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Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane


World-famous at 24, dead at 28, brilliant, rechless, and ultimately tragic -- Stephen Crane is a dramatic study in contradictions. His most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage, is a classic anti-war novel. Yet Crane longed for military honors of his own and pursued a career as a war correspondent that took him to battlefields in Greece and Cuba. The son of a repressive Methodist minister who preached that novels were a filthy vice, he not only took up writing as a career but engaged in a public battle on behalf...
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First ed, New in dj, New By Linda Davis. "A brilliant and powerful portrait of Stephen Crane that stands as a monument to biography as a literary art."

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World-famous at 24, dead at 28, brilliant, rechless, and ultimately tragic -- Stephen Crane is a dramatic study in contradictions. His most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage, is a classic anti-war novel. Yet Crane longed for military honors of his own and pursued a career as a war correspondent that took him to battlefields in Greece and Cuba. The son of a repressive Methodist minister who preached that novels were a filthy vice, he not only took up writing as a career but engaged in a public battle on behalf of a New York prostitute, which ruined his reputation and cost him the friendship of Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. An Easterner who fancied himself a cowboy, he spent his last years on a ramshackle estate in Englad, entertaining his close friends Joseph Conrad, Henry James, H.G. Wells, and Ford Maddox Ford.

In the first accurate, in-depth biography of this legendary writer, Davis vividly describes Crane's short but endlessly fascinating life. Providing a radically new interpretation, she documents the chronic illness that plagued him from childhood and that accounted for the dramatic risks he continually undertook.Badge of Courageis the first biography to break through the common myths and misconceptions surrounding Crane and offer a full portrait of the man himself and of his literary genius.

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Editorial Reviews

Atlantic Monthly
What a life should be — well-written, fair-minded, and spirited.
Herbert Mitgang
An impressive biography, with many fascinating facts about his rough-and-tumble career. — The New York Times
Library Journal
In this new biography of the author, most notably, of The Red Badge of Courage, Davis traces Crane's development as a writer and the many chronic illnesses that eventually led to his early death at 28. Through his writing and travels -- which included stints in Greece and Cuba as a war correspondent -- he became friends with the likes of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and others. Though Davis does not delve deeply into analysis of Crane's works one of the biography's few shortcomings, his use of recently published letters adds more dimension to Crane's life than previous biographies. The result is an engaging read. -- Ronald Ray Ratliff, Chapman High School Library, Kansas
Roger Angell
. . .[T] he inevitable question [is]: Why another Crane biography?. . . .Davis' strong suit is accrual, and her readers will feel a great attachement to Crane in her latter glimpses of him. . . .He died. . .at the age of 28. . . .I cannot find it in me to wish Stephen Crane still at it in his 50s, caught in a more modern time. . . -- The New Yorker
Kirkus Reviews
A well-textured account of the short-lived author of The Red Badge of Courage. After Crane's death at the age of 28, his far-flung friends put their impressions of his forceful, unconventional personality to paper, and biographers have followed suit regularly ever since. Davis delivers a fully rounded account of Crane and his times. Crane once observed that if a preacher's son and a bartender's boy fell respectively from a park bench and the roof of the Waldorf hotel, they would hit the ground at the same velocity. The author of the muckraking Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, who was himself the son of a well-educated, novel-bashing Methodist minister, had a streak in him of the barroom boy. Dealing with his urban bohemian years, Davis puts Crane's early literary career—local journalism in New Jersey and New York—into the grimy context of the Bowery and the jungle of Printer's Row. After The Red Badge of Courage won Crane early notoriety, though not financial security, its themes of battle and bravery dominated his work as a war correspondent covering the Turkish war in Greece and the Spanish-American War. Crane's grim Cuban dispatches, highlighted here, were vivid, even though his literary output declined.

Moving to England with his common-law wife, he formed friendships with Joseph Conrad and other writers, but he was soon hounding his literary agent there with increasing demands for advances. His health already damaged by yellow fever contracted in Cuba, Crane succumbed to tuberculosis, fulfilling his lifelong presentiment of dying young. A thoroughgoing chronicle of literary and personal risks taken.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780899199344
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Pages: 414
  • Product dimensions: 6.37 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.43 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    In the fall of 1890, a group of Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, stormed one of the college dormitories in search of their next hazing victim. East Hall was set far from the other college buildings, down a hill, so the hazers had to go out of their way to get him. Lafayette's dangerous hazing practices had recently come to the attention of the local press. Just two weeks earlier the Easton Sunday Call had reported that a group of sophomores had surprised a freshman baseball player, who attacked the leader of the group with a bat, critically injuring him.

    The new pledge, who lived alone in a single room, had recently arrived from a school up north. When the sophomores reached Room 170 at the rear of the building, they issued a "loud summons," remembered Ernest G. Smith, who was one of the group, and pounded on the door. There was no answer. The brothers and freshman pledges lighted a lamp and burst into the room. They were startled to see the pledge quivering in a corner, holding a loaded revolver. He was unimpressive looking--small and thin, with pale hair and large, shadowed eyes. He was dressed, improbably, in "a grotesque nightgown." His skin had turned a "ghastly white" and he was "extremely nervous." By the time Smith saw the pledge, the revolver was aimed at the floor. Then the boy's body went limp, and the gun dropped from his hand. According to Smith, cooler heads prevailed, preventing further hazing of the new boy.

