History of Literature

American literature

Stephen Crane


Stephen Crane


Stephen Crane

American writer

born Nov. 1, 1871, Newark, N.J., U.S.
died June 5, 1900, Badenweiler, Baden, Ger.

American novelist, poet, and short-story writer, best known for his novels Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and the short stories “The Open Boat,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and “The Blue Hotel.”

Stephen’s father, Jonathan Crane, was a Methodist minister who died in 1880, leaving Stephen, the youngest of 14 children, to be reared by his devout, strong-minded mother. After attending preparatory school at the Claverack College (1888–90), Crane spent less than two years at college and then went to New York City to live in a medical students’ boardinghouse while freelancing his way to a literary career. While alternating bohemian student life and explorations of the Bowery slums with visits to genteel relatives in the country near Port Jervis, N.Y., Crane wrote his first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), a sympathetic study of an innocent and abused slum girl’s descent into prostitution and her eventual suicide.

At that time so shocking that Crane published it under a pseudonym and at his own expense, Maggie left him to struggle as a poor and unknown freelance journalist, until he was befriended by Hamlin Garland and the influential critic William Dean Howells. Suddenly in 1895 the publication of The Red Badge of Courage and of his first book of poems, The Black Riders, brought him international fame. Strikingly different in tone and technique from Maggie, The Red Badge of Courage is a subtle impressionistic study of a young soldier trying to find reality amid the conflict of fierce warfare. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, survives his own fear, cowardice, and vainglory and goes on to discover courage, humility, and perhaps wisdom in the confused combat of an unnamed Civil War battle. Crane, who had as yet seen no war, was widely praised by veterans for his uncanny power to imagine and reproduce the sense of actual combat.


Crane’s few remaining years were chaotic and personally disastrous. His unconventionality and his sympathy for the downtrodden aroused malicious gossip and false charges of drug addiction and Satanism that disgusted the fastidious author. His reputation as a war writer, his desire to see if he had guessed right about the psychology of combat, and his fascination with death and danger sent him to Greece and then to Cuba as a war correspondent.

His first attempt in 1897 to report on the insurrection in Cuba ended in near disaster; the ship Commodore on which he was traveling sank with $5,000 worth of ammunition, and Crane—reported drowned—finally rowed into shore in a dinghy with the captain, cook, and oiler, Crane scuttling his money belt of gold before swimming through dangerous surf. The result was one of the world’s great short stories, “The Open Boat.”

Unable to get to Cuba, Crane went to Greece to report the Greco-Turkish War for the New York Journal. He was accompanied by Cora Taylor, a former brothel-house proprietor. At the end of the war they settled in England in a villa at Oxted, Surrey, and in April 1898 Crane departed to report the Spanish-American War in Cuba, first for the New York World and then for the New York Journal. When the war ended, Crane wrote the first draft of Active Service, a novel of the Greek war. He finally returned to Cora in England nine months after his departure and settled in a costly 14th-century manor house at Brede Place, Sussex. Here Cora, a silly woman with social and literary pretensions, contributed to Crane’s ruin by encouraging his own social ambitions. They ruined themselves financially by entertaining hordes of spongers, as well as close literary friends—including Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, Henry James, and Robert Barr, who completed Crane’s Irish romance The O’Ruddy.


Crane now fought a desperate battle against time, illness, and debts. Privation and exposure in his Bowery years and as a correspondent, together with an almost deliberate disregard for his health, probably hastened the disease that killed him at an early age. He died of tuberculosis that was compounded by the recurrent malarial fever he had caught in Cuba.

After The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s few attempts at the novel were of small importance, but he achieved an extraordinary mastery of the short story. He exploited youthful small-town experiences in The Monster and Other Stories (1899) and Whilomville Stories (1900); the Bowery again in George’s Mother (1896); an early trip to the southwest and Mexico in “The Blue Hotel” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”; the Civil War again in The Little Regiment (1896); and war correspondent experiences in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) and Wounds in the Rain (1900). In the best of these tales Crane showed a rare ability to shape colourful settings, dramatic action, and perceptive characterization into ironic explorations of human nature and destiny. In even briefer scope, rhymeless, cadenced and “free” in form, his unique, flashing poetry was extended into War Is Kind (1899).

