Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey. He was the fourteenth and youngest child of a poor clergyman. When Stephen was not yet ten years old, his father died and the family moved to New York where an older son was in charge of a news bureau for New York and Philadelphia newspapers. A few years later this elder brother gave Stephen his first news-reporting job, scouting for vacation news at a small sea-side town. But his apprenticeship did not last long. Once when the elder brother had to leave town, young Stephen took entire charge of the work. Amang the incidents of that week was a parade of mechanics, in connection with a State holiday, which Stephen had witnessed. He reported the parade in a way to suggest comparison between the parading poor workmen and the fashionable crowd who watched them, whom the writer called idlers. The feature-story appeared in the New York Tribune the owner of which was then running for vice-president in the elections. His political enemies, offended by the story, discredited him with the result that his opponent won the elections. Of course, Stephen's brother who was considered responsible for the story was immediately discharged.
Crane had meanwhile attended two private schools. His interests at the time centred chiefly on poetry and on baseball. He would have continued these pursuits at the university but could not afford to go on with his education for want of money: after a term each at the college of Lafayette and Syracuse University he brought his student days to an end in 1891.
Crane was a born writer and naturally turned to newspaper work as a means of earning a living. It was Crane's nature to be experimental. He had a keen sense of the dramatic. His mind instantly caught the absurd or ridiculous aspect of any incident and he would draw out an account of it in his own entertaining fashion. But editors did not like news stories in which the reporters' impressions dominated over the facts, and he had to give up newspaper work. Now and then he wrote stories which were sometimes accepted by various papers. Crane was very independent, in financial as well as in intellectual matters. He refused to take financial help from friends and relatives. As to his writings he was spoken of as a writer of the "pioneer type". He also wrote free verse. In protest against conventions he wrote the following poem:
"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked,
You are a toad."
And after I had thought of it,
I said: "I will then be a toad."
For several years Crane lived in the poorest section of New York and in cities in New Jersey. He suffered extreme poverty. He saw the destitution in the slums. It was perhaps at this time that he wrote:
A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation."
The general spirit of the nineties, as pointed out in the introduction to this chapter, was that of unrest and alarm, which increased after the turn of the century. The best writers of the time turned to the subject of war as did H. G. Wells in England. Writers felt that under imperialism war would inevitably be a constant threat. Crane's mood of works, even his poetry, protested against war. In rare cases, however, he allowed himself to write lyrical poems.
Here is a lyrical poem from the collection of posthumously published poems. Note the beautiful rhythm of his unrhymed lines; it is a pity that the poem remained unfinished:
A lad and a maid at a curve in the stream
And a shine of soft silken waters,
Where the moon-beams fall through a hemlock's boughs
Oh, night dismal, night glorious.
A lad and a maid at the rail of a bridge
With two shadows adrift on the water
And the wind sings low in the grass on the shore
Oh, night dismal, night glorious.
A lad and a maid in a canoe,
With a paddle making silver turmoil...
Crane viewed the existing order of things with distaste and pessimism. His first novel written in New York was "Maggie: a Girl of the Streets". It was an innovation in American literature. The book gives a terrifying picture of the brutality and degradation in the New York slums, and this was unique at the time. It is about the tragedy of a girl brought to despair and suicide by the awful environment in which she lives. Crane produced a masterful impression of helplessness in his story. As did the naturalists, he intentionally avoided interpretive comment. The novel was an attack on everything that was considered respectable in American literature. No publisher would accept the novel. Finally Crane borrowed enough money to print it himself under another name.
The book failed. The general public were scandalized but it won the admiration of professional contemporary writers.