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Stephen Crane: The Black Badge of Unbelief

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was a literary wunderkind. As a nineteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse University, he drafted a seminal novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. This gritty, unsentimental portrait of Bowery lowlifes, it has been said, “initiated modern American writing.” By twenty-five, Crane was famous, thanks to The Red Badge of Courage, his impressionistic novel on the Civil War. Although at the time he wrote the book Crane had never witnessed a battle, his graphic accounts of combat are imbued with uncanny authenticity. Later, as an illustrious war-correspondent for two New York newspapers (the Journal and the World), Crane covered the Spanish-American and the Greco-Turkish war from the front lines. In 1897, he moved to England, where he and his common-law wife, former hostess of a Florida bordello, took up permanent residence in Brede Place, a legend-laden castle. After several years of failing health, he died of tuberculosis in a sanitorium in Badenweiler, Germany. He was twenty-eight.

Though Crane’s life was short, it was productive. His collected works comprise twelve volumes of journalism, sketches, vignettes, plays, poems, short stories, and novels. Red Badge, Maggie, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Blue Hotel,” “The Open Boat,” and several poems from Black Riders and War Is Kind now belong to the standard canon of American literature. Crane’s impress is distinctly stamped on the style of Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other major authors. His friends and admirers included such notable writers as Henry James, William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Harold Frederic, Ford Maddox Ford, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad. They recognized his originality, perceptiveness, ironic wit, and verbal brilliance.

While Crane has been called “realist,” “naturalist,” “impressionist,” “expressionist,” and “symbolist,” none of these disparate labels satisfactorily denotes the range and complexity of his art. Maggie for example, is often classified as literary naturalism, a genre popularized by the French writer Emile Zola, Crane’s contemporary. On a cursory reading, the novel might appear to dramatize the naturalistic credo that human beings are the hapless puppets of inexorable environmental and biological forces. Yet a closer reading suggests that the inhabitants of the Bowery are complicit in their fates. In answer to an inquiry, Crane once said: “I tried to make plain that the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice. Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or to willingly be knocked flat and accept the licking.”

Crane was normally more charitable toward the destitute. After he dropped out of college, he spent several years in New York city as a starving artist, and, even after he became famous, he was constantly in debt. Despite his impecunious condition, he was leery of organized philanthropy. “I was,” he told an acquaintance, “a Socialist for two weeks but when a couple of Socialists assured me I had no right to think differently from any other Socialist and then quarreled with each other about what ‘Socialist’ meant, I ran away.” From an early age, Crane displayed an ineradicable streak of self-reliance. According to a classmate at Claverack College (later the Hudson River Institute), a Methodist institution Crane attended in 1888, “He was rather given to holding aloof, especially if the human animal was manifesting its capacity for collective action.”

Crane’s maverick disposition extended to religion. His father was a Methodist minister, his mother the daughter of one. Crane adjudged the father, who died when the son was eight, kind but hopelessly naive: “He was so simple and good that I often think he didn’t know much of anything about humanity.” His mother, where religion was concerned, he deemed irremediably dogmatic: “You could argue just as well with a wave.”

Though the parents labored zealously to inculcate Christian beliefs in their numerous progeny, young Stephen’s foot began to slide early. “It hurt my mother,” he later recounted, “that any of us should be slipping from Grace and giving up eternal damnation or salvation or those things. I used to like church and prayer meetings when I was a kid but that cooled off. When I was thirteen or about, my brother Will told me not to believe in Hell after my uncle had been boring me about the lake of fire and the rest of the sideshows.”

When fourteen, the lapsed son once gladdened his mother by voluntarily accompanying her to a church service. He explained the antecedent circumstances:

An organ grinder on the beach at Ashbury gave me a nice long drink out of a nice red bottle for picking up his hat for him. I felt ecstatic walking home and then I was an Emperor and some Rajahs and Baron de Blowitz all at the same time. I had been sulky all morning and now I was perfectly willing to go to a prayer meeting and Mother was tickled to death. And, mind you, all because this nefarious Florentine gave me a red drink out of a bottle.

