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Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

 

American author, whose unromanticized war novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), brought him international fame. Crane's first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was a milestone in the development of literary naturalism. At its appearance in 1893 Crane was just twenty-one. His manuscript was turned down by the publishers, who considered its realism too "ugly". Crane had to print the book at his own expense, borrowing the money from his brother. In its inscription Crane warned that "it is inevitable that you be greatly shocked by this book but continue, please, with all possible courage to the end." The story of the descent of a slum girl in turn-of-the-century New York into prostitution was first published under the pseudonym of Johnston Smith. Maggie was generally ignored by readers but it won the admiration of other realist writers.

"In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels." (from Maggie)

Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, the 14th child of a Methodist minister Jonathan Townley Crane and his wife Mary Helen Peck Crane. Crane began to write stories at the age of eight; also both of his parents did some writing and two of his brothers became newspapermen. Crane's mother was active in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, and published fiction. Reverend Dr. Crane, an advocate of temperance, published The Arts of Intoxication: The Aim and the Results, a condemnation of alcohol. Crane's first article, on the explorer Henry M. Stanley, appeared in 1890 in Villette.

Crane studied at Lafayette College and Syracuse University. After his mother's death in 1890 - his father had died earlier - Crane moved to New York. He worked as a free-lance writer and journalist for the Bachellor-Johnson newspaper syndicate. While supporting himself by his pen, he lived among the poor in the Bowery slums to research his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. In England the subtitle was changed to 'A Child of the Streets. 'Maggie' was a common slang term for a female prostitute; in French the word is 'grue', which also means 'crane'. Possibly Crane had read Jacob A. Riis's books How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York (1890) and The Children of the Poor (1892), studies of the conditions of slum life. In the novellette George's Mother (1896), originally entitled A Woman Without Weapons, Crane returned to the city life, especially to the lot of the idlers. Maggie Johnson also made a brief appearance as the dream girl of one of the characters. Crane's faithfulness to accuracy of details led him once to dress up as a tramp and spend the night in a flophouse. This produced the sketch 'Experiment in Misery' in 1894. Crane's pioneering novel inspired other writers, such as Hutchins Hapgood (1869-1944), to examine the Lower East Side.

Crane's The Red Badge of Courage depicted the American Civil War from the point of view of an ordinary soldier. In England readers believed that the book was written by a veteran soldier - the text was so believable. Crane dismissed this theory by saying that he got his ideas from the football field. The central character is Henry Fleming, who enrolls as a soldier in the Union army. He has dreamed of battles and glory all his life, but his expectations are shattered in his encounter with the enemy. Witnessing the chaos on the battle field, he starts to fear that the regiment was leaving him behind, and flees from the battle. "Since he had turned his back upon the fight his fears had been wondrously magnified. Death about to thrust him between the shoulder blades was far more dreadful than death about to smite him between the eyes. When he thought of it later, he conceived the impression that it is better to view the appalling than to be merely within hearing. The noises of the battle were like stones; he believed himself liable to be crushed."

Henry wanders into a thick wood, and meets a group of wounded men. He tries to help a tall soldier, who dies, and leaves a tattered soldier on a field. He returns to the lines and a deserter hits him with a gun. Henry gets a head wound. Marked now by the "red badge" he falls asleep with his comrades in the evening Next day he feels sore and stiff from his experiences, but in his hatred starts to shoot blindly at the enemy. "Some of the men muttered and looked, awe struck, at the youth. It was plain that as he had gone on loading and firing and cursing without the proper intermission, they had found time to regard him. And they now looked upon him as a war devil." In the heat of the battle, he picks up the regiment's flag with his friend when it falls from the color sergeant's hands. An officer, who has called him and the other soldiers "mule drivers", calls them again "a lot of mud diggers". Henry wants to die in the battle to prove the officer is wrong. He tries to seize the enemy flag, but his friend is faster and wrenches it free from the hands of the dying color bearer. He is filled with guilt when he remembers the tattered soldier whom he had deserted. "Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks - an existence of soft and eternal peace." The Red Badge of Courage has been called the first modern war novel, but it also borrows from the conventions of a bildungsroman: after the final battle, Henry has matured, and he understands better his personal strengths and weaknesses. Later Crane portayed his hero in the story 'The Veteran' (1896), in which Henry Fleming, eventually promoted to orderly sergeant, recount his battle experiences to his grandson and dies while attempting to rescue colts from his burning barn.

