The Humanism of Stephen Crane

By Dooley, Patrick K. | The Humanist, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Humanism of Stephen Crane

Dooley, Patrick K., The Humanist

Stephen Crane is loud now," was the way Louis J. Budd, Duke University professor and longtime editor of American Literature, put it some years ago. Recently, Crane has gotten even louder: 1995 was celebrated by Crane enthusiasts as the one hundredth anniversary of his classic, The Red Badge of Courage.

The previous year, a detailed treasure house of data, The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane, 1872-1900, was published by G. K. Hall-Macmillan. The authors, Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, had Barker (1988) edited a two volume set of The Correspondence of Stephen Crane for Columbia University Press. In the six years between these two important contributions to Crane studies, much else has happened: Virginia Tech University hosted a major conference, "Stephen Crane: A Revaluation," in September 1989; the Stephen Crane Society revived the Stephen Crane Newsletter, now renamed Stephen Crane Studies; and more than a half dozen monographs on Crane's life and works have appeared, including my own, Stephen Crane: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Scholarship (G. K. Hall, 1992) and The Pluralistic Philosophy of Stephen Crane (Illinois University Press, 1993). The former is already out of date, given the half-dozen books and more than 100 articles which have appeared on Crane in the last two years, while the latter analyzed the metaphysical and epistemological commitments that led Crane to a view of human action and an ethic of social solidarity which are explicitly humanistic.

In 1895, at the age of 23, Stephen Crane's runaway best seller, The Red Badge of Courage, made him an international literary celebrity. Five years later, he was dead. It was, from his Asbury Park, New Jersey, shore dispatches for the news bureau run by his brother Townley to his death bed dictation of The O'Ruddy, a writing career which spanned a mere 12 years (including works published posthumously). Even so, as a journalist, war correspondent, poet, novelist, and short story writer extraordinaire, Stephen Crane produced a substantial body of literature that espouses a bold and robust humanism.

Crane's maternal godfather, Jesse T. Peck, was a noted Methodist bishop and the president of Syracuse University, where Crane attended one of his two semesters of college (the other being at Lafayette College). At both schools, Crane spent most of his time playing baseball and cutting classes to conduct his own direct study of humanity. Commenting on his Syracuse semester, Crane confessed to fellow New York City reporter John Northern Hilkard:

I did little work at school but confined my abilities,

such as they were, to the diamond. Not that I disliked

books, but the cut and dried curriculum of the college

did not appeal to me. Humanity was a much more

interesting study. When I ought to have been at

recitations I was studying faces on the streets, and

when I ought to have been studying my next day's

lessons I was watching the trains roll in and out of the

Central Station.

Both of Crane's parents were ministers. He was the fourteenth and last child of Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane. His reaction to being a preacher's child included cultivating the vices of card playing, dancing, drinking, and smoking--all of which his father had condemned in a series of popular pamphlets. Crane shunned organized religion but did not reject so much as humanistically redefine God and religious experience.

Crane shared with his contemporaries, American philosophers William James and C. S. Peirce, and later John Dewey, the belief that experience--not "Truth," "Reality," or "the Good"--is the starting point for and the culmination of philosophical reflection. For these pragmatic humanists, we confront realities instead of Reality; and because experiences, in part, constitute realities, the worlds of spectators and participants are not just different, they are often incompatible.

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