"It was not well to drive men into final corners; at those moments they could all develop teeth and claws."
Stephen Townley Crane was born on 1st November 1871 in Mulberry Place, New Jersey. He was the youngest of fourteen children born to Jonathan Townley Crane, a Methodist minister, and his wife Mary Helen Peck Crane, a formidable campaigner for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Stephen, nicknamed 'Stevie' by the family, was a sickly child, prone to constant colds. He began writing at the age of four, having taught himself how to read. In 1879, age eight, he wrote a poem about wanting a dog for Christmas, I’d Rather Have being his earliest surviving poem. He wrote his first known story, Uncle Jake and the Bell Handle, when he was just fourteen years old. It appears that writing ran in the family, as two of his brothers went on to become professional journalists.
After Jonathan Crane died in 1880, the family moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey. Later, Mary Crane moved to Roseville, leaving Stephen in the care of his older brother Edmund in Sussex County. Throughout his childhood he lived with various siblings at one time or another.
Crane attended the Pennington Seminary in 1885, a ministry-focused boarding school where his father had been principal. He stayed here for two years before leaving to attend Claverack College, a quasi-military school.
Crane enrolled at the Hudson River Institution New York in 1888 and from then on began a somewhat unsuccessful university career, spending sometimes as little as a semester at a university before moving on to something else. Whilst at Syracuse University, Crane wrote his first novel, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets: a Story of New York, which was published in 1893 under the name Johnston Smith. The book, published at Crane’s own expense with inheritance from his mother, sold very little, but gained the attention of campaigners for the new realist movement.
Deciding that college was ‘a waste of time’, Crane turned to full-time journalism, writing ironic newspaper sketches and penning stories set in Sullivan County, New York, an area where he used to camp when living with his brother Edmund. These tales were published posthumously under the title Stephen Crane: Sullivan County Tales and Sketches. Crane had shown two of his Sullivan County short stories to a family friend, Willis Fletcher Johnson, the editor of the Tribune, who agreed to publish them. The first to appear were Hunting Wild Dogs and The Last of the Mohicans.
During this time he lived a bohemian lifestyle, living off journalistic commissions in an artist's studio. In the spring of 1893 he began work on what would become The Red Badge of Courage: an Episode of the American Civil War, a tale of a young soldier in battle. The book appeared only as a newspaper serial, but led Crane to catch the eye of Irving Bacheller, the syndicator, who sent him to the American West and Mexico as a roving reporter in 1895. He travelled to Saint Louis, Missouri, Nebraska, New Orleans, Galveston, Texas and Mexico City. These adventures allowed Crane to acquire material for his later tales, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (1897) and The Blue Hotel (1898). A volume of poems, The Black Riders and Other Lines appeared in 1895.
The Red Badge of Courage was finally published in book form in 1895, and proved to be a success both in Britain and the USA, spending four months in the top six on various bestseller lists throughout America. Crane was hailed as a great naturalist and the book became a classic.
Crane would write most nights, often from midnight until four or five in the morning. A perfectionist who could not afford a typewriter, Crane would write carefully in ink on legal-sized paper, rewriting the entire page if he made an error.
In 1896, Crane published a revised Maggie, a Girl of the Streets together with a new story, George’s Mother. It was around this time that he met Dora Clark, a prostitute, whilst investigating police corruption. After interviewing Dora and two friends, Crane was threatened with arrest after interfering when a plain-clothes policeman attempted to arrest the women. Crane wrote a statement confirming Dora’s innocence, the statement ultimately leading to Dora’s release. At first, Crane was praised for his bravery and courage. However his reputation was later ruined after he was called as a witness at court and portrayed as a man with dubious morals.
Following the court case, Crane took another assignment from Irving Bacheller, reporting on the impending American-Spanish conflict over Cuba. Crane signed on to the Commodore, a ship running guns to Cuban insurgents. The boat sank just off the Florida coast and Crane was left drifting for days in a dinghy, awaiting rescue. Rumours circulated that the ship had been sabotaged, and the press portrayed Crane heroically. It was the incident on the Commodore that led Crane to write one of his most famous works, The Open Boat (1896). Following his return to New York, Crane wrote the novels The Little Regiment (1896) and The Third Violet (1897).
Whilst waiting to board the Commodore, Crane had met and fallen in love with Cora Taylor, the owner of an upmarket brothel, Hotel de Dream. Despite the fact that she was still married, Cora left Florida with Crane and travelled to Greece to cover the Greco-Turkish war. Cora, writing under the pseudonym Imogene Carter, was the first woman war correspondent and reported for the New York Journal, an assignment that Crane had secured for her.
Crane and Cora travelled to Britain, and moved to Oxted, Surrey, where they became acquainted with the writers Ford Madox Hueffer, Edward Garnett and Joseph Conrad, with whom Crane is reported to have had a ‘warm and endless friendship’. By this time, Crane was heavily in debt, and found himself writing furiously to stave off creditors. He reported on the Spanish-American war in 1898, submitting forty reports. On his return, he published a number of poems and novels, including Active Service (1899), Wounds in the Rain (1900), War is Kind (1899), The Monster and Other Stories (1899) and Whilomville Stories (1900). His health failing, in July of 1898 Crane was diagnosed with yellow fever and then malaria.
During an elaborate Christmas party in 1899, which lasted several days, Crane fell ill whilst performing a ghost story for some of his literary friends, (including Joseph Conrad, Henry James and H.G. Wells), suffering a severe haemorrhage of the lungs. He recovered enough to start a new novel, The O’Ruddy, in January 1900, but suffered a further two massive haemorrhages in March and April of that year. On 28th May, Crane travelled to a health spa in the Black Forest, where he dictated the remainder of The O’Ruddy to Cora.
Crane died of tuberculosis, possibly contracted in childhood, on 5th June 1900 aged just 28 years. He was interred in the Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, New Jersey.