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.
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.
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.