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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Stephen Crane

With the publication of his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), when he was twenty-four years old, Stephen Crane became famous in the United States and England. Less than five years later he was dead of tuberculosis. In his brief life, however, he had published five novels, two volumes of poetry, and over three hundred sketches, reports, and short stories. His writings significantly enriched the subject matter of American literature, and his craftsmanship influenced both poetry and prose in the twentieth century.

Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, the fourteenth child of Jonathan Townley Crane, a Methodist minister, and Mary Helen Peck Crane, who was herself descended from a long line of Methodist clergy. The family moved frequently, and Crane's formal education included brief stays at Pennington Seminary, Lafayette College, Claverack College, and Syracuse University. At Claverack, a military school, he gained the rank of adjutant and may have had experiences that contributed to his later success in writing about war, the subject for which he became famous. In 1891 Crane left Syracuse to work as a journalist in New York City, where he lived in a community of struggling artists and medical students that he depicted, some years later, in his novel of manners, The Third Violet (1897). Most important, during this period he published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), a powerful portrayal of the blighted, poverty-stricken lives of the Bowery. Although few copies were sold, the book led to Crane's friendships with two of the leading figures in American literary realism, Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells, both of whom publicly praised the book.

Crane's interest in the powerful role of environment in shaping character and determining lives derived both from the ideas of Charles Darwin and from his work as a journalist. While still in his teens he had written articles for the Asbury Park, New Jersey, newspaper and worked as a part-time stringer for the New York Tribune. During his years in New York City he wrote many works about city life that reflected his interest in extreme environments. The sketches, "An Experiment in Misery" and "An Experiment in Luxury" (1894), in which he described living in a flophouse and in a millionaire's mansion, recorded the effects of these experiences on his own consciousness. As experiments in perception, they anticipated the subjective "new journalism" of the 1960s, such as Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night.

Crane's interest in environmental determinism links him to late-nineteenth-century naturalistic writers such as Frank Norris, Jack London, and Theodore Dreiser, but he avoids their often heavy factual documentation; instead, he usually defines his characters with sharply focused comments and vivid images. Such compression and imagery and an intense concern with color have led numerous critics to see in his writing a literary parallel to impressionist painting. Crane is comparable to both naturalists and impressionists in his desire to shock readers with new and often disturbing ideas and perceptions. For example, he rejected the conventionalities of small-town life that he had known as a child (about which he would write in Whilomville Stories, 1900) and the intense religious piety of his parents. He seems, when quite young, to have developed skepticism about "the lake of fire and other sideshows" of conventional Christianity.

In his poetry, collected in The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and War Is Kind (1900), he often aims rebukes at conventional piety while also revealing his preoccupation with questions that parallel the concerns of religion. Experimental in form, unconventional in rhyme, and brief often to the point of being cryptic, Crane's poems in some ways foreshadowed the vers libre of the early twentieth century and also bear resemblance to the koans of Zen Buddhist religious practice. When published, their brevity was comparable to that of Emily Dickinson's poems, but to a large degree they were unlike any poems written previously in the United States.

Crane's Civil War writings are imaginative reconstructions of events that took place before he was born. Historical writings and conversations with veterans contributed to his understanding of the war, but such sources do not fully explain his powerful rendering of the young recruit, Henry Fleming, and his consciousness in The Red Badge of Courage or equally powerful passages in "A Mystery of Heroism" (1895) and other works. The Civil War seems to have been an unusually provocative stimulus for Crane's imagination, enabling him to envision emotional and psychological struggles in nearly hallucinatory detail. For example, his intuition enabled him to be among the first writers to describe the effect of the modern bullet upon the soldier's perception of space in landscape.

Scholars have sometimes argued that Crane wrote best from his imagination and simply exhausted himself pursuing facts in the Bowery, the West, and the battlefields of Greece and Cuba. But Crane sought such experience. In 1895, in the first flush of success of The Red Badge of Courage, he traveled in the American West and in Mexico. Later he expressed a desire to go to Alaska and to the Transvaal to report on the Boers. In 1897 he tried to slip into Cuba to observe the guerrilla insurgency. Later that same year he traveled to Europe to report the Greco-Turkish war. The reports he wrote in these instances are uneven, but at their best they are vivid and thoughtful journalism. Most important, Crane drew upon these experiences for some of his most successful short stories, most notably "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898), "The Blue Hotel" (1898), and "Death and the Child" (1898). Although his strenuous travel adventures may have shortened his life, they also provided him with the material for some of his most probing fictions.

