Reflections on Stephen Crane
Like a lot of people, I was first introduced to Crane in a high school English class, but since the book was The Red Badge of Courage, and hence about war, I paid little attention. I did not care about war or about Henry Fleming at that point; I cared about characters named Tess Durbeyfield and Carrie Meeber, after finding Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Dreiser's Sister Carrie in a bin of marked-down books, books so cheap that the covers fell off and scattered the green newsprint pages until I rubber-banded them back together for a second reading. We were taught that Stephen Crane had an important place in literature because he used symbolism, a term dear to my teacher's heart. She explained that "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer" referred to a communion wafer, whereas I, as an inveterate reader of Victorian fiction and the language of sealing wax and correspondence, thought a wafer was simply something used to seal a letter. But reading Maggie: A Girl of the Streets for the first time revealed an entirely different Stephen Crane. Here was Maggie Johnson, a character worthy to stand beside Tess and Carrie, a girl whose environment stacked the cards against her in some almost unbearable ways yet who tried as best she could to escape her fate and to create meaning and beauty from the life she'd been given. This kind of courage interested me as Henry Fleming's never had, as in this passage from chapter 6: 1. "She spent some of her week's pay in the purchase of flowered cretonne for a lambrequin. She made it with infinite care and hung it to the slightly-careening mantel, over the stove, in the kitchen."