Perhaps because his writing career was so short, critics have devoted much space to Stephen Crane’s (November 1, 1871 – June 5, 1900) slight, decidedly apprentice series of sketches collectively entitled The Sullivan County Tales. One trait that the sketches do have in their favor is that they contain all the facets of style and theme that Crane was to utilize as his writing developed. The reader finds the overbearing power of the environment, the vivid descriptions, the premise that these descriptions reflect the heightened consciousness of a character or characters, and the idea that this very heightening involves a distortion of perception that needs to be overcome for the characters’ adequate adjustment to, and comprehension of, reality. Also of significance is that these stories are generally concerned with the actions of four campers and hence reflect not only on individual psychology but also on the psychology of group dynamics. This was also to become a focus of Crane’s writing.
Four Men in a Cave
In one of the better pieces from this series, “Four Men in a Cave,” a quartet of campers decides to explore a cave in order to have something to brag about when they return to the city. Their scarcely concealed fears about the expedition are rendered by Crane’s enlivening of stalactites that jab down at them and stalagmites that shoot up at them from crevices. At the end of their path, they find a hermit who invites them to a game of poker, but their fear-stoked imaginations visualize the gamester as a ghoul or Aztec priest. Only later after escaping the cave, in a comic denouement, do they learn of the cave dweller’s true identity, that of a mad farmer who took to solitude when he lost his land and wife through gambling. By this time, there seems to be little to brag about, since what has happened has exposed their cowardice and credulity.
The story provides an early example of the rough-and-ready combination of impressionist subjectivity, in how the descriptions in the piece are tinged by the campers’ fears, and naturalist objectivity, in how the overwhelming environment of the cave, for part of the story, controls the men’s action while dwarfing them. Further, the piece indicates the way, as Crane sees it, emotions can be constructed collectively, as when each camper tells the others how he has misidentified the hermit, adding to the growing hysteria.
An Experiment in Misery
In 1894, Crane published a maturer story, “An Experiment in Misery,” in which he transposed the narrative of a cave journey into a serious study of urban social conditions. In the originally printed version of the piece, two middle-class men observe tramps and speculate about their motives and feelings. On impulse, the younger man decides to dress as a tramp in order to penetrate their secrets. (Such a tactic, of disguising oneself to uncover hidden areas of society, was a common practice of crusading reporters at that time.)
In the later, revised version of this story, the one that is more commonly known, Crane removed the beginning and ending that reveal the protagonist to be slumming; yet, though his social origins are obscured, the story still concerns a neophyte who knows nothing of the life of the underclass and who is being initiated into the ways of the Bowery slums. The high point of the tale, corresponding to the cave exploration, is the hero’s entrance into an evil-smelling flophouse. He has trouble sleeping in the noisome room, for his keyed-up fancy sees morbid, highly romanticized symbols everywhere. He understands the shriek of a nightmare-tossed sleeper as a metaphoric protest of the downtrodden.
Awakening the next morning, the protagonist barely remarks on the stench, and this seems to indicate that, merely through familiarity, some of the falsely romantic pictures that he has entertained about the life of the city’s poorest have begun to rub off. Exactly what positive things he has learned and of what value such learning will be to him are never clear and, indeed, as Crane grew, while his stories still turned on the loss of illusions, they began to lose the dogmatic assurance that such a change is necessarily for the good.
The last scene of the sketch, though, does make a more definite point, this one about the nature of groups. The hero has begun to associate with a fellow tramp called the assassin and now, after his initiatory night, seems both adjusted to his new station and accepted by the tramp world, at least insofar as the assassin is willing to regale him with his life story. By abandoning his preconceptions about poverty, the protagonist has quite seamlessly fitted himself into the alien milieu, yet this joining of one community has a negative side effect of distancing him from another. The last tableau has the assassin and the hero lounging on park benches as the morning rushhour crowd streams by them. Here, soon after the hero has had the comfortable feeling of being accepted in one society, he has the poignant realization that, as a bum, he no longer belongs to the larger American working world. There is even a sly hint, given by the fact that the youth begins employing the same grandiose, romanticized terms in depicting his separation from the business world that he had earlier used to depict the flophouse, that he has embarked on a new course of building delusions. In other words, his loss of illusions about the reality of tramp life has been counteracted (as if a vacuum needed to be filled) by the imbibing of a new set of illusions about the vast gulf between the classes. Each community one may join seems to have its own supply of false perspectives.
