Today is the birthday (1871) of Stephen Crane who was a prolific novelist, poet, and short story writer during his short life. He wrote notable works in what is now called the American Realist tradition as well as early examples of American Naturalism and Impressionism. I knew nothing about Crane until I moved to Orange County, New York near to Port Jervis where he grew up. He’s well known in the U.S. for The Red Badge of Courage, a stark portrayal of a battle during the American Civil War that was quite at odds with the writing of the time because of its unflinching description of the horrors of battle. I expect the book is (or was) required reading in high school literature classes, but American literature passed me by in its totality when I was in secondary school. Things may have changed. As soon as I lived near Port Jervis, and traveled there all the time for shopping and business, it was impossible to avoid Crane’s aura.
Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, to Jonathan Townley Crane, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church, and Mary Helen Peck Crane, daughter of a clergyman. He was the 14th and last child born to the couple. Nine survived to adulthood. The young Stephen was raised primarily by his sister Agnes, who was 15 years his senior. The family moved to Port Jervis, New York, in 1876, where his father became the pastor of Drew Methodist Church, a position that he retained until his death.
As a child, Stephen was often sickly and afflicted by constant colds. Despite his fragile nature, Crane was an intelligent child who taught himself to read before the age of four. Crane was not regularly enrolled in school until January 1880, but he had no difficulty in completing two grades in six weeks. Recalling this feat, he wrote that it “sounds like the lie of a fond mother at a teaparty, but I do remember that I got ahead very fast and that father was very pleased with me.”
Crane’s father died on February 16, 1880, at the age of 60; Stephen was 8 years old. After her husband’s death, Crane’s mother moved to Roseville, near Newark, leaving Stephen in the care of his older brother Edmund who lived in Sussex County, New Jersey. He next lived with his brother William, a lawyer, in Port Jervis for several years. His older sister Helen took him to Asbury Park to be with their brother Townley and his wife, Fannie. Townley was a professional journalist who headed the Long Branch department of both the New-York Tribune and the Associated Press, and also served as editor of the Asbury Park Shore Press. Agnes, another Crane sister, joined the siblings in New Jersey. She took a position at Asbury Park’s intermediate school and moved in with Helen to care for the young Stephen.
Within a couple of years, the Crane family suffered more losses. First, Townley and his wife lost their two young children. His wife Fannie died of Bright’s disease in November 1883. Agnes Crane became ill and died on June 10, 1884, of meningitis at the age of 28. In late 1885 Crane enrolled at Pennington Seminary, a ministry-focused coeducational boarding school 7 miles (11 km) north of Trenton. His father had been principal there from 1849 to 1858. In 1886 Luther Crane, another of Stephen’s siblings, died after falling in front of an oncoming train while working as a flagman for the Erie Railroad. It was the fourth death in six years among Stephen’s immediate family.
After two years, Crane left Pennington for Claverack College, a quasi-military school. He later looked back on his time at Claverack as “the happiest period of my life although I was not aware of it.” While he held an impressive record on the drill field and baseball diamond, Crane generally did not excel in the classroom. Not having a middle name, as was customary among other students, he took to signing his name “Stephen T. Crane” in order “to win recognition as a regular fellow.” Crane was seen as friendly, but also moody and rebellious. He sometimes skipped class in order to play baseball in which he was a star catcher. He was also greatly interested in the school’s military training program. He rose rapidly in the ranks of the student battalion.
In mid-1888, Crane became his brother Townley’s assistant at a New Jersey shore news bureau, working there every summer until 1892. Crane’s first publication under his byline was an article on the explorer Henry M. Stanley’s famous quest to find the Scottish missionary David Livingstone in Africa. It appeared in the February 1890 Claverack College Vidette. Within a few months, Crane was persuaded by his family to forgo a military career and transfer to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, in order to pursue a mining engineering degree. He registered at Lafayette on September 12, and promptly became involved in extracurricular activities. He took up baseball again and joined the largest fraternity, Delta Upsilon. He infrequently attended classes and ended the semester with grades for only four of the seven courses he had enrolled in. After one semester, he transferred to Syracuse University, where he enrolled as a non-degree candidate in the College of Liberal Arts. He roomed in the Delta Upsilon fraternity house and joined the baseball team. He attended just one class (English Literature) during the middle trimester, and remained in residence while taking no courses in the third trimester.
He focused on his writing while at Syracuse and began to experiment with tone and style while trying out different subjects. He published his fictional story, “Great Bugs of Onondaga,” simultaneously in the Syracuse Daily Standard and the New York Tribune. Having declared college “a waste of time” he decided to become a full-time writer and reporter. He attended a Delta Upsilon chapter meeting on June 12, 1891, but shortly thereafter left college for good. It’s getting quite normal for me to write that a famous author or writer quit school at a young age because he (or she) was fed up with its limitations. It’s less possible in the sciences and technical fields these days, but was the norm in these fields also at one time because education was dominated by Latin and Greek, with theology thrown in for good measure down to the 19th century.
