Stephen Crane Stephen Crane American Literature Analysis

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Stephen Crane American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Crane might best be regarded as an inexplicable literary phenomenon: a brief, bright comet, brilliantly distinct from every other writer of his time. Such an approach, however—metaphorically throwing up one’s hands and standing back in wonder—is not very satisfying to literary critics, who have expended vast amounts of energy attempting to fit Crane into various pigeonholes. Thus the student of Crane will soon wander into a bewildering maze of theory: The author is referred to as naturalist, realist, impressionist, and ironist. It may be useful to discuss these concepts, then, before examining Crane’s principal theme and the lasting value of his fiction.

Literary naturalism was imported to the United States from Europe, mainly by way of the French novelistÉmile Zola, and found its chief American expression, around the beginning of the twentieth century, in the novels of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. It is a literary concept based on the idea that the physical world is all that exists; it denies the supernatural. The novelist’s approach is that of the scientist: to examine phenomena, rigorously and objectively, with a view to proving a thesis about the human condition. Typically, this thesis is that people are indistinguishable from animals—that their lives are strictly governed by heredity and environment, making them essentially victims of biological and social forces which they are helpless to oppose.

Probably the most readable works of American naturalism are Norris’s McTeague (1899) and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900). Crane’s fiction has some naturalistic elements, in that it is skeptical, probably agnostic, and generally pessimistic. Yet even in Maggie, the work to which the term most readily applies, it is not clear that the characters are purely victims of their environment. At key turning points they are offered opportunities to act kindly—to change the course of Maggie s life—but fail to take them. Nor is the deep moral outrage that pervades the story typically naturalistic. Crane knows what good is and takes his stand for it, even if the realist in him sees that, in the Bowery, the good generally fails.

Realism in its most basic form refers simply to getting things right—careful observation and rendering of detail. For example, the realist Mark Twain felt that a famous American romantic novelist, James Fenimore Cooper, had made egregious errors of detail that robbed his work of conviction. In this sense Crane is certainly a realist; he was an expert reporter, and the details of his work ring true. Much of his writing, though by no means all, centers on probable and everyday occurrences. In this aspect he stands firmly in the camp of such leading realists as Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells.

Crane was more concerned than either of those writers, however—and herein lies a clue to his greater significance for most modern readers—with inner reality: not merely with what happened, but with how it felt and why it mattered. Thus, his realism is more subjective. He describes Civil War battles not as they might appear to a disembodied observer floating above them, but as they looked and sounded to a terrified soldier in the middle of them. His method is, in turn, affected. In The Red Badge of Courage, in particular, the narrative is far more disconnected and the imagery more dreamlike than in the social realism of Garland and Howells. It is these qualities that have caused some critics to refer to Crane as an impressionist. Impressionism, an extremely vague term as applied to literature, suggests an attempt to render the subjective aspects of a scene, as opposed to the verifiable events—what could be filmed by a documentary filmmaker, for example—that make it up.

The greatest fiction writers are able to view events from multiple perspectives, a quality readily apparent in Crane’s best work. He is at once the frightened correspondent in “The Open Boat ,” concerned only with survival from...

(The entire section is 5,871 words.)