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Born in 1871 the youngest of fourteen children, Stephen Crane grew up in Newark, New Jersey. His mother was a social activist, concentrating most of her energy on the temperance movement and his father was a Methodist minister. Crane moved to New York in 1887 to attend a military preparatory school. Then he entered Lafayette College to study mining and engineering, but after only one term, he transferred to Syracuse University. He enjoyed playing baseball on the varsity team and working as a local correspondent for the New York Tribune. He also began in those years to write his first short stories. After less than a year at the university, Crane withdrew and moved to New York City. He worked there as a free-lance newspaper reporter.
In his career as a reporter, Crane spent most of his time covering stories concerning New York’s slums. He also traveled as a correspondent to Mexico, the western United States, Cuba, and Greece. In this pursuit, Crane became a sort of celebrity. He moved to London where he lived with his common law wife, the former Madame of the Hotel de Dream in Jacksonville, Florida. In England, he became friends with famous writers of the time including Henry James and Joseph Conrad. During these years, Crane wrote ten volumes of literary work.
Crane suffered ill health during these active years. He contracted tuberculosis in 1899 and in 1900, he died at twenty-eight.
In his early writing, Crane specialized in burlesques and satires. The tone of this early work is much like that of Maggie. He announced that his ambition as a writer was to achieve personal honesty. He wanted to deflate romantic idealism. In this pursuit, Crane was taking part in a larger literary movement called naturalism. In the nineteenth century, a naturalist was a term that described a scientist. When writers adopted this term for what they were doing with fiction, they appropriated the aura of scientific objectivity for fiction. Naturalists saw human beings as wholly controlled by their environment and their heredity. They regarded the work of fiction as a sort of laboratory. They would include all the elements of the social and economic world and place in that world a character. Instead of treating the character as a romantic writer would as a lone individual able to prevail against all odds, naturalists would show the character fully determined, despite her best efforts, by the forces of her society.
Crane was not just a naturalist, however. He was also greatly influenced by his parents’ religious views. They shared with their fellow nineteenth-century citizens a faith in the benevolence of God, in the existence of free will, and in the significance of the human being in the universe. Many critics view Crane as a Christian symbolist who expresses faith in the ultimate understanding and redemption of human beings.
In his style, Crane was an innovator. He records impressions in vivid terms, drawing from a variety of literary modes from heroic poetry to burlesque. Crane completed Maggie in 1893 when he was twenty-one years old. He had trouble getting it published. Just three years before, Jacob Riis had published his famous book How the Other Half Lives which had been well received by readers. Riis wrote of the slums of New York from the standpoint of a social reformer. Crane’s novel does not have the same kind of reformist tone. Readers wanted moralistic views of the poor of New York, not Crane’s amoral portrait of the Johnson family. Even though Crane didn’t receive popular attention for the book, established writers liked the book. Hamlin Garlin and William Dean Howells both recognized Crane’s talent.
In 1894, Crane published The Red Badge of Courage. It appeared as a feature in newspapers across the country. The next year, the Philadelphia Press sent Crane to the western United States and the territories. He wrote his famous stories "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" and "The Blue Hotel" based on those experiences. In 1895, he published a book of poetry titled The Black Riders. In 1895, The Red Badge of Courage was published as a book by an important press and Crane achieved fame. Other books and stories followed The Little Regiment (1896), George’s Mother (1896), "The Open Boat" (1897), The Third Violet (1897). Maggie was re- published after the success of The Red Badge of Courage but it never received the popular recognition that the later novel did.