Friday, February 12, 2016

Wonderful epithets - Stephen Crane rattles some words around

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.


  1. You now have me wondering about connections between Crane and Twain. Hmmmm. Perhaps I am influenced by my thoughts on Twain at Beyond Eastrod this morning. Still, I am curious enough to do a little digging to see what connections surface.

  2. Crane was 14 or 15 when Huckleberry Finn was published. How exciting that must have been for him - like a new Harry Potter book.

    1. Yes, but I wonder if Crane -- perhaps having read _Tom Sawyer_ -- might have been a bit disappointed by Twain's dark, didactic, and uneven black-and-white rafting adventure. Still, I like your comparison of Twain's books to the Harry Potter books; Twain must have been similarly popular among readers.

  3. Look, I know you don't like Huck Finn, but why on earth do you think Crane didn't? You think Stephen Crane of all people had a problem with "dark"?

    I don't know what "didactic" means here, either, especially in comparison to Tom Sawyer.

    1. Oh, I have just been mindlessly babbling. Forgive the intrusion.

  4. Who was it said something about a person remaining silent but being thought a fool rather than opening the mouth and removing all doubt? My mouth is henceforth closed because my mind is Swiss-cheese. So it goes.

  5. Silence is bad; fools are good. A book blog is a commitment to foolishness.

    Just make claims that you are willing to defend, that's all.