The Open Boat
In 1897, after his near death at sea, Crane produced what most name his greatest short story and what some even rank as his supreme achievement, placing it above his novels. This is “The Open Boat.” Again there are four men. They are in a small boat, a dinghy, escapees from a sunken vessel, desperately trying to row to shore in heavy seas.
The famed first sentence establishes both the parameters of the fictional world and a new chastening of Crane’s style. It reads, “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Literally, they are too intent on staying afloat to notice the heavens; figuratively, in this godless universe the men cannot look to the sky for help but must rely on their own muscles and wits, which, against the elements, are little enough. Furthermore, the opening’s very dismissal of color descriptions, given that much of Crane’s earlier work, such as The Red Badge of Courage, depends heavily on color imagery, can be seen as the author’s pledge to restrain some of the flashiness of his style.
This restraint is evident not only in a more tempered use of language here but also in the nature of the protagonists’ delusions. In works such as the slum experiment, the romanticized preconceptions that determine the protagonist’s viewpoint can be seen as trivial products of a shallow culture—that is, as marginal concerns—whereas in the sea story, the men’s illusions are necessities of life. The men in the boat want to believe that they must survive, since they have been fighting so hard. If they do not believe this, how can they continue rowing? The point is put wrenchingly at one moment when the men refuse to accept that they will drown, as it seems they will, in the breakers near the shore. Such illusions (about the meaningfulness of valor and effort) obviously have more universal relevance than others with which Crane has dealt, and that is why the story strikes so deep; the illusions also, ingeniously, tie in with readers’ expectations. As much as readers begin to identify with the four men (and they are sympathetically portrayed), they will want them to survive and thus will be on the verge of agreeing to their illusions. Thus, Crane engineers a remarkable and subtle interlocking of readers’ and characters’ beliefs.
Furthermore, the functionality of the possibly delusive beliefs of the struggling men—that is, the fact that they need to believe that they will make it ashore to keep up the arduous fight for life—helps Crane to a fuller, more positive view of human community. The men in the cave were merely partners in error, but these toilers share a belief system that sustains them in their mutually supportive labor, which the characters themselves recognize as “a subtle brotherhood of men.” The men’s shared recognition of the supportive structure of human groups gives weight to the story’s last phrase, which says, of the three survivors who have reached land, “and they felt that they could then be interpreters.”
The story, written in the third person, is given largely from the viewpoint of one of the four, a newspaper correspondent. This is not evident at once, however, since the narrative begins by simply objectively reporting the details of the men’s struggle to stay afloat and reproducing their laconic comments. In this way, the group is put first, and only later, when the correspondent’s thoughts are revealed, does the reader learn of his centrality as the story begins to be slightly colored by his position. What the focus on his consciousness reveals, aiding Crane in deepening his presentation, is how the subtle brotherhood is felt individually.
After rowing near to the shore but not being able to attract anyone’s attention, the crew settle down for a night at sea. While whoever is rowing stays awake, the others sleep like the dead they may soon become, and at this point, the story dwells more intently on the correspondent’s outlook as he takes his turn at the oars. The newspaperman reconsiders the beliefs that have been keeping them afloat, seeing the weakness in them and accepting, now that he is alone, the possibility of an ironic death— that is, one coming in sight of shore after their courageous struggle. Yet his existential angst, an acknowledgment that there is no special heavenly providence, neither stops him from his muscle-torturing rowing nor diminishes his revived illusions on the morrow, when they again all breast the waves together.
