Late 19th Century Fiction: Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a Methodist preacher, and his mother was a social leader and temperance crusader. He was their 14th child.
The family moved several times when Stephen was a child, following his father's pastoral assignments. In 1880, when Stephen was 9, his father died, and the family settled in Asbury Park, New Jersey. His older brother, Townley Crane, ran a news reporting agency, and gave Stephen the job of reporting the vacation news.
Crane attended Pennington Academy and later the Hudson River Institute, a military academy. By the age of 15 Crane was obsessed with the idea of becoming a professional baseball player, and his special academic talent was loafing around. Although he went to college for two terms, he spent most of his time playing baseball and writing. He had articles printed in the New York Tribune and the Detroit Free Press, and began work on a novel. He devoted very little time to studying, and after he failed most of his classes, he left college for good in May 1891.
He looked for newspaper work, but although he'd done some reporting for his brother, he wasn't good at the kind of factual reporting of routine assignments that was required of cub reporters, and he lived hand-to-mouth for the next three years. He worked freelance, barely surviving, but came to know intimately the poorer streets and slums of New York and New Jersey. Images of these places and the people who lived there came to life in his books and stories.
While in college, during 2 days in 1891, he'd written Maggie. In 1893, he rewrote it, borrowed $700 from his brother, and had it published at his own expense as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It didn't sell, but it did attract the attention of Hamlin Garland, an influential writer and critic, who befriended Crane and helped him find writing assignments. In 1894, The Red Badge of Courage was published serially in the Philadephia Press. Garland made sure to bring it to the attention of William Dean Howells, one of the most important literary figures of the time. Due to his help, the novel was published in book form in 1895, and was very successful.
Maggie was published regularly in 1896, and was followed by The Little Regiment (1896), George's Mother (1896), The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898), The Monster and Other Stories (1899), Whilomville Stories (1900), Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (1900), and two volumes of poetry: The Black Riders and Other Lines (1985) and War is Kind (1899).
The success of Crane's novels brought him more opportunities in journalism, as well. He covered the Spanish American and Greco-Turkish wars for American and British newspapers, and toured the American West and Mexico.
In 1896, he went to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was assigned to cover the revolution against Spanish rule in Cuba. There, he survived a shipwreck after signing on with the crew of a small ship, the Commodore, which was running guns to Cuban rebels. This experience was immortalized in one of his best stories, "The Open Boat." While in Jacksonville, he met Cora Taylor, a nightclub owner who reputedly ran a house of prostitution. They fell madly and instantly in love. She travelled with him to England.
In 1897, he settled in England, where he became friends with Joseph Conrad, Henry James, J. M. Barrie, H. G. Wells, and other writers.
In 1899, he went to Cuba to report on the Spanish-American War. He returned to England with malaria and symptoms of tuberculosis. Nevertheless, he kept up a demanding schedule, preparing 3 collections of stories, a novel, and a volume of poetry. By 1900, he could no longer ignore his illness. He travelled to Germany in June 1900 to seek a cure at a sanitarium in Badweiler, but died there. He was 28 years old.
The Red Badge of Courage
Crane's novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was the first American naturalistic novel. It was a graphic depiction of life in the slums, with all of its squalor and immorality. It was unique in its time, and was deeply shocking to readers. Crane believed that a person's fate is determined by factors beyond his or her control. This is demonstrated in Maggie and his other works by the technique of the writer, who refrains from ethical comment or judgment. The writer, Crane argued, should create as detailed and accurate a picture as possible, without editorializing or interpreting for the reader. In a letter, Crane said that he intended simply to offer "a slice out of life; and if there is any moral lesson in it, I do not try to point it out."
Unlike his parents, Crane did not believe in the benevolence of God or in free will. In his work, a human being is an insignificant speck, tossed around by the circumstances of life as an open boat is tossed on the waves. Crane saw human beings as completely controlled by their environment and heredity, and specialized in presenting the irony and humor in the disparity between his charaqcters' expectations and illusions, and the stark reality of their lives.
