Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat”
Study Guides on Works and Writers
Scribner’s, 21 (June 1897): 728-740; collected in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (New York: Doubleday & McClure, 1898)
Stephen Crane (1871-1900) established his reputation as one of the foremost novelists of his day with the publication of The Red Badge of Courage (1895), but his diverse literary output also included tales, sketches, poetry, and journalism. He began writing professionally as a newspaper reporter in his native New Jersey while still in his teens. Crane subsequently attended Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and then Syracuse University where, in 1891, he began drafting an early version of his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which he had privately printed in 1893. Living in New York, he completed The Red Badge of Courage, which he published to wide acclaim. A subsequent collection of short stories, The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896), reinforced Crane’s reputation as a writer of war tales. In late 1896, Irving Bacheller, who headed a newspaper syndicate, hired Crane to visit Cuba and report on the Cuban insurrection. “The Open Boat,” which many readers consider Crane’s finest short story, resulted from his disastrous attempt to reach Cuba.
In late November 1896 Crane found himself in Jacksonville, Florida, with many other journalists searching for a way to reach Cuba. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Crane sailed aboard the Commodore, which was loaded with supplies and ammunition for the Cuban insurgents. Sailing in a dense fog, the Commodore struck a sandbar less than two miles offshore. After several hours, a revenue cutter towed the Commodore off the sandbar and sent it on its way. The night of January 1, 1897, a leak developed, the mechanical pumps proved defective, and the sailors resorted to buckets and handpumps, which were no match for the sea. As the Commodore sank, the men took to lifeboats and improvised rafts. Several perished in the effort. Captain Edward Murphy, William Higgins, Charles B. Montgomery, and Crane were the last to abandon ship. The four took the dinghy, a ten-foot open boat. On Saturday morning, January 2, the dinghy neared the coast of Florida, but the men could not summon help from shore. Captain Murphy decided to wait until morning before attempting to beach the dinghy in the heavy surf. The men rowed all night to keep the craft outside the breakers. On Sunday morning, January 3, they attempted to land the dinghy, but it overturned. Crane, Montgomery, and Murphy survived, but Higgins perished.
Crane initially wrote up their perilous experience as a newspaper report, “Stephen Crane’s Own Story.” Relating his personal account, Crane had little choice but to tell it in the first person, but in “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” he seems reluctant to accept the first person. The report begins by describing the appearance of the Commodore at the dock in Jacksonville prior to its departure. Though Crane would sail aboard the vessel, it is unclear over the course of the first several paragraphs whether he is aboard or simply reporting its departure from shore. Not until the Commodore pulls away from the dock and blasts its whistle does it become clear that Crane is a passenger headed to sea. Though “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” is factual, it is a carefully shaped account that makes use of different literary devices and narrative techniques.
Crane knew that his story of survival gave him the stuff for a fine short story, and he later recast his adventure as “The Open Boat.” Significantly, he changed the narrative point of view in the transfer from truth to fiction. The first person of “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” gives way to an omniscient, third-person narrative, and “The Open Boat” begins after the ship has foundered and the survivors have escaped in the lifeboat. Though “Stephen Crane’s Own Story” begins with an obvious reluctance to admit point of view, “The Open Boat” flaunts its third-person, omniscient narrator from its famous opening sentence: “None of them knew the color of the sky.”
“The Open Boat” offers many opportunities for study. Since Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino exposed Thomas Beer’s 1923 biography of Crane as a fraud in 1990, Crane studies have burst open. So much earlier scholarship and criticism was based on Beer’s fraudulent information that previous work must be scrutinized and, in many cases, scrapped entirely. Christopher Benfry’s biography, the first since Beer was discredited, makes a good start. The finest biographical work is a documentary biography, not a narrative one. The Crane Log, edited by Wertheim and Sorrentino, contains the fullest gathering of facts available about Crane’s life and work. For further critical studies, see the secondary bibliographies by Patrick K. Dooley and R. W. Stallman.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. Readers can approach “The Open Boat” in many ways. A historical approach can help put the work in context. Warner’s essay is the best place to go for understanding the Cuban insurrection and American attitudes toward it. Elizabeth Friedmann’s 1987 discovery of the wreck of the Commodore confirms much of Crane’s physical detail. George Monteiro’s article, a model of its kind, situates “The Open Boat” within the context of contemporary popular literature.
- 2. Similar studies could enhance the appreciation of “The Open Boat” significantly. This short story can also be appreciated in terms of its literary style. Crane has alternatively been labeled a Realist, a Naturalist, and an Impressionist. P. Adams identifies Naturalist elements in the story. Charles R. Metzger demonstrates Crane’s use of Realist techniques. Stefanie Bates-Eye takes a different look at its style, identifying its affinity with Crane’s journalism.
