Stephen Crane Analysis

Discussion Topics

Does classifying Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as a naturalistic novel facilitate or hinder the reader’s understanding of the novel?

What lessons does Henry Fleming learn in The Red Badge of Courage? Do they, as has been suggested, make the novel a “dark” one?

What qualities in The Red Badge of Courage have kept this novel alive despite the fact that the nature of warfare has changed so much since it was written?

Stephen Crane called one of his books of poetry War Is Kind, an obviously ironic title. A famous Civil War general said, “War is hell.” Explain why no simple formulation is adequate to explain Crane’s attitude toward war as expressed in his fiction and poetry.

By what means does Crane unify “The Open Boat”?

What does Crane mean by his statement at the end of “The Open Boat” that the survivors “felt that they could then be interpreters”?

Discuss the unconnectedness of human beings as a theme in Crane’s fiction.

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111201197-Crane.jpg Stephen Crane. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Stephen Crane began his brief writing life as a journalist, and he continued writing for newspapers, notably as a war correspondent, throughout his career, sometimes basing his short stories on events that he had first narrated in press reports. He also wrote raw-edged, realistic novels in which he employed journalistic techniques, most significantly in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895). By contrast, he composed wry, evocative, often cryptic poems, published in The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and War Is Kind (1899), that seemed to reveal the philosophy behind the world created in his fiction.


Stephen Crane’s fiction has proved hard to classify—not, however, because he defies categorization, but because he worked in two nearly incompatible literary styles at once, while being a groundbreaker in both.

On one hand, he founded the American branch of literary naturalism (this style had originated in France) in his early novels. These works emphasized the sordid aspects of modern life, noted the overpowering shaping influence of environment on human destiny, and scandalously discounted the importance of morality as an effective factor touching on his characters’ behavior. In this style, he was followed by writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

On the other hand, in these same early novels he developed a descriptive style that made him a founder of American impressionism. While the naturalist component of his writing stressed how subjectivity was dominated by social forces, the impressionist component, through coloristic effects and vivid metaphors, stressed the heightened perceptions of individual characters from whose perspectives the story was presented. The man closest to Crane in his own time in developing this impressionist style was Joseph Conrad, though, it will be recognized, this method of drawing from a character’s viewpoint became a central tool of twentieth century literature and was prominently employed by authors such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James.

Crane took the unusual tack of both playing up his characters’ points of view in presenting the world and downplaying the characters’ abilities to influence that world. Although this combination of strategies could be made to work satisfactorily, later authors who have taken Crane’s path have tended to develop only one of these strands. Moreover, many critics have found Crane’s dual emphases to be jarring and incompletely thought through, particularly in his novels. In fact, many have felt that it is only in his short stories that he seemed thoroughly to blend the two manners.

Other literary forms

Stephen Crane was an accomplished poet, short-story writer, and journalist as well as a novelist. His first collection of poems, The Black Riders, and Other Lines, appeared in 1895; in 1896, a collection of seven poems and a sketch was published as A Souvenir and a Medley; and War Is Kind, another collection of poetry, was published in 1899. Crane’s previously uncollected poems form part of the tenth volume of The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane (1975). The Blood of the Martyr, a closet drama believed to have been written in 1898, was not published until 1940. One other play, The Ghost (pr. 1899), written for a Christmas party at Crane’s home in England by Crane and others, has not survived in its entirety. Crane’s short stories and sketches, of which there are many, began appearing in 1892 and have been discovered from time to time. Some of his journalistic pieces also have literary value.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Stephen Crane’s major achievement, both as a fiction writer and as a poet, was that he unflinchingly fought his way through established assumptions about the nature of life, eventually overcoming them. His perceptions were the logical end to the ideas of a long line of American Puritans and Transcendentalists who believed in the individual pursuit of truth. The great and perhaps fitting irony of that logic is that Crane repudiated the truths in which his predecessors believed.

Rejecting much that was conventional about fiction in his day—elaborate plots, numerous and usually middle-or upper-class characters, romantic settings, moralizing narrators—Crane also denied values of much greater significance: nationalism, patriotism, the greatness of individual and collective man, and the existence of supernatural powers that care, protect, and guide.

In his best fiction, as in his life, Crane squarely faced the horror of a meaningless universe by exposing the blindness and egotism of concepts that deny that meaninglessness. He was, unfortunately, unable to build a new and positive vision on the rubble of the old; he died at age twenty-eight, his accomplishments genuinely astounding.

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Stephen Crane is best known as a novelist and short-story writer, and deservedly so. His first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) was an early and almost pure example of naturalistic fiction. About the time of his twenty-fourth birthday, The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895) made him famous. Of his other novels— George’s Mother (1896), The Third Violet (1897), Active Service (1899), and The O’Ruddy: A Romance (1903; with Robert Barr)—only The Monster (1899), a novella, may lay claim to greatness. Of the scores of tales, sketches, and journalistic pieces that verge on fiction, the best are “The Reluctant Voyagers” (1893), “The Open Boat,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “Death and the Child,” and “The Blue Hotel” (all in 1898). Of Crane’s dramatic efforts, there is The Ghost (pr. 1899, with Henry James), performed in a room at Crane’s home in England. According to one contemporary review, the play was a mixture of “farce, comedy, opera, and burlesque.” His only other play is a slight closet drama called The Blood of the Martyr (pb. 1940).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

As one of the first impressionistic writers—Joseph Conrad called him “The Impressionist”—Stephen Crane was among the first to express in writing a new way of looking at the world. Impressionism grew out of scientific discoveries that showed how human physiology, particularly that of the eyes, determines the way everything in the universe, everything outside the individual body and mind, is seen. People do not see the world as it is, yet the mind and eye collaborate to interpret what is for Crane, at least, a chaotic universe as fundamentally unified, coherent, and explainable. The delusion is compounded when human beings get together, for then they tend to create even grander fabrications, such as religion and history. Although Crane is also seen as one of the first American naturalistic writers, a Symbolist, an Imagist, and even a nihilist, the achievements that justify these labels all derive from his impressionistic view of the world.

Crane’s major achievement, both as a fiction writer and a poet, is that he so unflinchingly fought his way through established assumptions about the way life is. He is the logical end of a long line of American Puritans and transcendentalists who believed in the individual pursuit of truth. The great and perhaps fitting irony of such logic is that Crane repudiated the truths in which his predecessors believed. In his fiction, he uses the old genres, but his impressionistic style denies their validity; in his poetry he attacks tradition directly, in part through what he says and in part by how he says it. Rejecting everything conventional about poetry in his day—rhyme, rhythm, conventional images, “safe” metaphors that never shocked Victorian sensibilities—Crane ends by denying things much more important: nationalism, patriotism, the greatness of individual and collective man, the existence of supernatural powers that care and protect and guide. In his best fiction and occasionally in his poetry, Crane faces squarely the horror of a meaningless universe, although he was unable to build a new and positive vision on the rubble of the old.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Benfey, Christopher E. G. The Double Life of Stephen Crane. New York: Knopf, 1992. A narrative of Crane’s life and literary work that argues that the writer attempted to live the life his works portrayed. Includes bibliography and index.

Berryman, John. Stephen Crane. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950. This combined biography and interpretation has been superseded as a biography, but it continues to be an absorbing Freudian reading of Crane’s life and work. Berryman, himself a major American poet, eloquently explains the patterns of family conflict that appear in Crane’s fiction. Furthermore, Berryman’s wide-ranging...

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