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Stephen Crane to the Rescue

The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume I, Bowery Tales

edited by Fredson Bowers, Introduction by James B. Colvert
The University Press of Virginia, 184 pp., $10.00

The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume IV, The O’Ruddy

edited by Fredson Bowers, Introduction by J.C. Levenson
The University Press of Virginia, 362 pp., $15.00

The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume V, Tales of Adventure

edited by Fredson Bowers, Introduction by J.C. Levenson
The University Press of Virginia, 244 pp., $15.00

The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume VI, Tales of War

edited by Fredson Bowers, Introduction by James B. Colvert
The University Press of Virginia, 400 pp., $22.50

The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume VII, Tales of Whilomville

edited by Fredson Bowers, Introduction by J.C. Levenson
The University Press of Virginia, 277 pp., $10.00

The Works of Stephen Crane, Volume IX, Reports of War

edited by Fredson Bowers, Introduction by James B. Colvert
The University Press of Virginia, 678 pp., $24.00

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)1 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 in a cloud of literary “rediscovery,” and the nature of the man and his work still be ignored.

Like Emily Dickinson, Crane was not a “literary” writer, though possessed of such audacious abilities that the sheer innovative surface of his work may suggest this. The grounds of his achievement were more deeprooted. Crane lived very close to some stormy center of perception. He grasped the straw of writing to “report” what he had seen. J. D. Levenson, in his introduction to “The Monster” (first of the Whilomville tales in the University of Virginia Works), speaks of Crane’s “devastating intuition.” As Levenson says, he “went beyond the objectivity of the cool broadminded reporter and penetrated to a radically different psychological landscape which the moral assumption of his literate audience did not hold.” That may explain why the attempt to incorporate Crane’s style into the history of “naturalism” or other historical movements will go only so far.

Reading through his work detail by detail, not excluding the dispatches from the Greek-Turkish and Spanish-American wars, one is impressed by the startling consistency of his perceptions. His approach was the same to friends, jobs, women—there being no forced or gratuitous difference between what he observed and what he said.

Underlying every event or observed detail, a man, a tree, a war, was Crane’s great skepticism. Engrained in what we do is what we mean. What most engaged his attention during battle, he said, was “the attitude of the men.” Nor did he mean by that any abstraction about patriotism, brutishness, courage. He perceived in people, by way of their motor responses, their unpredictable strains. It was, indeed, what basically interested him, that seething complex of attitudes, out of which erupted the mystery of their action.

To illustrate. In the story “A Mystery of Heroism” Crane relentlessly measures a so-called manifestation of courage, piece by piece, as if he were breaking down a cell structure. A soldier foolishly crosses an enemy line to get a bucket of water. On his way back he encounters a dying officer who asks for a drink. The tone is almost casual, the officer asks and does not beg. Though lying in a hideous position of suffering, trapped under his dead horse, he says: “Say, young man, give me a drink of water will you?” The soldier reacts with a frantic “I can’t.” He runs on a few feet, then turns back and, without knowing why, he pauses, risking his life in that “region where lived the unspeakable noises of swirling missiles” to splash water over the face of the dying man.

Throughout, the soldier’s emotions appear to be nothing but terrified refusal. It is in the pit of reluctance, and with his face “gray” with terror, that he performs the deed. When he returns with the bucket to his companions (their faces are “wrinkled” with laughter, so we can’t tell whether they are scoffing or exalting), somebody makes a misstep and the rest of the water is spilled. “The bucket lay on the ground empty.”

Emptiness is one of Crane’s often repeated motifs. At the end of “Five White Mice,” a story of a near murder in Mexico, the final line is “Nothing happened.” But everything had happened. Or had it? The matter is relative. It is Crane’s ambivalence and his refusal to sum up results that make him so truthful. Daniel G. Hoffman, in his very interesting study The Poetry of Stephen Crane,2 begins with H. G. Wells’s comment on Crane’s work (Wells and Crane were friends in England) as defining “the expression in literary art of certain enormous repudiations.” Hoffman shows how these repudiations operated on many levels, against society, cultural history, and tradition.

