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3:AM Cult Hero: Stephen Crane

By Robert O’Connor.


There were two giants of American literature in the 1890s that everyone else tried to be: Mark Twain, the witty humorist and Horatio Alger, the sentimental moralist. One man who eschewed both of them and created his own style. He also may have inspired future rebellions against literary conventions with his memorable descriptions and attention to language. The man’s name was Stephen Crane.

Stephen Crane grew up in New Jersey. He began attending Lafayette College to pursue a mining engineering degree, but left after a semester for Syracuse University to focus on writing full time. He left after taking one class and decided to become a full-time writer.

Crane moved into his brother’s house in Patterson, New Jersey. He began reporting for the New York Tribune, focusing on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. The Bowery (now the East Village) had been an upscale neighborhood, but by the end of the Civil War, brothels, beer gadders, flophouses and other dreary businesses dominated the place.


The Bowery, 1896 (New York Times)

It was in the Bowery that Crane’s first book, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets was set. Maggie is the sister of the narrator Jimmie. Jimmie shuns her after she starts seeing his friend Pete, and she is shunned by the community. It’s considered one of the first American naturalist novels. It was also praised for its realism and frank depictions of slum life and prostitution.

Crane took the novel to Richard Watson Gilder, with the intention of publishing it in Gilder’s Century Magazine, but it was turned down. Crane became fascinated with earlier issues of Century devoted to the Civil War. He decided to write a psychological portrayal of fear through the landscape of the war. The end result was his novel The Red Badge of Courage. While Maggie didn’t sell, Courage was a hit. Joseph Conrad, who later befriended Crane, wrote that the novel “detonated…with the impact of a twelve-inch shell charged with a very high explosive.”

Shortly afterward, Crane’s reputation was tarnished when he helped get a woman arrested for soliciting prostitution released from prison by claiming they were married. The woman sued the arresting officer for false arrest and during the trial, the defense revealed that Crane was a frequent visitor to brothels. He claimed it was for research purposes. The arresting officer, Charles Becker (who would later be sent to the chair at Sing Sing for murder) was acquitted, but Crane’s reputation was in shambles.

His reputation bounced back after he board the SS Commodore at Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Cuba. He was heading there to be a foreign correspondent. Two miles out of port, the ship was beached and sank. The sinking was widely reported and Crane was portrayed as heroic.

Still determined to be a foreign correspondent, he signed on with William Randolph Hearst‘s New York Journal to cover the Greco-Turkish War in 1897. He brought along his future wife, journalist Cora Taylor, who also wrote for the Journal.

After that war was over, he traveled to England briefly and began writing for English publications. He headed to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War for Blackwood’s magazine and Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World – the arch rival of the Journal. He traveled with Theodore Roosevelt‘s Rough Riders and praised them despite his run-ins with Roosevelt during his days as police commissioner of New York.

Crane was never in the best of health, but it really suffered during the war. He was sent to the US for treatment, where he was diagnosed with yellow fever and malaria. The World fired him and Crane began filing stories for the Journal.

He left Cuba for England in 1899 and began writing even more in order to collect much needed money. But his health was failing and Cora took him to a health spa in Badenweiler in May, 1900. A week after arriving, Crane died at the age of 28. In his will he left everything to his wife, who took his body back to America and he was interred in Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, New Jersey.

Stephen Crane had been a professional writer for ten years, with the greatest success coming in the last five. He was praised by Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells and Henry James in his time, and a number of great writers of later generations would hold him in high esteem. Ernest Hemingway called The Red Badge of Courage one of the finest novels ever written.

Most writers of his day tried to be either humorists like Mark Twain or sentimentalists like Horatio Alger. Stephen Crane was neither – he wrote vivid and harsh depictions that his subjects demanded. His poetry isn’t as intense, but it was just as experimental. His books of poetry were criticized at the time for not rhyming and being unconventional. Ezra Pound, however, praised Crane’s work and it’s believed that Pound and the other Imagists took inspiration from Crane’s poetry.

Stephen Crane wrote about the worst kinds of violence (poverty and war) in direct and understated fashion – something Ernest Hemingway would also do a generation later. Crane’s work appeared around the time that muckrakers were aiming to change society. But he was a writer before all else.

MORE: Works (Internet Archive, Project Gutenberg, Stephen Crane Society) // Poetry // Stephen Crane Society // Stephen Crane by Harold Bloom and Joyce Caldwell Smith (critical essays) // Crane is mentioned in Richard Harding Davis’ essay “San Juan Hill after 12 years

First posted: Monday, January 31st, 2011.

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