"The Open Boat" (1898), the story that many critics believe is Crane's best piece of work, is a remarkable fusion of his respect for the power of the external world and his intense concern with the mysterious inner world of emotions and fantasies. The story derives directly from his experience in a dinghy adrift at sea for thirty hours after the sinking of the Commodore, a steamship illegally bound for Cuba shortly before the Spanish-American War. In exploring the developing consciousness of the narrator, his growing awareness of nature, and his deepening relationships to other human beings, the story measures the vastness of human loneliness and defines a brotherhood of those who have encountered the sea. "The Open Boat" balances cosmic uncertainties with glimpses of human achievements in awareness, cooperation, and courage.

After his ordeal at sea, Crane was nursed back to health by Cora Taylor, the proprietor of a house of assignation in Jacksonville, Florida, whom he had met shortly before the ill-fated Commodore left port. They traveled together to Greece and then to England, where, early in 1898, they moved into an ancient manor house in Sussex, with the writers Henry James and Joseph Conrad for neighbors. Brede House was an extravagant distraction for Crane; nevertheless, during his period there he produced a substantial amount of work, including poems, stories, a novel (Active Service), and part of a historical romance (The O'Ruddy). Much of this work shows his continuing fascination with the behavior of individuals under the pressure of extreme situations.

Crane seems to have first learned he was tubercular when he tried to enlist in the army in 1897 to go to Cuba. It appears he did little to regain his health. When he became very ill in April 1900, Cora took him in desperation to a sanitorium in the Black Forest in Germany, where he died on June 5.

Donald Vanouse
State University of New York
(College at Oswego)

In the Heath Anthology
A Mystery of Heroism (1895)
The Open Boat (1897)
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (1898)
from The Black Riders and Other Lines
      God Lay Dead in Heaven (1895)
from Uncollected Poems
      Chant You Loud of Punishments (1929)
from War Is Kind
      Do Not Weep, Maiden, For War Is Kind (1896)
      The Impact of a Dollar Upon the Heart (1898)
      A Man Said to the Universe (1899)
      A Newspaper Is a Collection of Half-Injustices (1899)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
Image fileScratchy Wilson's Maroon Flannel Shirt

Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

Paper Topic: Communities of Men (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)


The Red Badge of Courage Site
Offers a summary of the early critical reception of the book.

Stephen Crane Papers (Columbia University)
Description of the collection, lists of correspondents and photographs, and other materials.

Stephen Crane Society Website
Links to Crane texts on the web, related sites, and secondary research materials.

The DMS Stephen Crane Page
University of Akron student project containing essays, photos, FAQs, and a biography.

Secondary Sources

Frank Bergon, Stephen Crane's Artistry, 1975

John Berryman, Stephen Crane, 1950, reissued, 1975

John Clendenning, "Stephen Crane and His Biographers: Beer, Berryman, Schoberlin, and Stallman," American Literary Realism 28.1 (1995):23-57

Linda Davis, Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, 1998

Patrick K. Dooley, Stephen Crane: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Scholarship, 1992

Thomas A. Gullason, ed., Stephen Crane's Career: Perspectives and Evaluations, 1972

David Hallliburton, The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane, 1989

Daniel Hoffman, The Poetry of Stephen Crane, 1957

Milne Holton, Cylinder of Vision: The Fiction and Journalistic Writing of Stephen Crane, 1972

Joseph Katz, ed., Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays, 1972

Marsden LaFrance, A Reading of Stephen Crane, 1971

James Nagel, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, 1980

Michael Robertson, Stephen Crane Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature, 1997

R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Critical Bibliography, 1972

Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane, 1994

Chester L. Wolford, Stephen Crane: A Study of the Short Fiction, 1989