Stephen Crane: A Greenwich Village “Genius”

Stephen Crane: A Greenwich Village “Genius”
Portrait of Stephen Crane, 1869

On November 1, 1871, one of America’s most influential writers, Stephen Crane, was born in Newark, New Jersey. He is probably best know for his Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, which he wrote from his home at 61 Washington Square South, part of what was known as  “Genius Row” — so named for the incredible concentration of artists and writers who made the red brick houses between West Broadway (now LaGuardia Place) and Thompson Street on the south side of Washington Square home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was also published by Appleton & Co. at 72 Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks away at 13th Street.  Today Crane is credited by critics as one of the most innovative writers of his generation; his depictions of places in our neighborhood such as the Bowery and the Minettas resonate strongly to this day.

Portrait of Stephen Crane, 1869

Crane was the youngest child of Jonathan Crane, a Methodist Episcopal minister and writer/suffragist Mary Helen Peck Crane. He spent less than two years as a college student before dropping out and writing freelance for the New York Tribune.  There he frequently reported on the underbelly of the Bowery, with its saloons, dance halls, and brothels. When he first came to New York, he described the Bowery as “the only interesting place in New York.”

Shortly after moving to New York in 1892, he re-wrote his novella, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which he had first written while still a student at Syracuse University. This was the tragic story of an innocent and abused girl named Maggie who falls into prostitution and eventually commits suicide; the rewritten version was set in the Bowery. This work was rejected by a number of publishers who feared that the depiction of life in the slums would shock the readers. Crane published it privately with inherited money and under the pseudonym “Johnston Smith.” In spite of one writer calling it “the most truthful and unhackneyed study of the slums I have yet read,” it did not sell well at that time.

Crane got the idea for his most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage, from reading military accounts of the Civil War in The Century magazine. He told his fictional story from the perspective of a young private describing his emotional experiences while in a Civil War battle.  Published in 1895, Crane’s account of battle was so accurate that many veterans at the time believed it to be written by a fellow soldier, although Crane had no first-hand experience in battle. Instead, he wrote this seminal work from his home at 61 Washington Square, whose other notable residents included Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill, John Dos Passos, and Alan Seeger.

Doorway of 61 Washington Square South, 1945. This picture is part of the GVSHP historic image archive

Near to Crane’s home on Washington Square, Little Africa also proved to be an inspiration for his writings.  This included his short story “Minetta Lane” in which he vividly describes the area, its ‘black and tan’ (mixed-race) saloons, and residents known by such nicknames as No-Toe Charley, Bloodthirsty, Black-Cat, and Apple Mag.

Following the publication of The Red Badge of Courage, Crane was sent as a war correspondent to cover the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and the Spanish-American War of 1898 for the New York World and the New York Journal. In 1897 he moved to England, and after several bouts of tuberculosis, he died in 1900 at the age of 28 in a sanatorium in Germany.

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