If this line of reasoning shows him mentally divorcing himself from the collective ideology, another night thought implies that, in another direction, he is gaining a deeper sense of solidarity. He remembers a verse that he had learned in school about a legionnaire dying far from home with only a comrade to share his last moments. The correspondent had thought little of the poem, both because he had never been in extremis (and so saw little to the pathos of the case) and, as Crane notes, had formerly looked cynically at his fellows (and so had found unpalatable or unbelievable the care of one soldier for another). A day’s experience in the dinghy has made him keenly aware of the two aspects of experience that he had overlooked or undervalued, and thus has given him a clear understanding of the networks (those of democratic brotherhood) and circumstances (a no-holds-barred fight against an indifferent universe) that underlie the human social world. This understanding can be applied in many ways, not only toward a grasp of group interaction but also toward an interpretation of honest art.
Still, the most telling incident of his lonely watch is not so much any of his thoughts as an action. The boat, the correspondent finds, has become the magnet to a huge shark. Achingly, he wishes that one of his fellow sailors were awake to share his fidgety vigil; yet, he resists any impulse he has to rouse them or even to question aloud whether any of them is conscious for fear that he should waken a sleeper. Even if alone he cannot continue with the group illusion, he can, though alone, effortlessly maintain the group’s implicit morality, which holds that each should uncomplainingly shoulder as much of the burden as possible, while never revealing irritation or fear. Much later, the newspaperman learns that another of the four, the captain, was awake and aware of the predator’s presence during what had been taken to be the correspondent’s moment of isolated anguish. The hidden coexistent alertness of the captain suggests the ongoing mutuality of the group that undergirds even seemingly isolated times of subjectivity.
To bring this story in line with the last one mentioned, it is worth noting that the small group in the boat is contrasted to a group on shore just as, in “An Experiment in Misery,” the hoboes were contrasted to the society of the gainfully employed. When the rowers are near the coast on the first day, they vainly hope to attract the ministering attentions of people on land. They do attract their attention, but the people, tourists from a hotel, merrily wave at them, thinking that the men in the dinghy are fishermen. The heedlessness, inanity, and seeming stupidity of the group on shore compare unfavorably with the hard-won, brave alertness of the boatmen, pointing to the fact that the small group’s ethical solidarity is not of a type with the weaker unity found in the larger society. The men’s deep harmony rather—beautiful as it is—is something that can be found only in pockets. The depicting of the community on the land foreshadows elements of Crane’s later, darker pictures of community, as in “The Blue Hotel,” where what sustains a group is not a life-enhancing though flimsy hope but a tacitly accepted lie.
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
In the year that he wrote “The Open Boat” and the next year, Crane was to compose three other brilliant stories, two of which dealt with myths of the Old West. Both these Western tales were written in his mature, unadorned style, and both continued his focus on the belief systems of communities. What is new to them is a greater flexibility in the handling of plot. Previously, he had simply followed his characters through a continuous chronological sequence from start to finish; now, however, he began shifting between differently located character groups and jumping around in time.
In “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” the action begins on a train moving through Texas, carrying Yellow Sky’s sheriff, Jack Potter, and his new wife back to town. Potter is apprehensive about his reception, since he has married out of town in a whirlwindcourtship and none of the townspeople knows of his new status. The scene shifts to the interior of a Yellow Sky saloon, where the gathered, barricaded patrons have other things to be apprehensive about than Potter’s marriage. Scratchy Wilson, the local ruffian, has gotten drunk and is shooting in the main street, while, as the bar’s occupants admit, the only man able to cow him is the absent sheriff. Scratchy Wilson himself, as the reader learns in another scene shift, not aware of Potter’s trip, is truculently looking for the sheriff so that they can engage in a showdown. In truth, the reader, knowing of Potter’s imminence, will probably shareWilson’s expectation of a gun battle, which is not an unreasonable forecast of the plot’s unfolding. Yet, this expectation is founded on a deeper belief, that the West will always be an uncivilized place of outlaws and pistols. A chagrined Scratchy recognizes that this belief is invalid and that an era has passed when he finds that the sheriff has taken a wife. After meeting the couple, he holsters his guns and stalks off toward the horizon.
