Stephen Crane



Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey. He was the fourteenth and youngest child of a poor clergyman. When Stephen was not yet ten years old, his father died and the family moved to New York where an older son was in charge of a news bureau for New York and Philadelphia newspapers. A few years later this elder brother gave Stephen his first news-reporting job, scouting for vacation news at a small sea-side town. But his apprenticeship did not last long. Once when the elder brother had to leave town, young Stephen took entire charge of the work. Amang the incidents of that week was a parade of mechanics, in connection with a State holiday, which Stephen had witnessed. He reported the parade in a way to suggest comparison between the parading poor workmen and the fashionable crowd who watched them, whom the writer called idlers. The feature-story appeared in the New York Tribune the owner of which was then running for vice-president in the elections. His political enemies, offended by the story, discredited him with the result that his opponent won the elections. Of course, Stephen's brother who was considered responsible for the story was im­mediately discharged.

Crane had meanwhile attended two private schools. His interests at the time centred chiefly on poetry and on baseball. He would have continued these pursuits at the university but could not afford to go on with his education for want of money: after a term each at the college of Lafayette and Syracuse University he brought his student days to an end in 1891.

Crane was a born writer and naturally turned to newspaper work as a means of earning a living. It was Crane's nature to be experimental. He had a keen sense of the dramatic. His mind instantly caught the absurd or ridiculous aspect of any incident and he would draw out an account of it in his own entertaining fashion. But editors did not like news stories in which the reporters' impressions dominated over the facts, and he had to give up newspaper work. Now and then he wrote stories which were sometimes accepted by various papers. Crane was very independent, in financial as well as in intellectual matters. He refused to take financial help from friends and relatives. As to his writings he was spoken of as a writer of the "pioneer type". He also wrote free verse. In protest against conventions he wrote the following poem:

"Think as I think," said a man,

"Or you are abominably wicked,

You are a toad."

And after I had thought of it,

I said: "I will then be a toad."

For several years Crane lived in the poorest section of New York and in cities in New Jersey. He suffered extreme poverty. He saw the destitution in the slums. It was perhaps at this time that he wrote:

A man said to the universe:

"Sir, I exist!"

"However," replied the universe,

"The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation."

The general spirit of the nineties, as pointed out in the introduction to this chapter, was that of unrest and alarm, which increased after the turn of the century. The best writers of the time turned to the subject of war as did H. G. Wells in England. Writers felt that under imperialism war would inevitably be a constant threat. Crane's mood of works, even his poetry, protested against war. In rare cases, however, he allowed himself to write lyrical poems.

Here is a lyrical poem from the collection of posthumously published poems. Note the beautiful rhythm of his unrhymed lines; it is a pity that the poem remained unfinished:

A lad and a maid at a curve in the stream

And a shine of soft silken waters,

Where the moon-beams fall through a hemlock's boughs

Oh, night dismal, night glorious.

A lad and a maid at the rail of a bridge

With two shadows adrift on the water

And the wind sings low in the grass on the shore

Oh, night dismal, night glorious.

A lad and a maid in a canoe,

With a paddle making silver turmoil...

Crane viewed the existing order of things with distaste and pessimism. His first novel written in New York was "Maggie: a Girl of the Streets". It was an innovation in American literature. The book gives a terrifying picture of the brutality and degradation in the New York slums, and this was unique at the time. It is about the tragedy of a girl brought to despair and suicide by the awful environment in which she lives. Crane produced a masterful impression of helplessness in his story. As did the naturalists, he intentionally avoided interpretive comment. The novel was an attack on everything that was considered respectable in American literature. No publisher would accept the novel. Finally Crane borrowed enough money to print it himself under another name.

The book failed. The general public were scandalized but it won the admiration of professional contemporary writers.

His next book was his masterpiece "The Red Badge of Courage", a tale about the Civil War, which brought him fame. The book was in­spired by Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and "Sebastopol". It was remarkable that Crane, who had never seen a battle, was able to describe warfare so realistically. His biographer said that when Crane himself, years later, had actually smelled the smoke of guns and seen men and horses dying on the ground, he found that "The Red Badge of Courage" was "ail right."

In 1896 Stephen Crane was sent by an American newspaper to Florida as a special correspondent. The United States was preparing, for the Spanish-American War. He sailed for Cuba in a brig, the Commodore, which suffered shipwreck, Crane was one of four survivors, but as a result of exposure he fell ill with pneumonia which turned into tuberculosis, from which he never recovered, and eventually caused his death. He did not reach Cuba this time, but he described his adventure in a wonderful work of literature, "The Open Boat". The following year he set out for Greece to report that country's war with Turkey for English and American periodicals. After a short stay in England, where he made friends with the writers Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells, he went to Cuba again as a correspondent during the Spanish-American War. It was reported of him that he distinguished himself by showing "gallantry under fire."

