Stephen Crane Goes Down

Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane

OFF THE COAST OF FLORIDA – A good writer lets no opportunity go to waste. That’s why when Stephen Crane found himself on a sinking ship on this date in 1897 he turned the ensuing ordeal into prose – twice.

Crane, of course, is the great American author who made his home in Asbury Park during his formative years. Therefore, the city has made him its literary mascot. Hence the Stephen Crane House on Fourth Avenue, where he resided whilst in the city and that today his home to Asbury Park notable events – and personalities like writer Tom Chesek and long-time arts champion Frank D’Allesandro.

Crane’s feelings towards Asbury Park were ambivalent at best, but we feel his assigned role suits him well. He would have felt right at home in the city that Asbury Park would eventually come to be.

There’s a tendency to place everyone and anything from the 19th century into a musty historical context – but Stephen Crane hardly fits into this mold. If he were alive today you would be as likely to find him wandering the Asbury Park boardwalk at 3:00 a.m. or cavorting down the street from his home on Fourth Avenue at Asbury Lanes as you would find him hunched over a desk with a quill pen in hand. He was a street guy, for sure.

His first novel was drawn from his experiences in NYC’s Bowery and described a young woman’s descent into destitution and prostitution. It was based upon observation not imagination. His most famous book, The Red Badge of Courage, was the Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson of its day. And, the fact that he was also a journalist tells you all you need to know about his relationship to living and the underbelly of literary life.

Stephen Crane was plying the newspaper trade when he set sail for Cuba from Florida on Jan. 2, 1897. Though he had written the Civil War-themed The Red Badge of Courage a few years before he had never actually seen battle and his editor thought it only proper that he do so. And writers wonder what editors really do!

A rebel army was carrying on an insurgency against Spain on the island at the time. It’s the conflict that would mutate into the Spanish American War in 1898 and precipitate America’s own transformation from a republic into an empire, at least as Gore Vidal saw things.

At that time, Cuba was for journalists what the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was for arms manufacturers – a testing ground for their manhood. None other than Winston Churchill – also acting as a journalist – first tasted battle on Cuba and wrote, after narrowly avoiding being wounded in a gun fight, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at – without result.”

Crane’s great taste of schadenfreude came even before he stepped foot on embattled Cuba. 131954222_OpenBoatThe-StephenCrane

The author and journalist boarded the Commodore in Jacksonville on December 31, 1896. The ship was loaded with a cargo of rifles and ammunition bound for the conflict in addition to the 25-year-old author and its small crew. He greeted the New Year in spectacular fashion on the night of January 1, 1897 when an explosion ripped through the Commodore’s engine room.

An explosion on a boat full of gun powder is never a good thing, and as Jan. 1 gave way to Jan. 2 a “whistle of despair” was blown, the lifeboats were lowered and the ship was abandoned. What followed was a thirty hour ordeal at sea for Crane and his surviving shipmates. It became the raw material for his great short story, The Open Boat.

But Crane was also a journalist, and a relatively poor one at that. Under the circumstances, there was only one thing to do: Send a thousand or so words to his editor at the New York Press for publication – and payment. The dispatch from the field – or open sea – that Crane wrote follows below. In it, he avoids the 30 hours adrift which is at the heart of The Open Boat and instead recounts the particulars of the events leading up to the sinking of the Commodore. Call it pre-Internet re-purposing of a good story.

Stephen Crane’s instinct to write at such a furious pace were correct; he didn’t have much time before he himself was sunk. He died in June, 1900 at only 28 years of age. In addition to the newspaper account below and The Open Boat, by his side was another legacy of the ill-fated but opportunistic voyage from Florida.

Before he set sail on the Commodore, in Jacksonville he met Cora Talyor, a flamboyant 31-year-old woman who ran a sort-of brothel.  She would become his constant companion as well as fellow war correspondent, in Greece and Turkey, before his death from tuberculosis in England. It was Cora who picked Crane up in Daytona Beach when the lifeboats reached the Florida shore after the Commodore went down off its coast, beginning one of the more fascinating love stories of the period.

But that’s another story. Here’s Stephen Crane’s, The Sinking of the Commodore, as published on Jan. 7, 1897 in the New York Press:

The Sinking of the Commodore


Now the whistle of the Commodore had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle. It had gained a new tone. It was as if its throat was already choked by the water, and this cry on the sea at night, with a wind blowing the spray over the ship, and the waves roaring over the bow, and swirling white along the decks, was to each of us probably a song of man’s end.
It was now that the first mate showed a sign of losing his grip. To us who were trying in all stages of competence and experience to launch the lifeboat he raged in all terms of fiery satire and hammerlike abuse. But the boat moved at last and swung down toward the water.
Afterward, when I went aft, I saw the captain standing, with his arm in a sling, holding on to a stay with his one good hand and directing the launching of the boat. He gave me a five-gallon jug of water to hold, and asked me what I was going to do. I told him what I thought was about the proper thing, and he told me then that the cook had the same idea, and ordered me to go forward and be ready to launch the ten-foot dingey.


