I see that The Portable Stephen Crane also divvies up his work by geography, although with less prosaic names. “The World of Maggie” (New York City), “A World of Shipwreck” (the “Open Boat” incident), “A World of Ironies.” The latter could cover any place in which Crane set foot. In this book, it is the home of Crane’s Western and Mexican stories, among others, killers like “The Blue Hotel” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” Crane’s proto-Westerns.
Funny how much these stories look like what we now call Westerns. If I knew how to use the word “tropes” I would use it here. Like I know from tropes.
Crane’s voice is at full power. It’s a screwy voice, but strong. Some examples:
The punchers spent most of the morning in an attack on whiskey which was too earnest to be noisey. (“Twelve O’Clock,” 830)
There is a kind of corn whiskey bred in Florida which the natives declare is potent in the proportion of seven fights to a drink. (“Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventure,” 916)
When the second engineer came to separate the combatants, he was sincere in his efforts, and he came near to disabling them for life. (“Flanagan,” 916-7)
Taking up a strategic position, the man howled a challenge. But this house regarded him as might a great stone god. It gave no sign. After a decent wait, the man howled further challenges, mingling them with wonderful epithets.
Presently there came the spectacle of a man churning himself into deepest rage over the immobility of a house. (“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” 796)
I wanted to use even more of that last. “Yellow Sky” gets pretty close to putting some kind of reward in every passage, something for a reader to suck on for a while. An image or metaphor or oddly employed verb or adjective. Churning himself into a rage. Wonderful epithets. He was sincere in his efforts.
Last year I read a couple of Charles Portis novels, Norwood (1966) and The Dog of the South (1979), both comic picaresques that begin and end in Texas, where several of these Crane stories are set. Portis’s voice is hard to describe. Off kilter. Precise but somehow wrong, like the narrator can’t quite see straight.
At last a man was afflicted with a stroke of dice-shaking. (“The Five White Mice,” 758)
The sailors charged three times upon the plate-glass front of the saloon, and when they had finished, it looked as if it had been the victim of a rural fire company’s success in saving it from the flames. (“A Man and Some Others,” 776)
The prose matches the ethos. “Twelve O’Clock” is about a series of murders caused by a cuckoo clock, or perhaps by man’s endless sense of wonder, a sense shared by the author. A cuckoo clock is a marvelous thing. “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” is about what happens when there is a mismatch between style and ethos. Maybe some other stories are about the same thing. In Crane’s stories, style is an instrument of fate.
Page numbers from the Library of America collection.