Crane's collection of poems, The Black Rider (1895), has much in common with Emily Dickinson's simple, stripped style. Crane's rising fame brought him better reporting assignments and he sought experiences as a war correspondent in combat areas. Crane travelled to Greece, Cuba, Texas and Mexico, reporting mostly on war events. Active Service (1899) was based on the Greco-Turkish War.

The short story, 'The Open Boat,' is based on a true experience, when his ship, a coal-burning tug heavy with ammunition and machetes, sank on the journey to Cuba in 1896. With a small party of other passengers, Crane spent several days drifting in a dinghy off the coast of Florida before being rescued. This experience impaired his health permanently. In the story, originally published in Scribner's Magazine in June 1897, Crane focused on four men, who eventually decide to swim for shore.

--When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.
--Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot at he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: 'Yes, but I love myself.'

(from 'The Open Boat')

In Greece Crane wrote about the Greco-Turkish War, settling in 1898 in Sussex, England, where he lived with the author Cora Taylor, who was the proprietress of the Hotel de Dream, a well-known Jacksonville sporting house. In England Crane became friends with Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, and Henry James. During this period Crane wrote some of his best stories, including 'The Monster,' 'The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,' and 'The Blue Hotel' (1898), Crane's much anthologized short story, which was first published serially in Collier's Weekly. Swede, a nervous New Yorker, fascinated by tales of the Wild West, enters Pat Scully's hotel in Fort Romper, Nebraska; the hotel is a haven of rest in a blizzard. Swede meets Mr. Blanc from the East, and a reserved cowboy. He drinks heavily and beats Scully's son, Johnnie, after accusing him of cheating at cards. When the Swede attacks another hotel customer, he is stabbed and killed. Several months later Mr. Blanc, feeling responsible for the death, confesses that Johnnie indeed cheated. In a letter from 1898 Conrad wrote to Crane: "You have the terseness, the clear eye the easy imagination. You have all - and I have only the accursed faculty of dreaming. My ideas fade - Yours come out sharp cut as cameos - they come all living out of Your brain and bring images - and bring light." Like Emile Zola (1840-1902) in France, Crane used realism - or naturalism - as a method of exposing social ills, as in The George's Mother, which explored life in the Bowery. Crane himself did not much like Zola. 

In 1898 Crane returned to Cuba, to cover the Spanish-American War for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. He was involved in combat, covered the landings at Guantánamo, the advance of Rough Riders, and the Battle of San Juan Hill. According to Crane, the dismounted Rough Riders "marched noisily through the narrow road in the woods, talking volubly", and were then ambushed, suffering heavy losses. Crane concluded that "It was simply a gallant blunder." In Havanna Crane completed most of the Cuban War stories, but did not tell his family or Cora where he was. Due to poor health he was obliged to return to England. There he rented with Cora a cold and wet 14th-century Sussex estate, called Brede Place. Crane died on June 5, 1900, at Badenweiler in Germany of tuberculosis, that was worsened by malarial fever he had caught in Cuba. He was 28 - his career has lasted only eight years. Crane's posthumous publications include the sketches and stories from his life as a correspondent in Wounds in the Rain (1900) and Whilomville Stories (1900), depicting a childhood in a small state. After Crane's death his work was neglected for many years until such writers as Amy Lowell and Willa Cather brought it again to public attention. Although Crane introduced realism into American literature, his use of symbolism also gave his work a romantic quality.

