Stephen Crane’s 150th Birthday

By Frank BergonNovember 1, 2021

Stephen Crane’s 150th Birthday
STEPHEN CRANE, born 150 years ago on this date, had a working life that lasted barely a decade, but he created an immense literary afterlife. His enthusiastic disciple Ernest Hemingway handed Crane’s stories to aspiring young writers seeking advice. Ralph Ellison said that Crane influenced not only Hemingway but also most modernist writers of the 20th century, including himself. Southern novelist Caroline Gordon conveyed her admiration for Crane to her protégé Flannery O’Connor. No American writer before Crane portrayed immediate perceptual and sensuous experience with such power. “He had great, great genius,” Henry James repeatedly said. For all the praise heaped on Crane’s idiosyncratic style, a question remains: How did he learn to write that way?

We know the modern writers Crane influenced. But who influenced him?

According to William Dean Howells, touted in his day as the dean of American Letters, Crane took inspiration from nobody. Howells introduced 21-year-old Crane as the boy genius without forerunners “who has sprung into life fully armed.” The tight-lipped Crane himself deflected pursuit by flinging out red herrings. His letters admit only one direct connection between his work and an earlier author. He wrote a girlfriend how, at 20, he’d renounced his “clever Rudyard Kipling style.” The reference sent scholars scrambling through Kipling’s books looking for clues to the two authors’ similarities without much luck, since their fiction was so different in tone and style.

Crane also parried anyone asking about his borrowings from European writers like Maupassant, or as he put it, “from which French realist I shall steal my next book.” His allegiance to Howells’s call for realistic American fiction based on personal observation doesn’t explain the linguistic originality of his first Bowery novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Many critics link the themes and subjects of Crane’s fiction to Zola (slums) or to Tolstoy (war), but they can’t account for Crane’s startling phrasemaking, his stunning words on the page. “So,” as Crane told his girlfriend, “I developed all alone a little creed of art.”

But no writer develops all alone. Crane’s discovery of two important writers who influenced his style first began at home. He was born on November 1, 1871, in a Newark, New Jersey, parsonage to a family of published writers. His mother and two older brothers wrote for newspapers. His father, a prominent Methodist minister, published doctrinal books, pamphlets, tracts, and lectures and also wrote fiction and poetry, as did an older sister, who was a schoolteacher and Crane’s influential mentor while their mother was on the temperance lecture circuit.

“Being a Crane he was born with printers’ ink in his veins,” his niece recalled. At 15, he contributed to his mother’s newspaper reports, and at 16, to his brother’s Jersey Shore news bureau for the New-York Tribune and Associated Press. Crane’s mother also published humorous stories and sketches in the vernacular style of popular American literary regionalists. With their regional dialect and local-color humor, young Crane and his mother reveal the influence that Mark Twain, the master of satire and colloquial speech (and Kipling’s literary idol), had on their writing. Crane’s teenage newspaper publications in the Tribune were spoofs, hoaxes, satires, and his “first work in fiction,” as he described his “little grotesque tales of the woods,” published when he was 19, all in Twain’s tall-tale manner.

But it remains a mystery what happened next — when Crane “victoriously completed,” in his words, “a certain re-adjustment of his point of view” — to inspire the explosion of his trademark style with its astonishing imagery and vivid psychological revelations.

The true deep source is hidden in his brief, checkered history at Syracuse University, where he attempted to study literature but “found baseball again much more to my taste.” Playing varsity catcher and shortstop interested him more than his studies — with an exception. During the first trimester of his freshman year, he completed just one course: trudging up the campus hill to attend Chancellor Charles N. Sims’s literature class at 7:45 a.m., there encountering an English writer who did influence his style, Charles Dickens.

Inspiration may stimulate, but it doesn’t create. Neither Dickens nor Twain, in their early impact on young Crane, can fully account for his genius. But they helped spark it. Dickens’s little-known influence on Crane is surprising. Once heard, though, the echoes become difficult to ignore.

