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Stephen Crane

"Live fast, die young" are words made famous by actor John Derek in the 1949 movie, Knock on Any Door.1 Nineteenth-century American writer Stephen Crane (1871-1900) packed a lot of life into his years. And while his lifestyle took a toll on his physical health and personal relationships, Crane's experiences and observations found their way into his books, short stories, and poetry. Crane's innovative writing left an impact on society that is still studied today.

Stephen Crane Biography

Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871. He was the fourteenth child (of which nine survived) born to a Methodist minister father and journalist mother who was a vocal member of the temperance movement.

Crane was frequently ill as a child, and his lung problems followed him into adulthood. He was also highly intelligent. Crane taught himself to read by four and was already trying to write. Crane wrote his first documented poem when he was nine and his first short story when he was fourteen. Fellow students remembered his mastery of history and literature, but other subjects, such as science and math, gave him difficulty. Crane showed an interest in military training and was able to glean Civil War stories from veterans teaching at schools he attended that likely inspired scenes in The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

After graduating from high school, Crane sampled a few universities before dropping out to become a writer and reporter. Crane published in several periodicals but wrote for the New York Tribune regularly. He became interested in the people who lived and worked in the Bowery–a neighborhood in southern Manhattan that had transformed from wealth to poverty. The novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) was based on the poverty and lack of opportunity Crane witnessed.

Although Crane got down and dirty with details about tenement life, the people who lived there were not merely subject matter to him. At one point, Crane was involved in an 1896 scandal that ruined friendships and professional prospects when he testified on behalf of Dora Clark. Clark was believed to be a prostitute, and after an interview one evening, Crane accompanied her and two other women to make sure they safely boarded a streetcar. As he was assisting one of them, a police officer arrested Clark and the other woman for attempting to offer their professional services. Crane got the one woman freed from jail by agreeing that he was her husband (he wasn't) and supported Clark throughout her trial, and a second trial when she had the police officer charged with false arrest. He was belittled in the press, which nearly ruined him financially and socially.

Shortly after publishing Maggie, Crane became interested in writing about what war was like. The Red Badge of Courage brought fame to Crane, and because of its realism, critics and readers were astonished to learn that he had never served in the military. Newspapers immediately offered him jobs as their war correspondent.

Crane's battered reputation took a turn for the better when he survived a shipwreck while traveling to Cuba to report on the tensions that led to the Spanish-American War. The SS Commodore was damaged off the coast of Florida and sunk. Crane was one of the last to leave the ship, and the media portrayed him as a hero. Afterward, Crane continued pursuing work as a war correspondent, bringing his girlfriend Cora Taylor with him to Europe. Crane published articles and letters relating to the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and Spanish-American Wars. He received recognition for relaying messages between commanders in Cuzco, Cuba, and Taylor became the first female war correspondent. Though they couldn't marry for legal reasons, Taylor and Crane continued a relationship until Crane's death.

Crane made a habit of living beyond his means and often dodged creditors. Although Crane was published regularly, none of his writing after The Red Badge of Courage was as financially successful. While in Cuba, he contracted malaria and yellow fever. Crane was a heavy smoker, which contributed to his lung issues. In early 1900, Crane suffered a series of hemorrhages in his lungs from which he never fully recovered. At the end of May, Crane checked into a sanatorium in Germany to be treated for tuberculosis, where he died about a week later at the age of 28.

Stephen Crane, A photograph of Stephen Crane, StudySmarter

A photograph of Stephen Crane, wikimedia.org

Books by Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane published a handful of longer works and is best-known for two in particular:

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets tells the story of a girl from a poor family whose struggles and conflicts lead her down a path of ever-worsening circumstances. Maggie is kicked out of her abusive home, then abandoned by her boyfriend. Forced to survive on her own, Crane implies that she has become a prostitute. Death soon follows, though Crane leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Maggie's death is a suicide or murder.

In Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane explores the ideas of fate and free will.

Fellow author Hamlin Garland hailed Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as painting a graphic but highly realistic portrait of tenement life, saying, "Crane . . . has met and grappled with the actualities of the street in almost unequaled grace and strength."2 However, no publisher would touch Crane's novella because it was considered too shocking for the general public, and most critics deemed it crude. Crane paid to publish it himself under the pseudonym Johnston Smith but despaired when it did not sell as he had hoped it would. Crane eventually rewrote some parts to make it more acceptable and re-published it after the success of The Red Badge of Courage.

Stephen Crane, painting of Bowery, StudySmarter

A painting by William Louis Sonntag, Jr. that portrays life in the Bowery, wikimedia

The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

In The Red Badge of Courage, Crane writes about an eighteen-year-old named Henry who joins the Union army to fight in the Civil War. Unlike other war novels of its time, it focuses on the psychological aspects of war rather than the action of the battles. Henry experiences boredom, bravery, cowardice, and horror and comes away with the ability to accept all the pieces of his personality. Henry matures from a boy who is afraid he will run when faced with a fight into a man who takes up his regiment's flag and keeps it flying after the other flag-bearer is killed.

