Fact, Not Fiction: Questioning Our Assumptions about Crane's "The Open Boat"

By Eye, Stefanie Bates | Studies in Short Fiction, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Fact, Not Fiction: Questioning Our Assumptions about Crane's "The Open Boat"


Eye, Stefanie Bates, Studies in Short Fiction


In January 1897, Stephen Crane was shipwrecked and lost at sea on a 10-foot lifeboat for 30 hours. Once rescued, he produced three separate accounts of the same event. "Stephen Crane's Own Story," which functions as a journalistic piece, was published in the New York Press a few days after he was rescued. "The Open Boat," written several weeks later, has been hailed as literature and anthologized as a short story in countless collections of American fiction. The third, little-known work is another short story entitled "Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure," which was published a few months after "The Open Boat." As one of Crane's most important works, "The Open Boat" has received a great amount of critical attention not only for its contribution to the field of literature, but also with regard to its autobiographical content. Surprisingly, there has been a great deal of controversy over the factuality of this work. Is "The Open Boat" a work of fiction or a true account?

Because the story is so steeped in fact and was published on the heels of "Own Story," the debate has become monumental; responses range from assertions that his experience served as only a "germ" of an idea for the story to statements that "The Open Boat" is no more or less fictional than the newspaper account. Who is right: those who say "fact" or those who say "fiction"? Among scholars, the consensus seems to be that, while "The Open Boat" is based in fact and served as an outlet for Crane's creative impulses, it is a work of fiction, one that has had great impact on the study of American literature and, in particular, the short story.

Given the recent emphasis on and critical attention to the genre of literary nonfiction, however, looking back at "The Open Boat" through the lens of this emerging category of narrative may give scholars reason to pause. What, specifically, were Crane's intentions in writing this story? Did he intend to write fiction or nonfiction? Examining the factual content, the narrative style, and the literary value of this work in contrast with "Own Story" and "Flanagan" calls into question our current treatment of "The Open Boat" as a work of fiction. In the light of a new genre, we must consider the possibility that, no matter the category in which it was published, Crane's story is entirely factual with no element of fiction whatsoever. In fact, had "The Open Boat" been published in 1965 rather than in 1897, it would have certainly qualified as literary nonfiction. As it happened, however, Crane had only two basic genres from which to choose: the journalistic form of nonfiction or the more literary form of fiction. How might we now view this work if his choices had been more broad? I argue that "The Open Boat" is actually a work of literary nonfiction, that Crane chose nonfiction disguised as fiction as the ideal medium through which he could tell a true story in a literary way, a story of his own experience that embodied the very concepts he spent his writing career contemplating: nature and fate, life and death, brotherhood and the strength of man.

What is literary nonfiction and how does it function separately from its predecessors? According to Michael Pearson, "until recently the genre of literary nonfiction went undefined" (29). This type of writing has been evolving for quite some time; we see traces of it in memoir and autobiography. But it wasn't until the 1965 publication of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood that the form took root and began to attract great numbers of writers, readers, critics, and scholars. Since then, it has become increasingly popular with the American reading public because its "timeliness [gives] the form a special edge, a way of confronting a rapidly changing and confusing reality" (Pearson 27). The modern audience seems to be intrigued with its literary approach to controversial political, social, and cultural issues that are often subjective and ambiguous. Ronald Weber explains that

   with the new nonfiction, the audience received information but received it
   entertainingly, with familiar literary trimmings. … 

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