    It was the last time anyone would record seeing Stephen Crane afraid.

    Years later, seeming to draw on this experience in a work of fiction, he would write: "he was suddenly smitten with the terror. It came upon his heart like the grasp of claws. All the power faded from his muscles. For an instant he was no more than a dead man."


The image of Stephen Crane pale and quivering, backed into a corner with a loaded revolver in his hand, is at odds with other pictures of the scrappy, scrawny kid, who was usually remembered for his pluck. His brother Edmund (Ed)--one of eight older brothers and sisters--offered a picture of three-year-old Stevie, as his family called him, struggling to keep up with his brothers when they went bathing in the Raritan River near Bound Brook, New Jersey Not yet able to swim, Stevie had nevertheless ventured in over his head, extending his arms out over the water like a preacher at a baptism, calling out to his brothers that he was "fimming." One summer day in 1875, when he was not yet four, Stevie got in so far over his head that Edmund finally "plucked him out, gasping but unscared, just as his yellow hair was going, under," remembered his brother. "We boys were naturally delighted with his grit."

    And yet water--taken in a religious context that would seem quite literal to a young child--figured in an episode that had terrified Stephen a year earlier. On August 10, 1874, the two-year-old accompanied his middle-aged parents and his grown sister Agnes to a Methodist revival meeting at Camp Tabor, near Denville, New Jersey. There, according to a witness, the preacher thundered on about "the final conflagration" awaiting them. Stamping his feet, raising and smashing down his fist, he asked the sinners whether they were prepared "to take hell by storm? Are your bones iron, and your flesh brass, that you plunge headlong into the lake of fire?" And as the sinners responded with a chorus of "fervent supplication," baby Stevie "clung to his sister's skirt, and wept."

    Stephen Crane's childhood as the son of the Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane, a Methodist minister, and Mary Helen Peck Crane, a clergyman's daughter and a member of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, had its share of psychological terrors--the worst of the religious rhetoric flying out at the sensitive young boy, it seems, like furies or black riders coming from the sea, as he would later write. In Holiness, the Birthright of All God's Children, Stephen's father described man's condition as "one of inexpressible evil. He is guilty, condemned, corrupt, helpless, the wrath of God resting on him, and hell waiting his coming, with its eternal darkness and despair." The maternal side of Stephen's family was stocked with ministers, even including a Methodist Episcopal bishop, Jesse Truesdale Peck, author of the chilling What Must I Do to Be Saved? "Upon my mother's side, everybody as soon as he could walk, became a Methodist clergyman--of the old ambling-nag, saddlebag, exhorting kind," Stephen wrote a friend years later.

    Family legend maintains that Stephen was descended from both a Stephen Crane of Elizabethtown, New Jersey, who was married to a woman with red hair, and a Revolutionary War patriot, also named Stephen Crane, who was bayoneted to death by British troops just before the battle of Springfield in June 1780. The novelist, who was named for both Stephens, would embrace the story as part of his inheritance, though it is not certain that he was descended from the second man. Writing about the patriot Crane's courageous death, Stephen would say, "In those old times the family did it's duty." Of his immediate forebears, who had traded their guns for Bibles, he would write with disappointed affection. His father "was a great, fine, simple mind" who had written "numerous" tracts on theology. As for his mother, Stephen is said to have marveled that such a well-educated, talented woman "could have wrapped herself so completely in the `vacuous, futile, psalm-singing that passed for worship' in those days."

    Stephen Crane's parents were not, in fact, the one-dimensional people that such comments would indicate. The frizzy-bearded, bespectacled father, who was "without an evil habit," as his wife put it, was also courageous in his convictions. He was not afraid to express even the more unwelcome parts of Methodist ideology or to disagree with the church hierarchy, including his own father-in-law. Remembered in later years as an "eloquent" preacher, "a pleasant, genial personage, always dignified, yet cheerful and companionable," he was beloved for his sense of humor. Some of his admirers even tried to get "a book of his witticisms" published, said a granddaughter. In family diaries, letters, and reminiscences, Jonathan Townley Crane emerges as a noble, scholarly, kind man who was modest about his own preaching, a physically affectionate and sympathetic father who was keenly interested in his children and proud of his wife. "The baby is a miracle, as all babies are, & to be appreciated, must be seen," he once wrote his father-in-law. He was patient--even amused, it seems--with his numerous children, who were apt to interrupt him in the midst of a sermon. Bursting into a Sunday service with a rattrap in hand, two of them once called out, "Here it is, Father. You said to bring it to you as soon as we found it." During another service he shook out what he thought was his pocket handkerchief and found himself holding a child's undershirt. He liked to work in his garden and was once so distracted by the beauties of nature while trolling for pickerel that he "almost forgot the fish."