Human beings, thought Crane, desperately maintain the illusion of free will and struggle against the idea that they have no control over their destiny. Even he was not exempt from such ambiguity. In a letter to John Northern Hilliard, dated January 1896, he wrote,
...I understand that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes and he is not at all responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to my honesty is my supreme ambition. There is a sublime egotism in talking of honesty. I, however, do not say that I am honest. I merely say that I am as nearly honest as a weak mental machinery will allow. This aim in life struck me as being the only thing worth while. A man is sure to fail at it, but there is something in the failure."
As to his technique, Crane acknowledged that he was attempting to do in words what the Impressionists were doing in paint: "to capture discrete moments in sudden flashes of illumination, to record life's impact on the senses before reason has intervened to give everything a familiar name" (Crews 122).
Crane uses this technique with great effect in The Red Badge of Courage. In this novel, Crane is attempting to create what Henry James called "a direct impression of life." The goal is to immerse the reader in the experience so much that its impact on the reader occurs at the same time it is experienced by the characters. Crane doesn't show the whole of the battlefield. Instead he creates what a soldier would know: disconnected segments, sensations, misinformation. The events are presented from the restricted point of view of the soldier himself.
As R. W. Stallman points out, Crane's style created in words what the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were doing on canvas: "His style is, in brief, prose pointillism. It is composed of disconnected images, which, like blobs of color in a French Impressionist painting, coalesce one with another, every word-group having a cross-reference relationship, every seemingly disconnected detail having interrelationship to the configurated pattern of the whole."
Crane uses contrast and juxtaposition to create perspective: black against brightness, complementary colors against each other, gray smoke around light and color: "In the eastern sky, there was a yellow patch like a rug laid for the feet of the coming sun; and against it, black and pattern-like, loomed the gigantic figure of the colonel on a gigantic horse."
Darkness and smoke serve as symbols of deception, concealment, and lack of enlightenment. Sunlight and bright color often signify rebirth and insight.
Many critics have argued that Crane is incapable of structure, that his work is merely a mass of fragments. But Stallman disagrees: he posits that Crane's work is a series of countermoves, of motion and change. In the beginning of the novel, Henry is lying on his cot when Jim Conklin says the army is at last going into action. Henry debates about whether to believe his friend or not. The opening of the scene, Stallman argues, sets the structural pattern of the book. Hope and faith shift to despair or disbelief. Motion is juxtaposed with stillness. Sunlight is juxtaposed with darkness, mist, or smoke. Life is juxtaposed with death, silence with noise, reality with illusion, heroism with cowardice.
The outer conflict--i.e., the battle--is a mirror of Henry's inner conflict. He fears and resists change, even as he is surrounded and battered by it. Tradition and stasis are juxtaposed with time and change; his ideals conflict with reality.
But how are we to interpret all of these details? Critics present a wide range of possibilities. Stallman, for example, sees the novel as a story of courage and rebirth: "Spiritual change, that is Henry Fleming's red badge. His red badge is his conscience reborn and purified." Henry runs away from the battle, but then realizes he must go back. He finds salvation in humility, in facing his fear of death. His redemption and rebirth are made possible by his friend Jim Conklin, who is saturated with religious symbolism: the wound in his side, his bloody hand, and the intials of his name tell us he is intended to represent Jesus Christ.
John Hart interprets the novel a bit differently. He, too, sees it as a novel of redemption, but argues that it follows the classic pattern of myth, in which the progression of the hero moves from separation from the group, to initiation, to return to the group. Henry leaves his known environment, his home, to go to war, where he is "initiated" into experience, and then returns to subsume himself once more into the group.
