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.