An Interview with the Past President of The Stephen Crane Society
(DaRK PaRTY has been on a Stephen Crane kick. We recently reread "The Red Badge of Courage" and picked up a volume of Crane's short stories. Crane may be one of the most ignored major American writers. He certainly doesn't have the recognition that Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Twain or that rascal Poe have garnered. Yet Crane's prose (and even his poetry) influenced the great writers that came after him. Hemingway was an enormous advocate of Crane's high status among the literary elite of American letters. We decided -- as we are oft to do -- to discover more about Crane. So we reached out to Donna Campbell, a professor of literature at Washington State University and a past president of the Stephen Crane Society. Donna agreed to field our questions about this mythic writer who died at age 28 from a massive hemorrhage in his lungs.)
DaRK PaRTY: Despite his influence on writers like Hemingway, Stephen Crane is often one of the forgotten American writers. How important was Crane to American literature?
Donna: Crane was and is very important to American literature; as you mention, he influenced Hemingway, something Hemingway acknowledged in his discussion of American authors in “The Green Hills of Africa.” His distinctive style, which James Nagel and others have called “literary impressionism,” made him memorable (and frequently parodied) in his own time, and it paves the way for later authors. In his novels and short stories, Crane combines the ability to describe the interior motivations and psychological states of characters, something more commonly attributed to Henry James, with the ability to describe human beings in settings of adventure or danger, whether those consist of battlegrounds or the slums of New York.
DP: What do you believe is the biggest misunderstanding about Crane and his writing? Donna: Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding is that people believe Crane wrote about war and nothing else. While he did write about war, most notably in “The Red Badge of Courage” and his stories about the Spanish-American War and the Greco-Turkish war, Crane also wrote about his travels in the West and in England and Ireland. He also wrote fine stories about small-town America, slum tales like “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” romantic idylls like “The Third Violet,” and two volumes of poetry.
DP: What makes "Red Badge of Courage" an important novel?
Donna: “The Red Badge of Courage” is considered Crane’s masterpiece because of its psychological depth of insight into an experience that is both uniquely American (the Civil War) and universal (the experience of an untested young man experiencing battle for the first time). Crane’s handling of the material is distinctive; he represents war from the perspective of the common man rather than the generals, and he focuses on the lived experience of soldiers—fear, boredom, and heroism—rather than on the tactics and outcomes of battles.
DP: What do you think is Crane's best short story and why?
Donna: “The Open Boat” is probably Crane’s best story, since it illustrates the elements that make his fiction great: the representation of men in extreme circumstances, told with great insight into the psychology of those involved, in a style and structure that heightens the effect of the story through description, symbolism, and the elimination of any unnecessary element. In “The Open Boat,” Crane manages to convey his philosophy of an indifferent universe, but the story also highlights the ways in which individuals grapple with this idea yet manage to find a kind of brotherhood. Crane wrote many great stories, however, among them “The Blue Hotel”; a longer story or novella that deserves to be read more frequently is “The Monster.”
DP: Would you describe Crane's death at the age of 29 a literary tragedy?
Donna: Yes, in all probability. There is no way to judge what Crane might have written next, for near the time of his death, he was writing in part for money to keep his household going.