Stephen Crane, and modern principles of journalism





A major author is distinguished by his or her prolific, quality work. Stephen Crane (1871-1900) is no exception. In addition to his acclaimed novels including Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and of course, The Red Badge of Courage, Crane’s short stories helped define the genre in American literature. Besides his fiction, Crane was also an adventurous, bold war correspondent, not only in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, but also covering the Greco-Turkish war. His vivid coverage of the Spanish American war (1898-1899) established precedent in modern reporting according to Michael Robertson’s “Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature”. Other pioneers in the field as Crane’s contemporaries included Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, and John Steinbeck, who not only were journalists, employed by news organizations, but also independent fiction writers, similar to Crane. One hundred years after Crane’s short life came to a close, a panel of influential and significant journalists established a series of universal ground rules for effective and ethical journalism, worked out from experience all the way from Crane’s formative era and forward. The period between the 1880s and early 1900s showed a quantum leap forward in the quality, proliferation, and importance of newspaper journalism. The evolution was led by influential magnates like Hearst and Pulitzer, who towered above hundreds of fiercely competitive, constantly innovating firms. While the ethics of the era were not cemented as present standards, the net result was a large positive gain in substantial, relatively unbiased, truthful reporting.

Crane’s task, to follow the American expeditionary force in Cuba, centered around General Rufus Shafter’s assault on a strategic hill, San Juan Hill. The Battle of San Juan Hill will be forever ingrained in American cultural memory, for the future President Roosevelt’s heroic cavalry charge, but the lion’s share of the battle was fought with infantry and artillery. Crane watched as lines of soldiers marched through rifle fire up a fortified incline to take the Spanish position. Although they were outnumbered and outgunned, the garrison fought valiantly.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) was created by Columbia University’s school of journalism, and is now operated as a non-profit research institute by Pew Media Group. The principles of the PEJ were based on the journalistic qualities of the cumulative sum of successful reporting from ancient times all the way until present day, but focused primarily on the 20th century. Two principles in particular, the 4th and the 9th, are highly relevant to Crane’s war reporting. The 4th, stating that a reporter must remain independent from those who he or she covers, is applicable to Crane’s experience as it is unclear whether Crane tried to maintain independence from the American soldiers he was traveling with. However, he was forced to travel exclusively with the troops there as the opposition was shooting at him. In Crane’s era, reporters were not formally attached to military units as they are today, but he nonetheless accompanied them on campaign. The 9th principle states that the reporter must be able to exercise his own conscience. However, what if the reporter’s conscience is not compatible with the moral attitude of the audience?

While Crane’s fiction can be used as context to examine his journalism, can a critical reader ascertain the unethical viewpoints containing bigotry in his journalism?  Crane also reported on slum life in New York and Mexico. While some of the principles of journalism don’t specifically apply to Crane’s work, principles one and three have to deal with the accuracy of the reporting, which in this case is not in question, his account being verified by other journalists present. These two principles assure that journalists are loyal to the people, accurate in their reporting, and that they make sure to verify all information.  Principle five states that journalists must monitor power, which Crane is conclusively following as he reports on the military activities of his nation. The 8th, about “keep[ing] news comprehensive and proportional” is not violated, as combat reporting is always significant. However, Crane never reflects on the imperialistic foreign policy of the McKinley Administration, but rather discusses the battle itself. Due to Crane’s significant skill as an author of fiction, he succeeds in keeping the reader engaged, therefore passing the test of the 7th principle, which states,“[the journalist] must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant”.

The 6th principle, stating that the journalist must “provide a forum for public criticism and compromise”, regarding more controversial topics, is also smaller in importance as there are no debates in the middle of a battle. However, Crane can still be evaluated on his merits, and on his role as a contributor to the field.

Stanley Wertheim evaluated Stephen Crane as a journalist in his study of several journalists from Crane’s era, including Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. Wertheim mentions that Crane, as a member of the first generation not to consider journalism a low profession, worked with the greatest publishing and news magnates of his time. Wertheim states, “Later he was employed by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.”

More recent (1950s to present) interpretations of Crane conflict as to whether he was a visionary, ahead of his time regarding socioeconomic and minority rights issues, or whether his work reflected general social viewpoints of that time period regarding the status of the poor, minorities, immigrants, and women. According to Thomas Arthur Gullason’s “Stephen Crane’s war on Yellow Journalism” (1959), his work influenced later greats like Hemingway and, as mentioned, Theodore Dreiser. However, he was criticized as treating the plight of the poor as mere entertainment for the market, according to Wertheim, and did not write, like many others, to encourage social reform on a public scale. “His voyeuristic style of representation presented the poor as a form of entertainment to be consumed by middle-class readers, and he had no demonstrable interest in social reform” (Werthiem). This is not the only interpretation of his social impact, as in a number of short stories and his first major novel, Maggie: a Girl of the Streets, he shows compassion towards the underclass. Crane writes about the titular poor girl: “Maggie always departed with raised spirits from the showing places of the melodrama. She rejoiced at the way in which the poor and virtuous eventually surmounted the wealthy and the wicked. The theatre made her think. She wondered if the culture and refinement she had seen imitated, perhaps grotesquely, by the heroine on the stage, could be acquired by a girl who lived in a tenement house and worked in a shirt factory” (p. 28).  This insight into a poor girl’s dreams is evidence of his open-mindedness in both his short stories and his reporting work. Certain critics of Crane, including Wertheim, disagree with Michael Robertson, the author of Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. Though Crane never admitted outright his views in any official manner, Robertson maintains, “He had a social reformer’s outrage at poverty and oppression”(116).