    Jonathan Townley Crane was born on June 19, 1819. Raised in Connecticut Farms (Union), New Jersey, he had lost both of his parents by the time he was thirteen. Forced to make his own way in the world, he became apprenticed to a trunk maker, who helped him go to college, and at eighteen he made the decision that would direct the course of his life thereafter, leaving the Presbyterian Church in which he had been raised for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Having rejected the "repulsive" Calvinist teachings of his youth, which included such "deformities" as predestination and infant damnation, he now embraced a kindlier church that preached salvation through individual faith but was scarcely less severe in the narrowness of its doctrine. Jonathan's rigid set of beliefs seemed calculated to keep him toeing the moral line by rejecting all pleasures that threatened one's virtuousness, including dancing, drinking, smoking, novel reading, and gambling. After graduating from the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) in 1843 with a prize in English composition, he became an itinerant preacher on circuits in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. Early in 1848, at the age of twenty-eight, he married twenty-one-year-old Mary Helen Peck--a love match, it seems--the only daughter of Methodist clergyman George Peck, editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review.

    Mary Helen Peck Crane looks out from the only known photograph of her, taken in middle age, with a kind, softly smiling face distinguished by a prominent nose. A boyhood friend of Stephen's would remember that she "dressed in dark colors, somewhat suggesting the quakeress without the poke-bonnet." Born on April 20, 1827, she graduated from Rutgers Female Institute in New York the year before she married. The letters she wrote home to her parents give a picture of a woman who is duty-bound, reconciled to life as a minister's wife and the mother of a large brood, and yet frustrated, feeling that she should be doing something more than tending her children and sewing.

    Writing to her parents soon after her wedding, she talked of the difficulties of being apart from her husband when he left in the mornings on his pastoral calls. "I find that I am yet something of a baby--I can hardly help feeling lonely when left alone but of course I cannot always go with him, or always have him stay with me, however I think I am improving, and I trust that the sage lectures of my dear mother were not altogether lost upon me." Sensing that her husband's parishioners were "a little shy of me at first"--an attitude she attributed to her city origins--she was making an effort to draw them out and was succeeding. "Pray for me," she wrote in closing. Her husband felt the separations, too. In a letter to his mother- and father-in-law, written as he was about to go away on business a year after his marriage, he confided his feelings about leaving his wife and their first child. The baby was sick, and Mary Helen apparently pregnant again. "I had hoped to take my little world with me: but this now seems quite doubtful," he wrote. His wife, he wrote in another letter, was "my better half."

    Being married to a clergyman meant frequent moves, and for Helen it also meant unending pregnancies--fourteen in all. Following a relatively long settling-in period at Pennington Seminary in New Jersey, where Jonathan served as president from 1849 to 1858, the Cranes moved with their rapidly growing brood from one church to the next in New Jersey and New York, living in each place from one to three years.

    The letters to Helen's parents soon were dominated by accounts of sick children, children suffering accidents and mishaps, children outwearing and outgrowing their clothes. There was always a new baby in the house. The lonely young bride of the first year was quickly replaced in these letters by a figure barely discernible beneath a mountain of sewing. She was "getting weary of quite so much of it," she wrote after six years. "I have plenty of work, enough for two or three pairs of hands," she wrote in 1857, nine years after her marriage. Her husband--"Mr. Crane," she called him in her letters--assumed a large part of the letter-writing duties. He sent his in-laws cheerful, newsy accounts of "Mrs. Crane" or "Helen," of their children, and of church business. He dutifully repeated the children's funny remarks and worried about their health, filling the letters with more details than his overburdened wife could get into hers. In one letter dated "Sunday Evening, Feb. 18th / 20 minutes past 10 o'clock," he records the birth of a baby girl.

Dear Father,
    All is well. While deeply engaged in reading the life of John Nelson, I was interrupted by sounds not to be mistaken. They were nothing more nor less than the crying of a genuine baby, which mother pronounced, in her report, `a great big girl.' I am writing (and was reading) in the front room, or parlour, while the Committee on Posterity are in session in the back room upstairs, Ergo, the said crying was a pretty fair performance for the first attempt, showing that the young lady in question is well provided for in the matter of lungs.

    While keeping an ear lovingly tuned to the clamor of his swelling household, Jonathan was deeply engaged in his ministerial work and related interests, to which he applied himself with seemingly boundless energy. Awarded a doctorate of divinity from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1856, he turned out articles and books declaiming the evils of dancing, novel reading, and intoxication. He lectured on astronomy and pondered the flammable question of slavery as the country moved toward civil war. Though he was against slavery, he proposed a system modeled on Russia's serfdom as a compromise to avoid war. By late January 1865, Jonathan had preached at or attended seven funeral services for soldiers, the last one for a former prisoner at Andersonville. From his post in Morristown, New Jersey, Jonathan noted the fall of Richmond and Petersburg, as well as Lee's surrender, which left the town "full of joy." He offered a brief entry for Lincoln's assassination, which had not yet been confirmed: "The whole place rings with the startling rumor," he wrote on April 15, 1865. "How cheering the thought that God lives." There followed "a day of gloom, and excitement," during which he preached to a full house, though he "felt wholly unfitted to preach at all."

