"The Open Boat" and Other Stories is a collection of four stories by Stephen Crane, listed in chronological order as follows: “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1893), “The Open Boat” (1897), “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898), and “The Blue Hotel” (1898). All of these works represent distinct periods in Crane’s career and highlight various aspects of his writing style. Furthermore, the unique settings in each pertain quite clearly to some of Crane’s personal experiences. Nonetheless, in all four works, Crane demonstrates his affinity for particular themes, including communication and failures of communication, human misconceptions, hypocrisy, naturalism, and to some extent, existentialism.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was Crane’s first published work of fiction (it was published as a novella or short novel). Due to its scandalous and unconventional themes, Crane was forced to pay for the publication himself. Furthermore, in an attempt to avoid the critical and public backlash he expected to receive, Crane published the first edition under the pseudonym “Johnston Smith.” In brief, Maggie depicts the destruction of an innocent young girl in the Bowery, which was at that time a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Manhattan. Her descent into prostitution--not to mention the forthright depictions of the neighborhood’s squalor, unsavory characters, and rough language--made the topic of the novella quite controversial. Crane “was describing a modern slum-world, ferocious and sordid, with … fidelity” (Berryman 58-59). Only one bookshop consented to sell the book. It bought twelve copies from Crane--and returned ten. Yet, the work caught the critical attention and praise of William Dean Howells, a respected author and literary critic. Today, it is regarded as one of Crane’s most notable works due to its realist yet artistic depiction of life in the American slums.
“The Open Boat” is based upon Crane’s own dramatic experience in a shipwreck en route to Cuba. Crane had intended to travel to Cuba to witness and report on the Cuban insurgency against Spain. He had embarked on the Commodore, a cargo vessel carrying arms. The Commodore, however, sank in the Atlantic Ocean, and Crane found himself with three other male survivors in a dinghy, struggling to row ashore. (Another man on the dinghy reported the event as involving five survivors, not four.) Crane’s accounts of the event are well known, not just from “The Open Boat,” but also from “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” a newspaper article about the event that was published by the New York Press just four days after the incident. In fact, “The Open Boat” is considered by many scholars and critics to be Crane’s best work of short fiction, deftly capturing the sense of isolation and existential anxiety felt by the survivors on the dinghy.
In 1895, Crane took the opportunity to travel to the American West and Mexico, working as a reporter for the Bachellor-Johnson Syndicate, a newspaper syndicate based in the East. During these travels, Crane met Willa Cather. Crane’s experiences in the West deeply influenced two of his short stories, “The Blue Hotel” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” Both of these address themes regarding the mythic West, Eastern expectations and misconceptions of its tropes, and the possibility that such tropes are outdated. Crane’s portrayal of the West does not uphold the glorified vision of cowboys and gunfights; instead, his tone in these stories combines elements of parody and irony, which are directed at characters from both the West and the East.