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Biography of Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Stephen Crane Stephen Crane

Born in November 1871 in Newark, New Jersey, Stephen Crane was the youngest of fourteen children. The Crane family moved to Port Jervis, New York, where Crane first began his education. His father, a strict Methodist minister, died in 1880, leaving his devout, strong mother to raise the children. Mary H. P. Crane moved her family back to New Jersey, where they lived in Asbury Park. Mrs. Crane herself was an active writer who contributed to various Methodist papers.

Crane attended a Methodist boarding school for two years from 1885 to 1887. Later, he attended Claverack College and the Hudson River Institute. Ultimately, Crane spent less than two years in college. At Syracuse University, he excelled in baseball and enjoyed a much more successful social life than an academic life. During his brief stint at college, Crane came into contact with Hamlin Garland, an author whose style would influence Crane’s own works.

While Crane was in college, his mother passed away; afterwards he dropped out and moved to New York City. In this urban setting, he worked as a freelance writer and eventually completed his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. He published this novel, a study of an innocent slum girl and her downfall into a world of prostitution and abuse, in 1893 at his own expense. It was especially scandalous for the times, and Crane used the pseudonym “Johnson Smith.” It sold few copies but did attract the attention of other critics and writers, most notably William Dean Howells, who helped Crane receive backing for his next project, The Red Badge of Courage.

Crane’s time in New York City was split between his apartment in Manhattan’s Bowery slums and the home of a wealthy family in the nearby town of Port Jervis. “It was his fate never to have a hometown or even, in the sense of place, a home. Strong inner activity,” such as his own reading, “must have compensated” (Cady 34).

While working on what is arguably his most well-known work, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane also wrote poems and short stories, including “An Experiment in Misery” and “In the Depths of a Coal Mine.” His collection of poems was published under the title Black Riders and Other Lines.

The Red Badge (1895) was quite different from Maggie in style and approach, and it brought Crane international fame and quite a bit of money. Rather than plod through moral tropes, the book is subtle and imagistic, while still being firmly entrenched in the realism of late 1890s America. Crane’s rich portrayal of Henry Fleming’s growth through the trials and terrors of a Civil War battle betrays the fact that Crane himself had not yet seen any fighting or battles when he wrote the book. Many veterans of the Civil War (only thirty years had gone by since its end) praised the book, however, for capturing the feelings and pictures of actual combat.

Bolstered by the success of The Red Badge and his book of poetry, Crane published another novel, George’s Mother. In 1896, he also prepared a revised edition of Maggie for publication by D. Appleton and Company.

In the meantime, Crane became subsumed with ideas of war. In 1897, he was hired to go to Cuba as a journalist to report on the rebellion there against the Spanish. On the way to the island, however, Crane was in a shipwreck - he was originally reported dead, but he rowed to shore in a dinghy with three other men. He swam to shore and had to drop his money in the sea to avoid drowning. This experience directly led to his most famous short story, “The Open Boat” (1897). Crane also wrote a newspaper account of his experience only a few days after the incident, “Stephen Crane’s Own Story.”

In 1897, Crane’s novel The Third Violet was published. During the same year, while in Jacksonville, Florida, he met the owner of a brothel, Cora Taylor. She accompanied him to Greece, where he reported on the Greco-Turkish War for New York newspapers, and stayed with him until the end of his life. At this point, rumors abounded about Crane, few of them good. There was talk of drug addiction, rampant promiscuity, and even Satanism, none of which were true. Crane was disgusted with the rumors and eventually relocated to England.

After reporting on the Spanish-American War and Theodore Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders, Crane moved to England. He then drove himself deeply into debt by throwing huge, expensive parties, reportedly at Cora Taylor’s insistence. While he could now count Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and other authors in his circle, most people sponged off of Crane and his lavishness. He worked on a novel about the Greek war and continued writing short stories and poetry, at this point to pay off his large debts. While in England, Crane wrote “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and “The Blue Hotel.” These two short stories, along with Maggie and “The Open Boat,” were compiled and published together in 1898 as The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure.

The year 1899 saw the publication of another collection of poetry, War Is Kind, and one of short stories, The Monster and Other Stories. Furthermore, Crane had based a novel, Active Service, on his time in Greece during the war. Crane continued to write prolifically until his death.

The stress of his lifestyle, compounded by an almost blatant disregard for his own health, led to Crane contracting tuberculosis. In fact, he collapsed during a party due to a tubercular hemorrhage in December 1899. He died on June 5, 1900 while in Baden, Germany trying to recover from this illness. Even on his deathbed, Crane was dictating what would become The O’Ruddy. He was not yet 29 years old.

A number of works by Crane were published posthumously. These include: Whilomville Stories; Wounds in the Rain; Great Battles of the World; Last Words; The O’Ruddy.

Study Guides on Works by Stephen Crane