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Stephen Crane

All Soul's Day marks the birthday of novelist and short story writer, Stephen Crane.  Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1871, he holds a place as one of America's most revered writers, although he died before reaching his thirtieth birthday.  He was the 14th child in a family of Methodist ministers, and he said, "[They were] of the old ambling-nag, saddle-bag, exhorting kind."  His father wrote the book, Popular Amusements (1869), which decried the evils of activities such as gambling and baseball.

Ironically enough, when his father died, Crane began a lifelong love affair with the game of baseball.  His mother moved the family to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where her son spent his summers looking for any pickup baseball games he could get into.

On his prep-school team, he played catcher.  Unlike a modern player, he wore nearly no protective gear.  His catcher's mitt was a leather gardening glove with some extra padding stuffed into it.  Crane became famous with his teammates for catching anything that was thrown or hit at him, even with his bare hand.  One of his teammates said, "He played baseball with fiendish glee."

His first serious writing assignment came when he began covering the games he played for his high school newspaper.  He went on to college, where he studied engineering, although he never found the discipline very rewarding.  "I found engineering not at all to my taste.  I preferred baseball."  He toyed with the idea of moving up the ranks from college star to professional when he was hit by the writing bug and eventually dropped out of college.

Crane began writing for the New York tabloids while he was a teenager.  He was extraordinarily perceptive, having studied life more than most people twice his age.  "When I ought to have been at recitations I was studying faces on the streets, and when I ought to have been studying my next day's lessons I was watching the trains roll in and out of the Central Station."

After his mother's death in 1890, Crane moved to New York to live a Bohemian lifestyle while working for his room and board as a freelance writer and journalist.  He lived among the poor in the Bowery slums in order to research his first novel, Maggie: A Girl Of The Streets (1893), which turned out to be a milestone in the development of literary naturalism.  Because of its brutal candor, though, no publishers were interested in it, and Crane had to borrow money from his brother to print the book at his own expense.  Even then, he found few booksellers who would stock it, so he ended up giving away a hundred copies and burning the rest.  "I cannot see," he said, "why people hate ugliness in art.  Ugliness is just a matter of treatment."

Nearly two decades after the end of the War between the States, Crane noticed that the newspapers and magazines were filled with stories of Civil War veterans; so, he decided to write a Civil War story himself.  Although he knew virtually nothing about the conflict, he gathered all of the books he could find on the subject and set about his research.  The result was the publication of his novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

The book was an instant hit.  It was called the most realistic war novel ever written, and no one believed the author was a 24-year-old who had never seen battle.  Civil War veterans wrote into newspapers claiming that they had known Stephen Crane.  Generals said that they had been proud to serve with him.  When writer Hamlin Garland asked Crane how he'd been able to portray the battlefield scenes so convincingly, the author said he'd drawn on his personal experiences as an athlete.

Crane's collection of poems, The Black Rider, appeared in the same year as his novel.  The success of his books brought him a string of reporting assignments.  With the choicest plums at his feet, he decided to become a war correspondent in various combat areas.  He traveled to Greece, Cuba, Texas, and Mexico, writing about the conflicts there.  His short story, The Open Boat, is based on a true experience.  When the ship he was taking to Cuba hit a sandbar and sank, Crane and three other men were forced to spend 30 hours adrift in an open boat before the author jumped ship and swam to shore.  The ordeal led to serious health problems.  Many critics consider the book to be his masterpiece.

"None of them knew the color of the sky.  Their eyes glanced level and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them.  These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea.  The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks...A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats." - from The Open Boat

In 1898, Crane moved to Sussex, England, where he befriended Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, and Henry James.  During these years, he refined his use of realism to exposing social ills, as in George's Mother (1896), which explored life in the Bowery.  In 1899, he published Active Service, which was based on the Greco-Turkish War.  That same year, he returned to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War, but he was soon forced back to England because of failing health. 

Stephen Crane died on June 5, 1900, of tuberculosis exacerbated by malaria that he had contracted in Cuba.  He was only 29 years old.

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