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Born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey, Stephen Crane hailed from a line of strong-willed men who took active roles in the founding and building of America. On his father’s side, one man sailed to America with Sir Francis Drake, and another served as a representative to the pre–Revolutionary War Continental Congresses. Crane was always proud of his family’s part in American history, and it motivated him to carve out his own place in history, albeit in a style all his own. It is a marvel that in his short life, Stephen Crane produced so much memorable fiction; he died in 1900, at the young age of twenty-eight. Although his last years were dominated by poor health, Crane left a grand mark on American literature. His influences were few, but his disciples were many, among them Hemingway and Joseph Heller as well as many twentieth-century war novelists. Crane was probably unaware of the literary legacy he would leave, but he always had a good idea of the legacy he inherited.
Although he began writing at a very young age, Crane first made his presence felt in the literary world at age twenty-two with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), which he wrote while living in the slums of New York and for which he needed money from his brother to publish. Maggie was instantly notable not only for the conditions in which Crane wrote it but also for its unblinking look at its subject: the underbelly of New York. Crane attempted to depict what he saw as the enslavement of the poor by their own poverty. He was committed to naturalism and realism, as he would be throughout his life, no matter what subject he was writing about. A “naturalist” writer approaches subjects objectively, almost scientifically, staying detached as much as possible. “Realist” writers strive to portray their subjects as realistically as possible. Crane’s best-known work, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), was a naturalistic novel set during the Civil War. Told from a private’s point of view, Red Badge resonated with readers who were familiar with the life of the grunt: the constant threat of the unknown, the feeling of being a pawn in someone else’s schemes, the suppression of personality, and self-doubt.
“The Open Boat” (1897) evolved from Crane’s real-life experience of being stranded in a dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean. On December 31, 1896, Crane sailed out of Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Cuba, to cover the emerging war as a correspondent. His ship sank in the morning of January 2, and Crane and three crew members spent thirty hours in a dinghy before coming ashore near Daytona Beach. Crane immediately wrote “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” a newspaper account of the sinking, but he shied away from further telling of his experience, writing only that “The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here now.” Crane waited for years before he turned his experience into “The Open Boat.”
“The Open Boat” confronts both Crane’s time aboard the dinghy and the symbolic implications of fighting for one’s life amidst forces that are uncaring about one’s survival. The correspondent in the story is based on Crane himself, while the injured captain, the cook, and Billie the oiler all have their real-life counterparts in the men who shared the dinghy with Crane. The actual captain did indeed injure himself in the ship’s foundering, and William Higgins, the actual oiler, did indeed die on the shore. Although all of Crane’s characters are based in reality, Crane turns them into archetypes (ideal models) of humanity and submits them to the whims of nature. The critical reception of “The Open Boat” was enthusiastic, with both H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad praising the story. Unfortunately for Crane, the experience that gave him this story also took away his health. Following his experience at sea, Crane became vulnerable to the diseases that would eventually kill him.
Despite his poor health, Crane never stopped moving in an attempt to be on the frontline of some of the grimmer scenes of his time. His travels took him to Greece to report on the Greco-Turkish War; to England, where he befriended contemporaries such as Henry James, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad; back to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War; and finally to England and Germany, where he succumbed to tuberculosis. During all this time, Crane persisted in writing fiction and poetry, much of it characterized by his naturalistic perception of man caught in the throes of the conflicting, alienating forces that define the human condition. Ultimately, Crane tried to follow his own maxim that “the nearer a writer gets to life the greater he becomes as an artist.” For him, this meant a commitment to reality in life as well as in art. Crane lived this maxim so deeply that in the end, his desire to report from the thick of war was responsible for putting him in contact with the diseases that killed him while he was still in his twenties.