It’s the birthday of novelist, journalist, and poet Stephen Crane (books by this author), born in New Jersey in 1871, the youngest of 14 children. He lost his father at the age of nine and his mother at 20. He flunked out of college and was penniless while working on his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893). The novel told the story of a young girl abused by an alcoholic parent, forced into prostitution, and driven to suicide. Crane wrote: “The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle.” When the novel was rejected, and the publisher explained why, Crane responded: “You mean that the story’s too honest?”
No one would publish it because it was too realistic, too depressing. So he borrowed $700 from his brother to have it printed with paper covers, and he only sold 100 copies.
While Crane’s detailed portrayal of suffering made publishers uncomfortable at first, his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), was wildly successful. His depictions of Civil War battlefields were so accurate that some veterans were convinced they had fought alongside the author, even though Crane was born six years after the war’s end. Beyond his experience playing baseball, he had never seen a battlefield of any kind.
Crane wrote first drafts of both Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage without naming his protagonists. He considered them “every woman” and “every man,” and through their lives he conveyed larger truths about shared experience. The result was a powerful universal intimacy.
Crane’s interest in presenting the unglamorous details of the real may be traced to his origins as a journalist. Before Crane was a published author, his brother got him a job at a New Jersey newspaper. Crane’s accurate depiction of a labor parade reflected poorly on the paper’s publisher, who was running in an upcoming election. As a result, Crane was fired from the paper — along with his brother.
Undeterred, Crane proved himself a free thinker, unwilling to parrot the party line. He wrote: “‘Think as I think,’ said a man, ‘or you are abominably wicked; you are a toad.’ And after I thought of it, I said, ‘I will, then, be a toad.’”
After the smash success of The Red Badge of Courage, he got himself informally exiled from New York City by writing newspaper articles about the corruption of the city police. A steamer sank while carrying Crane to Cuba, where he had planned to cover the anti-Spanish insurrection. The ordeal inspired his famous short story “The Open Boat” and exacerbated the tuberculosis that killed him four years later, at the age of 28.
“The Open Boat” begins: “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. […] A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.”