Stephen Crane

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Stephen Crane Biography

Stephen Crane attended both Lafayette College and Syracuse University, but he never actually earned a degree in his short life. He started off as a journalist and freelance writer but soon turned to writing his own novels. His most famous work, the Civil War-inspired The Red Badge of Courage, has been read by millions and lauded as one of the great American novels. Although Crane never served in battle himself, he studied extensively and interviewed many war veterans before writing Courage. In 1897, he was shipped to Cuba on a writing assignment and was shipwrecked near Florida. While there, he met his future wife, and together they served as war correspondents in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Crane ultimately used the experience to write Active Service, one of his last novels.

Facts and Trivia

  • Crane published his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, with money borrowed from his brother. He published it under the pen name Johnston Smith. The bleak story of prostitution did not prove a commercial or critical success at the time.
  • Crane’s wife, Cora Stewart-Taylor, owned a brothel in Jacksonville, Florida, called Hotel de Dream. She was also a writer.
  • Stephen Crane is considered the first naturalistic American writer. As a literary theory, naturalism draws on scientific ideas (such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution) and applies them to fiction.
  • Crane cited the American press’s ridicule of his first collection of poetry, The Black Rider and Other Lines, as one of the main reasons he moved to England with Cora in 1897.
  • The cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album features a small picture of Stephen Crane, along with many other celebrities.

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Article abstract: Crane is best remembered for his war novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895); he also wrote estimable poetry and more than a dozen other novels and collections of stories.

Early Life

Stephen Crane, the youngest son of a youngest son, was the last of fourteen children born to the Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane and his wife, Mary Peck. Crane’s father was a presiding elder of the Newark, New Jersey, district of the Methodist Church (1868-1872) when Stephen was born and served in a similar capacity in the Elizabeth, New Jersey, district of the church from 1872 until 1876. Because Methodist clergymen were subject to frequent transfer, the young Stephen was moved from Newark to Paterson, New Jersey, before he was old enough to attend school and to Port Jervis, New York, shortly before he began school. His The Third Violet (1897) and Whilomville Stories (1900) are set in villages modeled after Port Jervis.

Crane’s father died in 1880, when the boy was eight years old, and, in 1883, Stephen and his mother moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey, a seaside resort some sixty miles from New York City, to be near the Methodist camp community of Ocean Grove, a town adjacent to Asbury Park, which Jonathan Crane had been instrumental in establishing. Stephen’s brother Townley already ran a press bureau in Asbury Park, and soon their sister Agnes moved there to teach in the public schools.

As Stephen strayed from the religious teachings of the Methodist Church, his mother became concerned about his spiritual welfare, and, in 1885, she sent him to Pennington Seminary, some ten miles from both Trenton and Princeton, in the hope that he would receive a solid academic background and would simultaneously grow closer to the Church. Crane’s father had been principal of Pennington Seminary for the decade from 1848 to 1858, and his mother had spent the first ten years of her marriage at Pennington.

Stephen, a handsome, dark-haired youth with a prominent nose, sensuous lips, and deep, dark eyes, rankled under Pennington’s strong religious emphasis. In 1888, he enrolled in the Hudson River Institute in Claverack, New York, a coeducational institution with a military emphasis for its male students. It was perhaps during this period that Crane became extremely interested in war.

During the summers, Crane assisted his brother in his news bureau, learning something about journalism as he went about his work. He entered Lafayette College in 1890 to study engineering, but failed in his work there and left after the Christmas holiday to attend Syracuse University, where he played baseball, managed the baseball team, and worked on the school newspaper. He was not a strong student, and he left school in 1891 to seek his fortune in New York City. His mother died on December 7 of that year.

Stephen, who had met and established a friendship with Hamlin Garland in the summer of 1891, tried to make his living as a newspaperman, but he was not initially successful in this work. In 1892, however, the serial publication of seven of his “Sullivan County Sketches” gave him the encouragement he needed to pursue a literary career diligently.

Life’s Work

Buoyed up by seeing his work in print, Crane, in 1893, paid for a private printing of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), a book gleaned from his experience of living in New York City’s Bowery during the preceding two years. This early work, highly shocking in its time because it views with sympathy a girl who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and shows the hypocrisy of her lower-class...

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family’s morality, was first published under the pseudonym Johnston Smith.

Maggie was unabashedly naturalistic, somewhat in the tradition of Émile Zola. Despite William Dean Howells’s attempts to get the book distributed, it sold hardly any copies in its original edition. In 1896, however, Crane revised it, cutting out much of its offensive profanity, omitting some of its graphic description, and regularizing the grammar and punctuation. His reputation had by this time been established with the publication, the preceding October, of The Red Badge of Courage, a book that grew out of Crane’s fascination with war, battles, and men in combat. Maggie, although it still was deemed shocking to delicate sensibilities, was more favorably received in 1896 than it had been three years earlier.

