Stephen Crane Crane, Stephen - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Stephen Crane 1871–-1900

(Full name Stephen Townley Crane; also wrote under the pseudonym Johnston Smith) American short story writer, novelist, poet, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism of Crane's short fiction works from 1991 to 2001. See also, "The Open Boat" Criticism.

Crane was one of America's foremost writers of realism, and his works have been credited with marking the beginning of modern American naturalism. His Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a classic of American literature that realistically depicts the psychological complexities of fear and courage on the battlefield. Influenced by William Dean Howells's theory of realism, Crane utilized keen observations, as well as personal experience, to achieve a narrative vividness and sense of immediacy realized by few American writers before him. Although The Red Badge of Courage is acknowledged as his masterpiece, the often-anthologized short stories “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” are considered among the most skillfully crafted stories in American literature.

Biographical Information

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Crane was the youngest in a family of fourteen children. His desire to write was inspired by his family: his father, a Methodist minister, and his mother, a devout woman dedicated to social concerns, were writers of religious articles, and two of his brothers were journalists. Crane began his higher education in 1888 at the Hudson River Institute and later enrolled at Claverack College, a military school that nurtured his interest in Civil War studies and military training—knowledge he later used in The Red Badge of Courage. During two subsequent and respective semesters at Lafayette College and Syracuse University, Crane was distinguished more for his prowess on the baseball diamond and football field than for his ability in the classroom. During his college years, however, Crane also began his writing career. He worked as a “stringer” for his brother's news service. In 1891, deciding that “humanity was a more interesting study” than the college curriculum, Crane quit school to work full time as a reporter with his brother and part time for the New York Tribune. In 1893, after several publishers had rejected his manuscript of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) on the grounds that his grim descriptions of slum realities would shock readers, Crane privately published this first novel under a pseudonym. His second novel, The Red Badge of Courage, won him international fame following its publication in 1895. During the mid-1890s Crane continued to work as a journalist, traveling throughout the American West and Mexico for a news syndicate. He later used his experiences as the basis for fictional works, including the stories in his early short fiction collections The Little Regiment, and other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896) and The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure (1898). In 1897, Crane met Cora Taylor, proprietor of the dubiously named Hotel de Dream, a combination hotel, night-club, and brothel. Together as common-law husband and wife they moved to England, where Crane formed literary friendships with Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Henry James. By 1900 Crane's health had rapidly deteriorated due to his own general disregard for his physical well-being. After several respiratory attacks, Crane died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight in 1900.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Crane achieved the pinnacle of his success with the novel The Red Badge of Courage, many critics believe that he demonstrated his greatest literary strength as a short story writer. Such stories as “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and “The Monster” are widely anthologized and are considered among his major achievements in the genre. “The Open Boat” is based on Crane's experience as a correspondent shipwrecked while on a filibustering expedition to supply Cuban revolutionaries in 1897. This naturalistic story pits a handful of men stranded for days in a lifeboat against the destructive power of an indifferent, though violent, sea. Characteristically, Crane uses vivid imagery throughout this story to underscore both the beauty and terror of natural forces and to convey the antagonism between the survivors and the sea, which Crane viewed as indicative of the struggle of all humanity against nature.

Crane's facility with the short story form is again displayed in the tragicomic story “The Blue Hotel.” In this deceptively simple Western tale, an outsider, “the Swede,” becomes an inevitable victim of his own preconceptions about the “Wild West”—expecting a lawless, uncivilized Western world, he creates in a quiet Nebraska town the unrest he is seeking and is killed in a brawl. Using a mixture of fantasy, realism, and parody in this work, Crane treats such themes as the nature of fear and courage and the role fear plays in acts of violence. In another Western story, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” Crane parodies the “shoot 'em-up” Western myth. In this comic story Yellow Sky marshal Jack Potter arrives in town with his new bride and is confronted in the street by his old nemesis Scratchy Wilson, an aging cowboy who reverts to the role of tough gunfighter when drunk. Unarmed and with his wife beside him, Potter convinces Scratchy that he can no longer act out their ritual mock gunfight. Reluctantly, Scratchy lowers his gun and walks away disheartened.

Like a number of Crane's short stories, “The Monster” is set in the fictitious town of Whilomville, New York, a site loosely based on Crane's childhood hometown of Port Jervis, New Jersey. In this tale Crane relates the story of Henry Johnson, a black coachman whose face is brutally and permanently misshapen by fire when he rescues his employer's son from a burning house. Henry's employer, Dr. Trescott, not only preserves Henry's life after the accident, but gratefully vows to take care of him as long as he lives. However, the people of Whilomville are terrified of Henry, whom they have transformed through gossip and half-truths into a horrific monster. Dr. Trescott's son, whom Henry rescued, and his companions play games at Henry's expense, and even Dr. Trescott's friends demand that he keep Henry elsewhere and then abuse the doctor when he refuses to comply. Several critics have assigned deep symbolic meanings to the characters in the story—Henry as Jesus Christ and Dr. Trescott as God, for example—though interpretations vary. However, most critics agree that although Henry is the ostensible monster in this tale because of his physical deformity, Crane's depiction of small-town hypocrisy and cruelty reveals society as the true monster.

