I have been a longtime reader and fan of novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane. I first read him when I was an impressionable 13 years old and diving into serious literature.

He was born in 1871 in Newark, New Jersey. I was also born in Newark.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth year, I visited his New Jersey grave on the day of his death – June 5.

My first encounter with Crane was via some of his short stories. I knew that “the book” to read by him was The Red Badge of Courage. I read that the summer before my senior year in high school. It was fast read, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

That summer I also started to read more about Crane’s life. He never went to war. The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel by someone who never went to war.

As a young man, Crane wanted to be a professional baseball player. He played catcher on his prep school team in a time when a catcher wore no protective gear and the mitt was basically a gardening glove with some extra padding. Stephen was known for being somewhat reckless, but able to catch anything, even barehanded.

Crane at 17 in a school military uniform

 

He bounced from school to school. He was at the Pennington School in NJ (his father had been principal there), but after 2 years he transferred to Claverack College, a quasi-military school.

He did one semester at Lafayette College and then transferred to Syracuse University. He played baseball at all these schools.

Crane (front center) with his Syracuse teammates

 

During summer vacations until 1892, he was his brother Townley’s assistant at a New Jersey shore news bureau.

I had read Catch 22 and seen the movie M*A*S*H  the year before and my mind was filled with anti-war and anti-Vietnam news. I was thinking about how I had to register for the Selective Service and how I would be in the draft lottery when I got to college.

I went back and reread The Red Badge of Courage that fall through the lens of it being an anti-war novel written by someone who probably equated war with his own sports experiences.

That sounds naive, but it worked for me that year.

Crane cut classes and was spending a lot of time in New York City, especially the poor tenement streets of the Bowery.

He began writing for New York City tabloids while he was still a teenager.

His first novel was Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). It was considered scandalous and unseemly, and booksellers wouldn’t stock it. He gave away about a hundred copies and burned the rest.

He had read a series of reminiscences of Civil War veterans published in newspapers and had met some veterans as teachers in his schools that became the research for his own Civil War story.

In The Red Badge of Courage (1895), we follow Henry Fleming, who signs up for the 304th New York regiment. Henry wants to experience a war that matches the glory of battle that he had read about in school.

The novel made him famous. It was considered to be the most realistic war novel ever written, despite the facts that the author was only 24 and had never been in battle himself.

I have read more recently that some Civil War veterans wrote in to newspapers claiming that they knew Stephen Crane and had fought beside him in various Civil War battles.

Crane admitted to fellow writer Hamlin Garland that he had used his own experience as an athlete as inspiration for the battle scenes.

The novel’s success led to Crane spending the rest of his life working as a war correspondent.

On New Year’s Eve in 1896, the boat he was on traveling to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War hit a sandbar and sank.

He barely survived in a small dinghy with three other men. They spent 30 hours at sea, then, in desperation, dove in and made for shore.

From that experience, Crane wrote his short story “The Open Boat” which was the first piece of fiction I had ever read by him.

Sadly, that time spent adrift at sea and swimming severely damaged his health and contributed to his death from tuberculosis (TB ) just 4 years later at the age of twenty-eight.

Stephen Crane, 1897

 

It wasn’t until college that I read Stephen Crane’s poetry. He is considered a minor poet and his Complete Poems includes all 135 poems, published and unpublished during his lifetime. I like Crane’s short poems and his use of irony and paradox which were influenced by his reading of Emily Dickinson’s verse. They are generally very accessible poems.

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this; 
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never —”

“You lie,” he cried, 
And ran on.

His life was short, but his output was impressive for that short time that he wrote professionally. I think we could have been friends in another timeline. We would have at least played some pickup baseball together.

Cross posted on One-Page Schoolhouse

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