Stephen Crane (1871-1900)
Contributing Editor: Donald Vanouse
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Stephen Crane's works present sudden shifts in tone and point of view, and frequently the works end without establishing either certainty about characters or resolution of thematic issues. Crane's imagery is vivid, but the works seldom provide final interpretations (e.g., the empty bucket in "A Mystery of Heroism"). These qualities contribute to Crane's multi-layered irony.
The instructor should attempt to shift the focus from resolving issues of plot or character (e.g., "Is Collins a hero?") to showing the students that Crane seems to encourage the reader to enrich and re-evaluate ideas about patterns of action and thought. Crane asks questions rather than providing answers.
Consider using the poems to introduce some of his major themes. Crane seems to have valued them quite highly as expressions of his sense of the world. In like manner, the pace and drama of "A Mystery of Heroism" and "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" make them easier as doorways to Crane than the more stately and ambitious reflectiveness of "The Open Boat."
Like other scholars, students in class often are concerned with Crane's attitude toward God. It is useful--if complex--to invite them to look at "God Lay Dead in Heaven," "A Man Said to the Universe," "Do Not Weep, Maiden, For War Is Kind," "Chant You Loud of Punishments," and "When a People Reach the Top of a Hill." These poems, along with the "prayer" in "The Open Boat" indicate the variety of religious experience in Crane.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Crane writes about extreme experiences that are confronted by ordinary people. His characters are not larger-than-life, but they touch the mysterious edges of their capacities for perception, action, and understanding.
In his themes and styles, Crane is an avant-garde writer.
The New York City sketch, "A Detail," was reprinted in 1898 with "The Open Boat," and the two works express parallel naturalistic themes. In both, individuals are shown to struggle for communication while being buffeted by tumultuous forces.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Crane's works reflect many of the major artistic concerns at the end of the nineteenth century, especially naturalism, impressionism, and symbolism.
His works insist that we live in a universe of vast and indifferent natural forces, not in a world of divine providence or a certain moral order. "A Man Said to the Universe" is useful in identifying this aspect of Crane. But Crane's vivid and explosive prose styles distinguish his works from those by many other writers who are labeled naturalists.
Many readers (including Hamlin Garland and Joseph Conrad, who were personal friends of Crane) have used the term impressionist to describe Crane's vivid renderings of moments of visual beauty and uncertainty. Even Crane's "discontinuous" rendering of action has been identified as impressionist.
In "The Open Boat," Crane has been seen as a symbolist. Perhaps it is most appropriate to see the story as a skeptical balancing of concern with vast archetypes with an equal concern with psychology of perception: personal and cultural symbol grids.
Crane had a popular audience as well as a cultivated, literary audience during his lifetime.
Crane was a "star" journalist, and he published many of his best fictional works in the popular press. Nonetheless his comment that a newspaper is a "collection of half-injustices" indicates his skepticism about that medium of communication.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Crane's brief free-verse poems invite comparison with those of Emily Dickinson ( Howells read them to him), and with a number of twentieth-century poets, particularly those influenced by imagism (Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, for example). In brevity and in the authors' desire to escape conventional poetic rhetoric, these poems are comparable to Crane's. There are, of course, some vast differences in subject.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Why does Crane use the term "Mystery" in the title of his war story? What is the mystery? Or do you find more than one?
2. In "The Bride," Crane seems interested in the role of women. Does the story show a shift of power from male violence?
3. In "The Open Boat," Crane seems very interested in what the correspondent learns. What does he learn about nature? Or about seeing nature? Or his relationship to other human beings?
4. How useful is "A Man Said to the Universe" in understanding the correspondent's experience?
5. "There Was a Man with Tongue of Wood" and "Chant You Loud of Punishments" are poems about poetry. What do these poems say about Crane's ambition or purpose as a poet?
Crane's vivid prose makes him particularly valuable in developing student skills in discussing literary style.
Also, his spare and startling structures (especially "endings") provide useful occasions for assignments on literary structure.
Crane's relationship to naturalism provokes questions about individual freedom and responsibility.
Ralph Ellison's essay in Shadow and Act (1964), first published as the introduction to The Red Badge of Courage and Four Great Stories by Stephen Crane, New York: Dell, 1960, brings fresh insight to the issue of Crane's value to American culture.
David Halliburton's "The Farther Shore: Poems," in The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, provides a valuable examination of Crane's decisions in metrics and prosody.
Lee Clark Mitchell's "The Spectacle of Courage in Crane's The Red Badge of Courage," in Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, links Crane to other naturalists and argues that Crane's styles subvert certainties about human character.