Sunday, January 17, 2016

Crane and Twain put some comedy in their recital - The Private History of a Campaign that Failed

Crane writes about courage in its different forms in the stories in The Little Regiment, just as he does in The Red Badge of Courage.  I thought I should write “courage and cowardice,” but in the stories, unlike the novel, there is little in the way of cowardice.  The courageous characters are not just soldiers but also civilians, young women caught among invading troops, or the inhabitants of an Indiana town worried that a “rebel” is stealing their chickens – well, there is plenty of cowardice in that one (“The Indiana Campaign,” but it is played for laughs), or even the protagonist of Red Badge, brought back as an old man, courageous enough in his own interest at least.  The novel is condensed into a couple of paragraphs.  “Evidently he appreciated some comedy in this recital.”

Bierce’s war stories were generally sources of comedy, too, not just in his fiction but as much or more so in his memoirs, in Bits of Autobiography (1909), where his tone is permanently amused.  But Bierce finds death as a concept to be amusing, which is not Crane’s position, however their sense of irony might overlap; nor is it the position of Mark Twain in “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed” (1885), his memoir of his wartime “service” as a Missouri irregular on the side of the Confederacy.

Among the ironies of the title is the fact that Twain succeeded in getting out of the war without doing too much, or possibly any, harm.

There was more Bull Run material scattered through the early camps of this country than exhibited itself at Bull Run.  And yet it learned its trade presently, and helped to fight the great battles later.  I could have become a soldier myself, if I had waited.  I had got part of it learned; I knew more about retreating than the man that invented retreating.

The story of a bunch of Tom Sawyers playing soldier in the woods and retreating whenever a rumor passes by is well built for amusement:

Then we formed in line of battle and marched four miles to a shady and pleasant piece of woods on the border of the far-reaching expanses of a flowery prairie.  It was an enchanting region for war – our kind of war.

No one follows orders; no one knows how to ride a horse; no one knows much of anything.  The captain is named Dunlap, but since he “was young, ignorant, good-natured, well-meaning, trivial, full of romance, and given to reading chivalric novels and singing forlorn love-ditties” he Frenchifies his name to d’un Lap.  The great skill of this Missouri Quixote is giving names to the soldiers’ camps.

I am taking “The Private History” as a memoir, but it is likely full of lies.  The lies are at least consistent with other lies Twain tells in other works.  The episode I doubt the most is the one where Twain and his comrades fire on a man and kill him.

My campaign was spoiled.  It seemed to me that I was not rightly equipped for this awful business; that war was intended for men, and I for a child’s nurse.  I resolved to retire from this avocation of sham soldiership while I could save some remnant of my self-respect.

And like Huck Finn will later, or earlier, Twain lights out for the Territory.

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