The Blue Hotel
A tragic variation on similar themes of violence and community beliefs appears in “The Blue Hotel,” a story that a few critics rank in importance above “The Open Boat.” The tale concerns a fatalistic traveler, the Swede, who stops for the night in a hotel in Nebraska. (This protagonist’s name will be picked up by Ernest Hemingway, a Crane admirer, for an equally fatalistic character in his short-story masterpiece “The Killers.”) Through the Swede’s conversation with the hotel owner, Scully, and other stoppers, it appears that, based perhaps on an immersion in dime novels, the Swede thinks that this town—or, for that matter, any town in the West—is a hotbed of bloodshed and mayhem. After his fears seem to be allayed by the officious owner, who assures him that he is mistaken, the Swede overreacts by becoming boisterous and familiar. This mood of his eventually dissipates when, involved in a game of cards, he accuses the owner’s son of cheating. The upshot is that the pair engage in a fistfight, which the Swede wins. He is now triumphant but can no longer find any welcome at the hotel; so he wanders off to a nearby saloon, in which his even more high-strung and aggressive demonstrations lead to his death at the hands of an icy but violent gambler he had been prodding to drink with him.
At this point, the story seems a grim meditation on the truth or falsity of myths. What seemed to be the manifestly absurd belief of the Swede has been proven partially true by his own death. Yet, it appears this truth would never have been exposed except for the Swede’s own pushy production of the proper circumstances for Western violence to emerge. There is, however, another turn of the cards. A final scene is described in which, months later, two of the hotel’s card players, witnesses of the dispute between the Swede and Scully’s son, discuss events of that fateful evening. One of them, the easterner, claims that the whole group collected at the hotel that night is responsible for what led to the death since they all knew that the owner’s son was cheating but did not back up the Swede when he accused the youth.
In one way, this final episode indicates that perhaps the Swede’s suspicions were accurate in yet another sense; the whole town is made up, metaphorically, of killers in that the community is willing to sacrifice an outsider to maintain its own dubious harmony. From this angle, though, this Western town’s particular violence merely crystallizes and externalizes any hypocritical town’s underlying psychic economy. (Crane depicted this economy more explicitly in his novella The Monster.) In another way— and here the increasing complexity of Crane’s thought on community is evident— even after the final episode, it still appears that the Swede’s murder has some justification.
There are two points to be made in this connection. For one, throughout the story, Crane represents the frailty of human existence as it is established on the prairies in the depths of winter. The story begins by underlining the presumptuousness of Scully’s hotel’s bright blue color, not so much as it may be an affront to the other, staider buildings in town, but in its assertiveness against the grimness of the white wastes of nature surrounding and swamping the little burg. The insignificance of human beings measured against the universe is explicitly stated by Crane in an oftquoted passage. He speaks of humans clinging to a “whirling, fire-smitten, icelocked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb.” He goes on to say that the “conceit of man” in striving to prevail in such conditions is “the very engine of life.” It is true that they all killed the Swede in some sense, but the fragility of the human community, it may be surmised, demands that its members all practice respect and forbearance toward one another so that a common front can be presented against uncaring nature. If anyone consistently violates this unwritten code, as the Swede does, he must be eliminated for group self-preservation. It is significant in this light that the Swede, who demands a grudge match with the owner’s son, would take the men away from the large, redhot stove (symbol of the warmth of peaceful intercourse and home comfort) outside to fight in subzero weather. To restate this, for his own egotistical purposes, the Swede would drag everyone into a much greater exposure to a harsh environment than life in the community, were it running harmoniously, would ever make necessary.
