Stephen Crane on the Edge.
by Ezekiel Fry
Stephen Crane existed on the edge of things. That is to say that he lived life dangerously, existed on, and spoke for, the fringe of society, died young, and was astonishingly prolific. This final piece is important not because Crane is unique in leaving behind a wealth of writings, but because of the nature of every single piece of fiction he left behind. Crane was on the very edge with each piece he created. Ralph Ellison hints at this in his essay “Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction” stating that Crane was to influence every subsequent American writer of the 20th century, and that Crane’s innovative style leads directly Hemingway (61). This is no idle praise, as it has long been held that Ernest Hemingway, for better or worse, forever changed the landscape of American fiction, but if we are to follow, as Ellison does, this change to its sources we eventually arrive at Stephen Crane. Now, say what you will about Hemingway, it seems that these days there is no middle ground concerning that artist, you either love him or you hate him, but he was certainly revolutionary in his technical and formal approach to the novel. If Hemingway was on the edge of creation, then it would follow that Stephen Crane was so far out in the vanguard that many folks might not even realize he exists, even 100 years after his death. He is, and this is the real meat of what I am driving at here, not only the young man who wrote a rather well known novel, The Red Badge of Courage, but also one of the true masters of both form and content, an artist that touches so deeply the heart of the American Experience that quite often his Truth is overlooked entirely. Crane has become something of a stylistic virtuoso, and this is certainly true, but within his content (and this is where I have always found my steak and lobster) there is an eloquent dynamism and pathos that fills out the technically robust skeleton of his writing. This element helps create an art that pushes the boundaries of 2012 just as it pushed the boundaries of 1895. Technical master: yes. Compassionate humanist: yes. Avant-garde wizard: yes. Stephen Crane was the real deal. Despite The Red Badge of Courage‘s ubiquity on high school and college reading lists how many of us have truly read it? That is the gauntlet I am throwing down here. With an eye for content, as well as form, return to The Red Badge, or pick it up for the first time (it is not too long, just over 100 pages). I assure you that it will not disappoint, and if it does I will buy you a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.
*Ellison’s essay is from his collection Shadow and Act. He does Crane greater justice than I could ever hope to.