Sunday, October 29, 2023

Stephen Crane’s Own Story

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry

Shipwreck, Palm Beach, Florida, c. 1890, oil on canvas by American artist Joseph Jefferson (1829–1905). (Artsy)
The initial reports were not promising. Early in the morning of January 2, 1897, the SS Commodore sank sixteen miles off the coast of Florida on its way to Cuba; by the end of the day, not even half of the crew of 28 men had been rescued. “I am very sorry that I have no encouraging word to send you,” the ship’s previous captain wrote to Cora Taylor later that evening. “The eleven men who were saved have arrived in town”; one of the survivors saw author and journalist Stephen Crane “get out of his berth and dress himself with that same nonplussed manner, characteristic of him.” Crane made it into one of the lifeboats, and there were “conflicting rumors as to the empty boat being washed ashore. . . . God save Crane if he is still alive.”

Stephen Crane had met Cora Taylor just weeks earlier in Jacksonville, while he was on his way to Cuba. Not only was he reporting on the Cuban revolution for the newspaper syndicate run by Irving Bacheller, but he was also fleeing unflattering headlines and the wrath of the New York Police Department for his exculpatory testimony in favor of Dora Clark, a young woman he had met on the night she was arrested on suspicion of prostitution. In late November he arrived incognito at Jacksonville’s St. James Hotel and checked in as Samuel Carlton in the company of several other journalists.

He soon made his way to the Hotel de Dreme, a local nightclub—a high-class bordello, really—owned by Taylor, who was estranged from her second husband, Donald William Stewart, a former British military officer employed at the time as a political official on the Gold Coast in west Africa. “Fact is, she was a cut above us in several ways, notably poise and surety of command of herself and others,” recalled Crane’s fellow journalist, Ernest W. McCready. “If she had any false notes I was then all too unskilled in recognizing authentic ‘class’ or lack of it, to detect any.” McCready had heard from another reporter that the first night Crane went there, Taylor was reading one of his lesser-known books and she was entirely unaware that the Samuel Carlton standing before her was one of her favorite authors. They were lovers by the end of the year, and they would be together for the remainder of Crane’s short life.

After a month in Jacksonville, Crane found passage to Cuba by signing on as a crew member of the Commodore—one of dozens of ships attempting to sneak past the American and Spanish navies to transport weapons and ammunition to the Cuban rebels. The voyage seemed doomed from the start; after leaving Jacksonville the ship ran aground twice in heavy fog along the St. James River. “That man Crane is the spunkiest fellow out,” Edward Murphy, the ship’s captain, later told a reporter for The New York Press. “The sea was so rough that even old sailors got seasick when we struck the open sea after leaving the bar, but Crane behaved like a born sailor. He and I were about the only ones not affected by the big seas which tossed us about.” The journey had barely begun when water began swamping the engine room through a breach in the hull, and Crane “was the first man to volunteer aid,” Murphy reported.

Late in the day on January 3, word came that three men—Crane, Murphy, and the ship’s steward, Charles Montgomery—had finally come ashore near Daytona Beach after more than thirty hours at sea. A fourth man with them had been killed, struck on the head when the dinghy that had brought them to shore capsized within sight of the beach. In all, eight of the Commodore’s crew had died; one of the ship’s three lifeboats proved to be unseaworthy and sank almost as soon as it hit the water.

“That newspaper feller was a nervy man,” Montgomery told a reporter that day:
He didn’t seem to know what fear was. He was down on the ship’s papers as an able seaman at $20 a month. When we started out he insisted upon doing a seaman’s work, and he did it well, too. When aroused Saturday morning he never quailed when he came on deck and saw the foaming and raging billows and knew that the vessel was sinking and that it was only a question of time when we would be at the mercy of the terrible sea in a small ten-foot dingy. . . .

When the boats were launched he was the last one, except Captain Murphy, to get in, and his nerve greatly encouraged all hands. In the small dingy he rowed as well as the others, notwithstanding he was so worn out that he could hardly hold his oar straight in the terrific seas. At the last moment he rose on his seat, and, seeing the big wave coming that overthrew us, cried out, ‘Look out, boys, there’s trouble for us. Jump, captain!’

. . . We all battled there in the water for hours, it seemed to us. Crane was a good swimmer, and he really saved one of the sailors, as the man could not swim a stroke, and Crane had to keep him up by the aid of an oar.
The man whose life Crane saved was Montgomery himself.

As soon as he was able, Crane responded by cable to the offices of The World in New York: “I am unable to write anything yet but will later.” On January 7, “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” appeared on the front page of The New York Press and in several other newspapers; he focused less on his own heroics and more on the actions and reactions, the bravery and the panic of the men around him as they faced the possibility of imminent death, and we reprint the article below as our Story of the Week selection. His account stops at the point when the ship sinks into the ocean; he saved the experience of the subsequent thirty hours for what is perhaps his most famous short story, “The Open Boat.” As Paul Auster writes in Burning Boy, a recent biography of Crane, “Not three months earlier, he had been portrayed as an archvillain of loose morals and scandalous habits for the newspaper readers of New York, and now he was being heralded as a shining figure of dauntless courage and exemplary inner strength.”

The contemporaneous excerpts and quotations above are culled from Stephen Crane: An Omnibus (1954), edited by Robert Wooster Stallman; Cora Crane A Biography of Mrs. Stephen Crane (1960), by Lilian Gilkes; and The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane (1993), edited by Paul Sorrentino and Stanley Wertheim.

Note: A filibuster was someone engaged in unauthorized or illegal warfare against a foreign country. The term was commonly used in the nineteenth century to describe Americans supporting insurrections in Latin America.

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It was the afternoon of New Year’s. The Commodore lay at her dock in Jacksonville and negro stevedores processioned steadily toward her with box after box of ammunition and bundle after bundle of rifles. Her hatch, like the mouth of a monster, engulfed them. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.