Authors: Stephen Crane

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist, short story writer, and poet.

November 1, 1871

Newark, New Jersey

June 5, 1900

Badenweiler, Germany


Born in Newark in 1871, Stephen Crane was the fourteenth child in the ministerial household of the Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane and his wife Mary, an active participant in the New Jersey temperance movement. His father’s frequent moves to pastorates in New Jersey and New York gave the youngest Crane an opportunity to grow up in a variety of environments. As a boy he shocked his family by announcing his disbelief in hell, a protest against the apparent futility of his father’s devoted service to Methodism. Ideals with which the Reverend Crane sternly allied himself did not correspond to life as his son came to know it. Stephen later wrote of his father, who died in 1880, "He was so simple and good that I often think he didn’t know much of anything about humanity." Although physically frail, Stephen Crane was essentially an outdoorsman. At Lafayette College (1889–1890) and at Syracuse University (1890–1891) he distinguished himself in boxing and as a shortstop on the varsity team, though he never earned a degree. Years later, Joseph Conrad paid tribute to him as a good shot and a fine horseman. Crane was never formally well educated, and his real education sprang from a keen ability to observe and learn from his surroundings.

Stephen Crane

(Library of Congress)

In the fall of 1891, Crane decided to write rather than return to college. He moved to New York City, where he lived a precarious five years as a freelance newspaper writer. While a fledgling reporter for the New York Tribune, he studied the intimate nature of New York’s Lower East Side, sleeping in Bowery shelters to learn of slum life firsthand. No one escaped his keen observation: beggars, vagrants, drunkards, prostitutes. However, Crane’s news reports often contained more fiction than fact, so the Tribune fired him in 1892.

Crane’s mother died on December 7, 1891, and Crane claims to have written his first novel that month "in the two days before Christmas." The characters were nameless and the book untitled, so his brother William suggested the title Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. The work was not a "respectable" book, and when no publisher would take it, Crane paid to have eleven hundred copies printed in early 1893 under the pseudonym Johnston Smith. Few copies of the book were sold, but Crane gave away many to friends and other writers. Impressed by Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Hamlin Garland became the first established writer to show faith in Crane’s talent. William Dean Howells also saw merit in the novel, but the book did not receive much attention. It was not until 1896, after the success of The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, that the book was reissued under its author’s name. In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane had discovered the slum as literary material; thus naturalism entered American letters, and from that obscure beginning his feeling for dialect and his knowledge of American life fastened his fiction in reality. In contrast to the light romances of its period, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets proclaimed a world without virtue. Because Crane’s outlook was cynical, he was not disposed to cry the cause of his heroine, Maggie Johnson, nor to expect a reform of the environment which spawned her. Maggie never evokes pity; instead, she resembles a figure in a Greek drama whose fate is sealed before the play begins.

Through his reading and endless conversations with Civil War veterans, Crane had grown up intrigued by war. In 1893 he began writing the first American novel to describe not only what a soldier did but also how he felt. When The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War first appeared in installment form in The Philadelphia Press, December 3–8, 1894, Crane received less than one hundred dollars. Publication in book form was delayed until October 3, 1895, because Crane was traveling in the West, the Southwest, and Mexico. The book established Crane as a major novelist, but success and fame never brought him wealth.

The novel depicted a youth confused and battered about by war, as Crane had been by life. Written about an individual soldier, a minor player in the great drama of the Civil War, the book appealed to the American mind. Crane, always eager for new sensations and with a seeming personal delight in danger, wrote of war as he imagined it. In the tense and telegraphic manner peculiar to him, he flashed a series of individual pictures of war, each heightened by color images reflecting the psychological horror of the event. The character Henry Fleming’s fear was one which Crane himself felt.

Crane’s characters do not fashion their worlds. Things happen to them, and under stress they react as the event dictates. The author feels no sentimental concern for Maggie or Henry; they mirror the brutal forces of their environments and are not distinct personalities. Maggie’s mind is not entered by the novelist, but it seems certain that she will be battered to death by an environment which she is powerless to escape. Henry’s mind is entered, and in entering it the author unlocks the thoughts and emotions of humankind at war.

During the incident which provided material for "The Open Boat," Crane was shipwrecked off the coast of Florida while serving with a Cuban filibustering expedition in 1896. In Jacksonville, Florida, he met Cora Taylor, a married (though estranged from her husband) woman six years older than he who had worked as a prostitute and managed a less-than-respectable hotel in Jacksonville. Although they were never legally married, Taylor followed Crane as he covered the Greco-Turkish War for The New York Journal and remained with him until his death.