Critical Reception

Critics have long debated whether Crane's fiction should be considered a product of any specific literary movement or method. His work has been claimed by several schools and referred to as realistic, naturalistic, symbolistic, and impressionistic. Proponents of realism view works like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, The Red Badge of Courage, and “The Open Boat” as unromanticized accounts of urban slum life, the Civil War, and survival at sea in a lifeboat, respectively. Defenders of a naturalistic reading contend that the actions and experiences of many of Crane's protagonists are shaped by social, biological, and psychological forces and that their “development” as characters is incidental to Crane's expert depiction of how these forces determine human existence. Stylistically, Crane's writings contain elements of both impressionism and symbolism. For example, some critics note that such works as The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” and “The Monster” are laden with symbols and images, while others explain that Crane's episodic narrative structures and consistent use of color imagery are indicative of an impressionistic method. While commentators generally agree that for the most part Crane disregarded plot and character delineation in his work and was unable to sustain longer works of fiction, many contend that Crane's artistry lies in his ability to convey a personal vision based on what he termed his own “quality of personal honesty.” In his short stories and in most of his work, Crane utilized an incisive irony that suggests the disparity between an individual's perception of reality and reality as it actually exists. In doing so, according to most critics, Crane pioneered the development of literary naturalism and other forms of fiction that subsequently supplanted the genteel realism characteristic of late nineteenth-century American literature.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War 1896

The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure 1898

The Monster, and Other Stories 1899

Whilomville Stories 1900

Wounds in the Rain: A Collection of Stories Relating to the Spanish-American War of 1898 1900

The Monster 1901

Last Words 1902

Men, Women, and Boats 1921

The Sullivan County Sketches 1949

Stephen Crane: An Omnibus (poetry, short stories, and novels) 1952

The Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane 1963

The New York City Sketches of Stephen Crane, and Related Pieces 1966

The Works of Stephen Crane. 10 vols. (poetry, short stories, novels, and journalism) 1969-72

The Western Writings of Stephen Crane 1979

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (novels, novellas, short stories, sketches, journalism, and poetry) 1984

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry 1988

The Blue Hotel and Selected Works 1991

The Red Badge of Courage, and Other Stories 1991

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York) [as Johnston Smith] (novel) 1893; revised as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1896

The Black Riders, and Other Lines (poetry) 1895

The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (novel) 1895

George's Mother (novel) 1896

The Third Violet (novel) 1896

Active Service (novel) 1899

War is Kind (poetry) 1899

The O'Ruddy [completed by Robert Barr] (novel) 1903

The Collected Poems of Stephen Crane (poetry) 1930

Stephen Crane: Letters (letters) 1960

The Complete Novels of Stephen Crane (novels) 1967

Christopher Metress (essay date winter 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Metress, Christopher. “From Indifference to Anxiety: Knowledge and the Reader in ‘The Open Boat.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 1 (winter 1991): 47-53.

[In the following essay, Metress examines how the structure of “The Open Boat” creates an epistemological dilemma that directs the reader from indifference to anxiety.]

In recent years, critical response to Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” has shifted dramatically, focusing less on the tale's philosophical agendas than on its epistemological implications. The story no longer stands as merely a naturalistic depiction of nature's monumental indifference or as simply an existential affirmation of...

(The entire section is 2626 words.)

Sura P. Rath and Mary Neff Shaw (essay date June 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw. “The Dialogic Narrative of ‘The Open Boat.’” College Literature 18, no. 2 (June 1991): 94-106.

[In the following essay, Rath and Shaw use Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the dialogic to analyze “The Open Boat.”]

In 1884, commenting in Longman's magazine on the “organic wholeness” of fiction, Henry James wrote that “a novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts” (“Fiction” 15). To achieve this narrative cohesion, he later prescribed the use of a...

(The entire section is 6044 words.)

Jules Zanger (essay date summer 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Zanger, Jules. “Stephen Crane's ‘Bride’ as Countermyth of the West.” Great Plains Quarterly 11, no. 3 (summer 1991): 157-65.

[In the following essay, Zanger suggests that Crane's attempt to subvert the myth of the American wild west in the story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” fails.]

It has become a critical cliche to recognize Stephen Crane's “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” as a parody of the traditional, cliche-ridden Western. His transformations of that form's conventional hero, heroine, and badman, as well as of the climactic, de rigueur shootout are amusing and obvious. In the story Crane depicted the Pullman journey of a middle-aged,...

