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Break out those top hats and dust off that pocket watch—tonight we're going to party like it's 1896. It was around this time (New Year's Eve 1896, to be specific) that author Stephen Crane stepped aboard the steamship SS Commodore, destination: Cuba. Crane was on his way to the island to report on the local uprising against Spain. The thing is, he never made it. Three days into the journey, the ship sank just off the coast of Florida. Womp womp. After the sinking, Crane spent thirty hours adrift at sea in a small lifeboat with three other men.
So much for a happy new year.
With little hope of rescue, the four made the decision to try to reach shore on their own. They were successful, but one of the men drowned in the process. Back on shore, Craned realized he needed something to write about since he never made it to Cuba, so he wrote up an account of the ship sinking and his saga getting rescued from the lifeboat, which was published in the New York Press just a few days later, on January 7, 1897. Talk about a quick turnaround. In an attempt to make his name a bit better known, he titled his story "Stephen Crane's Own Story." The only thing is, he left out all the juicy parts about being stuck in the lifeboat for thirty hours. What gives?
Luckily, Crane didn't keep us waiting for too long. He wrote a sequel to the original story, which he titled "The Open Boat." Here's the gist: four men are on a lifeboat. They debate their chances of rescue, worry they might not survive, wonder about why they're here, and try to understand what it all means.
The story originally appeared in Scribner's Magazine just a few months after the event itself. In 1898, it was published as the lead story in a collection of Crane's work. It won immediate praise from critics and today remains one of Crane's best-known and most-loved works, along with The Red Badge of Courage. With its masterful control of tension and deep existential inquiry, "The Open Boat" might just be (to quote Kanye) the greatest short story of all time—and that's no small achievement.
Have you ever experienced bad luck? Don't worry, you're not alone—we have too, and let us tell you, it was awful. We just kept thinking, "What have we done to deserve this? Is this happening for a reason? What is the universe trying to tell us?" Long story short—you're not alone.
Now, get your Kate and Leo on and imagine you've just escaped a sinking ship. You and three other (random) people end up stuck on a lifeboat together. How long before you start asking those same "Why me?" questions, only this time much louder, and way more seasick?
That's what's happening in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat." The story begins in medias res, which means we begin in the middle of the story: the ship is already long gone and the three men are bobbing around in the lifeboat. They wonder about their chances of rescue, and worry they might not survive. Most of the action occurs inside the narrator's head, as he begins to question everything he thought he knew about life, the universe, and all sorts of other existential stuff.
The narrator admits that before the shipwreck, he had never cared much about other people. But after going through this whole lost at sea ordeal—being terrified, vulnerable, and soaking wet—he comes to realize he really does love the people around him.
His ideas about fate, on the other hand, take a decidedly different turn. We can't help but wonder how we would respond in a situation like this. Would we consider it all part of some divine plan, or instead decide it's all just chaos? Or would we even have a choice in the matter? These are all pretty heavy questions to grapple with, and Crane manages to address them all in this short story. Time to blow up those water wings, dear Shmoopers—things are about to get a little wet.
1898 Review in The New York Times
A glowing review praised "the genius of this young son of America."
Crane the Shortstop
Stephen Crane poses with his teammates on the Syracuse University baseball team. Looks like a rowdy crew.
Crane, with Mustache
Undated photo of Crane, looking all dour and serious. Almost dying on a lifeboat will do that to you.
Crane in 1896
Formal portrait of Stephen Crane. Wait—they had cameras back then?
Stephen Crane at 17
In cadet's uniform. All dressed up with nowhere to fight.