While his initial motivation to report on the Spanish–American war was financial, (Robertson: “The chief reason Stephen Crane accepted the Cuba assignment was his dire financial status”), another independent evaluator of Crane, Willa Cather, describes him as the highest paid correspondent of all time.

Crane’s enthusiasm for the task of war reporting and strong critical approval led the public to newfound appreciation for the author’s other works. Regarding his front-line reporting during the frantic assault on Havana’s defenses recounted in “Stephen Crane’s Vivid Story of the Battle of San Juan Hill” and his later peacetime reflections on the events specifically titled “After the Fact”, I will evaluate his unwitting adherence to the principles of journalism, for better or for worse.

The fourth PEJ principle reads in full: ‘Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover’.  While at first it seems impossible for Crane to do such a thing, due to his status as an American in a hostile war zone, the PEJ stresses that,“In our independence, however, we must avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.” Examples of Crane’s independent style can be found in his “Vivid Story of the Battle of San Juan”. Crane’s patriotic fervor makes an appearance, but he does not blindly idolize the spirit of the army. Crane describes the squalid conditions in the military camp and rapidly degrading morale: “Here with the army the demoralization has occurred on a big scale.” In this regard, Crane has succeeded in upholding the principle, but in the same article, Crane shows incredible elitism with his description of Cubans.  He writes, “As a matter of fact, the Cuban soldier, ignorant as only such isolation as has been his can make him, does not appreciate the ethics of the situation…. The average Cuban here will not speak to an American unless to beg” (1010). Crane, in generalizing these soldiers, is almost certainly wrong, as, according to Nathaniel Lande, writer of Dispatches from the Front: News Accounts of American Wars, 1776-1991, the Cuban rebels were highly effective in their struggle against a Spanish army with superior numbers, equipment, and position. “They probed the Spanish defenses for weak areas to hit. The rebels came down from the rugged mountains and scoured the countryside for Spanish soldiers and sympathizers” (Lande, 145).

A fellow Spanish American war frontline correspondent, Richard Harding Davis, wrote “The Battle of San Juan Hill.” He reports on the same events as Crane, but in a different manner. Davis is significantly more impartial than Crane, and reports not only the raw facts, but in a straightforward manner: “Captain Howse, of General Sumner’s staff, rode down the trail to learn what had delayed the First and Tenth, and was hailed by Colonel Derby, who was just descending from the shattered balloon. Captain Howse’s reply is lost to history.” Davis mentions the Cubans’ role in the battle, but without going on Crane’s two page rant about their perceived flaws.  Davis also talks about how future President Roosevelt’s famed charge up San Juan Hill was at the moment, perceived as pathetic, but that it gave those men due respect upon their success. As Davis’s success in reporting shows, Crane could have produced a better piece of journalism had he resisted his urge to be blatantly arrogant towards Cubans who were his wartime allies, no less. Crane explicitly says regarding the Cubans, “He forgets his morning, afternoon, or evening salutation unless he is reminded. If he takes a dislike to you, he talks about you before your face, using a derisive undertone” (Crane, 1010).

However, Gullason does say that “Crane had a fanatic love for the truth …”. There is no doubt that Crane is reporting the actual facts correctly, as his work does not conflict with his associates at the scene, like Davis’s. Gullason even notes that while other reporters attributed wounds on dead Americans to machetes wielded by brutal Spaniards, Crane told the less sensational truth that they were simply rifle wounds in the normal tradition of battle.  Crane’s seemingly racist tendency brings up the other major relevant PEJ principle, the 9th, which states: “Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.” The principle was designed by the PEJ to address reporters living in fear of their editors not approving of their sense of morality. Crane has the opposite problem, as he shamelessly spits out his opinion, which itself is immoral to modern standards. One might think of the possibility that Crane is simply pandering to an audience which he thinks might have similar opinions, and there are several critical opinions on the subject, which refer to his fiction to prove their points. Michael Robertson and Washington State University literary professor Donald Vanouse argue that Crane’s short story “The Monster” proves that Crane is against racism, while Wertheim sees implied bigotry in the same work, along with several other of Crane’s fictional pieces. Robertson’s view, I believe, along with the majority of those who study Crane, is correct. Therefore, if his short stories which at the time were received icily for their racial content show that Crane is progressively minded, the possibility of Crane’s disdain toward Cubans being solely for commercial purposes, for appealing to a racist public, remains. Under that possibility, Crane fails the PEJ’s test, as not only did he fail to exercise his own opinion, but he showed the world a not only false, but also immoral opinion. Another possibility remains that Crane is racist towards Cubans in particular, while not being bigoted toward blacks in America, which is possible but improbable.


Sources cited:

Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. Print.

Crane, Stephen, and J. C. Levenson. Prose and Poetry. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1984.

Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosentiel. “The Elements of Journalism.” : What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. Pew Research Center, 19 June, 2006. Web. 27 Sept., 2013.

Wertheim, Stanley. A Stephen Crane Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn. [u.a.: Greenwood], 1997.

Thomas Arthur Gullason. Stephen Crane’s Private War on Yellow Journalism

Huntington Library Quarterly , Vol. 22, No. 3 (May, 1959), pp. 201-208

Cather, Willa. Stories, Poems, and Other Writings. New York, NY: Library of America, 1992.

Lande, Nathaniel. Dispatches from the Front. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Davis, Richard Harding. Notes of a War Correspondent,. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1910.

Stephen Crane on assignment in Greece




Comments are closed.