On this day, The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, is published in book form. The story of a young man’s experience of battle was the first American novel to portray the Civil War from the ordinary soldier’s point of view. The tale originally appeared as a serial published by a newspaper syndicate.
Crane, the youngest of 14 children, was born in 1871 and grew up in New York and New Jersey. His father died when Crane was 9, and the family settled in Asbury Park, New Jersey. He attended Syracuse University, where he played baseball for a year, but then left. He became a journalist in New York, taking short stints for various newspapers and living in near-poverty.
Immersed in the hand-to-mouth life of lower-class New York, Crane closely observed the characters around him, and in 1893, at age 23, he published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, about a poor girl’s decline into prostitution and suicide. Finding a publisher was difficult given the book’s scandalous content, so Crane ultimately published it himself. The book was a critical success but failed to sell well. He turned his attention to more popular topics and began writing The Red Badge of Courage, which made him into an international celebrity at age 24.
The newspaper syndicate that serialized the novel sent him on assignment to cover the West and Mexico. In 1897, he went to Cuba to write about the insurrection against Spain. On the way there, he stayed at a dingy hotel where he met Cora Howard Taylor, who became his lifelong companion. In 1897, his boat to Cuba sank, and he barely survived. His short story “The Open Boat” is based on his experiences in a lifeboat with the captain and the cook. Crane later covered the war between Greece and Turkey, and finally settled in England, where he made friends with Joseph Conrad, H.G. Wells, and Henry James.
Crane contracted tuberculosis in his late 20s. Cora Howard Taylor nursed him while he wrote furiously in an attempt to pay off his debts. He exhausted himself and exacerbated his condition. He died in June 1900, at the age of 28.