Stephen Crane, The Herald of Naturalism
Few writers achieve the distinction of master, herald, or avant garde of entire genres, but Stephen Crane, the crown jewel of naturalism, rests in the pantheon of literary history among the immortal few, near divine, writers whose works will outlast time itself. Crane wrote with, at the time, a unique, not seen before, style and voice, and he compounded his mastery over language with exceptional attention to detail; thus, allowing him to microscope the human condition—the plight of living and dying according to one’s circumstances.
Stephen Crane’s, 1871-1900, career was replete with flare, ingenuity, and influence but, unfortunately, brief; He died at only twenty-eight. A few of his notable works are Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893)—his debut, considered the first complete work of naturalism, novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), War is King (1899), and, of course, the infamous short story The Open Boat (1898). Crane can be considered, without stretch, to be the American version of Victor Hugo. Crane, a student of European naturalists, was committed to write the truth, “He was convinced that if a story is transcribed in its actuality, as it appeared to occur in life, it will convey its own emotional weight without sentimental heightening, moralizing, or even interpretive comment” (Perkins, Perkins 815). This idea of creating characters and putting them in the path of realistic circumstances and observing how they worked themselves through their plights, without conveying an author’s opinion, was, at the time, revolutionary.
There is more, here, than Crane’s infatuation with writing the truth—naturalism; One, artists can only write well what they know; and two, life, truly experienced, is not filled with moral themes and positive character arcs; sometimes, as in life, characters have negative arcs and, without much choice, compromise their ethical positions. People are a product of their circumstances; they are, in a sense, unable to control the evolution of mankind’s predicament. The world, no matter how much one may wish it untrue, is chaotic, dark, selfish, and competitive; a life-lesson everyone learns, some too young, but all will eventually. Consider this, “he was initially in agreement with the naturalistic belief that the destiny of human beings, like the biological fate of other creatures [referring to natural selection], is so much determined by factors beyond the control of individual will or choice that ethical judgement or moral comment by the author is irrelevant or impertinent” (Perkins, Perkins 815). This truth is the defining characteristic of naturalistic literature.
Crane knew struggle; he knew, all too well, the cards life hands out, and how unromantic existence is for most people. His life began in Newark, New Jersey, and he was the youngest of fourteen children to a Methodist Minister. His father died when he was still a young boy. Crane wrestled early the pain which life, for no rational reason, dealt him. His troubled upbringing did not bring him intimate with faith, in fact it did the opposite. Crane once joked his family were, “the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind [of ministers]” (Crain par. III). Without his father, the family struggled financially, “as a teenager Crane worked for an older brother’s news agency and later left college to work as a reporter in New York City” (Gioia, Gwynn 195). One grows up early when one grows up poor. One can, easily, even to some degree confidently, assume within this context and his exposure to the calamity of other’s struggle—through being a newspaper reporter—Crane did not find life rosy. There is nothing romantic in suffering. Perhaps, it was these circumstances that Crane decided for himself, as an artist, as a writer, as a storyteller, that he would rip off the band aid and write the truth—naturalism.
He proved himself the master, the herald, the avant garde of a new style of craft, and the apex naturalist author. There are laws one must follow in every art, and fiction is no different. These laws, rules, are what, when followed, breathes life into an author’s prose. However, in Crane’s case, like all other geniuses from all other mediums of art and academics and sciences etcetera, he was a pioneer, “he [Crane] pioneered free verse and plainspoken idiom—techniques that seemed radically innovative at the end of the nineteenth century…” (Gioa, Gwynn 195). As a consequence, the next generation, the masters of existentialism in particular, would turn his style into common practice. The most famous of all the writers he inspired was the legend Ernest Hemingway—considered, the inventor of modern fiction and its discipline of tight and active prose. In laymen terms, Crane wasted no time inserting his own thoughts; he simply revealed, through his craft, the plight of the human condition, without opinion and without judgement. His only footprint in his work is his belief in determinism.
The Red Badge of Courage is considered the pinnacle of his achievement. It is a panoramic view on the psychological struggle one finds themselves wrestling in war. There is no doubt, and no contesting, that this novel is a great work of literature. However, it is the opinion of this author [me] that The Open Boat is his masterpiece. The Open Boat (1898)is short fiction, otherwise, and perhaps more popularly, known as a short story. Unlike The Red Badge of Courage, Crane wrote from firsthand experience.
“Throughout these pages, the reader finds the brushwork of the master, and like all great artists, James can not only paint a story by the prowess of his craft, but, simultaneously, he hangs a mirror of enigmas and human complexity. Every reader can relate to the figurative handcuff’s persons’ finds themselves confined to.” —W. Alexander
On New Year’s Eve, 1896, Stephen Crane, aboard the Commodore experienced a shipwreck, “Working as an ordinary seaman, Crane helped bail the flooding water [the ship had sprung a leak] until the order came to abandon ship. Crane and other survivors spent thirty hours on the open sea before reaching land” (Gioa, Gwynn 213). Crane wrote a newspaper account himself on the wreck, “Now the whistle of the Commodore had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle…it was as if its [the ship] throat was already choked by the water, and this cry on the sea at night, with a wind blowing the spray over the ship, and the waves roaring over the bow, and swirling white along the decks, was to each of us probably a song of man’s end” (Crane par. I). Even in his own factual account, Crane’s style fills his readers with despair; every verb he uses themes chaos and fear—choked, cry, blowing, roaring, and swirling.