    Consumed by the demands of her large family, Helen Crane managed only a fleeting mention of the war in the letters she hastily wrote her parents. "I hope Sherman will get through safely and do great things," she wrote on November 29, 1864. Even religious matters were only lightly touched on. Whatever great or small things Helen wanted to accomplish for herself would have to wait. Although she wrote her father that she had not inherited her mother's "failing"--a tendency to "work too hard"--she sewed and mended clothes and linens by the bushel, making quilts, new jackets, overcoats, and pants out of old jackets and trousers.

    She loved to paint but was usually compelled to lay aside her brushes for the sewing needle. One year, however, she produced a picture of autumnal Virginia in crayon. "Mr. C. thinks [it] finer than an oil painting," she wrote her parents. "I have an ardent admirer of my genius in my husband, he is very proud of my paintings and flowers." Stealing some time to write to her parents, she confessed that she was seeing "visions of pantaloons with rents before & behind with troops of unfinished and unmended garments, coming to haunt me as I write but I must send them to the rear." Her husband helped with the children, "taking care of Sissy at night which is a great relief to me," she wrote when her household was ringing with whooping cough, but the burden fell on her. By 1869, after more than twenty years of marriage and child-rearing, she expressed amazement about a complimentary mention of her in a Methodist paper. "I guess the accomplishments have long since disappeared--been burried out of sight by stern realities and duties," she wrote her parents.

    By then, stern reality had brought illness and death into the large household. The energetic Jonathan suffered from what he called sick headaches--"the enemy of my peace in the days of my youth." Five of the Crane children died in infancy or childhood, a high mortality rate even in those pre-vaccine days. Lizzie and Blanche died of scarlet fever in October 1866, within three days of each other, thus breaking the family circle, noted Jonathan, and beginning "our colony on the other shore." The following January Jonathan's fifty-eight-year-old sister, Agnes "my beloved sister" and "a faithful conscientious christian," he wrote in his journal--died at the Crane home three days after she suddenly began "bleeding at the lungs." Perhaps of tuberculosis. A month later the eleventh Crane child, a boy named Jesse Peck, was born. He died at the age of five months, of cholera infantum. Two more children died of unknown causes.

    The letters to Helen's parents tell of a baby girl who suffered from "fits," she said, and later died; of Sis (Nellie) taking iron one summer "to strengthen her"; and of children who seemed to their mother "debilitated" even when healthy. Having contracted dysentery as a toddler, Georgie continued to be a worry, looking "emaciated," in his father's eyes, long after the illness had passed. He suffered from convulsions, attributed to a bad cough, and was a slow learner whose speech also developed slowly. "Nellie," Mary Helen, was overtaken at seventeen or eighteen by something her mother referred to vaguely as "difficulties" and was sent away for some weeks. Though the doctor had not seemed alarmed, Helen worried that her eldest daughter was "destined to a life of disease and suffering."

    In his journal, at least, Jonathan seemed borne aloft by his faith. "Well, God reigns, and in his hands we are all safe, whatever awaits us," he wrote on the first expected death of a child. Another baby had gone "from our arms, to those of the Good Sheperd," yet another "to the better home above." In her letters home, Helen wrote of missing her dead babies, who were buried under a rose bush in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

    In the fall of 1871 the family was living in a three-story red brick house at 14 Mulberry Street, a quiet, tree-shaded street in Newark, where Jonathan had been the church's presiding elder since 1868. At 5:30 in the morning of November 1, Helen gave birth to her fourteenth and last child, a boy they named Stephen. The new baby--"our precious baby," Helen called him--arrived less than two years after the birth of an apparently healthy baby boy, who had died. Helen was now forty-five years old; Jonathan, fifty-two. Stephen joined eight surviving brothers and sisters, Mary Helen, George Peck, Jonathan Townley, William Howe, Agnes Elizabeth, Edmund Brian, Wilbur Fiske, and Luther, ranging in age from eight to twenty-one.

On a summer day nearly four years later, a small yellow-haired boy stretched out on the back of a large Newfoundland dog named Solomon, who was paddling in the Raritan River. By holding on to the big dog's collar, Stevie was able to swim along while his older brothers bathed.

    As the baby of the family, Stephen was always holding on--to an older sister's hand, to the dog's collar struggling to keep up, to stay afloat. Cherubic-looking, with huge blue eyes and blond curls brushed with gold, he was physically fragile. At five months the baby seemed to his father "uncommonly strong," but by eight months the Cranes were worried enough to take him to the country. The move revived him; the infant appeared "much improved by the change from the city to the woods." At not quite two, he seemed "fat and flourishing"; a month later, however, Jonathan described him as "so sick that we are anxious about him." Though he was a faithful diarist of Stephen's health, Jonathan offered no precise information about the nature of these illnesses, which in time frequently kept the boy home from school.

