and the classic American treatment of the Civil War, it interprets military experience through the perspective of an untried volunteer who receives his wound-badge while fleeing from a battle but eventually proves himself by fighting bravely. The book was so convincing that a Union colonel said he recalled serving with Crane at Antietam.

The epic sweep of the novel arises in part from Crane's ability to convey a common soldier's rite of passage from fear to confidence. It also arises from Crane's ability to blend a variety of literary modes, including irony, the mock-heroic, comedy, and the grotesque. Crane's strikingly original use of colors, partly inspired by Goethe and already on display in Maggie, became a trademark, as did his penchant for offbeat insights and arresting turns of phrase. The autumn 1895 publication of The Red Badge of Courage in the United States and England brought Crane international fame as the book went into fourteen printings within the year.

It is widely accepted that Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage, and other prose works, especially the major tales, strongly influenced other writers identified with realism, signifying concretely rendered, vividly detailed representations of everyday life. These writers include, among direct contemporaries, Frank Norris, Willa Cather, and Joseph Conrad and, among successors, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, John Dos Passos, Andrew Lytle, and perhaps most notably, Ernest Hemingway.

In 1895 Crane traveled in the West and Mexico. In Nebraska he described the harsh conditions of the plains later used in "The Blue Hotel," "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," and other Western tales. From her meeting with the young reporter, Willa Cather recalled Crane's observation that in the first place he wrote "the matter that pleased himself" and secondarily "any sort of stuff that would sell." Crane's experiences in Mexico resulted in "The Five White Mice," an underrated tale of American expatriates.

The same year saw the publication of his first book of poems, Black Riders and Other Lines. Crane thought highly of his "lines," including those contained in the later collection War Is Kind (1899). He thought they best expressed his leading ideas about life as a whole, in contrast with The Red Badge of Courage, which he termed "a mere episode." Variously received at first, the poems deploy, with a surprising degree of technical resourcefulness, perspectives that shift with whatever narrative, expository, or lyric locus Crane chose to adopt at a given time; they resemble his mature writings in prose.

In 1895 Crane was attracted by an Ohio girl, Nellie Crouse, whom he idealized but who rejected him. During October he composed The Third Violet, a romance about an aspiring young artist and his passion for a New York heiress. Like Active Service (1899), a lengthier exercise in the same general mode but transported to exotic locales, this was "any sort of stuff that would sell."

The following year Crane published a revised version of Maggie, The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War, George's Mother, and a serialized The Third Violet. The Little Regiment is a moderately successful attempt to wrest another major work from the same kinds of materials that informed The Red Badge of Courage. George's Mother comes closer to being a genuine sequel. It returns to the scene of Maggie to trace the disintegration of the urban nuclear family and the decline of social solidarity and sense of fraternity that remained among Crane's most cherished values.

A run-in with the New York police and their commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), marked 1896 as a year of notoriety and tribulation. When two women were arrested for an act of soliciting of which he knew them to be innocent, Crane testified in a well-publicized court against the police charges. Perhaps because of his involvement in the seamier side of New York, Crane emerged from the episode, despite conduct bordering on the chivalric, as something of a notorious character.

Crane tended to repeat the pattern (first emphasized by John Berryman) of rescuing the fallen female when he became involved with another woman of "doubtful" reputation, Cora Taylor, a twice-married woman five years his elder, who became, for practical purposes, Mrs. Stephen Crane. He met Taylor, operator of a Jacksonville, Florida, house of assignation, while he waited to find passage on a ship involved in American filibustering, or gun-running, to Cuba. The two were soon in love, though Crane at the time was corresponding with a drama critic, Amy Leslie, with whom he had an affair.

For Crane the public highlight of 1897 was the January sinking of the Commodore, the filibustering ship he was finally able to board, and his ordeal at sea in an open lifeboat with three of the ship's crew. Crane wrote a gripping news dispatch describing the tragedy, but the event entered world literature in the form of the much-anthologized masterpiece "The Open Boat," a brooding, ironic study of the heroism of which ordinary persons are capable when confronted with life-or-death crises.