Hart points out that, as often occurs in myth, characters are named by their attributes: the Tall Soldier, the Loud Soldier, the Tattered Soldier, the Cheery Man. Colors also function symbolically in the novel:
Red, traditionally associated with blood and fire, suggests courage, flag, life-energy, desire, ambition. Black, traditionally associated with death, implies "great unknown," darkness, forests, and, by extension, entombment and psychological death. The whole paraphernalia of myth-religious and sacrificial rite--the ceremonial dancing, the dragons with fiery eyes, the menacing landscape, the entombment, the sudden appearance of a guide, those symbols so profoundly familiar to the unconscious and so frightening to the conscious personality--give new dimensions to the meaning of the novel.
Hart argues that Henry's rebirth is a realization that courage, individual energy, and vitality spring from participating harmoniously as a member of the group. He is "entombed" in the forest and then chooses to return to the group; i.e., he is "reborn": "He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight." He leads his comrades into battle, at one with them.
Charles Walcutt interprets the novel in a completely different way. He sees it, not as a novel of redemption and heroism, but as a nearly pure example of naturalism, in which traditional values are shown to be false, and choices made in accord with them are pretenses. Crane's impressionism "fractures experiences into disordered sensation in a way that shatters the old moral 'order' along with the old orderly processes of reward and punishment." Crane shows, Walcutt says, that "men's wills do not control their destinies"; even when they think they are making choices, they are simply reacting to forces over which they have no control. In The Red Badge of Courage, there is a continual contrast between intention and execution, between the way one's motives appear to others and the motivations that really exist in one's heart.
Henry, Walcutt points out, constantly reacts to external circumstances, only dimly aware of his entrapment. He agrees to stay on the farm until the newspapers report that the North is enjoying great victories; then he finds he is no longer so necessary to the farm. He enlists, nurturing dreams of glory until the battle, when he sees that he is "in a moving box" of soldiers and "it occurred to him that he had never wished to come to war...He had been dragged by the merciless government." This feeling abates when he survives the first charge, but at the second, he runs in panic. As he reaches safety he learns that the line has held, and begins to find reasons for the wisdom of his flight--that is, he rationalizes his actions. He only returns to battle when he sees a column of soldiers going toward the battle and wants to be one of the brave ones again.
He is wounded--not in battle, but by another fleeing soldier--staggers back to his company, and is greeted as a hero. He begins to believe in this public acclamation and ends up seeing himself as brave. He fights furiously in the next battle, but is described as being caught up in the mob's delirium and frenzy. In the end, Henry deludes himself into believing he is a war hero.
Crane shows that Henry's delusions image only dimly the insanely grotesque and incongruous world of battle into which he is plunged. There the movement is blind or frantic, the leaders are selfish, the goals are inhuman. One farm boy is made into an animal to kill another farm boy, while the great guns carry on a "grim pow-wow" on a "stupendous wrangle" described in terms that suggest a solemn farce or a cosmic and irresponsible game.
As you can see, there are many possible interpretations of the novel. The only thing on which all the critics agree is that, in this novel, every detail contributes toward the larger whole. So read it carefully, so you can draw your own conclusions.
For more information about the historical battle which is the basis of the novel, CLICK HERE.
Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. Eds. George and Barbara Perkins. The American Tradition in Literature. 11th ed., Vol. 2. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
2. Eds. Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008.
3. Eds. George McMichael, et al. Anthology of American Literature, 9th ed., Vol. 2. New Jersey: Pearson, 2007.
4. Frederick C. Crews. "Crane's Life and Times." The Red Badge of Courage. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 117-122.
5. Charles J. LaRocca. "The Historical Setting of The Red Badge of Courage." The Red Badge of Courage. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 152-155.
6. R. W. Stallman. "Stephen Crane: A Revaluation." The Red Badge of Courage. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 251-162.
7. John E. Hart. "The Red Badge of Courage as Myth and Symbol." The Red Badge of Courage. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 262-270.
8. Charles Walcutt. "Stephen Crane: Naturalist." The Red Badge of Courage. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Donald Pizer and Eric Carl Link. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. 271-278.