The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume I, Bowery Tales
The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume IV, The O’Ruddy
The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume V, Tales of Adventure
The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume VI, Tales of War
The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume VII, Tales of Whilomville
The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume IX, Reports of War
A brief sketch by Stephen Crane, “An Eloquence of Grief,” written about 1896 when he was still a New York reporter haunting police courts, is a rather cryptic, imaginative account of a routine case and conviction, and it contains a theme which dominated his vast literary output and meteoric short life. The report concerns a girl accused of stealing “fifty dollars worth of silk clothing” from her well-heeled young woman employer. The girl, who is a servant, is tried and found guilty. On hearing the verdict, she makes a sudden outcry.
The tale has an inner logic as it proceeds. In the beginning are the deft, satiric Crane touches, not missing the mood of the spectators, those ritualistic carnivores of conventional society who turn up in some of his longer fiction. They have come to the trial to “wait” for a “cry of anguish, some loud painful protestation that would bring the proper thrill to their jaded, world-weary nerves….” At the end, after the girl is banished to jail, we are offered what might pass for comic relief. The next person on trial is a habitual offender, an old drunk. Though he is not entirely funny as presented by Crane, “an aged toothless wanderer, tottering and grinning,” nevertheless his silly, slurring speech elicits a smile from the court officer. Thus the drama ends.
But the goal was not irony. If one can disentangle the stunning, somehow disembodied detail from what functions as Crane’s plot, one realizes that the salient note was struck well before the finish, when the girl cries out. It was a cry not for audience entertainment. “The loungers, many of them, underwent a spasmodic movement as if they had been knifed.” In fact, “whether innocent or guilty, the girl’s scream described such a profound depth of woe, it was so graphic of grief, that it slit with a dagger’s sweep the curtain of the commonplace….” Its tone was so “universal” of mind “that a man heard expressed some far off midnight terror of his own thoughts.”
According to Crane, his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage, was intended to be a portrayal of fear. But when one looks back over the stories, war memoirs, poems, that seems only part of his aim. Getting clear of mundane appearances, false, dishonest, or pious, or ripping aside the “curtain of the commonplace” (there are the abrupt reverse integers in the poems in War Is Kind) represented for Crane not just occasional moments but the psychological condition under which he lived and wrote. The inference is acceptably modern. The timing of the University of Virginia’s publication of The Works of Stephen Crane (currently being issued, a long series with more to come, which is to include every known piece of his creative writing and journalism), its dizzying appropriateness to the hour, will not, one imagines, be immediately recognized. The fact that 1971 was the centennial year of Crane’s birth may well be passed over …