Accordingly, Crane’s judgments on himself were severe. When he spoke of The Red Badge after its success (his only one) as being “too clever” and representing too much of the “literary expedient” his position was excessive. The work was on a stylistic plane no other American had yet reached, and it was H.L. Mencken who would later date “modern literature” from that novel. But Crane suspected his own motives, or even saw in his work the slightest trace of imitating shoddy values. By contrast, it is hard to think of any reputedly “committed” writer today who, having made it, wouldn’t at the drop of a hat just continue to snuffle after the gravy.

Crane was a curious product of reform and stability. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, the fourteenth and last child of Reverend Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Peck Crane. The Crane family could be traced back to before the American Revolution, and were among the earliest settlers and soldiers in Connecticut and New Jersey. They were, in their strong individuality, described by Crane as “pretty hot people.” Mary Peck was the daughter of a line of Methodist clergymen, and both parents were fanatical do-gooders. They were also narrow and unsophisticated, though at Princeton the Reverend Crane had rebelled, giving up the Presbyterian faith and its dogma of damnation for what he considered the more lenient Methodism. As a preacher he was eccentric, believing that helping people was better than giving sermons. Stephen himself, who threw religion over early, referred to it as nothing but a “sideshow.” The Reverend Crane died when Stephen was eight, of overwork.

Some of the Reverend Crane’s published prose and tracts on such subjects as card-playing, loose behavior, and the fall of man are still on file at the Central Branch of the New York Public Library. Mrs. Crane wrote voluminously for the Christian Temperance union and was active giving speeches for various women’s movements. Not to be overlooked was her habit of taking in “unwed mothers” and sticking by the girls until they were on their feet again. She appears to have been stiff-mannered and energetic; her voice Stephen remembered as “sounding like Ellen Terry’s.”

It is safe to suppose that a house open to unwed troubled girls is not likely to be priggish. In 1891 Stephen and an older brother, William, didn’t hesitate to risk their lives trying (unsuccessfully) to save a Negro from being lynched by a crazy Port Jervis mob. Crane never ceased hating mobs. The young Crane was classed as “the wild son of the minister.” Along with being an exceptional baseball player, which his father would have opposed, putting it in the same order as theater-going, whisky drinking, and dancing, Stephen Crane was chiefly interested in cigarettes and girls. Like Dreiser, he seems to have loved women and acted toward them in a way that was, as biographers note, at once “chivalrous and realistic.”

It is not surprising that Crane’s sexual idealism (about which much has been written) should have turned him to prostitutes. He also liked actresses and people he considered Bohemian. What some critics tend to forget, in seeing him psychoanalytically, is how advanced and intelligent Crane was. Like Keats and Schubert, he wrote some of his best work between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. Consider one of his first published pieces, tossed off in 1888, when he was sixteen, a report on an “American Day” parade in Asbury Park by the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. Crane wrote of the celebration, which he was supposed to praise:

…probably the most awkward, ungainly, uncut and uncarved procession that ever raised dust on the sun-beaten streets.

The onlooking crowd he described as:

…vaguely amused. The bona fide Asbury Parker is a man to whom a dollar, held close to the eye, often shuts out any impression he may have had that other people possess rights…. Hence the tan-colored, sun-beaten honesty in the faces of the other members [the marchers] …is expected to have a very staggering effect upon them. The visitors were men who possessed principles.

It was candor come early to the same unromantic romancer who later would say, “Let a thing become a tradition and it becomes half a lie” and “How are you going to know about things unless you do them?”

  1. 1

    Joseph Katz, The Poems of Stephen Crane (Cooper Union Publishers, 1966).

  2. 2

    Daniel G. Hoffman, The Poetry of Stephen Crane (Columbia University Press, 1957).

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