Stephen Crane: The Black Badge of Unbelief

Gary Sloan

Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was a literary prodigy. As a nineteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse University, he drafted the seminal novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. This gritty, unsentimental portrait of Bowery lowlifes initiated modern American fiction. It was the first native specimen of literary naturalism. Crane said of the novel: “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 versed in poverty and deprivation. After dropping out of college, he spent several years in New York City as a starving artist, constantly in arrears even after he had become famous. Despite the impecunious history, he was leery of institutionalized 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 a propensity for individualism, nonconformity, and self-determination. According to a classmate at Claverack College, a Methodist school Crane attended in 1888, “He was rather given to holding aloof, especially if the human animal was manifesting its capacity for collective action.”

By twenty-five, Crane was famous, thanks to The Red Badge of Courage (1895), his impressionistic novel of 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, Crane covered the Spanish-American and the Greco-Turkish wars from the front lines. In 1897, he moved to England, where he and his common-law wife, erstwhile hostess of a Florida bordello, took up residence in Brede Place, a storied castle. After years of declining health, Crane died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Badenweiler, Germany. He was twenty-eight.

Though his life was short, it was productive. His collected works comprise twelve volumes of journalism, letters, sketches, vignettes, plays, poems, short stories, and novels. Red Badge, Maggie, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Blue Hotel,” “The Open Boat,” and sundry poems from The Black Riders and War Is Kind are standard fare in anthologies of American literature. The impress of his style is stamped on such writers as Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. His friends included Henry James, Joseph Conrad, William Dean Howells, and H. G. Wells. They valued his originality, uncompromising artistic vision, and independence of thought.

Crane’s maverick disposition encompassed religion. His father was a Methodist minister, his mother a minister’s daughter. Crane rated his father, who died when Crane was eight, kind but naïve: “He was so simple and good that I often think he didn’t know much of anything about humanity.” He deemed his mother irremediably dogmatic: “You could argue just as well with a wave.” Though the parents strove to inculcate Christian precepts in their progeny, young Stephen’s foot slid early. “It hurt my mother,” he later recounted, “that any of us should be slipping from Grace and giving up eternal salvation. 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.”

In college, Crane gravitated to vices his father had inveighed against in sermons: cigarettes, booze, opium, dives, harlots, profanity, poker, plays, novels, baseball. At Syracuse, where he spent one semester (and played on the varsity baseball team), Crane was branded inhospitable to Christianity. “Mildewed,” he termed it. Appalled by his iconoclastic attitude, his psychology professor tried to catechize him: “Tut, tut, what does Saint Paul say, Mr. Crane?”

“I know what Saint Paul says,” retorted the unruly charge, “but I disagree with Saint Paul.” Another professor told him he was “treading the floors of hell.”

Crane mocked pious locutions by using them in a profane context: “There are certainly some damn pretty girls here, praise be to God.” Having enumerated injuries he received in a bicycle wreck, he added: “It broke the machine, too, praise God.” The wayward collegian also latched on to a catchy exclamation: “No, by the legs of Jehovah!”

Later, a Jehovah-like deity would pop up in The Black Riders and War Is Kind. The god is limned 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!”

Crane defies the truculent deity:

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.

In reality, Crane understood that Jehovah is a human invention. He also knew that gods mirror beholders. Hence, a bellicose person invokes 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.

A compassionate person (or a person in a compassionate mood) conjures up a divine 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 reckoned himself an atheist is hard to say. His extant writings contain no definitive declaration. He may have vacillated between no god and an absentee one. The distinction was inconsequential. Either way, the cosmos was bereft of divine superintendence. In The Black Riders, Crane describes the cosmic ship as “forever rudderless.”

In “The Open Boat,” he enlarges on the psychological ramifications of a rudderless cosmos. The story was spawned by the sinking of a tugboat on which Crane was transporting contraband to Cuban insurgents. Fighting for their lives, Crane and three members of the crew spent thirty hours in a cramped dinghy. While they were trying to beach it, one of the men drowned.

In the tale, as four men battle perilous billows, they silently mull the cosmic significance of their plight. Surely, they think, providence is just. Surely, they have done nothing to merit drowning. 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.”

Later, one of the men (a correspondent) has an epiphany. Nature, he realizes, is neither “cruel nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise.” It is “indifferent, flatly indifferent.” Initially, the realization induces anger toward ecclesiastical institutions because they fill men’s heads with vacuous illusions: “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].”

Despite his anger, the man is tempted to supplicate a celestial protector: “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 without efficacy: “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she [nature] says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.”

In a commemorative tribute, H.G. Wells remarked that Stephen Crane was “the first expression of the opening mind of a new period.” Crane was a harbinger of modernist, secular perceptions of the human lot. Humankind had no divine lineage or privileged position in a cosmic hierarchy of being. In “The Blue Hotel,” Crane envisions human beings as lice who tenaciously “cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.”

Intuitively apprehending the broad social and theological import of contemporaneous science, history, and biblical criticism, Crane repudiated the Christian tradition, sacred mysteries, metaphysical mystifications, stultifying myths, nationalism, and cultural pretensions. “Crane was almost illusionless,” said biographer John Berryman, “whether about his subjects or himself.” Discarding the platitudes of faith, he adopted a stoic ethic of courage, perseverance, and unflinching honesty.

Though Crane has been called a nihilist, he was possessed of a keen moral sensibility. The conviction that we live in a god-abandoned world could, he thought, heighten empathy, tolerance, and civility. In “The Open Boat,” the correspondent, Crane’s alter ego, is edified by his epiphany: “It is,” he reflects, “plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws in his life and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then, in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words, and be better and brighter during an introduction, or at a tea.”

Ultimately, for Crane, love nullified an indifferent cosmos:

Should the wide world roll away
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.
[from The Black Riders]

Further Reading

  • Berryman, J. Stephen Crane. New York: Octagon Books, 1975.
  • Halliburton, D. The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • Stallman, R.W. and L. Gilkes, eds. Stephen Crane: Letters. New York: New York University Press, 1960.

Gary Sloan

Gary Sloan is a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana.

Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was a literary prodigy. As a nineteen-year-old freshman at Syracuse University, he drafted the seminal novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. This gritty, unsentimental portrait of Bowery lowlifes initiated modern American fiction. It was the first native specimen of literary naturalism. Crane said of the novel: “I tried to make plain …

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