Crane's dispatches on the Greco-Turkish War supplied material for Active Service (1899), in which a New York editor flies to the rescue of a beautiful American girl stranded abroad, and for "Death and the Child," which depicts war from the perspective of a young Greek boy. Arriving in England in June 1897 Crane and Taylor took up residence in Oxted, Surrey. In October Crane was introduced to Joseph Conrad, who became a close friend. Other friends in England included Henry James (1843-1916), Harold Fredric, Ford Madox Ford, and H. G. Wells, all of whom at one time lived within some thirty miles of Crane.

Crane covered the Spanish-American War from April to November 1898 for the New York World and the New York Journal, producing some of the best news reporting ever written by an American war correspondent. Examples include "Regulars Get No Glory" and "The Red Badge of Courage Was His Wig-Wag Flag." When he returned to New York to enlist in the navy after the sinking of the Maine, Crane was rejected as physically unfit.

Magazine readers could meanwhile peruse major stories such as "The Blue Hotel" and "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" and the short social novel The Monster, all of which appeared in periodical form in 1898. "The Blue Hotel" is to "The Open Boat" as a nightmare is to a dream. One of the most difficult of Crane's stories, its depiction of gratuitous violence suggests the fragility of human existence in a bleak natural world. "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" delineates the impact on a Western town of its sheriff's marriage to a "lady" who represents the advent of a new West in which civil behavior will be the order of the day as the old Wild West fades into oblivion. In Cuba Crane covered the landing of U.S. marines at Guantanamo and the famous charge up San Juan Hill. In one of his best stories from the Cuban-American conflict, "A Mystery of Heroism," a soldier reminiscent of the Little Man risks his life to bring water to a fallen officer who dies before the soldier reaches him, after which two larking lieutenants spill the contents of the bucket. Before writing the story Crane himself risked death by delivering water to thirsty U.S. troops under siege. His surprise meeting with a gravely wounded former schoolmate found its way into the moving sketch "War Memories."

Settling in at Brede Place, Sussex, Crane and Taylor lived a lavish social life that they could not begin to afford. As a consequence Crane struggled to write himself out of debt, producing in 1899 such potboilers as Active Service and Battles of the World, but also a collection of poems, War Is Kind, which was published in May. The Monster and Other Stories appeared in December. The Monster explores, as do most of Crane's best tales, a community in crisis, here precipitated by a black servant whose death-defying heroism saves the son of the local doctor. When disfiguring injuries turn the man into the monster of the title, both the servant and the family are ostracized. Although Crane elsewhere succumbs to the ethnic and racial stereotypes of his age, The Monster is one of the most forceful fictional inquiries into racism in the United States.

In his brief career Crane demonstrated his belief that by adopting different perspectives on his experiences, and by registering concretely the impressions that persons, things, and events made on him, he would be (to quote from a letter) "unmistakable." That he did this so early and so consistently accounts to a large degree for his almost immediate success among his contemporaries and for the fact that his writings continue to appeal to the general reader as well as to the scholar.

Suffering from a tubercular infection apparently complicated by malaria contracted in Cuba, Crane lived to see the serialization of Whilomville Stories, in which he portrayed sentimentally, and mock-heroically, the vicissitudes of American childhood. He was transported to a sanitarium in Badenweiler, Germany, where, with Taylor at his side, he passed away. He was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, New Jersey. Obituaries were published in leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Tribune, World, and Journal; the Philistine; and the London Spectator. His Cuban experiences were published as Wounds in the Rain (1900). Great Battles of the World, partly written by Kate Lyon (Mrs. Harold Fredric), was published in 1901. An anthology, Last Words (1902), put together by Cora Taylor, contained early pieces as well as unpublished tales and sketches (two of which she completed herself). The Irish swashbuckler novel, The O'Ruddy, was completed by Robert Barr and appeared in 1903.

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Criticism Overview
Title David Halliburton: On Stephen Crane Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author David Halliburton Criticism Target Stephen Crane
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Aug 2013
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication American National Biography Online
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