By Edward Shaw
On June 5, 1900, Stephen Crane lay dying of tuberculosis complicated by yellow fever and malaria at Badenweiler health spa near the Black Forest in Germany. The attending physician gave him a morphine injection to ease his suffering followed by a camphor shot. He convulsed, his heart ceased beating; then he was dead at age 28. Thus ended the abbreviated career of either one of the most innovative and influential writers of his generation or, in a less charitable view, an unethical person and overrated one-trick pony as an author. Which one was he? And how did Crane’s personal life and scandals influence his legacy?
Though he wrote a few pieces as a precocious youth, Crane’s writing career was mainly encapsulated in the five-year period preceding his death. And notwithstanding his detractors, his literary influence and productivity were extraordinary. During his short lifetime he published five novels; three collections of short stories; two volumes of poetry; two novellas; more than two hundred short stories and tales; and many dispatches written as a journalist.
Crane’s writing has been variously described as American realism, naturalism or impressionism and is said to have influenced a host of other writers, especially those in the realism school. The short list includes contemporaries Frank Norris, Willa Cather and Joseph Conrad followed later by such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos and James T. Farrell. Yet, for two decades after his death, Crane and his work disappeared into obscurity before being resurrected in the 1920s — which leads us to the less charitable view of him.
Skeptics have long asserted that Crane’s reputation stemmed mainly from his Civil War masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage, and much of his other writing, while perhaps noteworthy in some cases, did not rise to the same level. He self-published his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, using $869 of inherited money to print 1100 copies that did not sell. He gave away 100 copies and was left dispirited and penniless. Years after Crane’s death, Maggie was resurrected and has since been hailed by many scholars and critics as one of his best works. But his other novels that followed Red Badge received mostly negative reviews and his reputation as a novelist took a hit with each subsequent effort.
A Gifted Independent Youth
Crane was the youngest of fourteen siblings, four of whom died before the age of one, in a family dominated by religion. His father, a minister, was presiding elder of the local Methodist Episcopal Church; his mother a strongly religious person who served as a spokeswoman for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Likely in jest, Crane called his family “the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind” despite a great uncle’s elevated stature as a church bishop.
His father died when Crane was eight, leaving the boy’s upbringing largely to his mother and his sister Agnes, fifteen years his senior, who encouraged his writing. Crane was especially devoted to her. There were other links to writing in the family that may have had an influence on the young Crane as well. Both parents authored numerous tracts on religion and his older brother, Townley, was a journalist with the Associated Press, New York Tribune and Asbury Park Shore Press.
Crane was gifted as a child, reading books when he was four and, at age eight, completing two elementary grades in six weeks after his school enrollment had been delayed. He was a sickly boy but that did not dampen his quirky, rebellious nature. Once, on the way to a temperance lecture, of all things, the six-year-old boy pulled out a cigarette and proceeded to smoke it to the amazement of an admiring young friend. The next day he went to the fair and had a beer. In his early teens, Crane angrily quit Pennington Seminary after a teacher called him a liar in a dispute over a hazing incident.
After Pennington, his budding interest in a military career surfaced and his mother enrolled him in Claverack College, a quasi-military boarding school for boys. Crane delighted in his experience there which, it can be argued, primed him for later embarking on The Red Badge of Courage. He excelled in the school’s military training program and rapidly ascended the ranks of the student battalion. He also starred as a catcher on the baseball team, often skipping classes to be out on the diamond. But Crane did not do well in the classroom, barely passing his math and science exams, though he was seen as knowledgeable in literature and history. He also was not very popular with other students and was considered unsociable and standoffish.
Crane worked every summer starting in 1888 as an assistant to his eccentric brother, Townley, who sported bandanas and ran the local news bureau at the New Jersey shore. His first piece under his byline, a fairly pedestrian article on Henry Stanley’s famous search for Dr. Livingstone, was published in the February 1890 edition of Claverack College’s magazine.
By 1890, Crane had decided to forgo a military career in favor of a more practical mining engineering occupation and to that end enrolled in Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College. There, he repeated his previous wayward behavior at Claverack, playing baseball and engaging in extracurricular activities but only infrequently attending classes. He failed five of his seven classes and got a zero in writing. After just one semester, he transferred to Syracuse University, the last stop in his academic career. It, too, was but a brief way station, where he tried his hand at writing and actually published a short story. But he then left college for good, declaring it a waste of time, and determined to become a full-time writer and reporter.
