Essay

Stephen Crane: The Black Badge of Unbelief
an essay by Gary Sloan 
  

 

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was a literary wunderkind. As a nineteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse University, he drafted a seminal novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. This gritty, unsentimental portrait of Bowery lowlifes, it has been said, “initiated modern American writing.” By twenty-five, Crane was famous, thanks to The Red Badge of Courage, his impressionistic novel on the Civil War. Although at the time he wrote the book, Crane had never witnessed a battle, his graphic accounts of combat are imbued with uncanny authenticity. Later, as an illustrious war correspondent for two New York newspapers (the Journal and the World), Crane covered the Spanish-American and the Greco-Turkish war from the front lines. In 1897, he moved to England, where he and his common-law wife, former hostess of a Florida bordello, took up permanent residence in Brede Place, a storied castle. After years of declining health, Crane died of tuberculosis in a sanitorium in Badenweiler, Germany. He was twenty-eight. 

Though his life was short, it was productive. His collected works comprise twelve volumes of journalism, letters, sketches, vignettes, plays, poems, short stories, and novels. Red Badge, Maggie, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Blue Hotel,” “The Open Boat,” and sundry poems from The Black Riders and War Is Kind now belong to the standard canon of American literature. The impress of Crane’s style is stamped on Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other famous successors. His friends included novelists Henry James, William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Ford Maddox Ford, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad. They recognized his originality, intellect, perceptiveness, and verbal wizardry. 

Crane has been called a “naturalist,” an “impressionist,” an “expressionist,” and a “symbolist,” but none of these disparate labels satisfactorily denotes the range and complexity of his art. Maggie, for example, is often regarded as the first American specimen of literary naturalism, a genre popularized by the French writer Emile Zola, Crane’s contemporary. On a cursory reading, the novel may appear to dramatize the naturalistic precept that human beings are inexorably molded by environmental and biological forces. Yet a close reading reveals that the inhabitants of the Bowery are complicit in their fates. In answer to an inquiry, Crane wrote: “I tried to make plain that the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice. Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or to willingly be knocked flat and accept the licking.”

Crane was versed in poverty. After he dropped out of college, he spent several years in New York city as a starving artist, and, even after he became famous, he was constantly in arrears. Despite his impecunious history, he was leery of institutionalized philanthropy. “I was,” he told an acquaintance, “a Socialist for two weeks but when a couple of Socialists assured me I had no right to think differently from any other Socialist and then quarreled with each other about what Socialist meant, I ran away.” From an early age, Crane displayed a propensity for individualism. According to a classmate at Claverack College (later absorbed in the Hudson River Institute), a Methodist school Crane attended in 1888, “He was rather given to holding aloof, especially if the human animal was manifesting its capacity for collective action.”

Crane’s maverick disposition encompassed religion. His father was a Methodist minister, his mother the daughter of one. Crane adjudged the father, who died when the son was eight, kind but hopelessly naïve: “He was so simple and good that I often think he didn’t know much of anything about humanity.” His mother, where religion was concerned, he deemed irremediably dogmatic: “You could argue just as well with a wave.” 

Though the parents strove to inculcate Christian beliefs in their numerous progeny, young Stephen’s foot slid early. “It hurt my mother,” he later recounted, “that any of us should be slipping from Grace and giving up eternal damnation or salvation or those things. I used to like church and prayer meetings when I was a kid but that cooled off. When I was thirteen or about, my brother Will told me not to believe in Hell after my uncle had been boring me about the lake of fire and the rest of the sideshows.” 

The wayward teen once gladdened his mother by willingly accompanying her to a church service. He later explained the antecedent circumstances:

An organ grinder on the beach at Ashbury gave me a nice long drink out of a nice red bottle for picking up his hat for him. I felt ecstatic walking home and then I was an Emperor and some Rajahs and Baron de Blowitz all at the same time. I had been sulky all morning and now I was perfectly willing to go to a prayer meeting and Mother was tickled to death. And, mind you, all because this nefarious Florentine gave me a red drink out of a bottle.

In college, Crane gravitated to vices his father had inveighed against in sermons and books: smoking, drinking alcohol, visiting opium dens, frequenting dives, chasing women, using profanity, playing poker and baseball, attending plays, reading novels. At Syracuse, where he spent one semester, he made his mark as the student “unfriendly to Christianity.” “Mildewed” he called it. Appalled by his indolence, gaming, and iconoclastic opinions, his psychology professor tried to catechize him: “Tut, tut, what does Saint Paul say, Mr. Crane?” “I know what Saint Paul says,” retorted the unruly charge, “but I disagree with Saint Paul.” Crane’s history professor warned him he was “treading the floors of hell.” “Ho hell,” thought Crane. 