Stephen Crane first broke new ground in Maggie, which evinced an uncompromising (then considered sordid) realism that initiated the literary trend of the succeeding generations—i.e., the sociological novels of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and James T. Farrell. Crane intended The Red Badge of Courage to be “a psychological portrayal of fear,” and reviewers rightly praised its psychological realism. The first nonromantic novel of the Civil War to attain widespread popularity, The Red Badge of Courage turned the tide of the prevailing convention about war fiction and established a new, if not unprecedented, one. The secret of Crane’s success as war correspondent, journalist, novelist, short-story writer, and poet lay in his achieving tensions between irony and pity, illusion and reality, or the double mood of hope contradicted by despair. Crane was a great stylist and a master of the contradictory effect.





Type of work: Novel
Author: Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
Type of plot: Impressionistic realism
Time of plot: Civil War
Locale: A Civil War battlefield
First published: 1895


Marking a dramatic departure from the traditional treatment of war in fiction, this novel ignores powerful generals and historic victories and defeats in favor of probing the personal reactions of unknown foot soldiers fighting unknown enemies in skirmishes of indeterminate outcome. Henry Fleming is motivated not by courage or patriotism but by cowardice, fear, and finally egoism, and events in the novel are all filtered subjectively through his consciousness.


Principal Characters

Henry Fleming, a young recruit under fire for the first time in an unnamed battle of the Civil War, possibly Chancellorsville. A farm boy whose struggle with his emotions might be that of the eternal recruit in any battle of any war, Henry has dreamed of fighting heroically in "Greeklike" battles. Irritated and unnerved by his regiment's inactivity, he tortures himself with the fear that he may run away when the actual firing begins. He does so. Sheepishly rejoining his regiment, he learns that his cowardice is not known to his fellow soldiers. In the next attack he keeps firing after the others have stopped. When a color-bearer falls, he picks up the flag and carries it forward. Later he hears that the colonel has complimented his fierceness. Henry's psychological battle with himself is now ended; it has gone from fear to cowardice to bravery and, finally, to egotism.
Jim Conklin, "the tall soldier," a veteran who comforts Henry and squabbles with the braggart Wilson. He predicts that the regiment is about to move into battle. When it does so, he is mortally wounded. Henry and "the tattered man" find him stumbling to the rear, still on his feet, fearful of falling under the wheels of an artillery wagon. He wanders into a field, as if it were a place of rendezvous with death. Henry and the tattered man follow him, trying to bring him back. He brushes them off and, with a great convulsion, drops dead.
Wilson, "the loud one." At first he seems confident, absolutely sure of his courage. But as the battle begins he suddenly thinks he may be killed, and he turns a packet of letters over to Henry Fleming. After the first attack he asks for the return of the letters. Some of his loudness and swagger is now gone. He and Henry struggle to get the flag from the fallen color-bearer. Henry seizes it, but Wilson aids him in going forward and setting an example to the wavering troops.
"The Tattered Man," a soldier encountered by Henry Fleming just after he has run away. The man embarrasses the recruit by asking where he is wounded. Later he and Henry follow Jim Conklin into the field. The soldier is so impressed by the manner of Jim's death that he calls the dead man a "jim-dandy." Then he cautions Henry to "watch out fer ol' number one."
Lieutenant Hasbrouck, a young officer of Henry Fleming's company. He is shot in the hand in the early part of the battle but is able to drive a fleeing soldier back into the ranks and tries vainly to stop the disorganized retreat. He later compliments Henry and Wilson by calling them "wild cats."
Colonel MacChesnay, the officer who also compliments Henry Fleming and Wilson. He is berated by the general, shortly after Henry's advance with the flag, for not forcing the partial success of the charge to a complete one.


