Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey. He was the fourteenth and last child of Dr. Jonathan Townley Crane, a Methodist minister, and Mary Crane. He rebelled against his father's teachings, and religious and social traditions in general. His family frequently moved around the New York and New Jersey area. In 1878 they moved to Port Jervis in upstate New York where the setting of Whilomville Stories, The Third Violet, and his famous story, The Monster, took place. In 1880 his family moved to Asbury Park, New Jersey, after the death of his father.

Crane never took a liking to school. His stay at Lafayette College to study mining engineering was brief, he left without completing his first semester. In 1891 he enrolled at Syracuse University, where he is most remembered playing baseball and boxing. He passed only one course during this time - English literature. When his mother died he left the university and never finished his degree.

He worked as a freelance reporter in New York for such newspapers as the Tribune and Herald. His first published work, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, inspired by the slums of New York City, was written in 1891 and published in 1893 under the pseudonym Johnston Smith, a story centered around the life of a prostitute. It was met with very little recognition. His second book, The Red Badge of Courage, was met much more successfully. It is a novel about the American Civil War although he had never been in a war at that time. A book of short stories from the war, The Little Regiment, was also published in 1896. Crane continued to work as a journalist in Mexico, Cuba and Greece, and covered many wars. Active Service, published in 1899, was based on his experiences during the the Greco-Turkish War.

At the age of twenty eight, Crane died of tuberculosis in a health spa in Badenweiler, Germany, on June 5, 1900. He was buried in his family plot in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Much of Crane's work centers around characters who are forced to deal with situations that push them physically and mentally to their extremes, but under such harsh pressure they show courage and strength. His writing is often labeled as realism or naturalism.