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Life and Works

 

Stephen Crane is a unique case of an American writer whose fictional work combines naturalism, impressionism and symbolism, and whose small body of poetry is virtually unclassifiable. His life was cut short, in 1900, at the age of twenty-eight, by tuberculosis; and yet, he had published enough material - journalism, short stories, novels and poetry - to fill a dozen volumes of a collected edition (Wilson Follet, ed.: 1925-26) and had earned the admiration of such leading writers as William Dean Howells, Henry James, H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad, among others.


He was born in Newark, New Jersey on November 1, 1871, the fourteenth (and last) child of a Methodist minister, Jonathan Townley Crane, and his wife Mary Helen Peck. The family moved several times before Crane entered school, shortly after which, in 1880, his father died. He never liked school and developed few friendships. He entered Syracuse University, but apart from playing on the baseball team, was uninterested in college life. He abandoned his "studies" after only one semester and went to New York in 1891 with the intention of becoming a journalist.

He worked as a free-lance writer for the Bachellor-Johnson newspaper syndicate and spent two unsettled years living in bohemian conditions with other young artists and writers (during which he explored the slums of the Bowery) or, at times, at his brother Edmond's more genteel home in Lake View, New Jersey. Emulating the Realist work of Hamlin Garland - whom he had heard lecture in 1891 - Crane wrote during this period his novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. When it was rejected by several editors, Crane published it, under the pseudonym of Johnston Smith, at his own expense. Both Garland and William Dean Howells though highly of Maggie, but its Naturalistic pessimism concerning the life of the protagonist did not offer the kind of escape from social and moral ills that the American reading public of the time was looking for, and the book sold poorly.

Possibly because he was searching for subject-matter that would appeal to a larger audience, he next decided to write about the Civil War. Although he described his second novel as a pot-boiler, few would dispute that The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, is his finest accomplishment.

It was first published in late 1894 as a syndicated newspaper story and later, in 1895, as a novel. That same year his first volume of poetry, entitled The Black Riders and Other Lines, was also published. Once again, Garland and Howells responded favorably to Crane's spare and laconic verses, which seemed to have no clear precedent (the work of Emily Dickinson was only beginning to come to light during the decade of the 90s), but the public found them too unconventional and experimental. On the other hand, The Red Badge of Courage became the first widely successful novel on the theme of the Civil War and brought him, at the age of twenty-four, both national and international fame. Even though he was born six years after the end of the war and had as yet no experience of battle, he was praised by veterans for his ability to imagine and convey the sense of real combat.

CORA STEWART TAYLOR
He also became a reporter in 1895, travelling in the West and Mexico, where he found much of the material for later stories. At the end of 1896, he left New York for Cuba, to cover the insurrection there. On the journey, he met Cora Howarth Stewart (alias Cora Taylor), who owned and operated the Hotel de Dream in Jacksonville, Florida, with who he would spend the last three years of his life.


He left Florida for Cuba on 2 January, 1897 on The Commodore, carrying 5,000 dollars' worth of munitions and a number of filibusters for the fight. Fortunately for the history of American letters (but not for those who died), the ship sank not far from the coast. Crane's sometimes dry, but riveting report of the accident, and his survival, was published a few days later in the New York Press and shortly thereafter gave him the raw material for his most famous story, "The Open Boat". Like much of his poetry, "The Open Boat" consists of spare and direct observation of events and character - in this particular case, in extreme circumstances - and it discloses a stoic and disillusioned response to the naked truth of existence: that nature, the universe, is completely indifferent to the fate of human beings.


In the summer of 1897 he travelled to Greece, accompanied by Taylor, to report on the Greco-Turkish War for the New York Journal.

 

CRANE IN GREECE, 1897 WITH CORA TAYLOR

 

Afterward the two of them settled into a villa at Oxted, Oxford. In April, 1898, however, he returned to Cuba to report on the Spanish-American War for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. He returned to England and Cora in early 1899 and they moved into a 14th-century manor house in Brede Place, Sussex, where he met such important writers as Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford and Henry James.


At this time, though, the effects of the poverty of his early years in New York and his imprudence as a war correspondent began to catch up with him. The symptoms of the tuberculosis that would end his life - complicated by a recurrent malarial fever he had contracted in Cuba - became apparent. Increasingly ill, and in debt, he wrote at a furious rate, producing between 1898 and 1900 thirteen stories for Harper's, a novel entitled Active Service, his second, and last, volume of poetry, War Is Kind, a series of nine articles on great battles and twenty-five chapters of the unfinished novel The O'Ruddy. In 1900, in an attempt to regain his health, he went with Cora to a sanatorium in Badenweiler, Germany, where he died on the 5th of June.

Crane's contribution to American poetry, two slender volumes, cannot really be said to be significant. As is the case with his better-known and more influential fiction, however, his poetry was original, powerful and, in many ways, ahead of its time. While more established poets like Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters were more subtly and laboriously breaking away from the strong American mold that had been set by the Fireside Poets, Crane brought the strength of his journalistic prose to his poetry. Focussing on image and idea, and employing rhythms adapted from prose, he anticipated by over a decade the Imagistic experiments of writers like Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and Amy Lowell as well as, it might be argued, the concrete poetry of William Carlos Williams. And in the field of fiction, both his style and his subject matter (especially The Red Badge of Courage) provided an important model for Ernest Hemingway.

Crane's poetry is only a small parenthesis within the larger text of American letters; but what we find inside that parenthesis is fascinating and, in its quirky originality, it blunt honesty and existential resignation, indicative of several of the more important and constantly endangered qualities of the American character.

 

Autor: Paul Scott Derrick (Universidad de Valencia)