The Red Badge of Courage existed in some form in 1894, when it was published abridged in newspapers by the Bacheller Syndicate. George’s Mother (1896) appeared two years later, and in its use of realistic detail it goes far beyond that of William Dean Howells, who had become Crane’s friend.

With the publication of both The Black Riders and Other Lines and The Red Badge of Courage in 1895, Crane became an overnight celebrity. In March of that year, he also went to Mexico for the first time, and the trip made a substantial impression upon him. With the appearance of George’s Mother, Maggie, The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896), and The Third Violet, it was quite apparent that Crane, still only twenty-five years old, was on the way to becoming one of the leading literary figures in the United States. If readers complained because he wrote about subjects that depressed them, they could not reasonably contend that the conditions about which he wrote did not exist or that he wrote badly about them.

Although Crane was fascinated by war and by 1896 had written much about the subject, he had never known the battlefield, and he was keenly aware of this lack in his experience. Therefore, when the Bacheller Syndicate offered to send him as a correspondent to join the insurgents who were fighting against Spanish rule in Cuba, Crane enthusiastically accepted the assignment. He went first to Jacksonville, Florida, to wait for a ship, the Commodore, to be outfitted for the short trip to Cuba. Arriving in Jacksonville in November, he met Cora Stewart, who owned a brothel and nightclub, the Hotel de Dream.

It took until December 31 for the Commodore to be ready to sail, and by that time Crane and Stewart, who already had a husband, had fallen in love. Nevertheless, Crane sailed for Cuba as planned. The ship, however, got only several miles down the St. John’s River before it ran aground. Crane and some of his shipmates were forced to put to sea in a small, flimsy lifeboat before the Commodore capsized with some loss of life.

It was fifty-four hours before Crane and his companions were able to ride the heavy surf to shore at Daytona. One of his companions was drowned as they came to shore. From his frightening experience in the lifeboat, Crane wrote what is probably his best known and most artistically confident short story, “The Open Boat.” The shipwreck scuttled, for the time, Crane’s plans to go to Cuba. Instead, he and Stewart sailed for Greece in late March, both of them to report on Greece’s war with Turkey.

In mid-1897, Crane and Stewart, who was six years older than he, went to England, where he wrote some of his most memorable short stories, including “The Monster,” “Death and the Child,” and his much anthologized “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” He introduced Cora Stewart as his wife, although the two had never been married because she was not free to do so. It was at this time that Crane met Joseph Conrad and became his close friend.

After Crane’s collection The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) was published, the author returned to the United States to join the armed forces in the Spanish-American War, which the United States had just entered. He was, however, rejected for military service and instead went to Cuba as a war correspondent for Joseph Pulitzer. He was fearless in combat situations, but his health began to fail. He did some work in Puerto Rico and in Cuba for the Hearst newspapers, but in 1899, the year in which War Is Kind (1899), Active Service (1899), and The Monster and Other Stories (1899) were published, he returned to England, this time to live in the stately Brede Place in Sussex. While celebrating Christmas, Crane had a massive hemorrhage brought on by tuberculosis.

In the spring of 1900, the year in which Whilomville Stories and Wounds in the Rain were published, Crane’s health declined, and in May, he and Cora, accompanied by a retinue consisting of their butler, maids, nurses, and a doctor, went to Badenweiler in Germany’s Black Forest, hoping that the climate would benefit the ailing writer’s health. There Crane died on June 5. Three of his works, Great Battles of the World (1901), Last Words (1902), and The O’Ruddy (1903), were published shortly after his death.


Dead at twenty-eight, Stephen Crane had just begun to come into his own as a writer. His early work, particularly the original version of Maggie, reflected his passionate interest in reform and his understanding of the problems of the poor, but much of this early book was seriously flawed, largely because Crane had not yet mastered the basic mechanics of expression.

Yet with The Red Badge of Courage, which stands as one of America’s acknowledged classics, Crane demonstrated that he was getting a firm grip on his art. The classic naturalism of Maggie and of George’s Mother, the conventional realism of The Red Badge of Courage and of The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War, and the impressionistic symbolism of The Black Riders suggest the great versatility of which Crane was capable.

Both in his insistence on living an action-packed life, often quite close to the edge, and in his accuracy and economy of description, Crane reminds one of Ernest Hemingway, along whose lines he might have developed had he lived a normal life span.


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 Publishers, 1980. This updating of Cady’s 1962 edition is carefully researched and well reported. It is a standard critical biography of Crane. Its updated bibliography is useful.

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.

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.

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.

Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980. Nagel sees Crane in a new light that suggests his remarkable versatility. The book has especially strong insights into The Black Riders.

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.

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.

Walford, 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.


Critical Essays