Wednesday, March 30, 2016

I only hoped that he would be hit just a little - Crane goes into battle

“War Memories” is the most unusual part of Wounds in the Rain.  The rest of the pieces are easier to identify as short stories, single episodes in the Cuban war experienced by a single character, sometimes but not always a journalist.  More good Stephen Crane short stories.

The opener, “The Price in the Harness,” seems designed to showcase Crane’s updated approach to war fiction.  He takes a simple, small action – a supply train runs into some trouble – and describes it with some thickness.

The brown leggings of the men, stained with the mud of other days, took on a deeper colour.  Perspiration broke gently out on the reddish faces.  With his heavy roll of blanket and the half of a shelter-tent crossing his right shoulder and under his left arm, each man presented the appearance of being clasped from behind, wrestler fashion, by a pair of thick white arms.  (7)

Just a touch of weirdness.  Here the strangeness comes from a relatively new technology, a military balloon,

a fat, wavering, yellow thing, [that] was leading the advance like some new conception of war-god.  (12)

Personified, the balloon is the battle’s first casualty:

The balloon was dying, dying a gigantic and public death before the eyes of two armies.  It quivered, sank, faded into the trees amid the flurry of a battle that was suddenly and tremendously like a storm.  (13)

Crane works hard, in this story, on the sounds of battle:

The noise of the rifle bullets broke in their faces like the noise of so many lamp-chimneys… (13)

It reminds one always of a loom, a great grand steel loom, clinking, clanking, plunking, plinking, to weave a woof of thin red threads, the cloth of death.  (25)

Maybe a little overdone there at the end.  The story ends with more sounds, the sound of voices.  The characters in these stories are often interchangeable, made generic by their uniforms or roles.  The most curious title is “Marines Signalling under Fire at Guantanamo,” which sounds like it ought to be reportage, and likely almost is.  It could be an episode in “War Memories.”  Who knows why it is not.  A journalist watches marines signal a ship, asking it to redirect its artillery fire.  To signal, a marine has to carry his signal flags to the top of a ridge, where he will be exposed to enemy fire.

It seemed absurd to hope that he would not be hit; I only hoped that he would be hit just a little, little, in the arm, the shoulder, or the leg.  (188)

It’s the kind of casual courage that Crane has always found so fascinating.

One irony of the book is that almost none of the action Crane witnesses has much to do with the outcome of the war, which was largely decided at sea.  One story, “The Revenge of the Adolphus,” is about a naval action, again as witnessed by war correspondents, and the irony here is that the participants have difficulty seeing the significance of what they did.

A couple of stories are trivial.  Otherwise, Christopher Benfey is right, it’s a shame that Wounds in the Rain has been squeezed off to the side of Crane’s works.


  1. i explored a bit on google: it was richard harding davis i was thinking about. if you're interested at all(i know you're busy) you can find his account of the battle of san juan hill on the site. it's a lot more journalistic than crane's; not to say it's better, though...

  2. Crane tones this stuff down in his actual journalism!

    He has a strong sense of the difference between his fiction and his journalism.