Stephen Crane: Writer, sportsman, rule-breaker

| 18 Jun 2015 | 11:44

By Ginny Privitar
— Stephen Crane, the canonized author of the "Red Badge of Courage," is assigned to schoolchildren everywhere for its stunningly realistic portrayals of soldiers under fire. Tristate residents know he never really was in a battle. Instead, he absorbed the stories told by Civil War veterans who gathered at the war memorial in Port Jervis, where Crane's family lived in 1878.

Before Crane, literary works depicted war as glorious and gallant. Crane changed all that. His masterpiece is soaked through with blood, decay, and delirium. "Red Badge" introduced a literary style that deeply probed the thoughts of its protagonist, farm boy Henry Fleming, as he gets caught up in a war that will put his courage to the test.

Port Jervis will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War this Saturday, June 20, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Orange Square and other venues, complete with Civil War re-enactors, and a performance of "President and Mrs. Lincoln." The First Presbyterian Church will display authentic Civil War-era clothing by Juanita Leisch Jensen. But Crane, and the vital role Port Jervis played in his life and his masterpiece, is closest to the hearts of local people.

The movie version of “The Red Badge of Courage" will be shown several times during the day in the church’s Marsh Hall. Tri-state historical societies will put up Civil War displays in the fellowship hall of Drew United Methodist Church, where Crane’s father was once minister. Robert Eurich will give a presentation titled “Stephen Crane: His Civil War Veteran Neighbors and “The Red Badge of Courage.”

WriterIn its time, "Red Badge" was an instant success. Civil War veterans were astonished at how accurately it captured their actual battlefield experiences, thoughts and emotions. The novel has never been out of print since it was first published in 1895.

It’s believed the fictional battle in the book is based on the fighting at Chancellorsville. The veterans Crane interviewed at Orange Square mostly served with the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Orange Blossoms.

Crane’s first book was also at the literary vanguard, and considered scandalous for the time. "Maggie, A Girl of the Streets" describes an innocent slum girl's fall into prostitution. Crane published this work under the pseudonym “Johnson Smith” in 1893 at his own expense.

After his success with "Red Badge," Crane focused on war themes. In 1897 he left for Cuba to report on the rebellion against the Spanish, but was shipwrecked and came ashore in Jacksonville, Florida. He recounted the incident in his most famous short story, "The Open Boat," published in 1897.

Crane returned to war reporting and traveled with his common-law wife, Cora, to Greece to report on the Greco-Turkish War for New York newspapers. Later that year, he and Cora moved to Brede Manor in England, where they entertained other writers. They lived well above their means and were plagued with debt, which Crane hoped to ease by writing.

SportsmanCrane told early reviewers that he had been coaching and playing quarterback on a northern New Jersey team while finishing "Red Badge."

“I have never been in a battle, of course,” Crane said. “I believe I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

He was also a skilled baseball player. At Syracuse University he focused most of his attention on baseball and an English class. He was not a particularly good student.

“I did little work in school, but confined my abilities, such as they were, to the diamond," he wrote in 1896. "Not that I disliked books, but the cut-and-dried curriculum of the college did not appeal to me.”

A teammate said the slight, 5-foot-6, 125-pound Crane played baseball “with fiendish glee.”

Rule breakerCrane often flouted convention, and not just literary ones. He left far behind the Victorian propriety exemplified by his parents, the Rev. Jonathan Townley Crane, a Methodist minister who denounced alcohol and dancing, and Mary Helen Peck Crane, a clergyman’s daughter who became a powerful figure in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

In 1896 he was assigned to write a series of stories for the New York Journal about the city’s Tenderloin district, then notorious for prostitution and gambling. There he met two chorus girls and Dora Clark, a prostitute. Later, he would speak on Clark's behalf in court, after her arrest by plainclothes officer Charles Becker. As a witness Crane was subjected to harsh questions about his own morals, According to an article by Bill Peschel “Stephen Crane: I fought the law and the law won (1896)," police had searched Crane's room and investigated his background. Was it not true an opium pipe was found in his apartment? Did he not habitually consort with prostitutes? Did he not cohabitate for six months with a woman not his wife?

Crane tried to defend himself. The pipe was a memento from a story he wrote about opium, he said. As a reporter, he met a lot of people. He refused to discuss his private living arrangements.

Becker was acquitted. Crane was publicly humiliated, and his reputation badly damaged.

Crane traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, intending to secure passage to Cuba. At the Hotel de Dreme he met Cora Taylor, whose life in some ways mirrored his own. She was born to a proper Boston family but, orphaned young, strayed from the path of convention. She became a playboy’s mistress, learned business skills as the hostess of a New York “gambling parlor,” married and divorced then married again, to an English aristocrat. She eventually turned up in Jacksonville, where she'd been running her elegant “sporting house” for two years when she met Crane. She became his constant companion until he embarked for Cuba. He would return and spend the remaining years of his life with her.

He and Cora worked together as correspondents in the Greco-Turkish War. Her job as a correspondent was unheard of for a woman. They could not marry, since the aristocrat would not grant a divorce. They moved to England in 1897 and defied convention by living together as man and wife. They settled at Brede Place, a decaying manor where they entertained fellow writers Henry James, Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, and Ford Madox Ford.

While in England, Crane suffered tubercular hemorrhages. Desperate, Cora brought him to Badenweiler, a spa for tuberculosis patients in the Black Forest in Germany. There Stephen Crane died, on June 5, 1900, at the age of 28.

In his will he left everything to Cora, who brought his body to New Jersey for burial. Crane was interred in the Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside, N.J.

Crane wrote about courage, and exemplified it too, in his square reckoning with the sould in all its dark truths. In his poem "In the desert" he writes:

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,Held his heart in his hands

And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”

“It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,

“And because it is my heart.”
Editor's note: The attribution to Bill Peschel was omitted in the original article due to an editing error. The Courier regrets the error.