Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"But to get the real thing!" Stephen Crane remembers the war

Somewhere I saw Christopher Benfey, a critic and biographer of Stephen Crane, call Wounds in the Rain (1900) Crane’s most underrated or underread or ignored or misunderstood book.  Something like that.

It’s a collection of short fiction about the Cuban theater of the 1898 Spanish-American War.  Crane was a war correspondent.  He had written a novel and a book of stories about the Civil War, all of the details about soldiering pulled out of his imagination and books, but as a journalist he got to see the real thing.

On the third night the alarm came early; I went in search of Gibbs, but I soon gave over an active search for the more congenial occupation of lying flat and feeling the hot hiss of the bullets trying to cut my hair.  For the moment I was no longer a cynic.  I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into the vat of war.  I heard somebody dying near me.  He was dying hard.  Hard.  It took him a long time to die.  (“War Memories,” 237-8)

Of course this is not the real thing, even if the narrator is a Crane-like war correspondent, but rather a fictional simulation of it.  (“’But to get the real thing!’ cried Vernall the war-correspondent.  ‘It seems impossible,’” 229)  The difference from the Civil War fiction is that Crane could have been killed gathering his materials, or killed by something other than a book falling on his head.

His style did change, but it had been changing rapidly anyways that I cannot guess how direct experience of war might have affected it.  That “Hard” line was unthinkable in the more baroque The Red Badge of Courage (1895), written all of five years earlier.  I am continuing the same scene:

I thought this man would never die.  I wanted him to die.  Ultimately he died.  (238)

A new mode of war writing is forming in this book, and a new ironic tone.  Ernest Hemingway must have clawed a copy of Wounds in the Rain to pieces.  Does this not sound like it could have been written by Hemingway?

The day broke by inches, with an obvious and maddening reluctance.  (239)

There are other pages in the book, even though I am stuck in this one spot.  “War Memories” was the biggest surprise in the book.  It is long, a quarter of the book, as long as Crane’s novellas, and most directly in his voice and about his experiences.  Yet the character is named Vernall, and the events vary from those experienced by Crane.  It is a story both about the journalist’s experiences but also about his attempts to turn them into something.  The essentially random nature of war destroys effective narrative.

Or perhaps the story is a ragbag.  Here is everything Crane could not turn into something else, plus some things that he could and did, one event after another.  Look at all of this stuff.

The episode was closed.  And you can depend upon it that I have told you nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all.  (308)

Because of its length, I guess, the Library of America volume of Crane omits “War Memories,” but it is easy enough to find online.  Page numbers are from a scan of the original edition.


  1. it does sound sort of like hemingway, except h. would have left out all the adjectives. bret harte described theodore and the rough riders charging up san juan hill, but if i remember right he exaggerated a lot...

  2. Crane was at San Juan Hill, too. The Library of America collection has his non-fiction dispatch, an exciting piece of journalism. Crane is less of a myth-maker than Harte.

  3. Actually, you might be thinking of someone other than Bret Harte. Or maybe of an old Harte poem Roosevelt used as an epigram to The Rough Riders.

  4. could very well be; my memory, or ANY memory, as i've embarrassedly discovered, can be faulty; don't know how many times i've been absolutely convinced of something in the past only to find out how wrong i was. possibly i have it mixed up with some contemporary newspaper report or some such... "a message for garcia" was different, i know that, anyway...

  5. Harte sounded plausible to me! But I couldn't find a piece that would work.

    Crane ends his newspaper piece with a description of Spanish soldiers in the American field hospital, an act of generosity in context, if not myth-deflation.

  6. my bad: it was richard harding davis: i looked it up on google...

  7. Thanks - that's a new name to me. Interesting figure in journalism - a pioneer.