Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Small barbarians and grade school pirates - Stephen Crane's Whilomville Stories and other

Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories (1900) is a book about children but not a children’s book.  Or such is my interpretation.  It’s stories contain the adventures of little Jimmie Trescott who lives in a small town in New York, is in grade school, has a doctor for a father, and can whip anybody.  The point of view is firmly adult, almost anthropological at its best.  This is clearest in “The Carriage-Lamps,” where Jimmie has been grounded and is in his ground floor room.  His Tom Sawyer-like friend is at the window, pretending to be a pirate.  Dr. Trescott is also in the room, unknown to the tiny pirate.

“Oh, come on, Jimmie.  A boat awaits us at the foot of the rocks.  In one short hour you’ll be free forever from your ex – excwable enemies, and their vile plots.  Hasten, for the dawn approaches.”

The suffering Jimmie looked at his father, and was surprised at what he saw.  The doctor was doubled up like a man with the colic.  He was breathing heavily.

How handy, for Crane to model a response for his readers.  We, reading, the story in Harper’s, where it was first published, may not be laughing so hard that we are in pain, like the boy’s father, but still, I thought the scene was pretty funny.  I would have added more comical “w”s.  “Vile pwots… dawn appwoaches.”

These charming stories are a strange contrast to the Cuban war fiction of Wounds in the Rain, published the same year, even though the boys do plenty of fighting.  Crane he had written stories about children before, including some bad, bad New York City children.  See the shocking “An Ominous Baby” for an example: “After the small barbarian had got some distance away, he paused and regarded his booty.”  Don’t see “A Dark-brown Dog”; it is too sad.  These stories are circa 1892, an age ago in the rapid, compressed career of Crane.  The morality of children was all too useful for Crane’s view of human nature.

If you want to read the minor Whilomville Stories, I will note that the Library of America collection of Crane omits three of them, but keeps the one, “The Knife,” that is hmm hmm hmm not congruent with today’s views on the depiction of African-Americans.  The Library of America also omits the grotesque illustrations of the original edition.

See, or avoid, “The Angel Child,” between pages 14 and 15.

I take these light-hearted stories as deliberate money makers, but there are two twists.  One is that the same family features in the Crane novella The Monster (1898), in which a black servant is grievously injured in a fire while rescuing little Jimmie.  The story is a serious look at the town’s fear and hatred of the injured man, the monster, and the father’s loyalty to the man who saved his son.  The tone could hardly be more different than that of the Whilomville Stories.

The other odd thing is that Crane was working on another group of linked stories when he died.  Three of them are in the Library of America volume.  They are episodes in a fictional war between Spitzenberg and Rostina, written much like the Cuban stories except made up from scratch.  It is as if Crane knew he  could not wait for Austria and Italy to go to war – he died fourteen years too soon – so he had to get going in advance.  I wonder what he was doing.


  1. Interesting baiting of the hook; note that this site
    contains the stories, and I will -- motivated by your recent Crane posting -- spend some time with my PB copy of The Portable Stephen Crane, a good but incomplete assortment. It is, I think, better to sample the better offerings than get bogged down in those that might not be worth the time. Yes, I have to ration my reading time. So, Portable it will be!

  2. Good choice. I see that Portable has "An Ominous Baby," too. And that sad dog story.