Career, Tumult, Scandal
Shortly after leaving Syracuse, Crane found work as a free-lance writer for the New York Tribune. During the summer of 1892, he wrote a series of news reports for the Tribune on events and happenings in Asbury Park. For the most part they were ordinary and undistinguished. One report, however, took on an especially acerbic tone in its description of a parade featuring the Junior Order of the United American Mechanics. Its members were infuriated and complained to the editor, who apologized to the newspaper’s readers. Crane and the Tribune parted ways and the newspaper did not publish any more of his reports after the incident.
He moved to New York where he was drawn to poor tenement districts like the Bowery with its dance halls, brothels and saloons. Adopting a Bohemian lifestyle while mingling with local artists, writers and medical students, he gained a first-hand perspective on the street life and poverty of the area. It was this experience that unquestionably shaped his Maggie novel, which tells of the descent of an innocent, abused girl into prostitution and her eventual suicide. Crane is said to have conceived of Maggie as the Bowery equivalent of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Publishers who rejected Maggie did so because they feared its description of slum life would shock and offend readers. The 1890s was a time, of course, when Victorian ideals were dominant in America.
Meanwhile, Crane had become involved in a string of relationships with women which raised eyebrows because two of them were already “taken.” Helen Trent, a singer, was engaged to be married when he took up with her, but nothing came of it. Little is known about that affair and one prominent Crane biographer has questioned its very existence, while others have continued to reference it. A few months later in the spring of 1892, he became romantically involved with Lily Brandon Munroe, a married woman of some standing but estranged from her husband. He asked her to elope with him but could not overcome her family’s objections to his lack of money and prospects. He was also seen as a frail and unhealthy individual who smoked excessively despite his chronic hacking cough. Several years later he again asked her to elope, and again she refused. After Munroe, he romanced Nellie Crouse, a socialite from Ohio whom he idealized, but she didn’t return his affection and terminated their relationship after telling him she preferred society men to high-minded ones. At this point in Crane’s life, it is fair to say that he was most assuredly not lucky in love.
After the failure of Maggie, Crane determined to write a war novel. But he had been exasperated by reading dry, emotionless Civil War stories that focused on battlefield heroics without regard to the fears and other emotions of soldiers at war. He said “I wonder that some of those fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps…They spout enough of what they did but they’re emotionless as rocks.” And with that we had the birth of The Red Badge of Courage and along with it, American realism. Most remarkable was Crane creating such a realistic depiction of the battlefield experience without ever having experienced it himself. He credited Civil War veterans among his teachers at Claverack College for many of his insights.
While working on the novel, he also wrote stories and poems to earn a living, albeit a meager one. The publication of The Black Riders, a collection of his poems, received poor reviews. The Red Badge of Courage was initially published in serial form and was syndicated to several American newspapers in December 1894. The full-length version was published later in 1895 by Appleton and it created instant success and fame for Crane. It was widely praised for its realistic portrayal of men in battle and was among the top entries on best-seller lists for several months after its publication.
Unfortunately for Crane, while reveling in his fame he managed to shoot himself in the foot with a scandal involving a prostitute named Dora Clark. He had been hired by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal to cover the Tenderloin area in New York known for its sex trade, police corruption and drugs. One night in September 1896, he met up with two chorus girls – street argot for prostitutes – at a hashish parlor and Dora Clark joined them as they left. A plainclothes policeman tried to arrest Clark for solicitation as well as one of the chorus girls, whom Crane tried to save by claiming to be her husband. He also told the officer that Clark had been “respectable” while in their company and had done nothing wrong, but the policeman still took her to the station house. She was released the next morning by the magistrate after Crane identified himself as the Red Badge author and vouched for her. Then, in an ensuing newspaper piece, he justified his actions on moral and principled grounds without referencing the hashish parlor or his awareness that Clark was a prostitute.
