Friday, January 15, 2016

Stephen Crane's Civil War stories - the stupid water derided him

I could use a book on Stephen Crane’s reading, too.  Or I could look at a Stephen Crane biography, I guess.  The research could be fruitless, though.  His first novel, Maggie (1893), has some superficial resemblance to Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877), and I sure saw a French touch in Crane’s prose.  Had Crane read that novel, or any Zola at all?  It turns out that no one has any idea.  Maybe.

Crane’s Civil War fiction is turning out to be the puzzler.  Mostly, Crane wrote fiction like the journalist he was – he went to the Bowery and wrote stories about the Bowery; trips to the American West and Cuba led to stories about the West and Cuba.  He spent days struggling to get ashore in an open boat, and the result was “The Open Boat.”  But The Red Badge of Courage (1895) and the stories in The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the Civil War (1896) came out of nowhere.  From Crane’s reading, from his imagination.

Ambrose Bierce, a veteran who fought on many battlefields, published Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891.  An ignoramus, if I had no knowledge of the authors I doubt I would be able to guess which one was the authentic soldier.  If anything, I would likely guess wrong, since Bierce’s stories so often center on bizarre phenomena and unlikely occurrences.  Crane is more grounded, although some of his subjects are also unusual, like the soldier in “A Mystery of Heroism” who risks death for a drink of water because of some badly understood peer effect:

The canteen filled with a maddening slowness in the manner of all bottles.  Presently he recovered his strength and addressed a screaming oath to it…  The stupid water derided him.

But when I say Bierce is bizarre, I mean a story ends with a soldier launched into the air by a tree-catapult, something really odd.  The act of genuine but pointless heroism in the Crane story is an ordinary phenomenon of war.

That passage does show the true oddness of Crane, his style.  Oddest of all is “The Little Regiment,” about the conflicts of two brothers in the same infantry unit.  The opening is terrific:

The fog made the clothes of the column of men in the roadway seem of a luminous quality.  It imparted to the heavy infantry overcoats a new color, a kind of blue which was so pale that a regiment might have been merely a long, low shadow in the mist.  However, a muttering, one part grumble, three parts joke, hovered in the air above the thick ranks, and blended in an undertoned roar, which was the voice of the column.

More of this for a couple of pages, the regiment stationed behind the battle, just artillery at this point, a scene of great strangeness but made stranger by Crane’s metaphors and sensory details:

The fog was as cold as wet clothes…  The machinery of orders had rooted these soldiers deeply into the mud precisely as almighty nature roots mullein stalks.

A little bit French, right?  Maybe also what we now call “over-written.”  Written, at least, definitely written.


  1. Have you read the 1867 novel Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty by John W. De Forest? Its main story is a version of “the marriage plot”, but beginning about halfway through there are some outstanding Civil War battle scenes, where De Forest’s firsthand experience of the war really tells.

  2. "Written, at least, definitely written."

    There is something journalistic about Crane's early military stories. Like Kipling, there's a knowingness to them which inspires both empathy and admiration and a certain distrust. Crane doesn't show off his cleverness and imagination as much as Kipling, but there is a certain conscious showing-off of his ability in the writing.
    It could just be a young man astonished at and proud of what he can do, but it doesn't grate as much in verse - like Keats - as in prose. Perhaps it's because we accept and expect virtuosity in verse in a way we don't in prose.

  3. "...if I had no knowledge of the authors I doubt I would be able to guess which one was the authentic soldier."

    From what I've read, actual Civil War vets thought Crane was a Civil War vet too. He sounded really authentic.

  4. I think reading authors' biographies is sometimes very useful in conjunction with reading their works; my old New Criticism teachers would have had heart attacks if I had said that in their presence many years ago. In connection with that statement, I have posted an author's biography at the new, improved, and back-to-its-roots Beyond Eastrod this morning. Meanwhile, I continue to follow with interest your Stephen Crane encounters.

  5. I only know De Forest from Patriotic Gore, and since I have not actually read Patriotic Gore I only know him as a rumor. I should read his book. I should read Patriotic Gore, too.

    Roger's description of Crane's youthfully exuberant prose style is exactly right. It is more evident the earlier his writing. I am not complaining - Crane always gives me something to read.

    Jean, I did not know that. I am not surprised.

    The Crane biography that tempts me is Christopher Benfey's, because I have profited so much from Benfey's writing.

    1. There's a short story by De Forest - The Brigade Commander - on Gutenberg which echoes Bill from PA's description of his writings in miniature: a melodramatic plot and realistic individual studies of soldiers and a detailed account of manouevres in battle jammed together.

    2. On secind thoughts:
      the difference between the De Forest and Crane's descriptions of battle is that the veteran De Forest needs to imagine and put in something more interesting - a story - where for Crane imagining the battle alone is interesting enough.

    3. Thanks for that story. It’s the small details like the infantrymen sleeping “feet to the front and his head rearward” that show the writer to be veteran. Miss Ravenel also has embarrassing attempts at Irish dialect. In reading, am I supposed to “hear” a difference between infantree and infantry? But it does remind me of a scene in the novel where some Irish enlisted men engage in macabre banter while discussing the nearby corpses of fallen Confederates, another scene that felt more reported than imagined.

    4. I think there is supposed to be a difference betweein "infantry" and "infantree" - the emphasis in "infantree" would be on the last, longer syllable. It doesn't seem very Irish, though

  6. That De Forest story - which I have sampled, not read through - is of high interest. It helps show the imaginative leap Crane and Bierce were making. They could shake off some of the conventional ideas about fiction that De Forest was stuck with.