In his college years, Crane gravitated to vices his father had inveighed against in sermons: smoking, drinking alcohol, visiting opium dens, frequenting dives, chasing women, using profanity, playing poker and baseball, attending plays, reading novels. At Syracuse, where he spent but one semester, he earned the reputation of being “not very friendly to Christianity.” “Mildewed” he called it. Having noted his indolence, gaming, and iconoclastic opinions, his psychology professor tried to catechize him: “Tut, tut, what does Saint Paul say, Mr. Crane?” “I know what Saint Paul says, but I disagree with Saint Paul,” retorted the unruly charge. Crane’s history professor warned him he was “treading the floors of hell.” “Ho hell,” thought Crane.

During this period, Crane mocked pious locutions by using them in profane contexts: “There are certainly some damn pretty girls here, praise be to God.” And alluding to injuries he received in a bicycle wreck: “It broke the machine, too, praise God.” He also coined an arresting exclamation: “No, by the legs of Jehovah!”

Crane was blatantly contemptuous of the biblical god. In Black Riders and War Is Kind, Jehovah is represented as a sadistic tyrant exalted by an ignorant multitude:

A god in wrath

Was beating a man;

He cuffed him loudly

With thunderous blows

That rang and rolled over the earth.

All people came running.

The man screamed and struggled,

And bit madly at the feet of the god.

The people cried,

“Ah, what a wicked man!”


“Ah, what a redoubtable god!”

A la Captain Ahab, Crane hurls insults at the redoubtable god:

Blustering god,

Stamping across the sky,

With loud swagger,

I fear you not.

No, though from your highest heaven

You plunge your spear at my heart,

I fear you not.

No, not if the blow

Is as the lightning blasting a tree,

I fear you not, puffing braggart.

Despite the bravado, Crane realized that Jehovah is a human invention. He also understood that gods mirror the beholder. Hence, a bellicose man finds a bellicose god:

Once a man clambering to the house-tops

Appealed to the heavens.

With strong voice he called to the deaf spheres;

A warrior’s shout he raised to the suns.

Lo, at last, there was a dot on the clouds,

And-at last and at last-

–God-the sky was filled with armies.

The compassionate man conjures up a compassionate doppelganger:

Then the man went to another god-

The god of his inner thoughts.

And this one looked at him

With soft eyes

Lit with infinite comprehension,

And said, “My poor child!”

Whether Crane died an atheist is hard to say. His private correspondence houses no conclusive declaration. In his poetry and fiction, he oscillates between no god and an absentee one. The pragmatic distinction is nugatory. Either way, the world is bereft of divine superintendence. In “The Blue Hotel,” Crane limns human beings as lice who “cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.” In The Black Riders, he describes the ship of the world as “forever rudderless.” “The Open Boat,” perhaps his best story, enlarges upon the rudderless condition. The story originated in the sinking of the tug Commodore, on which Crane was transporting contraband to Cuban insurgents.

In the tale, four men–a captain, an oiler, a cook, and a correspondent (Crane’s alter ego)–are shipwrecked off the Florida coast. As they battle perilous billows in their cramped dinghy, they silently ponder the role of providence in their fate. Surely, the cosmos is just. Surely, they aren’t destined to drown. A recurrent refrain expresses their indignation at the prospect: “If I am going to be drowned–if I am going to be drowned–if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. … The whole affair is absurd.”

As the second day dawns, the correspondent has an epiphany: Nature (read god) isn’t “cruel nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise,” but “indifferent, flatly indifferent.” Initially, the realization induces anger toward ecclesiastical institutions because they purvey vacuous illusions about a benevolent providence: “When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples [on the sea].”

Unable to vent his ire on a church or a cleric, the correspondent has a Pavlovian urge to supplicate a tutelary deity: “If there be no tangible thing to hoot, he feels the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: ‘Yes, but I love myself.'”

But in an unsupervised universe, prayer is futile: “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.” He knows he is on his own.

In a commemorative tribute, H. G. Wells said Crane was “the first expression of the opening mind of a new period.” Crane was a harbinger of Modernism in both literature and thought. Intuitively apprehending the broad social and theological import of contemporaneous science, history, and biblical criticism, Crane repudiated the Christian tradition, sacred mysteries, metaphysical mystification, stultifying myths, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and cultural imperialism. “Crane was almost illusionless,” said biographer John Berryman, “whether about his subjects or himself.”

If Stephen Crane retained one illusion, it was benign. Love, he believed, could indemnify him against every loss, even the universe:

Should the wide world roll away

Leaving black terror

Limitless night,

Nor God, nor man, nor place to stand

Would be to me essential

If thou and thy white arms were there

And the fall to doom a long way.

(Black Riders)