“Stephen Crane is respectfully informed that association with women in scarlet is not necessarily ‘a Red Badge of Courage’ ” was the response of the Chicago Dispatch to his article, and other newspapers echoed that sentiment. Two weeks later, Dora Clark filed charges against the police officer for wrongful arrest, and in turn he tracked her down two days later and beat her. Crane agreed to serve as a witness for Clark. In May, he had written an article on opium smoking in the Tenderloin. In an action seemingly intended to intimidate him, police obtained a warrant to search his apartment and found a set of opium-smoking pipes and other paraphernalia which he claimed to be souvenirs. His story during his testimony before the commission board, however, was feeble and uncompelling. Here is an example:
Commissioner Grant: “Did you ever smoke opium with this Sadie or Amy in a house at 121 27th Street?
Crane: “I deny that.”
Commissioner Grant: “On the ground that it would tend to degrade or incriminate you?”
Crane: “Well … yes,” hesitatingly.
Amy Leslie and Sadie Traphagen, sisters with assumed names and both prostitutes, lived in an apartment in the midst of brothels and opium parlors. When a janitor testified that Crane had once lived with Amy in her apartment for six weeks during the summer, the suit against the policeman was dismissed.*
In the end, Crane’s reputation was badly tarnished and his career as an investigative reporter was effectively ended. Theodore Roosevelt at the time was police commissioner for New York City and the two had been on friendly terms prior to the Dora Clark incident. He was an admirer of Crane’s writing. But he became angered by Crane’s testimony on behalf of Clark as well as an earlier newspaper article critical of the New York police. Roosevelt severed their relationship and thereafter had nothing good to say about Crane. Still aggrieved, during an interview years later after he was elected president, he thundered “Crane was a man of bad character…simply consorting with loose women.”
Several weeks after the Dora Clark incident, Crane succeeded in getting an assignment as a war correspondent for the Bacheller-Johnson syndicate. The Spanish-American War was looming and he was given $700 in Spanish gold to go to Cuba to report on smugglers providing arms to the rebels.
He left by train from New York to Jacksonville accompanied part of the way by Amy Leslie. There he checked into a hotel under a fictitious name in preparation for passage to Cuba. Crane wrote Leslie telling her “I want you always to be sure I love you.” Just a few days later, he started a relationship with Cora Taylor, aka Cora Ethel Stewart, twice married previously and madam of Jacksonville’s finest brothel, the Hotel de Dream. They eventually became common-law husband and wife. But as we will see, Amy Leslie did not simply disappear from his life.
*An historical note: the policeman, Charles Becker, was later executed at Sing Sing Prison in 1915 for complicity in the murder of his gambling partner.
Crane sailed to Cuba aboard the steamer SS Commodore, accompanied by arms smugglers with supplies and ammunition for the Cuban rebels. Barely two miles outside of Jacksonville, the ship struck a sandbar and sank. Crane and three other men from the ship took turns over thirty hours rowing a dinghy toward the shoreline near Daytona Beach, but it overturned and the men had to swim for it. One man died in the ordeal and Crane either lost or jettisoned – it’s unclear which – his $700 in gold while trying to make it back to shore.
The awful event was front-page material for the newspapers which noted that Crane was one of the last to leave the sinking vessel, thereby bestowing him with a measure of redemption after the Dora Clark debacle. It also provided Crane with the basis for one of his celebrated short stories, “The Open Boat,” ranked by critics and scholars as one of his finest works.
Crane continued to work as a war correspondent for the few remaining years of his life. Those years were marked by an exhausting round of travel, writing and journalistic work as well as more turmoil. He finally witnessed the actual reality of battle covering the Greco-Turkish war in the spring of 1897 for William Randoph Hearst’s New York Journal. He also was able to negotiate a job for Cora, the first female war correspondent of that conflict.
Next came a move with Cora to Surrey England in the fall where they lived briefly in a pretentious house before moving to a nearby brick villa called Ravensbrook. Crane wrote feverishly to earn money for his increasingly ostentatious lifestyle. While there, he wrote newspaper society fluff pieces but also some excellent stories including “The Blue Hotel,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and “Death and the Child.”
