Stephen Crane

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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

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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.


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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.

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Stephen Crane was an accomplished poet, short-story writer, and journalist as...

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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.


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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

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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).


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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.


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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 interests allow him to tackle such large topics as Crane’s influence on the birth of the short story, a form which, though existing earlier, came to prominence only in the 1890’s. Includes notes and index.

Berryman, John. Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography. Cooper Square, 2001. A reissue of the first major biography of the author. Still valuable for its detail and insight.

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, 1980. An excellent introductory, chronological account of Crane’s career, with chapters on his biography, his early writing, The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, notes, a chronology, an updated bibliographical essay, and an index.

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.

Colvert, James B. “Stephen Crane and Postmodern Theory.” American Literary Realism 28 (Fall, 1995): 4-22. A survey of postmodern approaches to Crane’s fiction. Summarizes the basic premises of postmodern interpretation, examining how these premises have been applied to such Crane stories as “The Open Boat,” “The Upturned Face,” and “Maggie”; balances such interpretive strategies against critics who affirm more traditional, humanistic approaches.

Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. This biography of Crane depicts him as a perpetual adolescent who was very much an enigma.

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.

Halliburton, David. The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Though somewhat thematically disorganized, the author’s philosophical grounding and ability to look at Crane’s works from unusual angles make for many provocative readings. In his discussion of “The Blue Hotel,” for example, he finds much more aggression directed against the Swede than may at first appear, coming not only from seemingly benign characters but also from the layout of the town. Notes, index.

Johnson, Claudia D. Understanding “The Red Badge of Courage”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. An excellent accompaniment to the novel. Essential for students.

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.

Knapp, Bettina L. Stephen Crane. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1987. A succinct introduction to Crane’s life and career, with a separate chapter on his biography, several chapters on his fiction, and an extensive discussion of two poetry collections, The Black Riders and Other Lines, and War Is Kind. Includes a detailed chronology, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an index.

Metress, Christopher. “From Indifference to Anxiety: Knowledge and the Reader in ‘The Open Boat.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Winter, 1991): 47-53. Shows how the structure of “The Open Boat” (made up of four key moments) creates an epistemological dilemma for readers, moving them from a position of indifference to a state of epistemological anxiety. By suggesting that the survivors have become interpreters, Crane implies that we must get rid of indifference to the difficulty of gaining knowledge and embrace the inevitable anxiety of that failure.

Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. A demonstration of the ironic role of temperance propaganda, in which Crane was emersed as a child, in the imagery and language of his darkest work.

Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980. Nagel carefully delineates what he considers Crane’s application of impressionist concepts of painting to fiction, which involved Crane’s “awareness that the apprehension of reality is limited to empirical data interpreted by a single human intelligence.” This led the writer to a stress on the flawed visions of men and women and a depiction of the dangers of this natural one-sidedness in works such as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, as well as depictions of characters who transcended this weakness through an acceptance of human inadequacies in such works as “The Open Boat.” Notes, index.

Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane: Journalism and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Argues that Crane’s success inspired later journalists to think of their work as preparatory for writing fiction; claims the blurring of fact and fiction in newspapers during Crane’s life suited his own narrative experiments.

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.

Sorrentino, Paul, ed. Stephen Crane Remembered. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2006. A more recent complementary volume to Stallman’s still valuable biography of Crane. Sorrentino brings together nearly one hundred documents from acquaintances of the novelist and poet for a somewhat more revealing look at Crane than has heretofore been available.

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.

Weatherford, Richard M., ed. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. Divided into sections which provide contemporary British and American reviews of Crane’s work as it was published. Similarly, the introduction charts Crane’s career in terms of each published text, noting the critical reception of his work and the details of his publishing career. Includes a brief annotated bibliography and an index.

Wertheim, Stanley, and Paul Sorrentino. The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871-1900. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Stanley and Sorrentino, editors of The Correspondence of Stephen Crane (1988), have attempted to counter many of the falsehoods that have bedeviled analyses of Crane’s life and work by providing a documentary record of the author’s life. Opening with biographical notes on persons mentioned in the text and lavishly sourced, The Crane Log is divided into seven chapters, beginning with the notation in Crane’s father’s diary of the birth of his fourteenth child, Stephen, and ending with a newspaper report of Crane’s funeral, written by Wallace Stevens.

Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. A very thorough volume of Crane information. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Wolford, 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.

Wolford, Chester L. Stephen Crane: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This overly brief but useful look at Crane’s short fiction provides Wolford’s sensitive readings as well as commentary on the major points that have been raised in critical discussions of the Crane pieces. In describing “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” for example, Wolford explains his view of how the story fits into the archetypical patterns of the passing of the West narratives, while also exploring why other critics have seen Crane’s story as a simple parody. About half of the book is given over to selected Crane letters and extractions from other critics’ writings on Crane’s short pieces. Includes a chronology, bibliography, and index.


Critical Essays