Stephen Crane was the genius of his generation. His work began with Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893). "It was the first bit of naturalism in American letters . . . an episodic bit of slum fiction ending with the tragic quality of Greek drama." "The first ironical novel ever written by an American." It was privately printed at first, and not published until 1896. It is detached, objective, amoral, dealing with a world without virtues but tyrannized by taboos. It is a bit of life, beginning and ending casually. Here is the end:
In a room a woman sat at a table, eating like a fat monk in a picture. A soiled, unshaven man pushed open the door and entered.
"Well," said he, "Mag's dead."2
It is a world without virtue and yet one that uses the social taboo to condemn Mag-the only pure one of the lot. The story was an attack on everything that was respectable in American literature-a notable achievement in a world of shoddy romanticism. It was an affront to every instinct of the genteel tradition, and was rejected by a public steeped in that same shoddy romanticism.
Crane's next novel was the first great American war story The Red Badge of Courage (1894). It was a tour de force, inspired by Zola's Le debacle, but more by Tolstoi--War and Peace and perhaps Sebastopol. The individual is caught between the external war machine and the inner instinct machine. There is a conflict of impulses-fear, pride, the instinct of self-preservation, chiefly the fear of fear. The hero is at the mercy of the crowd psychology and blind chance. Crane follows Tolstoi in assuming that victories are accidents, the outcome of a blind clash of unintelligent forces, rather than due to strategy and generalship. The study is psychological-that of the fear of the recruit, his feeling that he alone is marked as the target of the enemy. The impression of helplessness is the same as in Maggie--both are atoms among a host of other atoms.
Short Stories. The best are "The Blue Hotel," "The Experiment in Misery," "The Open Boat." The first is a story of social responsibility and social guilt. The murder of the Swede is just part of the backwash of a topsy-turvy life: the victim of things. "Every sin is the result of a collaboration." The second is a story of a "hobo"-down-and-outer, who hears "the war of the city in his ear." "The protest of the wretch who feels the touch of the imperturbable granite wheels, and who then cries with an impersonal eloquence, with a strength not from him, giving voice to the wail of a whole section, a class, a people."3
*From lecture notes and the syllabus.--Publisher.
2Stephen Crane, Works, New York, 1926, Vol. io, p. 216