Meanwhile, Amy Leslie reemerged at the end of 1897 with a lawsuit against Crane, who had failed to deposit $800 of her money in the bank and then only repaid her $250 when pressed for it. The suit was settled out of court, but the newspapers confused Crane’s onetime lover with an esteemed Chicago drama critic also named Amy Leslie. Newspapers had a field day. How could such an eminent public figure also have been a streetwalker consorting with Crane? In fact, Crane knew both of them, Amy Leslie née Traphagan, the streetwalker, and Amy Leslie, the drama critic, whose relationship with Crane was ambiguous. But the latter certainly was not a prostitute. Incredibly, it was not until 2000, more than a century later, that the identities of the two separate women named Amy Leslie was confirmed. Speaking bluntly, that is a damning indictment of the scholarship of Crane researchers over the years.
After the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898, Crane was offered an assignment with an advance to cover the imminent Spanish-American War for a British magazine. Besieged by creditors and desperate for money, he took the offer and departed England for New York. Cora stayed behind to deal with the creditors. Crane eventually made it to Cuba in June where he reported on the establishment of the U.S. Marine base at Guantánamo Bay, several battles and Theodore Roosevelt’s renowned Rough Riders, whom he lauded.
A Tragic End
In July, Crane returned to New York for treatment of a high fever and was diagnosed with both yellow fever and malaria. While recuperating, he contracted with Hearst’s New York Journal to go back to Cuba, returning there without passport in late August under the guise of a tobacco buyer. Spanish troops still controlled Havana at the time and were especially vigilant lest American correspondents enter the city. He wrote articles and dispatches anonymously and effectively disappeared from public view. Meanwhile, Cora back in England was destitute and frantic with worry, not having heard any word from him. Rumors had it he may have been killed.
Crane went back to England in early January and spent the last few months of his life there furiously driving himself to write in a desperate effort to overcome his financial problems. But his health was not up to it. He had three pulmonary hemorrhages over a three month period in early 1900 and his end was imminent. In an extremely weakened state, he and Cora went to the Badenweiler health spa in late May for treatment. But it was too late – his time had run out. Crane died a week after his arrival there.
The Red Bage of Courage has served as the lynchpin of Crane’s literary reputation and it was unquestionably his defining work. Still, Crane, himself, rued the effect “that accursed, damnable book” had on his reputation because he saw it as diminishing his short stories and other writings. The consensus among scholars and critics, however, is his other novels, save perhaps Maggie, were inferior efforts. In contrast, Open Boat and many of his other short stories are first-rate pieces deserving of praise. His poetry less so.
Crane’s most enduring legacy stems less from his individual written works – though obviously Red Badge is a shining star in the literary universe — than the role his works played in the establishment of American realism. Some argue that Crane did not deliberately set about to establish a coherent new approach to writing, that it was just a visceral accident. Consciously or not, his works as a whole reset the framework of literature both in America and abroad in the century after his death.
Crane’s personal life has complicated his legacy and that is mostly unfair. He was not the first writer to have had a scandalous and turbulent life, yet his naysayers on occasion seemed to have used his turmoil as a flog against his writing. He wrote during a time when Victorian ideals were dominant in England and America. Now, more than a century after his death, we have a good idea of what he did well and not so well as a writer. We can look back and evaluate Crane’s works on their own merits, free of the Victorian shadow sometimes cast over them during his writing career. His reputation continues to evolve with the passage of time.∎
Berryman, John. (1962). Stephen Crane. New York. Meridian
Bloom, Harold. (1996). Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. New York. Chelsea House Publishers
Bloom, Harold. (2002). Stephen Crane. New York. Chelsea House Publishers
Crain, Caleb. (June 30, 2014). The Red And The Scarlet: The hectic career of Stephen Crane, the chronicler of the undermined self. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/the-red-and-the-scarlet
Crane, Stephen. (1993). The Open Boat and Other Stories. New York. Courier Dover Publications
Crane, Stephen. (1895). The Red Badge of Courage. New York. D. Appleton & Company
Davis, Linda H. (1998). Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston. Houghton-Mifflin
Schaefer, Michael W. (1996). A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Stephen Crane. New York. G.K. Hall & Company
Sorrentino, Paul. (2014). Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Belknap Press of Harvard University
Stephen Crane Society. (June 16, 2021). The Red Badge Of Courage. https://stephencranesociety.wordpress.com/page/2/
Wertheim, Stanley. (1997). A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Connecticut. Greenwood Press