The Open Boat | Study Guide

Stephen Crane

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Stephen Crane | Biography


Family and Education

Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, on November 1, 1871. His father, the Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane, was a Methodist Episcopal minister who died in 1880. This death left Crane, the youngest of 14 children (only nine survived infancy), to be raised by his mother, Mary Helen Peck Crane. Mary was a suffragist, or a supporter of women's right to vote, as well as an author in her own right, and after her husband's death she wrote articles to support her family. Later, when Mary died, Crane was raised by his sister Agnes.

Crane's education was somewhat haphazard. He attended Pennington Seminary, a Methodist boarding school in New Jersey, for two years (1885–87). He then went to Claverack College and Hudson River Institute in New York State, a military boarding school from 1888 to 1890. During the summers, he worked for his brother Townley at a news-reporting business that Townley owned in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and began to do some writing of his own. But Crane left Claverack partway through his studies and enrolled in Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, for a little over one semester. Then he returned to New York and Syracuse University, which he also left before graduating.

Beginning Life as a Writer

While living in New York, Crane socialized with other writers and artists and adopted a bohemian, or unconventional, lifestyle. He also gained firsthand knowledge of poverty and street life. His writing at that time focused on the downtrodden tenement districts, particularly the Bowery (a neighborhood in the southern part of Manhattan), and the hardships of tenement life. His first novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was published in 1893. It is considered one of the first examples of naturalist literature, a genre that explores the effect of the environment on the individual. Hamlin Garland, a well-known writer and critic, described Maggie as "the most truthful and unhackneyed study of the slums I have yet read." The work did not sell well, however, because of its graphic depictions of street life. Crane had taken on the cost of publishing it himself, and so it left him poorer than when he had started. He published Maggie again in 1896, however, after softening some of its harsher details, and both he and the book gained wide recognition. At about the same time, Crane published what would become the work he was best known for: The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Describing a young soldier's experiences—both emotional and physical—during the American Civil War (1861–65), the book was praised for its realism and authentic description of the violence of combat. Ironically, Crane himself had never been in battle, and his book was based entirely on research.

War Writer

Despite his inexperience in battle, Crane became known as a war writer, and he took on a career as a war correspondent, traveling to Mexico to cover military conflict. In 1896, on his way to Cuba to cover an insurrection against Spanish rule (1895–98), he met his future common-law wife, Cora Stewart, in Jacksonville, Florida. Stewart would later take Crane's name, though she would stay legally married to her previous husband, who would not grant her a divorce. During one of his missions, covering a gunrunning expedition to the rebels in Cuba, the steamship on which Crane was traveling sank when an engine room took on water. Crane and three other men spent some 30 harrowing hours in a dinghy, an experience that later inspired his most celebrated short story, "The Open Boat."

Because Crane could not get to Cuba, he went to Greece and reported on the Greco-Turkish war (1919–22), fought between Greece and the Turkish National Movement over the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. Cora Stewart joined him there. Later, they moved to England where Crane continued writing novels. None had the success of The Red Badge of Courage, though, and both his reputation as a writer and his financial resources began to dwindle.


Crane's health was deteriorating, as well. He had come down with malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases during his years in the Bowery. He eventually contracted tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection, while in England. In May 1900, he entered a health spa/sanatorium in Badenweiler, Germany. He died a month later on June 5, 1900, at age 28.

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