Thursday, February 11, 2016

Nibbling the sacred cheese of life with Stephen Crane

Reading Stephen Crane in – not in bulk – in handfuls, in heaps – has been rewarding.  He was an astounding short story writer, with a wide range of subject, tone, and rhetorical flash.  He was moving fast, too.

I have been working on his stories, journalism, hybrid non-fiction, sketches, etc. collected in the Library of America volume of Stephen Crane, a heck of a book.  That edition leads off with the novels and novellas then divides the shorter stuff by time and place, which makes sense for a wandering reporter like Crane – New York City, the Civil War detour, Mexico, Florida, Greece, Cuba, etc., all of which generated good fiction aside from whatever he was writing for newspapers to make a living.

I reconstructed Crane’s books to some degree, regrouping the short stories into The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898) and The Monster and Other Stories (1899, with an expanded English edition in 1901).  The former is a terrific book and it is a shame to break it up; the latter, in either form, makes no sense as a book and is best left in pieces.

I took a break from Crane, but the next book will be Wounds in the Rain (1900), stories from Cuba about the Spanish-American War, which Christopher Benfey has said is Crane’s most underrated and underread book.  Looking forward to that.

I skipped the novellas George’s Mother (1896) and The Third Violet (1897).  And I read Crane’s second tiny, original book of poems, War Is Kind (1899).  So that’s the logistical overview.  Anyone have strong positive feelings about those novellas?

As good as the Civil War stories were – as good as almost all of this material is – “The Open Boat” is such a triumph that it casts a dark shadow.  Crane was on his way to Cuba to cover the revolution; the leaky tub full of arms and mercenaries sank in a squall and Crane and three other men found themselves in a boat not designed for such conditions.

Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea.  These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation.  (part I).

The situation is rich in descriptive, metaphorical, and ethical possibilities.  Crane’s great stroke, though, is the duel narration, the way the omniscient narrator, heard above, interacts with the limited point of view of “the correspondent,” who just rows and sleeps  - he “watched the waves and wondered why he was there.”  He can rarely see over the top of the waves, while this other narrator perceives the cosmos.

They are both Crane, that’s the fun, right?  Retrospective, artistic, metaphysical Crane, recollecting in tranquility, and a Crane trapped in a particular moment, a moment that stretches for days, as a rowing machine who also thinks:

“If I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned – if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?  Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”  (part IV)

The omniscient narrator finds that last phrase hilarious.  It is not clear whether Crane-the-rower has as strong a sense of the ridiculous.

Crane and two of his companions survived; one drowned, randomly, utterly arbitrarily.  That man’s death is the great mystery and tragedy, or perhaps comedy, of “The Open Boat.”  Crane wrote two other versions of the story, a piece of reportage (“Stephen Crane’s Own Story”) and a story from the ship captain’s point of view (“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure”), both of which make the artistry of “The Open Boat” look all the greater.  All three serve as tributes to Billy Higgins, oiler, who died in place of Stephen Crane.


  1. Someday I should read The Open Boat. Wow, he died young, did Crane (I just googled him). I had no idea.

    I know I read The Red Badge of Courage in school, but I can't remember any of it clearly. In my memory, it's weirdly conflated with All Quiet on the Western Front.

    1. What I meant to say is: Wow, that's a great trick, the omniscient Crane narrator commenting on the first-person Crane-the-character narrator. That's really good. Two fictional Cranes, only one aware of the other. I don't know if anyone had done that before him.

  2. Even funnier is how the two narrators have such different concerns. One is all "I'm gonna die" and the other is all "I just came up with the coolest metaphor."

    There is a bit where a shark shows up and follows the boat for a while that is a perfect example. Meta-narrator says "[t]he speed and power of the thing was greatly to be admired"; rowing Crane "simply looked at the sea dully and swore in an undertone."

    It's a great story. I wish Chekhov had read it. I wish Crane had been able to read Chekhov.

  3. i just read this story two weeks ago and was most impressed by the humor and the fact that though they were in this tiny boat for three days with nothing to eat and not much to drink, describing the suffering took a second place to the humor. when they were watching the tourists on the beach before landing, a certain dry regard emerged that emphasized their aloneness, though. many things could be said about this story, which in itself points to it's excellence.

  4. Yes, the variety of tone is another little miracle. The story, as summarized, gives no hint about the shifts in tone, in the humor, for example.

    Yet it is also a first-rate adventure story.

  5. Thank you for highlighting Crane. The Portable Crane beckons to me from the bookshelf, and I can hear the beckoning now only because of your posting. Perhaps I will begin with RBOC. Again, thanks!

  6. Oh yeah, The Portable Crane - I should see what's in that.