    Like the two creased and grainy photographs of Stephen Crane that survive from this time, the few known facts about his childhood form a hazy picture. After Newark, the family moved to Bloomington when his father became presiding elder of the Elizabeth District. He was a plucky, precocious boy who taught himself to read before the age of four and was attempting to write by age three, when he offered his own letters to "Ganma" to be included in one of his father's letters to George Peck. "I suppose that he will expect her to reply in regard to every topic introduced," Jonathan wrote his father-in-law with obvious delight. Stephen's older brothers and sisters, urged along by his proficiency with language, read to him and challenged him with large vocabulary words. Edmund, finding the baby "bright and very teachable, amused myself by having him pronounce five and six syllable words," he wrote later. "After a few laughable failures, [Stephen] would accomplish a correct pronunciation by spelling the word after me syllable by syllable, resolving them into their sound."

    Within the confines of a strict Methodist upbringing, Stephen did the normal boy things, playing for hours at toy soldiers, using buttons in place of real figures as he patiently maneuvered his troops across the floor. He had a trick pony, an old, white circus animal "he loved devotedly," said Edmund. Stevie was sure that the "B" branded on the pony's shoulder stood for P. T. Barnun. The family spent summers at Ocean Grove, a burgeoning Methodist enclave on the New Jersey shore, and made excursions to the Methodist campground at Denville.

    If anything set Stephen Crane apart from other children, it was his mother. After nearly twenty-three years of marriage, Helen had finally escaped the sewing pile to make her contribution to the world outside. Taking Uncle Jesse Peck's dictum to heart--that a woman must "be able to bring her quiet but potent influence to bear against public dangers"--she now joined the temperance cause with zeal, attending meetings locally and out of town. She gave public lectures about the eroding effects of alcohol on the human body, and joined the newly founded Woman's Christian Temperance Union, her sense of mission undoubtedly propelled by the experience of her own brother, Wilbur F. Peck, whose life had been shattered by alcoholism. In June of 1873, Wilbur Peck took a temperance pledge in Newark in the presence of his father and Jonathan.

    As his wife was finding her wings, Jonathan's were becoming less powerful. He had taken on the conservative Holiness Movement which required a second conversion experience called "entire sanctification." The movement was gaining strength within the church hierarchy, and, having written against it in Holiness in 1874, Jonathan found himself under siege by some Holiness advocates, who conspired to ruin his reputation and drive him down in the church ranks. Holiness was endorsed by some church leaders but was reviled in print as a "poisonous reptile" by a reviewer who exulted in having burned the book in his stove after reading it. "That brethren should so differ was painful to him," Helen would write later. George Peck's prominence may have prevented church officials from taking further action against Jonathan, but in 1876, following Peck's death, the church sent Jonathan back to the itinerant ministry, like an angel expelled from heaven. He was assigned to the Cross Street Church in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1876, then was compelled to move his family again just two years later, when the presiding elder of the Newark Conference decided to reduce expenses by hiring a pastor at a smaller salary. (Jonathan had been paid only $1,250, he noted in his diary, and was "promised at least $150 more.") On April 6, 1878, when Stephen was six, the Cranes moved to Port Jervis, New York, where Jonathan became pastor of the Drew Methodist Church. But the attacks on his book continued to wound him. While going on with his ministry with all his usual energy, he began revising the book with the hope of changing some minds.

    A pretty place nestled amid softly rolling, pine-covered hills in the Delaware Valley at the junction of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, Port Jervis was an Erie Railroad town. Most of its 10,000 residents worked for the railroad or in jobs related to it. Before long the wife of the new minister began to make her mark, drawing large audiences and favorable press from the Port Jervis Gazette for her lectures on alcoholism. The town boasted as many as eighty saloons at one time. Some of these talks were enhanced by crayon illustrations and live demonstrations. At one memorable lecture, Mrs. Crane cracked an egg into a glass, then poured alcohol over it to show how the mass hardened. Helen also lectured "on the false religions of India" and on "China and Its People"--the latter enlivened by children dressed in native costume, including Helen's own blond, six-year-old Stephen, according to one story, dressed as a coolie. With her husband, she cofounded a Sunday school for the town's black children, and she would later help organize an industrial school to provide work and training for local black women and children. Helen's housekeeping suffered; the church ladies clucked their disapproval and advised her to stay home and care for her large brood.

    In the summer of 1878, when he was seven, Stephen was introduced to a slightly older boy, Post (George) Wheeler. the two boys were attending a WCTU rally with their mothers, and afterward Stephen and his mother accompanied the Wheelers to their town in Pennsylvania for a short visit. "The day coach was full," said Post, so he and Stevie sat apart from their mothers in the smoking car. Stevie, a blond, pale, "hungry-looking" boy, lit up a Sweet Caporal cigarette, gave one to Post, and proceeded to smoke it while occasionally glancing over his shoulder toward his mother.

    The next day the boys attended a centenary celebration commemorating the British and Indian attack on Forty Fort. Their mothers gave each boy a quarter "to spend as we liked." Stevie boldly approached a street vendor selling beer for ten cents, and plunked down a dime.

    "Gimme one," he said.

    "Hey?" said the vendor.