Crane lived for only 9 years after college, but his life was packed with adventure. You can read about that on your own. I’ll, instead talk about The Red Badge of Courage and the role Port Jervis played in the writing of it. Not only did Crane spend significant portions of his boyhood in Port Jervis, he was a frequent visitor as an adult, staying with his brother, William. The house where William lived and practiced law on East Main Street is still used as law offices: now one of the grand old buildings in a part of the city that are too expensive to be used as private dwellings. In its heyday Port Jervis was a prosperous, thriving, bustling city located on a key turn in the Delaware and Hudson canal (hence the “port” part) which ran from Honesdale on the eastern tip of the coal fields of Pennsylvania to Kingston, New York, on the Hudson. The canal supplied coal to New York city (via the Hudson river), fueling the Industrial Revolution there. It was also the conduit for all manner of supplies such as bluestone, used as paving stones and building materials for the city, fine glassware and crystal, and a host of manufactured goods. The canal followed the Delaware river eastwards to Port Jervis, then struck north to Kingston. Until the canal was built Port Jervis did not exist as anything other than a minor village on the junction of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Afterwards it was a major center for manufacturing and commerce. In Crane’s time the city was in its absolute heyday
Drew Methodist church, where Crane’s father was pastor and where the Crane family lived, is adjacent to one of the city’s parks, now called Veteran’s Park, with various monuments to the 124th New York State Volunteers, generally known as the Orange Blossoms, who fought in major campaigns in the American Civil War, and who were recruited in major urban centers of Orange County, especially Port Jervis. Local tradition has it that Crane spent time, both as a boy and as an adult, listening to tales of war from veterans in that park. In fact, it used to be called Stephen Crane Memorial Park until 1983 when the name was changed because locals objected to it because they felt that The Red Badge of Courage was a disservice to the memory of civil war veterans, many of whose descendants still live in Port Jervis. No comment.
The central battle in The Red Badge of Courage is not named, but historians universally agree that it is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Chancellorsville where the Orange Blossoms served with distinction. You’ll have to read the book, if you haven’t already, to get the general feeling of it. Here’s some morsels:
He vaguely desired to walk around and around the body and stare; the impulse of the living to try and read in dead eyes the answer to the Question.
The youth took note of a remarkable change in his comrade since those days of camp life upon the river bank. He seemed no more to be continually regarding the proportions of his personal prowess. He was not furious at small words that pricked his conceits. He was no more a loud young soldier. There was about him now a fine reliance. He showed a quiet belief in his purposes and his abilities. And this inward confidence evidently enabled him to be indifferent to little words of other men aimed at him.
It was perhaps that they dreaded to be killed in insignificant ways after the times for proper military deaths had passed. Or, perhaps, they thought it would be too ironical to get killed at the portals of safety.
Even today readers marvel at the accuracy with which Crane was able to portray the inner feelings of soldiers in war time even though he had no experience of combat. Without question he spent long hours talking to veterans, probably in Port Jervis, and elsewhere.
Camp cooking during the American Civil War has been analyzed many times. The big problem at the start of the war was that the soldiers had no experience with cooking. Men didn’t cook at home in those days – end of story. In consequence the army had to devise a strategy to keep the men as well fed as possible. One solution was to divide the soldiers into mess units of 100 with a man appointed as main cook with another man helping on a rotating basis. For general reference to help the cooks Captain James Sanderson wrote Camp Fires and Camp Cooking; or, Culinary Hints for the Soldier. You can find the complete text as a .pdf file here:
The recipes are not bad and can easily be replicated at home. They are very detailed to help novice cooks, unlike other cookbooks of the era than were written for chefs and home cooks with some experience. I cooked in much the same over my fire pit in Orange County, not thinking at the time that I was re-enacting battlefield cooking. A few excerpts:
Remember that beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder. In cooking, more than in anything else in this world, always make haste slowly. One hour too much is vastly better than five minutes too little, with rare exceptions. A big fire scorches your soup, burns your face, and crisps your temper. Skim, simmer, and scour, are the true secrets of good cooking.
BOILED PORK AND BEEN (sic) SOUP.
Never serve beans until they have been soaked over night. At eight o’clock in the morning, put eight quarts into two kettles, and ﬁll up with clean cold water. Boil constantly, over a brisk ﬁre, for an hour or more, during which many of the beans will rise to the top. At the end of this time, take the kettles off the ﬁre for ﬁfteen or twenty minutes, and then pour off all the water, replacing it with fresh clean water. Add to each kettle a pound of parboiled pork, without rind, and boil continuously for an hour and a half longer.
At quarter past eight o’clock, ﬁll three kettles loosely with pieces of pork weighing from three to ﬁve pounds, cover with water, and boil briskly for one hour; then pour off all the liquid, and ﬁll up with clean hot water, and boil for one hour and a half longer; then take out all the pork, and lay it aside. Take out also one-half of the beans from the other kettles, placing them aside for breakfast next morning, and add to the remainder the liquor in which the pork was boiled. To each kettle add also two onions chopped or sliced, with plenty of black or red pepper, some salt, and a tablespoonful of vinegar. After ﬁfteen minutes’ longer boiling, mash the beans with a wooden stick made for the purpose, and serve, with a slice of pork, in a separate dish.
If onions are plenty, mince ﬁne eight or ten of them, fry them in a pan with a little ﬂour and fat, with half a pint hot water, and the same quantity of the liquor in which the pork was boiled. After cooking ﬁve minutes, add pepper, salt, and half a glass of vinegar, and pour over the slices of pork.