There’s a new biography of late 19th century writer Stephen Crane reviewed in the New Yorker. Crane is best known for his short stories “The Open Boat” and “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets,” and his short Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage.”
Crane is one of my favorite writers and, if pressed, I would say that the “The Open Boat” is best short story I’ve ever read. The story is about a small crew of survivors on a small lifeboat trying to get to shore after a shipwreck. It has the depth of a novel and the kind of unsparing, minimalist prose that only grows in your mind the more you read it and think about it. The overarching themes of his writing are described well in the review of the new bio:
Existential compromises fascinated Crane. Does an alcoholic choose to drink? Is a soldier blameworthy if he flees an attack that scatters half his regiment? In the eighteen-nineties, during a brief and fiery literary career—he died before he was thirty—Crane explored these questions with vividly imagined detail and little moralizing. In narratives of the hopeless and the near-hopeless, of human beings experiencing powerlessness and self-delusion, he managed to record a new kind of consciousness, giving the reader glimpses of the self as an opaque and somewhat mechanistic thing.
These themes have become even more gripping to a contemporary reader. In harsh, but thrilling ways Crane manages to get to the bottom of who we are.