I remember well that he turned then to swear at a colored stoker who was prowling around, done up in life preservers until he looked like a feather bed. I went forward with my five-gallon jug of water, and when the captain came we launched the dingey, and they put me over the side to fend her off from the ship with an oar.
They handed me down the water jug, and then the cook came into the boat, and we sat there in the darkness, wondering why, by all our hopes of future happiness, the captain was so long in coming over to the side and ordering us away from the doomed ship.
The captain was waiting for the other boat to go. Finally he hailed in the darkness: “Are you all right, Mr. Graines?”
The first mate answered: “All right, sir.”
“Shove off, then,” cried the captain.
The captain was just about to swing over the rail when a dark form came forward and a voice said, “Captain, I go with you.”
The captain answered: “Yes, Billy; get in.”


It was Billy Higgins, the oiler. Billy dropped into the boat and a moment later the captain followed, bringing with him an end of about forty yards of lead line. The other end was attached to the rail of the ship.
As we swung back to leeward the captain said: “Boys, we will stay right near the ship till she goes down.”
This cheerful information, of course, filled us all with glee. The line kept us headed properly into the wind, and as we rode over the monstrous waves we saw upon each rise the swaying lights of the dying Commodore.
When came the gray shade of dawn, the form of the Commodore grew slowly clear to us as our ­ little ten-foot boat rose over each swell. She was floating with such an air of buoyancy that we laughed when we had time, and said, “What a gag it would be on those other fellows if she ­ didn’t sink at all.”
But later we saw men aboard of her, and later still they began to hail us.


I had forgot to mention that previously we had loosened the end of the lead line and dropped much further to leeward. The men on board were a mystery to us, of course, as we had seen all the boats leave the ship. We rowed back to the ship, but did not approach too near, because we were four men in a ten-foot boat, and we knew that the touch of a hand on our gunwale would assuredly swamp us.
The first mate cried out from the ship that the third boat had foundered alongside. He cried that they had made rafts, and wished us to tow them.
The captain said, “All right.”
Their rafts were floating astern. “Jump in!” cried the captain, but there was a singular and most harrowing hesitation. There were five white men and two negroes. This scene in the gray light of morning impressed one as would a view into some place where ghosts move slowly. These seven men on the stern of the sinking Commodore were silent. Save the words of the mate to the captain there was no talk. Here was death, but here also was a most singular and indefinable kind of fortitude.
Four men, I remember, clambered over the railing and stood there watching the cold, steely sheen of the sweeping waves.
“Jump,” cried the captain again.
The old chief engineer first obeyed the order. He landed on the outside raft and the captain told him how to grip the raft and he obeyed as promptly and as docilely as a scholar in riding school.


A stoker followed him, and then the first mate threw his hands over his head and plunged into the sea. He had no life belt and for my part, even when he did this horrible thing, I somehow felt that I could see in the expression of his hands, and in the very toss of his head, as he leaped thus to death, that it was rage, rage, rage unspeakable that was in his heart at the time.
And then I saw Tom Smith, the man who was going to quit filibustering after this expedition, jump to a raft and turn his face toward us. On board the Commodore three men strode, still in silence and with their faces turned toward us. One man had his arms folded and was leaning against the deckhouse. His feet were crossed, so that the toe of his left foot pointed downward. There they stood gazing at us, and neither from the deck nor from the rafts was a voice raised. Still was there this silence.


The colored stoker on the first raft threw us a line and we began to tow. Of course, we perfectly understood the absolute impossibility of any such thing; our dingey was within six inches of the water’s edge, there was an enormous sea running, and I knew that under the circumstances a tugboat would have no light task in moving these rafts.
But we tried it, and would have continued to try it indefinitely, but that something critical came to pass. I was at an oar and so faced the rafts. The cook controlled the line. Suddenly the boat began to go backward and then we saw this negro on the first raft pulling on the line hand over hand and drawing us to him.
He had turned into a demon. He was wild¤—¤wild as a tiger. He was crouched on this raft and ready to spring. Every muscle of him seemed to be turned into an elastic spring. His eyes were almost white. His face was the face of a lost man reaching upward, and we knew that the weight of his hand on our gunwale doomed us.


The cook let go of the line. We rowed around to see if we could not get a line from the chief engineer, and all this time, mind you, there were no shrieks, no groans, but silence, silence and silence, and then the Commodore sank.
She lurched to windward, then swung afar back, righted and dove into the sea, and the rafts were suddenly swallowed by this frightful maw of the ocean. And then by the men on the ten-foot dingey were words said that were still not words¤—¤something far beyond words.
The lighthouse of Mosquito Inlet stuck up above the horizon like the point of a pin. We turned our dingey toward the shore.
The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here and now. For my part I would prefer to tell the story at once, because from it would shine the splendid manhood of Captain Edward Murphy and of William Higgins, the oiler, but let it suffice at this time to say that when we were swamped in the surf and making the best of our way toward the shore the captain gave orders amid the wildness of the breakers as clearly as if he had been on the quarter deck of a ­ battleship.
John Kitchell of Daytona came running down the beach, and as he ran the air was filled with clothes. If he had pulled a ­ single lever and undressed, even as the fire horses harness, he could not seem to me to have stripped with more speed. He dashed into the water and dragged the cook. Then he went after the captain, but the captain sent him to me, and then it was that he saw Billy Higgins lying with his forehead on sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead.

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2 Responses to “Stephen Crane Goes Down”

  1. JSeeds
    January 3, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    So THAT’S what editors do! Figure out ways to kill their writers off?

  2. Frank D'Alessandro
    January 8, 2013 at 8:56 am #

    This was beautifully written, Steven. Mr. Crane would have liked it very much I think.

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