The story of Henry's transformation is an example of a Naturalist novel. Crane uses this literary technique to explore the psychology of a young soldier surviving the trials of war. At the beginning of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry is a boy who defines his abilities by how others perceive him. The attention the townspeople and girls showed him as he traveled from his hometown to camp made him feel "he must be a hero" (Chapter One). Throughout much of the text, Henry struggles with how other soldiers are perceiving his behavior in combat. At the end, he realizes that in spite of the occasionally cowardly act, he looked death in the face and continued forward, which makes him a man.

The Red Badge of Courage was instantly popular. Critics and readers raved about its realistic details since Crane was born after the Civil War. However, Ambrose Bierce, an American author who happened to be a Civil War veteran, had this to say: "I thought there could be only two worse writers than Stephen Crane, namely, two Stephen Cranes."3 Occasional insults aside, Crane is most famous for writing The Red Badge of Courage, and it has never been out of print.

Short stories by Stephen Crane

Crane's writing style shines in his short stories because it allows him to focus tightly on the group psychology characteristic of his writing.

"The Open Boat" (1897)

"The Open Boat" is about a group of men trying to survive a shipwreck. After being trapped on a lifeboat at sea overnight, the four men accept that no one is coming to save them, and they must save themselves. In this Man vs. Nature tale, human strength is pitted against the force of the ocean, and to illustrate the power and indifference of Nature, the man who was physically strongest in the group does not survive. "The Open Boat" is a short story based on Crane's experience on the Commodore.

Stephen Crane, painting of a Shipwreck, StudySmarter

A painting by Max Beckman that portrays the survivors of a shipwreck, Wikimedia

"The Blue Hotel" (1898)

In "The Blue Hotel," a hotel owner charms two men who got off the train in an up-and-coming town in Nebraska into staying at his place. Having heard too many stories about the Wild West, one of the men becomes paranoid and begins to accuse the other men at the hotel of plotting to kill him. The hotel owner gives him a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves, which causes him to behave obnoxiously. After beating up the owner's son, who he accuses of cheating in a card game, he leaves and walks to a nearby tavern. His adrenaline still flowing from the fight, he begins drinking heavily and becomes even more obnoxious. When he tries to force a man to drink with him physically, the man stabs him to death. "The Blue Hotel" ends with a conversation between two of the men who were at the hotel discussing how things could have been different, one of whom reveals that the owner's son had been cheating at cards.

Poetry by Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane's free-verse poetry showcases his use of powerful imagery.

"I saw a man pursuing the horizon" (1905)

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;

Round and round they sped.

I was disturbed at this;

I accosted the man.

"It is futile," I said,

"You can never–"

"You lie," he cried,

And ran on.4

Crane uses the analogy of someone chasing the horizon to illustrate the idea of pursuing a dream. The narrator in this poem is the doubter who lacks the vision to understand what the man is trying to accomplish. However, in his frenzied desire to reach his goal, the running man has lost the perspective to realize that the horizon is constantly shifting, so he has already succeeded at some point.

An analogy compares two things that have things in common to explain a concept.

"In the Desert" (1895)

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, "Is it good, friend?"

"It is bitter–bitter," he answered;

"But I like it

"Because it is bitter

"And because it is my heart."4

Crane's gory and sinister stroke of words in this poem comment on human nature. The gluttonous creature commits an act that is self-destructive and self-aware as it eats its vital organ. The narrator's curiosity and addressing the beast as "friend" indicates they relate to the creature.

Stephen Crane, A photo of a historical marker honouring Crane, StudySmarter

A photo of a historical marker honoring Crane, wikimedia.org

Stephen Crane's Impact on Society

Although Crane's style and subject matter were not always acceptable to his contemporaries, his writing has stood the test of time, remaining relevant for over a hundred years. He inspired modernist writers such as Ernest Hemingway. Crane is credited with developing Naturalism, and it is widely believed Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is the first literary example of American Naturalism.

Crane's poetry was also a prototype for the Imagist movement. Crane published multiple novels, short story and poetry collections, and numerous articles in a few short years. Modern critics consider Crane one of the most original American writers of his generation.

The Modernist, Naturalist, and Imagist movements bridged the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Modernism focuses on the individual rather than society and experiments with literary techniques. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf are commonly referred to as pioneers of Modernism.

Naturalism relates to Realism in that both concern themselves with a realistic depiction of life, but Naturalism argues that forces such as nature and society make things happen the way they do. In addition to Crane, Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser were masters of Naturalism.

Imagism is characterized as utilizing vivid imagery, free verse, and precise language. The Imagist movement was formally developed by Ezra Pound, who T. E. Hulme inspired.