- 3. With “The Open Boat” Crane anticipated techniques that would be developed by the New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s. Crane’s sophisticated use of narrative point of view offers many opportunities for study. Kevin J. Hayes compares the point of view in this story with that in other Crane stories. James Nagel provides the fullest treatment of the subject. Sura P. Rath and Mary Neff Shaw apply the critical theory of Mikhail Bakhtin to look at how Crane’s third-person narrative incorporates multiple voices.
- 4. “The Open Boat” also lends itself to different philosophical approaches. Oliver Billingslea and Christopher Metress situate the story in terms of epistemology. Peter Buitenhuis examines its ties to existentialism. Ideas that Buitenhuis suggests briefly in his notes, such as the comparison between Crane and Albert Camus, deserve to be elaborated. Others, including Rath and Shaw, regard the story as an expression of Darwinism.
Patrick K. Dooley, Stephen Crane: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Scholarship (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992).
Divided into sections treating biography, general criticism, and criticism focused on individual works or groups of works. Supplement Dooley with reference to the periodical bibliographies in Stephen Crane Studies (1992).
R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Critical Bibliography (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1972).
While superseded by Dooley’s list of modern criticism of “The Open Boat,” still useful for its list of reviews of The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure.
Christopher Benfey, The Double Life of Stephen Crane (New York: Knopf, 1992). This thesis-driven study elaborates Willa Cather’s idea that Crane lived a double life, first writing about subjects that interested him and then attempting to live what he had written.
Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane, 1871-1900 (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994).
Excerpts of Crane’s writing, contemporary reviews, letters, and diary entries from friends and family, newspaper articles, and photographs.
P. Adams, “Naturalistic Fiction: ‘The Open Boat,’” Tulane Studies in English, 4 (1954): 137-146.
Finds that Crane applies the basic tenets of Naturalism inconsistently.
Stefanie Bates-Eye, “Fact, Not Fiction: Questioning Our Assumption about Crane’s ‘The Open Boat,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 35 (Winter 1998): 65-76.
Suggests parallels between “The Open Boat” and New Journalism, claiming that it deserves consideration as a factual report.
Sharon Begley, “Found: Crane’s ‘Open Boat,’” Newsweek, 5 (January 1987): 52. Reports Elizabeth Friedman’s discovery of the wreck of the Commodore.
Oliver Billingslea, “Why Did the Oiler Drown?: Perception and Cosmic Chill in ‘The Open Boat,’” American Literary Realism, 27 (Fall 1994): 23-41.
Combining literary and philosophical approaches, uses Crane’s literary Impressionism as a springboard to show how Crane plays with the meaning of perception in the story.
Peter Buitenhuis, “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat’ as Existentialist Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies, 3 (1959): 243-250.
Identifies how the story anticipates many of the central tenets of existentialism.
Kevin J. Hayes, Stephen Crane (Tavistock, Northumberland: Northcote House in association with the British Council, 2004).
A general survey of Crane’s career, which includes a chapter on Crane’s use of point of view in his short fiction.
Christopher Metress, “From Indifference to Anxiety: Knowledge and the Reader in ‘The Open Boat,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 28 (Winter 1991): 47-53.
Charles R. Metzger, “Realistic Devices in Stephen Crane’s ‘The Open Boat,’” Midwest Quarterly, 4, no. 4 (1962): 47—54.
Analyzes Crane’s use of description and irony to show how the story exemplifies the practice of literary Realism.
George Monteiro, “The Logic beneath ‘The Open Boat,’” Georgia Review, 26 (Fall 1972): 326-335.
Identifies some new sources for Crane’s story, showing how they clarify his depiction of human behavior.
James Nagel, “The Narrative Method of ‘The Open Boat,’” Revue des Langues
Vivantes, 39 (1973): 409-417.
Demonstrates Crane’s sophisticated use of perspective to portray shifting attitudes toward nature.
Sura P. Rath and Mary Neff Shaw, “The Dialogic Narrative of ‘The Open Boat,’”
College Literature, 18 (June 1991): 94-106.
Applies Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogic heteroglossia to show how Crane’s narrator articulates multiple perspectives.
Robin O. Warren, “The Cuban Insurrection and Northeast Florida in ‘Stephen Crane’s Own Story’ and ‘The Open Boat,’” Stephen Crane Studies, 8 (Spring 1999): 8-19.
Presents a finely detailed description of the historical, political, and cultural background of the insurrection as it pertains to Crane’s writings.
Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, “Thomas Beer: The Clay Feet of Stephen Crane Biography,” American Literary Realism, 22 (Spring 1990): 2-16.
Reveals that Beer fabricated facts about Crane’s life and even invented Crane letters.
—Kevin J. Hayes