The Open Boat may have easily been a best-selling nonfictional account which would have dazzled readers across the globe, but Crane had a different idea: he wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth. Such truth can only be told in fiction. One excerpt from his short story, which reminds readers there is more than men riding together in a dingy hoping for rescue, there is a bond formed, “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him” (Crane 10). Anyone that has ever been in the unfortunate position of complete despair, a battlefield, a stranded boat, or lost in the forest will swear this is true: a bond is fused, which will last a lifetime, between them and those that shared in the experience. The fears experienced in life tattoos the heart far easier than the joys.
So, Crane told his truth; he shared the plight of surviving on the high seas; he wrote with vivid imagery, to provide his readers with the exactness of the experience—only fiction can do this well, “Crane’s characteristic use of vivid imagery is demonstrated throughout this story to underscore both the beauty and terror of natural forces” (Poetry Foundation par. VII). His syntax, his weaving of prose, highlights more than just the natural truth of-a-thing, he explores ethical questions too.
Ethical compromises seem to have a place in all his works. Caleb Crain, in The New Yorker captures naturalism in a nutshell, “In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he [Stephen Crane] managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing” (Crain par. III). This revealing of a mechanistic approach is no doubt why Stephen Crane is considered the herald of naturalism.
Crane’s mastery of craft and passion for elaborating on naturalistic themes lays the seed for the later literary movement of existentialism, albeit, in Crane’s day, the world still held the illusion of its institutions and their reliance. The façade of civilization’s reliability was only beginning to crack—new ideas emanated across the globe, and the world then, much like today, seemed to be near boiling over—which it did in WW1. This is why Crane is considered the avant garde of plain-spoken and direct writing—no higher themes, no moralizing, only the truth of the matter. A true idea, a portrait of reality, can and should stand on its own without embellishing it with higher purpose. The story must reflect life’s very real, very raw, realities and her uglies.
There is little doubt Stephen Crane is one of the most, if not the most, innovative writer of his day. He, like the European naturalists he loved and studied, was obsessed with showing that life is largely deterministic in nature and is indifferent to mankind’s suffering. He looked at life with sober indifference; there was nothing anyone could do, but what they did, in certain circumstances. There are no martyrs of the poor and helpless. People live miserable lives and are treated like miserable wretches by those of privilege. The latter is as true today as it was in his day, and every generation since the first generation of mankind.
Crane is the crown jewel of naturalism. He was inspired by the plight of the human condition—that one’s choices are according to circumstances; he committed to writing this truth without embellishing it with higher moralism or themes. He simply painted, with words, portraits of the inner machinations of one’s life; he microscoped and copied what he observed, and wrote, for all the world to see, a portrait of the human psyche. He was a heartbeat away from existentialism, which his legacy, no doubt, influenced the style of the modernist and the literary generations to follow. Determinism, a major influence on the naturalistic style, has spread its roots ten-fold in the modern world, and as a result, one can easily surmise that Crane was the avant garde of an entire worldview being manifested in prose. Civilization and art have come full circle: mankind has returned to the mythological psychology of accepting that they cannot escape fate; their actions are products of their place in the world.
The Open Boat is a work of genius. Here, without research, without study, he wrote a story from which he had personally experienced. He, like all the great masters, turns his sentences on strong verbs, and as he used consistency, plain—spoken language, radical close attention to detail, to capture the truth—the exactness—of what it is like to be stranded at sea. He added no color to his work other than what would realistically be seen. His story is even more impressive when one realizes, despite escaping death, death stalked him, and he died two years later of tuberculosis.
Fiction is the vehicle which truth is revealed, and Crane, perhaps, more than any other author of his generation proved this to be true. His writing style compares to the artistic movement of impressionism—he paints, with words, what is before him and without judgement. All great writers master the craft, but Crane—like Whitman, like Dickinson, like Hemingway, like Hugo, like Pope, like Voltaire, like Homer, like Kafka, like Woolf—had a touch of the divine; that unteachable it factor, and it is among the company of these writers where he lives forever in the pantheon of literary immortality.
Crane’s work can be identified in regard to the ethical compromises one faces in specific, negative, circumstances. One’s pursuit of virtue is largely affected by one’s place in the world, and, similar to the natural world, one’s ecosystem—community—and their position and predicament in life is largely out of their control. His legacy is far more than the herald of naturalism, he was among the first to shine a light on the plight of humanity, without comment or opinion, and show the world the very real mental gymnastics characters, like people in real life, must navigate according to their circumstances.
Crain, Caleb. “The Red and The Scarlet: The Hectic career of Stephen Crane, the chronicler of the undermined self.” The New Yorker, June 30, 2014 Iss., 2014, New York, NY., par. III). Accessed May 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/the-red-and-the-scarlet
Crane, Stephen. “The Sinking of The Commodore, New York Press, 7 Jan 1897: Author’s Perspective.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 213-216. Print.
Crane, Stephen. The Open Boat. E-artnow publishing, Apple Books, MacReader, 2013, pp. 10. E-book.
Gioa, Dana & Gwynn, R.S., “Stephen Crane.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 195. Print.
Gioa, Dana & Gwynn, R.S., “The Open Boat.” The Art of The Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing, Pearson Longman Publishing, Boston, MA, 2006, pp. 196-213. Print.
Perkins, Perkins. “Stephen Crane: Author Bio.” The American Tradition in Literature, Volume 2, edition 12, McGraw-Hill, Inc., 2021, pp. 814-815. E-Textbook Liberty University English 341.
Poetry Foundation. “Stephen Crane, 1871-1900.” Poetry Foundation, Poets, par. VII. Accessed May 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/stephen-crane
A blog written for writers by a writer—twice published.
Derry, New Hampshire was the longtime home of Robert Frost. This poem is in dedication to my favorite poetry book: North of Boston, and his poem October.
Trust me…, stopping and noticing the details around you is life’s most generative experience, not only will your writing improve, but so will your mental health.