In 1899 his health gave way and the end approached rapidly. His wife took him to Germany where he died at a German health resort in the summer of 1900. He was not yet thirty.


From the very beginning of his literary career Crane broke away from the then existing neo-romantic trend. He hated insincerity in art and the literary poseur. Tolstoy was his favourite writer. Crane himself said: "I decided that the nearer a writer gets to life thegreater he becomes as an artist, and most of my prose writings have been towards that goal partially described by that misunderstood and abused word, realism. Tolstoy is the writer 1 admire most of all."

Crane proved this principle in his war books. Edwin Markham1 said that in his novel "The Red Badge of Courage" Crane had "ripped away the gilt and glitter that had so long curtained the horror of war, and with a stern realism pictured for us the bloody grime of it all". Readers really saw the common soldier in battle. They understood that the truth had never been told before.

The story is about a young recruit Henry Fleming, son of a farmer, who, in spite of his mother's protests, volunteers for the Northern forces. At the front he is bewildered by the confusion: he can't understand what is happening and regrets he ever left home. He tells himself that he was not made to be a soldier. When fighting begins, he feels he is the only target of the enemy; he is overcome by fear and runs away from the battle-field. This episode in the book gives the psychology of the young soldier,. -Crane shows the conflict of his pride and the instinct of self-preservation —"the fear of fear". He is afraid he will be despised as a deserter. He sees the mutilated corpses of dead soldiers, and is horrified. The glittering "glory" of war that he had always heard about fades. He is torn by conflicting emotions: a growing feeling of protest against the horrors he has witnessed, fear of the contempt of his fellow-soldiers and a desire to show that he too is brave. His mental turmoil increases when he finds himself among badly wounded men headed for the rear. He goes away from them sick at heart over what he has seen. Suddenly he hears the sounds of battle again and although terrified, is drawn irresistibly in the direction of the roar of cannons. Soon he sees rushing towards him panic-stricken soldiers retreating from the field of battle. He wants to cry out, to say something but the only words that come are:" Why — why — what — what's the matter?" The boy keeps repeating" Why —why—“ until a soldier that he tries to stop swings his rifle and hits him a crashing blow on the head. In terrible pain, weak from the loss of blood, he drags himself to his feet and staggers away. He thinks of his home, his mother, his childhood. Finally he finds himself back in his unit, he tells the men that he was shot in the head during the fighting, and they believe him, are kind to him and dress his wound. He stays with his regiment; more battles take place and he takes part in the fighting and is even praised by his superiors for courage in battle. At the end of the book Crane says that the boy becomes a man: "He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past." But he does not think of battles and courage and patriotism. He discovers that he now despises that "brass and bombast" of the glorification of war in newspapers. His mind is filled with "images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks — an existence of soft and eternal peace".

To show his attitude to war and to carry his emotional message to the reader, Crane used colour in his novel in much the same way as the painters of the impressionist school. Crane sees the colour red as a symbol for blood, cruelty, and war. This is how he put it in words: "The red eye-like gleam of hostile camp-fires" seen from across "the sorrowful blackness" of the river at night; he had regarded battles as "crimson blotches on the pages of the past"; before the battle "they were going to look at war, the red animal — war, the blood swollen god"; in a lull after a battle that costs many lives "thered animal —war, the blood swollen god" is "bloated" to the full; gun-fire is a "crimson roar"; the wound of the soldier, thered badge", and the angry irony of the title itself —"The Red Badge of Courage".

Crane's psychological study of the soldier in war was suggested by Tolstoy. Crane inherited from Tolstoy the great writer's dislike for theatrical heroism. He deliberately avoids heroics, and yet never leaves the reader in doubt as to the existence of the heroic.

Crane's experience as a reporter in the Graeco-Turkish and in the Spanish-American War gave him valuable material for his stories. He wrote several collections of stories: "The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure" (1898) and "Wounds in the Rain' (1900), and two collections of poems: "The Black Riders" and" War Is Kind". The latter title is used ironically. In those poems we hear the roar of cannon, we see charging men, wounds and death. Here is part of the first poem; the poems of each collection follow one after another without a title.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,

Little souls that thirst for fight,

These men were born to drill and die.

The unexplained glory flies above them,

Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom —

A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Hemingway considered Stephen Crane one cu his best teachers. It was from him that Hemingway took his concise style of writing. But Hemingway understood the causes of war, while Crane merely cried out against the cruelty and horror of war. Nevertheless Crane's vivid realistic description of the meaningless inhuman brutality of an imperialist war gives him a lasting place in realistic literature in America.