A Writer Who Lived the Adventures He Portrayed

Stephen Crane was fascinated by the seamy side of life, but his works elevated fiction to new heights

Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane Wikimedia Commons

Everyone knows The Red Badge of Courage, the Civil War novel that marked the beginning of modern American fiction. But most people still don't know much about the brief and melodramatic life of the man who wrote it and was catapulted to fame by its success.

Most authors write about their experiences. Crane reversed the process; he tried to experience what he'd already written about. He began The Red Badge of Courage at 21, before he'd been within a thousand miles of war; a few years later, he became a daring war correspondent. He wrote about a prostitute, then fell in love with a real-life madam. He wrote stories about shipwrecks and subsequently found himself in one.

The Red Badge of Courage was the zenith of Stephen Crane's writing career. At this point, his life, as if to match his fame, began to turn into a series of melodramas and strange incidents instigated, some have suggested, by Crane himself. Most of the spectacular theatrical events in his life, including his own death from tuberculosis at age 28, had one thing in common. In each of them, he was testing his own courage. In that sense, the rest of his life was an extension of his novel.

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