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Crane, Stephen Townleyfree

  • Malcolm Bradbury

Crane, Stephen Townley (1871–1900), writer, was born on 1 November 1871 at 14 Mulberry Place, Newark, New Jersey, USA, the last of the fourteen children of Jonathan Townley Crane DD (1819–1880), a Methodist minister, and Mary Helen Peck Crane (1827–1891), a doughty campaigner for the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Earlier Cranes fought in the American War of Independence and the Civil War; Stephen inherited, he said, a 'rage of conflict' he would put to good use. Writing too ran in the family: two brothers became professional journalists. After Jonathan Crane's death, the family moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where Stephen began to reject his religious upbringing. In 1888 he enrolled at the Hudson River Institute at Claverack, New York, and in 1890–91 started a brief ineffectual university education: one semester at Lafayette College, studying engineering, another at Syracuse University, where he won fame only on the baseball field. Yet he drafted his first book, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets: a Story of New York, a powerful short novel in the manner of Zola, a tale of New York tenement life and the tragic fate of a prostitute. In 1893 he published it at his own expense under the name Johnston Smith. It scarcely sold, but won the attention of the campaigners for the new realist movement, including Hamlin Garland and William Dean Howells.

Crane's life was brief, sickly (he suffered from tuberculosis), cosmopolitan, highly active, and eventful: an exemplary literary life of the 1890s, when all his work was done. To 'recover from college' (Crane: Letters, 109) he returned to Asbury Park and journalism, writing ironic newspaper sketches, and stories set in Sullivan County, New York. Developing his urban impressionism, he turned to New York's Bowery. Working in bohemian poverty, living off journalistic commissions in an artists' studio at 143 East 23rd Street (formerly the Art Students' League) and elsewhere, he gathered material for 'Bowery Tales', a sequence of ‘experiments in misery’, street-corner glimpses, impressions of poverty and inequality: a popular form of writing in a muck-raking age when city and ghetto were becoming great American subjects. In spring 1893 he began The Red Badge of Courage: an Episode of the American Civil War, a novella about a young soldier (the Youth) in an unnamed battle, evidently Chancellorsville (1863). Crane was not born when it occurred; the tale owes much to memoirs, earlier fiction, and, he said, the football field. What distinguishes it is its remarkable and tense immediacy, and its point of vision: all is seen as a sequence of impressions and emotions, images and fragmentary pictures of action.

The book appeared only as a newspaper serial, but led the syndicator Irving Bacheller to send Crane to the American West and Mexico as roving reporter in early 1895. This yielded many important experiences, leading to such fine stories as 'The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky' (1897) and 'The Blue Hotel' (1898). Returning to New York, Crane wrote the war stories of The Little Regiment (1896), and a novel of Manhattan bohemia, The Third Violet (1897). A volume of hard, irreligious, ironic poems, The Black Riders and other Lines, appeared in 1895. In September 1895 Appleton published The Red Badge of Courage in book form; in November it appeared in Britain, where it was a triumph. Crane found himself famous, hailed as a great naturalist and literary innovator. Coinciding with the rise of impressionist naturalism, the book became a classic, influencing many, including Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway.

In 1896 Crane published a revised Maggie, and a companion piece, George's Mother. In September, investigating police corruption, he intervened to halt the arrest of a prostitute, Dora Clark. His court defence of her won much publicity, and the hostility of the New York police. It seemed prudent to take another Bacheller assignment, reporting impending American-Spanish conflict over Cuba. It was less prudent to sign on a ship, the Commodore, running guns to Cuban insurgents. When it sank off the Florida coast, Crane spent thirty nights in a drifting dinghy, leading to his most famous and perfect short story, 'The Open Boat' (1896). Less prudently still, Crane had fallen in love with Cora (Howorth) Taylor (1865–1910). Twice married, refused divorce by her British husband, Captain (later Sir) Donald William Stewart, she owned an upmarket brothel in Jacksonville, Florida, charmingly called the Hotel de Dream. In April 1897 they travelled to Greece to cover the Graeco-Turkish war, Cora writing as Imogene Carter, the first woman war correspondent. Returning in June, they chose to settle in Britain, where their liaison seemed less scandalous.

Crane and Cora rented Ravensbrook House, in Oxted, Surrey, and met Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Hueffer, and Edward Garnett. Many American expatriate writers were settled in Britain, including Harold Frederic and Henry James; both became friends. 'Lean, blond, slow-speaking' said H. G. Wells, 'a rangy American who affected a western style and kept a six-gun' said Hueffer, Crane became figurehead of a remarkable literary scene: a ‘ring of conspirators’ conspiring to change and modernize literature, according to Wells. Heavily in debt, he wrote against the clock. In April 1898 he re-crossed the Atlantic to report the Spanish-American war, submitting forty reports from Cuba. He began Active Service (1899), about the Greek war, and the war-tales of Wounds in the Rain (1900). Back in England in January 1899, he rented the rambling, decaying, ancient manor of Brede Place, Northiam, near Rye, Sussex; James, Wells, Conrad, and Hueffer lived nearby. Living squirearchically, entertaining freely, he wrote furiously to stave off creditors: War is Kind (1899), poems; The Monster and other Stories (1899); Whilomville Stories (1900), based on his New Jersey childhood.

At a Christmas 1899 performance of a ghost story attended by many literary friends, Crane fell ill; in April 1900 he haemorrhaged again and was shipped to a sanatorium in the Black Forest: the Villa Eberhardt, Badenweiler. Here, on 5 June, he died of tuberculosis, only twenty-eight, owing $5,000, Cora correcting proofs at his bedside. It was, said James, 'an unmitigated unredeemed catastrophe' (James, 145)—though, on the basis of The Red Badge, some superb short stories, and his fundamental originality of technique, Crane's powerful influence on modern British and American fiction long survived. His body was returned to London, then shipped home to the family plot in Hillside, New Jersey. Cora secured publication of Crane's posthumous work, opened another Florida brothel, married a railroad-man who subsequently murdered one of her admirers, and died in Britain in 1910.


  • R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: a biography (1968)
  • Stephen Crane: letters, ed. R. W. Stallman and L. Gilkes (1960)
  • C. Benfey, The double life of Stephen Crane (1992)
  • The works of Stephen Crane, ed. F. Bowers, 10 vols. (1969–76)
  • E. Solomon, Stephen Crane in England: a portrait of the artist (1964)
  • L. Gilkes, Cora Crane (1960)
  • M. Seymour, A ring of conspirators: Henry James and his literary circles, 1895–1915 (1988)
  • M. Bradbury, Dangerous pilgrimages: trans-Atlantic mythologies and the novel (1995)
  • J. B. Colvert, ‘Stephen Crane’, American realists and naturalists, ed. D. Pizer and E. N. Harbert, DLitB, 12 (1982), 100–24
  • S. Wertheim, A Stephen Crane encyclopedia (1997)
  • Henry James: letters, ed. L. Edel, 4: 1895–1916 (1984)


  • Col. U.
  • Syracuse Library, New York
  • NYPL, Berg collection
  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Alderman Library, Waller Barrett collection


  • C. Knapp Linson, photograph, 1894
  • photographs, repro. in Pizer and Harbert, eds., American realists and naturalists

Wealth at Death

£160: probate, 7 July 1900, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

$5000 in debt

Dictionary of Literary Biography