Notoriety arising from false reports that Crane was addicted to liquor and morphine may have influenced his decision to establish residence in England. Having developed strong friendships with Joseph Conrad and Henry James, he remained in England except for a brief return to cover the Spanish-American War for The World. While in Cuba, Crane met Frank Norris. Crane was brave if not foolhardy under fire, and the fatigue of battle further broke his health. Conrad, perhaps Crane’s most intimate friend, was displeased to witness at Brede Place, Sussex, shortly before Crane’s death, an unhappy talent lost in a maze of hack work.

On assignment as a special writer for the London Morning Post, Crane collapsed, ill from the tuberculosis which caused his death in Badenweiler, Germany, on June 5, 1900, after a futile trip to the Black Forest in search of a cure. His body was returned to his family plot in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

A trailblazer of unquestioned sincerity, Crane felt and knew that what he wrote contained the essence of truth. Portraying a universe without meaning or order, he sensed only that his task was to point out the cutting irony of circumstances and to probe the fate of his experimental men and women as they reacted to the intensely cruel pressures of a meaningless yet always victorious circumstance.

Author Works Long Fiction: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893 The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, 1895 George’s Mother, 1896 The Third Violet, 1897 Active Service, 1899 The Monster, 1898 (serial), 1899 (novella; pb. in The Monster, and Other Stories) The O’Ruddy: A Romance, 1903 (with Robert Barr) Short Fiction: The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War, 1896 The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure, 1898 The Monster, and Other Stories, 1899 Whilomville Stories, 1900 Wounds in the Rain: War Stories, 1900 Last Words, 1902 The Sullivan County Sketches of Stephen Crane, 1892 (serial), 1949 Poetry: The Black Riders, and Other Lines, 1895 A Souvenir and a Medley, 1896 War Is Kind, 1899 The University Press of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, 1970 (Volume 10) Drama: The Blood of the Martyr, wr. 1898?, pb. 1940 The Ghost, pr. 1899 (with Henry James) Nonfiction: The Great Battles of the World, 1901 A Battle in Greece, 1936 Bibliography Benfey, Christopher E. G. The Double Life of Stephen Crane. New York: Knopf, 1992. A narrative of Crane’s life and literary work that argues that the writer attempted to live the life his works portrayed. Includes bibliography and index. Berryman, John. Stephen Crane. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950. This combined biography and interpretation has been superseded as a biography, but it continues to be an absorbing Freudian reading of Crane’s life and work. Berryman, himself a major American poet, eloquently explains the patterns of family conflict that appear in Crane’s fiction. Furthermore, Berryman’s wide-ranging interests allow him to tackle such large topics as Crane’s influence on the birth of the short story, a form which, though existing earlier, came to prominence only in the 1890s. Includes notes and index. Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. Cooper Square, 2001. A reissue of the first major biography of the author. Still valuable for its detail and insight. Bruccoli, Matthew J. Stephen Crane, 1871-1971. Columbia: Department of English, University of South Carolina, 1971. Extremely valuable bibliography, although not easily accessible. Cady, Edwin H. Stephen Crane. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1980. An excellent introductory, chronological account of Crane’s career, with chapters on his biography, his early writing, The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, notes, a chronology, an updated bibliographical essay, and an index. Colvert, James B. Stephen Crane. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. This biography, aimed specifically at the nonspecialist, is highly readable and is enhanced by numerous illustrations. Its bibliography is limited but well selected. The author’s research is impeccable. Colvert, James B. "Stephen Crane and Postmodern Theory." American Literary Realism 28 (Fall, 1995): 4–22. A survey of postmodern approaches to Crane’s fiction. Summarizes the basic premises of postmodern interpretation, examining how these premises have been applied to such Crane stories as "The Open Boat," "The Upturned Face," and "Maggie"; balances such interpretive strategies against critics who affirm more traditional, humanistic approaches. Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. This biography of Crane depicts him as a perpetual adolescent who was very much an enigma. Gibson, Donald B. The Fiction of Stephen Crane. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. This study, although badly dated, is valuable in suggesting the sources of much of Crane’s fiction and in establishing some of Crane’s literary relationships. Gullason, Thomas A., ed. Stephen Crane’s Career: Perspectives and Evaluations. New York: New York University Press, 1972. The contributors to this book consider Crane in the light of his times and his background. They trace sources of his stories, review Crane research, consider Crane’s short fiction quite thoroughly, and present some of Cora Stewart’s original writing. Halliburton, David. The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Though somewhat thematically disorganized, the author’s philosophical grounding and ability to look at Crane’s works from unusual angles make for many provocative readings. In his discussion of "The Blue Hotel," for example, he finds much more aggression directed against the Swede than may at first appear, coming not only from seemingly benign characters but also from the layout of the town. Notes, index. Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding "The Red Badge of Courage": A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An excellent accompaniment to the novel. Essential for students. Katz, Joseph, ed. Stephen Crane in Transition: Centenary Essays. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1972. The nine essays in this centenary edition that commemorates Crane’s birth consider the novels, the stories, Crane’s journalistic career, his literary style, and his radical use of language. The introduction is astute, and the afterword gives a fine overview of resources for study. Knapp, Bettina L. Stephen Crane. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. A succinct introduction to Crane’s life and career, with a separate chapter on his biography, several chapters on his fiction, and an extensive discussion of two poetry collections, The Black Riders and Other Lines, and War Is Kind. Includes a detailed chronology, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an index. Metress, Christopher. "From Indifference to Anxiety: Knowledge and the Reader in ‘The Open Boat.’" Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Winter, 1991): 47-53. Shows how the structure of "The Open Boat" (made up of four key moments) creates an epistemological dilemma for readers, moving them from a position of indifference to a state of epistemological anxiety. By suggesting that the survivors have become interpreters, Crane implies that we must get rid of indifference to the difficulty of gaining knowledge and embrace the inevitable anxiety of that failure. Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. A demonstration of the ironic role of temperance propaganda, in which Crane was emersed as a child, in the imagery and language of his darkest work. Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980. Nagel carefully delineates what he considers Crane’s application of impressionist concepts of painting to fiction, which involved Crane’s "awareness that the apprehension of reality is limited to empirical data interpreted by a single human intelligence." This led the writer to a stress on the flawed visions of men and women and a depiction of the dangers of this natural one-sidedness in works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, as well as depictions of characters who transcended this weakness through an acceptance of human inadequacies in such works as "The Open Boat." Notes, index. Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane: Journalism and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Argues that Crane’s success inspired later journalists to think of their work as preparatory for writing fiction; claims the blurring of fact and fiction in newspapers during Crane’s life suited his own narrative experiments. Solomon, Eric. Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. A penetrating study that shows Stephen Crane’s remarkably swift development as a writer who found his metier in realism despite his sallies into naturalism and impressionism. Sorrentino, Paul, ed. Stephen Crane Remembered. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2006. A more recent complementary volume to Stallman’s still valuable biography of Crane. Sorrentino brings together nearly one hundred documents from acquaintances of the novelist and poet for a somewhat more revealing look at Crane than has heretofore been available. Stallman, Robert W. Stephen Crane: A Critical Bibliography. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1972. This book is now somewhat dated; it is still useful to scholars, however, and is more easily available generally than Matthew J. Bruccoli’s splendid bibliography, which was completed the year before Stallman’s. Weatherford, Richard M., ed. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Divided into sections which provide contemporary British and American reviews of Crane’s work as it was published. Similarly, the introduction charts Crane’s career in terms of each published text, noting the critical reception of his work and the details of his publishing career. Includes a brief annotated bibliography and an index. Wertheim, Stanley, and Paul Sorrentino. The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871-1900. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Stanley and Sorrentino, editors of The Correspondence of Stephen Crane (1988), have attempted to counter many of the falsehoods that have bedeviled analyses of Crane’s life and work by providing a documentary record of the author’s life. Opening with biographical notes on persons mentioned in the text and lavishly sourced, The Crane Log is divided into seven chapters, beginning with the notation in Crane’s father’s diary of the birth of his fourteenth child, Stephen, and ending with a newspaper report of Crane’s funeral, written by Wallace Stevens. Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A very thorough volume of Crane information. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Wolford, Chester L., Jr. The Anger of Stephen Crane. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Walford considers Crane a semiliterate genius and presents his work as a repudiation of the epic tradition and of conventional religion. Although the book is not always convincing, it is engaging and original in its approach. Wolford, Chester L. Stephen Crane: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This overly brief but useful look at Crane’s short fiction provides Wolford’s sensitive readings as well as commentary on the major points that have been raised in critical discussions of the Crane pieces. In describing "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," for example, Wolford explains his view of how the story fits into the archetypical patterns of the passing of the West narratives, while also exploring why other critics have seen Crane’s story as a simple parody. About half of the book is given over to selected Crane letters and extractions from other critics’ writings on Crane’s short pieces. Includes a chronology, bibliography, and index.

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