Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, on November 1, 1871. His father, Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane, was a presiding elder and later pastor in the Methodist church. He authored a number of religious tracts. He died in 1880, leaving Crane, the youngest of 14 children (only nine survived infancy), to be raised by his mother, Mary Helen Peck Crane, a woman active in the temperance movement against alcoholic beverages. Crane's mother wrote articles to support her family after her husband's death. Crane attended Pennington Seminary, a Methodist boarding school, in New Jersey for two years (1885–87) and then Claverack College, a military boarding school in New York state for two years (1888–90). During the summers Crane worked for his brother Townley at the news-reporting business Townley owned in Ashbury Park, New Jersey, and for the New York Tribune. Crane published his first sketch in the Claverack College Vidette in 1890. He left Claverack partway through his studies and enrolled in Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, for a little over one semester before enrolling in Syracuse University. There he played varsity baseball and published in the school paper.
A Bowery Story
Having left school without a degree, Crane began writing for the New York Tribune and other papers in the early 1890s. He made excursions into the Bowery in Lower Manhattan and added firsthand knowledge to a manuscript begun at Syracuse that would become his first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Crane lived on the Lower East Side in the 1890s and wrote articles for papers and journals about the hardships of tenement life.
When publishers rejected the book because they found the brutality of tenement life too shocking for their readers, Crane self-published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets under the pseudonym Johnston Smith in 1893. The book did not sell and left Crane destitute.
A War Story and the Resurrection of Maggie
As a teenager, Crane enjoyed his time at Claverack College and had an avid interest in the military. He grew up listening to stories from soldiers who had fought in the Civil War, which ended six years before he was born. He began writing his next book, The Red Badge of Courage, after reading eyewitness accounts in the anthology "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War." The book was published in 1895. Initial reviews were positive, but there were reservations regarding some of the crudeness of language and style of writing.
Because of the success of The Red Badge of Courage, Crane's publisher was willing to consider a revised version of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Crane eliminated some profanity and a few lurid details, including a "huge fat man in torn and greasy garments," Maggie's last solicitation before her death. Even with these cuts, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets endures as a preeminent example of gritty realism and went on to become one of Crane's greatest works. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets is also one of the first examples of Naturalist literature, which explores the effect of environment on the individual.
Journalism and Short Fiction
Crane worked as a roving reporter, traveling to Mexico, Nebraska, and Louisiana. On his way to Cuba to cover the 1897 rebellion against the military dictatorship, he met his future common-law wife, Cora Taylor, in Jacksonville, Florida. Taylor would later take Crane's name, although she would stay legally married to her previous husband, who would not grant her a divorce.
During Crane's journey, the boat on which he was traveling sank when an engine exploded. Crane managed to escape, spending a day adrift, and his experience later inspired the story "The Open Boat" (1897).
Cora Taylor joined Crane in Greece in 1898, where he had gone to cover the Greco-Turkish War (1897), a 30-day battle between Greece and the Ottoman Empire over Crete. That same year Crane traveled to Cuba and Puerto Rico as a news reporter to cover the Spanish-American War and continued to write stories and poems after the conflict ended.
Crane suffered from tuberculosis, a bacterial lung disease, while in England, where he and Cora moved in 1899. He died of tuberculosis at age 28 at a sanatorium in Germany's Black Forest on June 5, 1900.
Crane was wildly prolific in his short life. He is best remembered for his longer works The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, although some critics believe his true strength was short fiction such as "The Open Boat," "The Blue Hotel" (1898), and "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898). He also published collections of poetry—The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895) and War Is Kind (1899)—in addition to an array of journalistic pieces, essays, and correspondence. Expanding the boundaries of Realism for subsequent generations, Crane is considered a forerunner of American writers Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and Frank Norris.