Stephen Crane - Key takeaways

  • Stephen Crane was a nineteenth-century American writer born on November 1, 1871, and died on June 5, 1900.
  • Stephen Crane wrote books, short stories, poetry, and articles.
  • Stephen Crane is most famous for writing the novel The Red Badge of Courage.
  • Stephen Crane's writing is characterized by its striking imagery and focus on individual and group psychology.
  • Stephen Crane's writing influenced modernism and imagism, and his novella Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is credited with being the first American Naturalist text.

Frequently Asked Questions about Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis.

Stephen Crane is a nineteenth-century American author published in numerous literary forms.

Stephen Crane was twenty-eight when he died.

Stephen Crane was never in the military.

Stephen Crane is famous for writing the book The Red Badge of Courage.

Final Stephen Crane Quiz

Question

How is The Red Badge of Courage different from other war stories of its time?

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Answer

The Red Badge of Courage is different from other war stories of its time because it focuses on the psychological aspects of war instead of the action of the battles.

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Question

True or False: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was immediately recognized for its innovation.

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Answer

False: Most critics disliked Maggie: A Girl of the Streets because they considered it crude.

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Question

Which of these texts by Stephen Crane explore a theme of transformation?

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Answer

The Red Badge of Courage

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What are two known characteristics of Crane's writing?

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Answer

Two known characteristics of Crane's writing are his use of vivid imagery and his focus on individual and group psychology.

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Question

What type of story is "The Open Boat"?

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Answer

"The Open Boat" is a Man vs. Nature story.

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Crane's writing style influenced:

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Answer

All of the above

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Question

What is Crane commenting on in his poem "In the Desert"?

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Answer

Crane is commenting on human nature in his poem "In the Desert."

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What is the analogy in "I saw a man pursuing the horizon"?

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Answer

A man chases after the horizon as an analogy for chasing after a dream in "I saw a man pursuing the horizon."

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What is Crane exploring in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

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Answer

Crane explores the ideas of fate and free will in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

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Question

What is Stephen Crane's most famous work?

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Answer

Stephen Crane's most famous work is The Red Badge of Courage.

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Question

True or False: The statement, "Maggie and Jimmie lived," is an example of dramatic irony.

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False: The statement, "Maggie and Jimmie lived," is an example of verbal irony because the narrator does not really mean what they're saying as a positive thing.

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Naturalism:

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Uses nature and society to illustrate that a person's environment is the key to their outcome in life

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How do the neighbors resemble a Greek chorus?

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Answer

The neighbors resemble a Greek chorus because they are present at turning points in the story and mirror the emotions of Jimmie and the mother.

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How is Maggie and Pete's relationship an example of situational irony?

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Answer

Maggie and Pete's relationship is an example of situational irony because Maggie dates Pete to improve her life, and the opposite happens.

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Which is a theme of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

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All of the above

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What is the setting of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets?

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The setting of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is the Bowery in New York.

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Why do Realist and Naturalist writers write their dialogue using slang and dialect?

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Answer

Realist and Naturalist writers write their dialogue using slang and dialect to portray how their characters spoke realistically.

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How did Crane's description of the minister show religious hypocrisy?

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Answer

Crane's description of the minister showed the reader that the minister was more worried about his personal comfort, appearance, and reputation than the people, including Maggie, he had vowed to serve.

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What scientific theory influenced naturalism?

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Answer

Darwin's theory of evolution influenced naturalism.

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How are naturalism and realism similar?

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Naturalism and realism are similar because both attempt to capture reality in their tales by writing about everyday people in ordinary situations. 

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What is another name for a coming-of-age story?

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Another name for a coming-of-age story is a bildungsroman. 

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What does Crane accomplish by having the narrator of The Red Badge of Courage refer to the characters using generic nicknames?

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By having the narrator refer to the characters using generic nicknames, Crane allows the reader to associate the experiences within The Red Badge of Courage with war in general.

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Naturalism was influenced by

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The theory of evolution

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True or False: In Naturalism, people can change their lives by escaping their environment.

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False: The environment in a Naturalist text is inescapable, so their environment ultimately shapes their character.

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What theme is a part of The Red Badge of Courage?

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All of the above

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What immoral act did Henry commit to protect his reputation?

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Answer

Henry committed an immoral act by lying about his injury to protect his reputation.

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How does Crane depict war as an unnatural act?

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Answer

Crane depicts war as an unnatural act by contrasting religious and natural imagery with a stark description of a dead soldier.

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Question

How does violence influence men in The Red Badge of Courage?

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Answer

Violence humbles men in The Red Badge of Courage by making them face their mortality.

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Question

What was one way the American Civil War influenced culture, as seen in The Red Badge of Courage?

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Answer

The concept of "good death" had to be modified due to the American Civil War, which is exemplified in The Red Badge of Courage when Jim Conklin dies.

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Question

What does the color red symbolize in The Red Badge of Courage?

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Answer

The color red symbolizes violence in The Red Badge of Courage.

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