The Story

The tall soldier, Jim Conklin, and the loud soldier, Wilson, argued bitterly over the rumor that the troops were about to move. Henry Fleming was impatient to experience his first battle, and as he listened to the quarreling of the seasoned soldiers he wondered if he would become frightened and run away under gunfire. He questioned Wilson and Conklin, and each man stated that he would stand and fight no matter what happened. Henry had come from a farm, wnere he had dreamed of battles and longed for army life. His mother had held him back at first. When she saw that her son was bored with the farm, she packed his woolen clothing and with a warning that he must not associate with the wicked kind of men who were in the military camps sent him off to join the Yankee troops.
One gray morning Henry awoke to find that the regiment was about to move. With a hazy feeling that death would be a relief from dull and meaningless marching, Henry was again disappointed. The troops made only another march. He began to suspect that the generals were stupid fools, but the other men in his raw regiment scoffed at his idea and told him to shut up.
When the fighting suddenly began, there was very little action in it for Henry. He lay on the ground with the other men and watched for signs of the enemy. Some of the men around him were wounded. He could not see what was going on or what the battle was about. Then an attack came. Immediately Henry forgot all his former confused thoughts, and he could only fire his rifle over and over; around him men behaved in their strange individual manner as they were wounded. Henry felt a close comradeship with the men at his side who were firing at the enemy with him.
Suddenly the attack ended. To Henry it seemed strange that the sky above should still be blue after the guns had stopped firing. While the men were recovering from the attack, binding wounds, and gathering equipment, another surprise attack was launched from the enemy line. Unprepared and tired from the first fighting, the men retreated in panic. Henry, sharing their sudden terror, ran too.
When the fearful retreat had ended, the fleeing men learned that the enemy had lost the battle. Now Henry felt a surge of guilt. Dreading to rejoin his companions, he fled into the forest. There he saw a squirrel run away from him in fright. The fleeing animal seemed to vindicate in Henry's mind his own cowardly flight; he had acted according to nature whose own creatures ran from danger. Then seeing a dead man lying in a clearing, Henry hurried back into the retreating column of wounded men. Most were staggering along in helpless bewilderment, and some were being carried on stretchers. Henry realized that he had no wound and that he did not belong in that group of staggering men. There was one pitiful-looking man, covered with dirt and blood, wandering about dazed and alone. Everyone was staring at him and avoiding him. When Henry approached him, the young boy saw that the soldier was Jim Conklin. He was horrified at the sight of the tall soldier. He tried to help Jim, but with a wild motion of despair Jim fell to the ground dead. Once more Henry fled.
His conscience was torturing him. He wanted to return to his regiment to finish the fight, but he thought that his fellow soldiers would point to him as a deserter. He envied the dead men who were lying all about him. They were already heroes; he was a coward. Ahead he could hear the rumbling of artillery. As he neared the lines of his regiment, a retreating line of men broke from the trees ahead of him. The men ran fiercely, ignoring him or waving frantically at him as they shouted something he could not comprehend. He stood among the flying men, not knowing what to do. One man hit him on the head with the butt of a rifle.
Henry went on carefully, the wound in his head hurting him a great deal. He walked for a long while until he met another soldier, who led Henry back to his regiment. The first familiar man Henry met was Wilson. Wilson, who had been a terrible braggart before the first battle, had given Henry a packet of letters to keep for him in case he were killed. Now Henry felt superior to Wilson. If the man asked him where he had been, Henry would remind him of the letters. Lost was Henry's feeling of guilt; he felt superior now, his deeds of cowardice almost forgotten. No one knew that he had run off in terror. Wilson had changed. He no longer was the swaggering, boastful man who had annoyed Henry in the beginning. The men in the regiment washed Henry's head wound and told him to get some sleep.
The next morning Wilson casually asked Henry for the letters. Half sorry that he had to yield them with no taunting remark, Henry returned the letters to his comrade. He felt sorry for Wilson's embarrassment. He felt himself a virtuous and heroic man.
Another battle started. This time Henry held his position doggedly and kept firing his rifle without thinking. Once he fell down, and for a panicky moment he thought that he had been shot, but he continued to fire his rifle blindly, loading and firing without even seeing the enemy. Finally someone shouted to him that he must stop shooting, that the battle was over. Then Henry looked up for the first time and saw that there were no enemy troops before him. Now he was a hero. Everyone stared at him when the lieutenant of the regiment complimented his fierce fighting. Henry realized that he had behaved like a demon.
Wilson and Henry, off in the woods looking for water, overheard two officers discussing the coming battle. They said that Henry's regiment fought like mule drivers, but that they would have to be used anyway. Then one officer said that probably not many of the regiment would live through the day's fighting. Soon after the attack started, the color bearer was killed and Henry took up the flag, with Wilson at his side. Although the regiment fought bravely, one of the commanding officers of the army said that the men had not gained the ground that they were expected to take. The same officer had complimented Henry for his courageous fighting. He began to feel that he knew the measure of his own courage and endurance.
His outfit fought one more engagement with the enemy. Henry was by that time a veteran, and the fighting held less meaning for him than had the earlier battles. When it was over, he and Wilson marched away with their victorious regiment.


