Seeing the Elephant - Stephen Crane

1 November 1871, the American author Steven Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey.
“Here we had an artist, a man not of experience but a man inspired, a seer with a gift for rendering the significant on the surface of things and with an incomparable insight into primitive emotions, who, in order to give us the image of war, had looked profoundly into his own breast. We welcomed him. As if the whole vocabulary of praise had been blown up sky-high by this missile from across the Atlantic, a rain of words descended on our heads, words well or ill chosen, chunks of pedantic praise and warm appreciation, clever words, and words of real understanding, platitudes, and felicities of criticism, but all as sincere in their response as the striking piece of work which set so many critical pens scurrying over the paper.“ (Joseph Conrad)

The times they were a-changin'. Dramatically so. The upheavals of the 19th century brought changes to most people’s lives all over the world. In terms of politics and technology and communication and mere speed. As well as the changes of focus about how one is supposed to live paired with a growing individualisation and the perception of individual fates from all walks of life and not only that of a chosen elite. And all those changes manifested themselves in forms of expressions in art that could not have been more different. While one major movement consciously turned away from dirt, steam and speed and confronted the age with various counterdrafts of another world, realism tried to map the world and mirror it as precisely as possible. By the end of the century, authors in Europe and the Americas escalated the representation of reality into a consciously un-poetic depiction of a quite pessimistic outlook on life, focussing on every imaginable harshness in a quasi-journalistic manner that found its own poetry. Émile Zola was the prime mover of an approach that was dubbed Naturalism and he was followed by Ibsen and Strindberg and Hauptmann and Dreiser and Stephen Crane.

Waiting to see the Elephant - Union soldiers before the Battle of Chancellorsville, May 1863 

Not unlike his countryman and contemporary Jack London, who was a naturalist himself every now and then, Crane found that an academic education had nothing to offer him and he focussed on writing in his late teens, became a freelance journalist in New York at the age of 19 and published his first novel “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets”, a story from the infamous Bowery with rather moderate success. His most important novel and a major American text was published five years later under the name of “The Red Badge of Courage”, a tale about fear and the individual and, very probably, the Battle of Chancellorsville during the US Civil War. Crane himself had never heard a shot fired in anger let alone first hand combat experience, he nonetheless accumulated stories told to him by veterans, contemporary newspaper articles and written accounts into a highly believable tale of an individual thrown into a universe of horror. The novel was hugely successful and only few critics remarked upon the narrated second hand experience and artificiality of the text, Civil War vet, author of first hand experienced impressions from Chancellorsville and cynic Ambrose Bierce among them. Crane had become a celebrity at the age of 24 nonetheless.

Crane dressed up for adventure and posing in 1897

While the poetry he wrote assumed an almost impressionistic tint that bled into his prose as well as his journalistic accounts of the Greco-Turkish and the Spanish-American Wars. During the latter, he occasionally took on some military responsibilities, but his health began to fail and with what was apparently tuberculosis, he decided to let things lie for a while, went to England with his wife where he befriended Joseph Conrad and H.G. Wells but his condition worsened, he went to a German sanatorium at Badenweiler and died there of tuberculosis at the age of 28 in 1900, leaving a legacy of being one of the most creative spirits of his time with a revival of his texts being highly influential for other, especially American author from the 1920s to the 1950s.

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