On this day in 1897, American writer Stephen Crane survives the sinking of The Commodore off the coast of Florida. He will turn the harrowing adventure into his classic short story “The Open Boat” (1897).
The 25-year-old writer had gained international fame with the publication of his novel The Red Badge of Courage in 1896. A Civil War story told from the soldier’s point of view, the novel originally appeared as a syndicated newspaper series.
Crane, the youngest of 14 children, was born in 1871 and grew up in New York and New Jersey. He became a journalist in New York, working short stints for various newspapers and living in near poverty. Immersed in the hand-to-mouth life of poor New York, Crane closely observed the characters around him, and in 1893, at age 23, he self-published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, about a poor girl’s decline into prostitution and suicide. 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.
After the book’s success, the same newspaper syndicate dispatched Crane to write about the West and Mexico, and in 1897 Crane headed to Cuba to cover the insurrection against Spain. On the way there, he met his future lifelong companion, Cora Howard Taylor, the proprietress of a rundown hotel where he was staying. After The Commodore sank, Crane and four of his shipmates spent a day in a 10-foot lifeboat before they reached Daytona Beach. Crane published an account in a New York newspaper five days later, and “The Open Boat” was published in Scribner’s magazine the following June. Crane later covered the war between Greece and Turkey, and settled in England, where he befriended 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.