During this period, he mocked pious locutions by putting them to profane use: “There are certainly some damn pretty girls here, praise be to God.” And discussing injuries he received in a bicycle wreck: “It broke the machine, too, praise God.” He also latched on to an arresting exclamation: “No, by the legs of Jehovah!”

A Jehovah-like figure pops up in several poems in The Black Riders and War Is Kind. He emerges as a sadistic tyrant exalted by an ignorant multitude:

A god in wrath

Was beating a man;

He cuffed him loudly

With thunderous blows

That rang and rolled over the earth.

All people came running.

The man screamed and struggled,

And bit madly at the feet of the god.

The people cried,

“Ah, what a wicked man!”

And—

“Ah, what a redoubtable god!”

À la Captain Ahab, Crane flays the truculent god:

 

Blustering god,

Stamping across the sky,

With loud swagger,

I fear you not.

No, though from your highest heaven

You plunge your spear at my heart,

I fear you not.

No, not if the blow

Is as the lightning blasting a tree,

I fear you not, puffing braggart.

Actually, Crane knew that Jehovah is a human invention. He also knew that gods mirror beholders. Hence, a bellicose man invokes a bellicose god:

Once a man clambering to the house-tops

Appealed to the heavens.

With strong voice he called to the deaf spheres;

A warrior’s shout he raised to the suns.

Lo, at last, there was a dot on the clouds,

And—at last and at last—

--God—the sky was filled with armies.

The compassionate man conjures up a compassionate doppelganger:

Then the man went to another god—

The god of his inner thoughts.

And this one looked at him

With soft eyes

Lit with infinite comprehension,

And said, “My poor child!”

Whether Crane thought of himself as an atheist is hard to say. His extant writings house no definitive assertion. He may have vacillated between no god and an absentee one. The pragmatic distinction was inconsequential. Either way, the cosmos was bereft of divine superintendence. In The Black Riders, Crane describes the ship of the world as “forever rudderless.” In “The Open Boat,” perhaps his best story, he enlarges on the psychological ramifications of a rudderless cosmos. The story was spawned by the sinking off the Florida coast of the tug Commodore, on which Crane was transporting contraband to Cuban insurgents. He and three members of the crew spent thirty hours in a cramped dinghy. While they were trying to beach it, one of the men drowned. 

In the tale, as four men—a captain, a cook, an oiler, and a correspondent (Crane’s alter ego)--battle perilous billows, they silently mull over the cosmic significance of their plight. Surely, providence is just. Surely, they have done nothing to merit drowning. A recurrent refrain expresses their indignation at the prospect: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. The whole affair is absurd.”

Later, the correspondent has an epiphany. Nature, it strikes him, is neither “cruel nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise.” It is “indifferent, flatly indifferent.” Initially, the realization induces anger toward ecclesiastical institutions because they have filled his head with vacuous illusions about the universe: “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples [at sea].”

Despite his ire, the correspondent has a reflexive impulse to supplicate a celestial protector: “If there be no tangible thing to hoot, he feels the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: ‘Yes, but I love myself.’” 

But in an unsupervised universe prayer is without efficacy: “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.” 

In a commemorative tribute, H. G. Wells said that Stephen Crane was “the first expression of the opening mind of a new period.” Crane, he meant, was a harbinger of modernist apprehensions of the human lot. Humankind had no divine lineage or privileged position in a hierarchy of being. In “The Blue Hotel,” Crane envisions human beings as lice who tenaciously “cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.” Intuitively grasping the broad social and theological import of contemporaneous science, history, and biblical criticism, Crane repudiated the Christian tradition, sacred mysteries, metaphysical mystifications, stultifying myths, nationalism, and cultural pretensions. “Crane was almost illusionless,” said biographer John Berryman, “whether about his subjects or himself.” Discarding the platitudes of faith, he adopted a stoic ethic of courage, perseverance, and unflinching honesty. 

Though Crane has been called a nihilist, he had a honed moral sense. The conviction that we live in a god-abandoned world could, he thought, heighten moral sensibility, making us more empathetic and civil. In “The Open Boat,” the correspondent is morally sensitized by his epiphany: “It is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws in his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea.”

Crane also had a keen romantic sense. Love could nullify all losses, even the universe:

 

Should the wide world roll away

Limitless night,

Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand

Would be to me essential

If thou and thy white arms were there

And the fall to doom a long way.

 

(The Black Riders

 

If Crane here succumbed to illusion, it was benign..

  

© 2005 Gary Sloan

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