    "I said gimme a beer."

    The fat Dutchman took the dime.

    "You gimme a beer or gimme back my dime!" said Stevie, his voice "a shrill falsetto."

    The vendor offered him a token amount that was mostly foam.

    "That ain't half full!" he said. "You fill it up."

    Later, the wide-eyed Post Wheeler watched Stevie drink the beer.

    "Stevie ... how'd you dast do it?" said Post.

    "Pshaw!" said Stevie. "Beer ain't nothing at all." Then he added, "How was I going to know what it tasted like less'n I tasted it? How you going to know about things at all less'n you do em?"

Speaking at a children's day festival held at the Methodist Church in June, the Reverend Crane had talked about "the great difficulties through which the young mind passes before it is properly moulded and prepared to meet the world in its many phases of sin and folly." If the tenor of the Crane household was predominantly religious, it was also word-driven. Words, Stephen soon learned, were power. Delivered in a thundering voice at an open-air revival meeting, words could terrify; there was drama in such preaching. In the Bible's grand sweep and poetry were fiery colors and vivid imagery; the lake of fire, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the riders and horses arrayed for battle, the serpent and the eagle and the dragon, a beast rising from the sea--such images were repeated like waves throughout the Book of Revelation. The words washed over Stephen and entered him. As a speaker, Jonathan had a flair for adlibbing and was able to hold an audience spellbound. People praised his uncompromising rhetoric for its tenderness and style. His sermons were distinguished by allusions to fables and the writings of Homer. Every day before young Stephen was the example of a father putting words on paper; excluding letters and diaries, he wrote ten pages a day. The subject matter and literary quality perhaps mattered less as an example to his children than the act of writing itself. "Did nothing all day worth mentioning," Jonathan once confided to his journal, putting words down anyway.

    Before Stephen was in school, Jonathan wrote a series of slight, charming tales for children that offered a gentle moral or lesson. Two of the pieces purported to be letters from a cat and a dog; another, written as a fable, showed the metamorphosis of a potato worm into a silver-winged moth. In the wars to come, Stephen's sister Agnes wrote fiction for women's magazines. His brother Townley became a cub reporter for the New York Tribune. Even Uncle Wilbur Peck wrote poetry, which he sent to Jonathan for his opinion. Of all the writing Cranes before Stephen, however, it was his mother, the indefatigable temperance lecturer, who showed real talent. Her folksy, humorous, heavily colloquial tales drew on her own long years of household drudgery; two of her stories appeared in the New Jersey Tribune and Advertiser and the Monmouth Tribune.

    Edmund retained a memory of Stephen, scarcely past babyhood, trying to write his own compositions at a table, the words represented by "weird marks." Townley, a fledgling reporter by then, would often ask their mother for the spelling of a word. Imitating his older brother's tone of voice, Stevie looked up from his paper and said, "Ma, how do you spell `O'?"

    Uncle Jesse Peck had long ago decreed that "novel reading is a crime," an activity that "murders the heart, the intellect and the body." Father himself had warned of the perils of reading "trashy literature." But Stephen's brothers got hold of dime novels, which they fed to the baby like candy. By the time he was four, Stephen was reading James Fenimore Cooper, apparently without fear of eternal damnation--and also without fear of his father, who would probably have forgiven his youngest child. In 1866 Jonathan himself had read Vanity Fair, or part of it, in order to form an objective opinion of the novel, which was being praised as "a true picture of English `Society,'" he noted in his journal.

At the age of eight, Stephen took a shine to Little Goody Brighteyes and wrote a story about the character, which has not survived. Following an erratic first year of school, which began on September 2, 1878, when he was just shy of his seventh birthday, he wrote his first known poem:

I'd Rather Have--
Last Christmas they gave me a sweater,
       And a nice warm suit of wool
But I'd rather be cold and have a dog,
       To watch when I come from school.
Father gave me a bicycle,
       But that isn't much of a treat,
Unless you have a dog at your heels
       Racing away down the street
They bought me a camping outfit,
       But a bonfire by a log,
Is all the outfit I would ask
       If I only had a dog.
They seem to think a little dog
       Is a killer of all earth's joys;
But oh, that "pesky little dog"
       Means hours of joy to the boys.

    Though he was on the honor roll of Miss E. Reeve's class in the Main Street School, by August Stephen's health was again a worry. Jonathan wrote about it with some frequency. Noting in his diary on August 8 that "Stevie is not well," Jonathan reported an improvement the next day. Helen had taken the train out to neighboring Hartwood to get medicine, and by the eleventh Stephen seemed "very much better." But months later he was spending school days at home. Writing to Agnes on November 17, Jonathan said only that "Stevie is well, and is getting some flesh on his bones, but is not at school."

February 16, 1880, began much like any other day. Having preached a vigorous sermon on the infidelity the night before "to an unusually large congregation," Jonathan climbed the stairs of his parsonage to write the sermon he was to give that evening and was seized by chest pains. Helen flew into action, applying a mustard plaster to her husband's chest and feet, then giving him brandy and morphine in rapid succession. But Jonathan died before the doctor arrived, about a half hour after the pain began. He was sixty years old.

