Stephen Crane: Biography, Poems & Books

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Stephen Crane was a 19th century American writer, and is considered to be one of the instigators of Naturalism in literature. In this lesson, read about the man who broke boundaries with his novels and poetry.

Life of Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane was born November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, to devout Methodist parents. Crane was the last of 14 children. In his early twenties, Crane decided against college and instead moved to New York to become a freelance writer. He lived among artists, quickly becoming enraptured by the bohemian lifestyle. During those years, Crane wrote about the poverty and street life he witnessed. It even inspired his first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, though it was his second, The Red Badge of Courage, that would catapult him to fame.

The Red Badge of Courage, a realistic war novel, gave Crane the reputation as a 'war writer,' and he used it to become a war correspondent. In 1897, Crane set sail for Cuba to report on the war there, but luck would not follow him. The ship sank and Crane was left drifting in the ocean for days. The event inspired one of his most famous short stories, 'The Open Boat.'

Portait of Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane Portrait

During his travels, Crane met Cora, a brothel owner, who thereafter remained at his side. However, Cora and Crane's other 'outcasted' company led to terrible rumors about him, rumors involving promiscuity, Satanism, and drug addiction. Disgusted, Crane fled to England with Cora, where they lived lavishly and beyond his means.

Crane wrote prolifically to try and dig his way out of massive debt, but stress and his unhealthy lifestyle would take its toll. Crane contracted tuberculosis, and in December of that same year, he had a massive hemorrhage. Crane died on June 5, 1900. He was just 28 years old.

Crane's Writing

Crane's writing was both prolific and ahead of its time. He is considered to be one of the founders of Realism in American literature, as well as a great contributor to the Naturalism and Impressionism movements. His stark and vivid imagery, as well as his ability to grasp the human condition, is what made his writing stand out. Whether or not his work was well received, it always made a splash. Even as a freelance writer, readers would write in to the papers and complain about his grotesque or sarcastic stories.


Crane's first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was originally published under the pseudonym Johnston Smith by Crane himself, because no publishing house wanted to handle its racy contents. Maggie, the story of an impoverished prostitute who's left in the cruel hands of circumstance, received little critical attention, and self-publication left Crane broke.

He would, however, get plenty of attention with his next novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a story depicting the realistic, psychological horrors of war, something no one had yet to do.

Using the fame The Red Badge offered Crane, he published a second edition of Maggie, subduing some of the more graphic scenes. Its second time around would prove much more successful. During his time in England, he wrote several stories, including The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1899), The Monster and Other Stories (1899), and the novel Active Service (1899), which recalled his experience with war in Greece. Stories published after his death include Whilomville Stories, Wounds in the Rain, Great Battles of the World, Last Words, and The O'Ruddy.

In the following example, note Crane's depiction of a soldier's state of mind, of his surroundings, and of the bleakness that is war. These were images that most of society was too 'politically correct' to write about, and it is what made Crane so necessary to his time.

Excerpt from The Red Badge

'But he was amid wounds. The mob of men was bleeding. Because of the tattered soldier's question he now felt that his shame could be viewed. He was continually casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating the letters of guilt he felt burned into his brow.

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