The second point to be made is that Crane’s portrait of the gambler, which interrupts the narrative at a high point and which, thus, seems at first sight a cumbersome miscalculation by the author, allows the reader a fuller understanding of the place of an outsider in this Western society. If readers were given only the Swede’s treatment to go by, they would be forced to conclude that, whatever the necessity of the visitor’s expulsion, this town has little tolerance for aberrant personalities. Yet, such a position has to be modified after Crane’s presentation of the gambler, whose disreputable calling excludes him from the city’s better social functions but whose behavior in other areas—he bows to the restrictions put on him with good grace and is a charitable family man who will not prey on the better citizens—conforms enough to standards to allow him to be generally accepted. Intervening at this point, Crane’s portrayal of this second (relative) outsider is used to indicate that the community will permit in its midst a character who has not followed all of its rules, provided such a character does not, as the Swede does, insistently and continuously breach the accepted norms.
All this taken together does not, certainly, excuse a murder. What it does show is that Crane’s understanding of how a community sustains itself has expanded beyond the understanding that he had at the time of the sea story. He indicates that the guiding principle of mutual support found in the dinghy has remained operative, even in a far less threatened situation, while adding that violations of this principle can lead to less happy consequences than might have been foreseen in the earlier story.
Death and the Child
Finally, in “Death and the Child,” Crane produced an excellent story about war, the topic which had been both the most consistent and the least successful subject of his short pieces. The intertwined themes of the effect of illusions and the ways that an individual can be integrated into, or excluded from, a community, the most important themes of Crane’s work, are again central. In this piece, the character who nurses illusions is Peza, a journalist who has decided to join the Greek side during the Greco-Turkish War, motivated by unrealistic ideas about the glories of classical Greece and the adventure of fighting. Once he reaches the battle lines, however, he finds it impossible to join the other combatants. He is displeased by the nonchalance of the troops, who refuse to strike heroic poses, but what actually ends up turning him away from solidarity is his realization that to become part of the group he must accept not only a largely humdrum life but also the possibility of a prosaic death. In other words, it is not coming down to earth with the common men that ultimately scares him but the understanding that he may have to come down under the earth (into a grave) with them.
The story exhibits what had become the traits of Crane’s mature style. He writes with a terse, crisp, subdued prose that is occasionally shot through with startling or picturesque imagery, this imagery being the residue of his initial, more flowery style. Crane also exhibits a mastery of plotting. This is brought out by the careful joining of Peza’s emotional states to his gyrations around the battle camp as well as by the story’s final encounter, where Peza comes upon an abandoned child, who, too young to comprehend war, still has a clearer view of reality than the distraught journalist. This skill at plotting is not something that Crane possessed from the beginning, which brings up a last point.
It might be said that there is a chronological distinction between Crane’s interests and his method of narration. Although his thematic concerns remained constant throughout his writing career, as he grew older his attention to how a community was created and sustained grew in weight. His ability to construct complex plots is one that he picked up during the course of his creative life. There are authors who advance little after their first books, but in Crane’s case, it can definitely be said that there was a promise for the future that his short life never redeemed.
Short fiction: The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War, 1896; The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure, 1898; The Monster, and Other Stories, 1899; Whilomville Stories, 1900; Wounds in the Rain: War Stories, 1900; Last Words, 1902.
Plays: The Blood of the Martyr, wr. 1898?, pb. 1940; The Ghost, pr. 1899 (with Henry James; fragment).
Novels: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1893; The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War, 1895; George’s Mother, 1896; The Third Violet, 1897; The Monster, 1898 (serial), 1899 (novella; pb. in The Monster, and Other Stories); Active Service, 1899; The O’Ruddy: A Romance, 1903 (with Robert Barr).
Nonfiction: The Great Battles of the World, 1901; The War Dispatches of Stephen Crane, 1964.
Poetry: The Black Riders and Other Lines, 1895; A Souvenir and a Medley, 1896; War Is Kind, 1899; The University Press of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, 1970 (volume 10).
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