    Some fourteen hundred mourners poured through the church more than double the size of the congregation--to pay their respects. "The audience was one of the largest, if not the largest, ever assembled in the church," said the Port Jervis Daily Union. Ministers streamed in from the district; clerics arrived from other churches. A memorial was held in place of a local temperance meeting. Accompanied by the Crane family and local ministers, his body was taken by train to Elizabeth, for a still larger funeral at St. James's Methodist Episcopal Church. The service was conducted by a dozen ministers, and some one hundred clergymen attended. Jonathan was buried in the family plot in Elizabeth's Evergreen Cemetery, "as a flood of golden sunshine burst upon the scene," Helen wrote later. For nearly a month after Jonathan's death, the Daily Union wrote about the loss of the Reverend J. T. Crane, which had greatly affected the town.

    Amid the public outpouring of sympathy and grief, Helen and her children were required to leave the parsonage. For reasons that are unclear, she moved to Roseville, near Newark, apparently leaving Stephen in the care of twenty-two-year-old Edmund, who, along with Wilbur and Luther, had dropped out of Centenary Collegiate Institute after their father died. Edmund secured a teaching job in Sussex County, New Jersey, and he and Stephen boarded at the home of some Crane cousins, Mr. H. W. Van Sycle and his wife and four sons.

    Stephen was forever silent on the subject of his father's death and the months of rootlessness following it, saying only, in years to come, that he had been seven years old at the time. He was actually eight.


Agnes was heartbroken by her father's death. "Oh my Father! Here is my greatest heartache," she confided to her diary nine months later. "Sometimes. often. I cannot seem to believe that he is gone beyond where he can hear the cries of his children and see their tears."

    In spite of her grief, Agnes stayed in school and graduated from Centenary in June as class valedictorian. As revealed by her diary entries and the testimony of those who knew her, Agnes was the selfless daughter, always striving to be perfect and paying a personal price for it. She "was perfect in all my lessons all this week," she had written at seventeen or eighteen; "Have been perfect all day this week." Feeling that she was a "horrid creature" and wondering "if it is too late for improvement," her greatest ambition had been to be "a better Christian" and "a lady in the fullest sense of the word." She became well educated in both the classics and in science and was thoroughly familiar with "the best literature." She wanted to be accomplished in the arts of drawing, painting, and writing--above all, she wanted to "write," she had confided to her diary long before. Her family was so "oyster-like ... there are few to whom I can speak freely and I have learned, too, that people will talk to me with great vivacity about their own troubles but grow inattentive when a reciprocal confidation--ever so slight, is attempted."

    William, the oldest son, graduated from Albany Law School and was admitted to the bar in May. In mid-June, Helen and Stephen went to live with him at 21 Brooklyn Street, near the Delaware and Hudson Canal, in Port Jervis. Then, three years after Jonathan's sudden death, Stephen and Helen moved again, to the resort town of Asbury Park, 120 miles from Port Jervis on the New Jersey coast.

    At a time when he needed continuity and rootedness, Stephen had come to a transient community that seemed to underscore his sense of being orphaned and adrift. Described by the American Baedeker as an "extraordinary settlement, possible only in America," where "thousands of persons young and old, voluntarily elect to spend their summer vacations under a religious autocracy, which is severe both in its positive and negative regulations," Asbury Park, along with its sister town, Ocean Grove, offered a contradictory mix of regulation and escape. Asbury Park was primarily a pleasure resort of great wooden hotels, boarding houses and cottages, with well-fed guests promenading along the mile-long plank boardwalk fronting the ocean. Called "Ocean Grove" by its youth, Ocean Grove was a prohibition town that advertised itself as "the Summer Mecca of American Methodists" and offered a refuge from life's "temptation and dissipations." Holiness meetings, Bible lessons, temperance discussions, and evening entertainments such as a lecture on the "proper normal pose" when walking were the order of the day. One might attend a performance by a whistler or a musical recital by "graduates of the blind asylum."

    Townley and his wife, Fannie, lived in Asbury Park, as did Nellie, now Mrs. Van Nortwick, and her husband. Agnes, who had resigned a teaching job at Port Jervis's Mountain House School when she was unable to control her class, took a position at Asbury Park's intermediate school. When Helen purchased a clapboard and shingle house called Arbutus Cottage at 508 Fourth Avenue, Agnes apparently moved in with her to help care for Stephen. Agnes was now a tall, slender young woman of twenty-seven, with large brown eyes and spinsterish pince-nez. "Mother has hope that her ugly duckling may turn out a swan," she liked to say. Whatever Agnes lacked in physical allure was more than compensated by her cynical, keen mind, which was of a literary, intellectual bent, and by her sweet nature, her "radiant personality," and her "spirit of fun," said two of Stephen's friends. A woman of "magnetic charm," "she was Stephen Crane's good angel, brightening his boyhood as an older sister can sometimes do."