(The entire section is 5014 words.)

John Feaster (essay date fall 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Feaster, John. “Violence and the Ideology of Capitalism: A Reconsideration of Crane's ‘The Blue Hotel.’” American Literary Realism 25, no. 1 (fall 1994): 74-94.

[In the following essay, Feaster proposes a less cosmic reading of “The Blue Hotel” by looking at it through a specific cultural context.]

Critical commentary on Stephen Crane's “The Blue Hotel” during the past four decades provides an instructive example of the general dominance of interpretive critical methods that regard literary works, in the words of Jerome J. McGann, as “modeling rather than mirroring forms.” From this dominant a-historical (and at times rigidly antihistorical)...

(The entire section is 9374 words.)

Oliver Billingslea (essay date fall 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Billingslea, Oliver. “Why Does the Oiler ‘Drown’? Perception and Cosmic Chill in ‘The Open Boat.’” American Literary Realism 27, no. 1 (fall 1994): 23-41.

[In the following essay, Billingslea investigates the question of whether perception can alter what is seen and its importance to “The Open Boat.”]

Essential to any reading of Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” is the recognition that its presentational mode—its emphasis on experience preceding essence—is a technique which precludes ideological truths. Much more important to Crane's work than naturalistic determination is his concern with both the “limitations of knowledge” and the...

(The entire section is 8939 words.)

Price McMurray (essay date spring 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: McMurray, Price. “Disabling Fictions: Race, History, and Ideology in Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Studies in American Fiction 26, no. 1 (spring 1998): 51-72.

[In the following essay, McMurray provides a historical reading of “The Monster.”]

The critical history of Stephen Crane's story of a black man who becomes a social outcast after his face is destroyed in a laboratory fire is divided unevenly between moralists, theorists, and historians.1 Irony and textual unity are no longer fashionable, but common sense and the bulk of informed opinion continue to find Henry Johnson less of a “monster” than the community that ostracizes him. If one...

(The entire section is 9377 words.)

James Nagel (essay date spring 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Nagel, James. “The Significance of Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” American Literary Realism 31, no. 3 (spring 1999): 48-57.

[In the following essay, Nagel provides historical information about “The Monster” and discusses multiple themes in the story.]

William Dean Howells called Stephen Crane's “The Monster” the best short story ever written by an American, and few people in the 1890s knew more about the national literature than did Howells.1 In many ways, it is the most complex work in the Crane canon, at once a children's tale, a grim social satire, an ambitious study of ethical responsibility, a painful examination of race in...

(The entire section is 4776 words.)

Thomas A. Gullason (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gullason, Thomas A. “Modern Pictures of War in Stephen Crane's Short Stories.” War, Literature and The Arts (1999): 183-96.

[In the following essay, Gullason explores four short stories that he claims provide “pictures of war” that deserve a place next to Crane's more well-known “civilian” stories.]

Of his twenty-two short stories dealing with the subject, Stephen Crane composed four “pictures of war” that were and still remain innovative, provocative, and modern, namely “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” “Death and the Child,” and “The Upturned Face.”1 Collectively, they made a significant contribution to...

(The entire section is 4853 words.)

William M. Morgan (essay date autumn 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, William M. “Between Conquest and Care: Masculinity and Community in Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Arizona Quarterly 56, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 63-92.

[In the following essay, Morgan explores the constitution of white masculinity in “The Monster” and how this is called into question through division of community.]

“The Monster” (1897) was penned while Stephen Crane lived in exile in England and shortly before he made his mark as a front-line reporter during the Spanish-American War. The novella records Crane's ambivalence toward the strenuous ethos of white masculinity that Theodore Roosevelt championed and came to embody, and that Crane...

(The entire section is 11590 words.)

Nick Lolordo (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lolordo, Nick. “Possessed by the Gothic: Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Arizona Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2001): 33-56.

[In the following essay, Lolordo argues that rather than classifying “The Monster” as realism or naturalism, it can be regarded as gothic.]

The time is perhaps ten years after the Civil War, the place a small town in New York State. A fire has broken out in the home of Dr. Trescott, the town's leading physician; trapped upstairs is his son. Henry Johnson, Trescott's coachman and former domestic servant, is first to the scene and unhesitatingly rushes inside in search of young Jimmie Trescott. In the course of saving the boy, Johnson's...

(The entire section is 9726 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Bochner, Jay. “The Coming Storm of Modernism.” In American Modernism across the Arts, edited by Jay Bochner and Justin D. Edwards, pp. 7-30. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Includes Crane's work in a discussion of the beginning of modernism in America.

Church, Joseph. “Reading, Writing, and the Risk of Entanglement in Crane's ‘Octopush.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (summer 1992): 341-46.

Uses Michael Fried's theories as presented in his book Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane to analyze “The Octopush.”

Dooley, Patrick K....

(The entire section is 512 words.)