For further reading: Stephen Crane by Thomas Beer (1923); Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography by John Berryman (1950); Stephen Crane by Robert W. Stallman (1968); Stephen Crane by Edwin Harrison Cady (1980); Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane by Michael Fried (1988); Red Badge of Courage: Redefining the Hero by Donald B. Gibson (1988); The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871-1900 by Stanley Wertheim, Paul Sorrentino (1994); The Pluralistic Philosophy of Stephen Crane by Patrick K. Dooley (1994); Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature by Michael Robertson (1997); Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane by Linda H. Davis (1998); Readings on Stephen Crane, ed. by Bonnie Szumski (1998); Understanding The Red Badge of Courage by Claudia D. Johnson (1998); On the Cusp: Stephen Crane, George Bellows, and Modernism by John Fagg (2009); Writer in Motion: The Major Fiction of Stephen Crane: Collected Critical Essays, ed. by Donald Pizer (2012) - American Civil War in fiction: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians by Ambroce Bierce (1891); The Red Bandge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895); Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936); The Unvanisquished by William Faulkner (1938); The History of Rome, Hanks and Kindred Matters by Joseph Stanley Pennell (1944); When the War is Over by Stephen Becker (1970); Roots by Alex Haley (1976); Shiloh by Shelby Foote (1976); Marching Home by Donald Honing (1980); Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganis (1989)

Selected works:

  • Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893
    - Maggie, katujen tyttö (suom. Auli Tarkka, 1964)
  • The Red Badge of Courage, 1895 (restored ed. 1982)
    - Punainen kunniamerkki (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1956)
    - films: 1951, written and directed by John Huston, starring Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Douglas Dick - the story of the production of the movie is told in Lillian Ross's book Picture (1952); television film in 1974, prod. 20th Century Fox Television, dir. by Lee Philips, starring Richard Thomas, Michael Brandon, Wendell Burton, Charles Aidman, Warren Berlinger; Tobruk, 2008, prod. Silver Screen, dir. by Václav Marhoul, starring Jan Meduna, Petr Vanek, Robert Nebrenský, Krystof Rímský
  • The Black Riders and Other Lines, 1895
  • George's Mother, 1896
  • The Blue Hotel, 1896
    - Sininen hotelli (suom. Anssi Hynynen, 2005)
    - films: Das blaue Hotel, TV film 1973, prod. Saarländischer Rundfunk (SR), dir. by Stanislav Barabas, starring Per Oscarsson, Hans Christian Blech, Martin Lüttge, Arthur Brauss; TV film 1977, prod. Learning in Focus, dir. by Ján Kadár, starring David Warner, Rex Everhart, James Keach, John Bottoms; TV film 1997, dir. by Andrew George, starring Per Bristow, Chad Killian, Michael Robert Nyman, Nicky O'Brien
  •  The Little Regiment and Other Episodes from the American Civil War, 1896
  • The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, 1896
    - film: Face to Face, 1952, based on the story 'The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky', prod. Theasquare Productions, dir. by John Brahm, Bretaigne Windust, starring James Mason, Gene Lockhart, Michael Pate, Albert Sharpe
  • The Third Violet, 1897
  • The Open Boat, 1898
  • Active Service, 1899
  • The Monster and Other Stories, 1899
    - film: Face of Fire, 1959, prod. Allied Artists Pictures, dir. by Albert Band, screenplay based on the short story 'The Monster', starring Cameron Mitchell, James Whitmore, Bettye Ackerman, Royal Dano
  • War is Kind, 1899
  • Wounds in the Rain, 1900
  • Whilomville Stories, 1900
  • The O'Ruddy, 1903 (with Robert Barr)
  • Men, Women, and Boats, 1921 (ed. Vincent Starrett)
  • The Works of Stephen Crane, 1925-26 (12 vols., ed. Wilson Follett)
  • Letters, 1960 (eds. R.W. Stallman and Lilian Gilkes)
  • The Works of Stephen Crane, 1969-1975 (10 vols., ed. Fredson Bowers)
  • The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, 1988 (2 vols., ed. Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino)
  • Sullivan County Tales and Sketches, 1995 (edited and with an introduction by R.W. Stallman; new preface by John Conway)
  • Maggie, a Girl of the Streets and Selected Stories, 2006 (edited and with an introduction by Alfred Kazin; and with a new afterword by Tom Wolfe)


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