    To Stephen's childhood friend, however, Agnes seemed overwhelmed with duties and unequal to the task of caring for her adventurous little brother, then scarcely out of knee pants. Small and undernourished-looking at twelve and thirteen years old, Stephen would come home from school or ice skating on the lake to find no supper on the table. He would set off again to "range the neighborhood for food and companionship," remembered an anonymous friend, "telling tales to the children of the various mothers--mine was one--who often sewed on his buttons."

    While Agnes taught school and helped care for Stephen, Helen immersed herself in the temperance cause. Promptly elected president of the WCTU for Asbury Park and Ocean Grove, she was soon giving lectures, holding a temperance meeting for juveniles, and worrying about "the growing taste for worldly amusements which keeps the young from the house of God." A small, "bird-like" woman, in the eyes of a family friend, she went about it all with energy and efficiency. The temperance people were impressed with her knowledge, her ladylike demeanor, "her intelligence and culture, and [her] marked administrative ability." In the words of a granddaughter, Helen "planned her work and campaigns like a general marshaling his forces in review before the battle, and in her planning said she was trying to `catch Time by the fetlock'"--an inaccuracy that amused her horse-loving youngest child. "Stephen solemnly assured her several times that she would get her head kicked off if she were not more careful."

    For the most part, Stephen's brothers and sisters were well settled. Townley, who was all newspaperman, had quickly advanced at the local office of the New York Tribune. He headed the Long Branch departments of both the Tribune and the Associated Press and served as the editor of the Asbury Park Shore Press. Having established a law practice in Port Jervis, William purchased a home with a wide porch and expansive lawns at 270 Main Street. This now served as the family's home base in that town. As civic-minded as both of his parents, though in a different way, William seemed to have a hand in everything. He ran as the Republican candidate for town clerk (and lost), but he won positions on the Board of Education and the Water Works. He served as special judge for Orange County, debated at the Young Men's Literary Society against the notion that women are the intellectual equals of men, and gave a lecture on "The Mississippi Pig." Brothers George and Luther, virtually empty ovals in the family portrait gallery, were presumably working in mundane jobs; when one picks up their trails later, George is found working for the post office, Luther for the railroad. Wilbur, known as "Bert," struggled through medical school at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, getting failing grades for two years.

    The move to Asbury Park marked the beginning of a chain of losses that would alter the Crane family and affect Stephen in ways we can only guess at. On November 26, 1883, Townley's wife, Fannie, whom he had known since childhood, died of Bright's disease. Her death apparently followed the deaths of their two young children. Then Agnes became ill and had to resign her teaching job. Just twenty-eight years old, she died on June 10, 1884, of cerebrospinal meningitis. Weeks later, the family almost lost Luther when he took an overdose of laudanum while sick with flulike symptoms; he was found unconscious at Arbutus Cottage. It took the doctor and several unnamed others five hours to revive him.

    There is no record of Stephen's reaction to these family crises; the Crane family seems to have made some effort to protect him. Agnes died at Ed's home, which was then in Rutherford, New Jersey, about sixty miles from Asbury Park. Whether it was thought best that Agnes be removed from Arbutus Cottage during her illness, so as to prevent upsetting thirteen-year-old Stephen, or there was another reason for her being there is unknown. Although she died at the start of her teaching career, she was so admired in the community that the Asbury Park Board of Education issued a formal preamble and resolution expressing their sorrow at the loss. She was blessed with "many rare graces of character," was "faithful ... efficient," a teacher of "tireless industry, skill and tact." Two of her stories had been published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, one of them just a month before she died.

    Stevie was still "delicate," said Edmund. Though he was stronger than he looked "and could outwalk nearly everyone," said Post Wheeler, he lacked the stamina for active sports, which he loved. "Sensitive about his health," but possessing the grit and determination that had marked him since earliest childhood, "he would box until he dropped exhausted to prove his strength." He had proved a good, if not brilliant, student during his first year, 1883-84, in the new school system, maintaining an average of "85 or above" at the Asbury Park grammar school.

    Stephen wrote his first known story, "Uncle Jake and the Bell Handle," the year after Agnes died, when he was about fourteen. "Uncle Jake," the tale of two country bumpkins who drive their wagon into the big city for a day's trading and shopping and abruptly flee when Uncle Jake pulls a bell handle at the precise moment that a gong sounds in the hotel where they are waiting to have dinner, is a deft, highly accomplished piece of writing. Even in early adolescence Stephen could manage an effective comic tone. Along with a finely tuned ear and an eye for the telling detail, he showed a mature perception of human character and behavior. And he understood city squalor and the hardness of tenement life, where animals and dirty children forage together against a backdrop of tin cans, clotheslines, and grimy, smoky factories" where merchants haggle over goods, cheat one another, and lie about market prices. Stephen was already writing well enough to be published. The printer's symbols in Stephen's hand on the "Uncle Jake" manuscript further show that he was aiming at publication.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2005

    Gets under your skin

    The book flat-out got under my skin. I had to put it down for a time, not because it was bad, but because it was so darkly good that it distracted me from my own writing. If you admire Stephen Crane¿s work, you will come to admire him more as a man by reading this excellent biography.

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