Critical Evaluation

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane's second novel (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets had appeared under a pseudonym in 1893) and his most famous work, has often been considered the first truly modern war novel. The war is the American Civil War, and the battle is presumed to be the one fought at Chancellorsville, though neither the war nor the battle is named in the novel. Nor is there mention of Abraham Lincoln or the principal battle generals, Joseph Hooker (Union) and Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson (Confederate). This is by design, since Crane was writing a different kind of war novel. He was not concerned with the causes of the war. the political and social implications of the prolonged and bloody conflict, the strategy and tactics of the commanding officers, or even the real outcome of a battle in which the combined losses were nearly thirty thousand men (including "Stonewall" Jackson, mistakenly shot in darkness by one of his own men).
From beginning to end, the short novel focuses upon one Union Army volunteer. Though other characters enter the story and reappear intermittently, they are distinctly minor, and they are present primarily to show the relationship of Henry Fleming (usually called only "the youth") to one person, to a small group of soldiers, or to the complex war of which he is such an insignificant part.
Much of the story takes the reader into Henry's consciousness. We share his boyish dreams of glory, his excitement in anticipating battle action, his fear of showing fear, his cowardice and flight, his inner justification of what he has done, his wish for a wound to symbolize a courage he has not shown (the ironic gaining of his false "red badge"), his secret knowledge of the badge's origin, his "earning" the badge as he later fights fiercely and instinctively, his joy in musing on his own bravery and valiant actions, his anger at an officer who fails to appreciate his soldiery, and his final feeling that "the great death" is, after all, not a thing to be feared so much. Now, he tells himself, he is a man. In centering the story within the consciousness of an inexperienced youth caught in a war situation whose meaning and complexities he cannot understand, Crane anticipates Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, and other later novelists.
Crane has been called a realist, a naturalist, an impressionist, and a symbolist. He is all of these in The Red Badge of Courage. Though young Stephen Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote the novel, he had read about the experience of war; he had talked with veterans and had studied history under a Civil War general; and he had imagined what it would be like to be a frightened young man facing violent death amid the confusion, noise, and turmoil of a conflict which had no clear meaning to him. Intuitively he wrote so realistically that several early reviewers concluded that only an experienced soldier could have written the book. After Crane had later seen the Greeks and Turks fighting in 1897 (he was a journalist reporting the war), he told Joseph Conrad, "My picture of war was all right! I have found it as I imagined it."
Although naturalistic passages appear in the novel, Crane portrays in Henry Fleming not a helpless chip floating on the indifferent ocean of life but a youth sometimes impelled into action by society or by instinct yet also capable of consciously willed acts. Before the first skirmish Henry wishes he could escape from his regiment and considers his plight:" . . . there were iron laws of tradition and law on four sides. He was in a moving box." In the second skirmish he runs "like a rabbit." When a squirrel in the forest flees after Henry throws a pine cone at him, Henry justifies his own flight: "There was the law, he said. Nature had given him a sign." But he is not content to look upon himself as on the squirrel's level. He feels guilt over his cowardice. When he carries the flag in the later skirmishes, he is not a terrified chicken or rabbit or squirrel but a young man motivated by pride, by a sense of belonging to a group, and by a determination to show his courage to an officer who had scornfully called the soldiers in his group a lot of "mule drivers."
From the beginning, critics have both admired and complained about Crane's impressionistic writing and his use of imagery and symbols in The Red Badge of Courage. Edward Garnett in 1898 called Crane "the chief impressionist of our day" and praised his "wonderful fervour and freshness of style." Joseph Conrad (himself an impressionist) was struck by Crane's "genuine verbal felicity, welding analysis and description in a continuous fascination of individual style," and Conrad saw Henry as "the symbol of all untried men." By contrast, one American critic in 1898 described the novel as "a mere riot of words" and condemned "the violent straining after effect" and the "absurd similes." Though H. G. Wells liked the book as a whole, he commented on "those chromatic splashes that at times deafen and confuse in the Red Badge, those images that astonish rather than enlighten."
Yet judging by the continuing popularity of The Red Badge of Courage, most readers are not repelled by Crane's repeated use of color—"blue demonstration," "redeyes," "red animal—war." "red sun"—or by his use of images— "dark shadows that moved like monsters," "The dragons were coming,'" guns that "belched and howled like brass devils guarding a gate." Only in a few passages does Crane indulge in "arty" writing—"The guns squatted in a row like savage chiefs. They argued with abrupt violence"—or drop into the pathetic fallacy—"The flag suddenly sank down as if dying. Its motion as it fell was a gesture of despair." Usually the impressionistic phrasing is appropriate to the scene or to the emotional state of Henry Fleming at a particular moment, as when, after he has fought, he believes, heroically, the sun shines "now bright and gay in the blue, enameled sky." A brilliant work of the imagination, The Red Badge of Courage will endure as what Crane afterward wrote a friend he had intended it to be, "a psychological portrayal of fear."



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