In the assigned Syracuse textbook, Development of English Literature and Language, Professor Alfred Hix Welsh noted how Dickens creates “graphic pictures of persons and things as he sees them,” realistically but exaggerated. “Everything he touches, speaks; stones, flowers, clouds.” Two months after leaving Syracuse at 19, Crane wrote in a Tribune article that a realistic novelist must be true “to things as he sees them,” but it’s “absurd to call him photographic” because a photo doesn’t “depict atmosphere and sound.” With surrealistic imagery, Crane combines sight, sound, and atmosphere to plunge into primordial thoughts and feelings of his characters under stress. Everything comes alive: a hotel starts “screaming and howling,” wagons are “terror stricken,” a cloud of smoke “thoughtful,” the sky “drunken.” As with Dickens, Crane’s vivid scenes are animistic in a primal way. Tents spring into strange plants, campfires into peculiar red blossoms, and at night, a mournful black stream looks at soldiers with “white bubble eyes.”

With transfiguring prose, both writers tear the veil of the commonplace to reveal intense moments as they immediately strike the senses. Professor Welsh’s textbook offers an exemplary passage from David Copperfield, where tremendous waves at sea, with “white-headed billows,” are perceived as “high watery walls,” then “changed to valleys, undulating up to hills,” as the “shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell.” In Crane’s “The Open Boat,” a perfect story, according to novelist Willa Cather, the “crest of each of these waves was a hill,” the “hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white,” while the “horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose.”

Visionary moments in both writers appear like apparitions at night. As inanimate objects become human, people under stress become dehumanized fragments, machines, animals, or when totally depersonalized, they become an “it” or a “thing.” In a textbook excerpt from Martin Chuzzlewit, a Dickens character faces a rotting corpse — “the thing itself” — lying alone in the woods at night. He advances “among the leaves, approaching it nearer and nearer through a gap in the boughs, and startling the very flies that were thickly sprinkled all over it, like heaps of dried currants.” A young soldier in Crane’s Civil War phantasm, The Red Badge of Courage, fleeing deep into the woods, pushes aside green boughs to discover he is “being looked at by a dead man,” its “eyes staring at the youth” while over “the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of little bundle along the upper lip. The youth gave a shriek as he confronted the thing.”

When Crane’s youth encounters another dead soldier, he “look[s] keenly at the ashen face. The wind raise[s] the tawny beard […] as if a hand were stroking it.” The touching hand and moving beard accentuate the deadness of the man. A Dickens scene from Hard Times in the textbook creates similar poignancy when describing a maimed man: “[A]t that time the pale, worn, patient face was seen looking up at the sky, with the broken right hand lying bare on the outside of the covering garments, as if waiting to be taken by another hand.”

English readers welcomed Crane’s vivid style. “I have only one pride,” he wrote, “and that is that the English edition of The Red Badge of Courage has been received with great praise by the English reviewers.” After cool responses in the United States, including a review from The New York Times that said the style needed toning, the novel became a sensation in England. London reviewers made the book a best seller on both sides of the ocean.

At 25, Crane moved to England, south of London, and later to the Sussex countryside. There he wrote his famous stories based on his travels through the American West and Mexico, including “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” and “The Blue Hotel.” Like Dickens, Crane engaged in powerful social criticism. In “The Monster,” anticipating Ellison’s Invisible Man of some 50 years later, he places a Black man without a face at the center of American civil strife. The effacement of the man as a person prompts a character to ask plaintively, “How would you like to be with no face?”

In a Cuban war story, Crane slyly acknowledges his English forerunner by nicknaming a combat reporter, a fictionalized version of himself, after the Dickens heroine “Little Nell.” With his de facto wife, Cora Crane (her husband wouldn’t grant a divorce), and his neighbors and friends Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Henry James, Crane lived the remainder of his brief life in the homeland of Dickens.


Frank Bergon is the author of Stephen Crane’s Artistry and four novels, most recently Jesse’s Ghost.

LARB Contributor

Frank Bergon is a novelist, critic, and essayist whose writing focuses primarily on California and the American West. He has published 12 books, most recently a memoir about his Basque American heritage, The Toughest Kid We Knew (2020). His novel Jesse’s Ghost was selected in 2024 for The New York Times’ “Best Books About California.” He is an emeritus professor of English at Vassar College.


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