“Sometimes, the most profound of awakenings come wrapped in the quietest of moments.”“Perhaps an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of nature.”“A serious prophet upon predicting a flood should be the first man to climb a tree. This would demonstrate that he was indeed a seer.” The two major directions of modern fiction, realism and symbolism, have their American beginnings in Stephen Crane’s work. His realism is impressionistic; his interest in psychological investigation, his innovations in technique and style, and use of symbolism give his works a romantic touch.
Stephen’s father, Jonathan Crane, was a Methodist minister who died in 1880, leaving Stephen, the youngest of 14 children to be looked after by his mother. Stephen began writing stories at the age of eight. After attending preparatory school at the Claverack College (1888–90), Crane spent less than two years at college and then went to New York City to live in a medical students’ boardinghouse while freelancing his way to a literary career. He spent much time exploring the Bowery slums that resulted in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), a sympathetic, realistic study of a slum girl’s descent into prostitution and her eventual suicide. The subject was so shocking that Crane published it under pseudonym and at his own expense. It gained admiration of other realists, but very few readers were attracted by the straightforwardness of its tone.
Maggie left him to struggle as a poor and unknown freelance journalist, until he was befriended by Hamlin Garland and the influential critic William Dean Howells. Suddenly in 1895 the publication of The Red Badge of Courage and of his first book of poems, The Black Riders, brought him international fame. Strikingly different in tone and technique from Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage is an impressionistic study of a young soldier trying to find reality amid the conflict of fierce warfare. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, survives his own fear, cowardice, and goes on to discover courage, humility, and perhaps wisdom in the confused combat of an unnamed Civil War battle. Crane, who had as yet seen no war, was widely praised by veterans for his power to imagine and reproduce the sense of actual combat.
His first attempt in 1897 to report on the rebellion in Cuba ended in near disaster; the ship Commodore on which he was traveling sank with $5,000 worth of ammunition, and Crane—reported drowned—finally rowed into shore with the captain, cook, and oiler. The result was one of the world’s great short stories, “The Open Boat”. Unable to get to Cuba, Crane went to Greece to report the Greco-Turkish War for the New York Journal. He was accompanied by Cora Taylor. At the end of the war they settled in England in a villa at Oxted, Surrey, and in April 1898 Crane departed to report the Spanish-American War in Cuba, first for the New York World and then for the New York Journal. When the war ended, Crane wrote the first draft of Active Service, a novel of the Greek war. He finally returned to Cora in England nine months after his departure and settled in a costly 14th-century manor house at Brede Place, Sussex.
There Crane and Cora ruined themselves financially. Crane now fought a desperate battle against time, illness, and debts. He died of tuberculosis. After The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s few attempts at the novel were of small importance, but he achieved an extraordinary mastery of the short story. He exploited youthful small-town experiences in The Monster and Other Stories (1899) and Whilom Ville Stories (1900); the Bowery again in George’s Mother (1896); an early trip to the southwest and Mexico in “The Blue Hotel” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”; the Civil War again in The Little Regiment (1896); and war correspondent experiences in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) and Wounds in the Rain (1900). In the best of these tales Crane showed a rare ability to shape colourful settings, dramatic action, and perceptive characterization into ironic explorations of human nature and destiny. The secret of Crane’s success as war correspondent, journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and poet lay in his achieving tensions between irony and pity, illusion and reality, or the double mood of hope contradicted by despair. Crane was a great stylist and a master of the contradictory effect.