Although Crane never served in the United States military, as a journalist he covered a number of conflicts for various newspapers and news services during the mid-to-late 1890s, including the Greco- Turkish War and the Spanish-American War. On page 91 of his study of Crane’s life and work, Stephen Cady discusses Crane’s compassion and empathy for the everyday suffering of war victims and quotes from an article Crane wrote about refugees: “There is more of this sort of thing in war than glory and heroic death, flags, banners, shouting, and victory.” Crane’s compassion transcended national identity, as he saw suffering resulting from war as a universal human problem rather than a primarily political one. Thus the flag in “War is Kind,” though associated with a particular country, actually stands for all countries.
The Spanish-American War, which Crane covered for the New York World, lasted less than a year from declaration to treaty. However, the conflict between Cuba and Spain, which precipitated the war, was simmering when Crane was sent as a reporter to Cuba in 1896. In 1898 President McKinley ordered the battleship Maine to Havana harbor in Cuba as a show of American might and as tacit support of the insurgents’ position. Shortly after its arrival the ship was destroyed by a mysterious bomb blast and 250 men were lost. Although questions remain as to the source of the blast, it was enough of a reason for the United States to declare war on Spain, which the American public supported wholeheartedly. Spain capitulated within three months, and as a condition of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1898 gave up control of Cuba and ceded the...
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“War is Kind” is Crane’s free verse meditation on war and loss. The poet utilizes concrete imagery and irony to compose a portrait of the cosmic futility of war. Concrete imagery describes the world in terms of the senses, what we experience with our sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing. By appealing to our senses, Crane can more effectively show the horrors of war directly. Tactile imagery is especially prevalent in the poem and highlights the horrific effects of battle on the human body. The tone of his descriptions is ironic, that is, he does not mean that war is kind, but that it is cruel and unjust. Another example of irony occurs in the second stanza when the speaker says “Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom … ” It is also ironic that war’s “kindness” means that the soldiers’ deaths bring them release from their suffering.
The poem employs two levels of diction, or word choice. The language of the first, third, and fifths stanzas is plain and closer to everyday speech, while the language of the indented second and fourth stanzas is embellished and inflated, and uses more formal verse conventions such as end rhyme. The contrast between these two styles adds to the poem’s complexity, and furthers the author’s intention to deflate the idea of romantic heroism in all of its guises.
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Compare and Contrast
1895: Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez lead Cuban revolution against Spanish colonialists.
1896: Filipino nationalists revolt against the Spanish rule that has controlled the Philippines since the sixteenth century.
1898: Months of tension between the United States and Spain climax in war.
1899: The Treaty of Paris is ratified by the Senate in a 57-27 vote. Under the terms of the treaty, the U.S. gains possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and for $20 million, the Philippines.
Today: Although Guam and Puerto Rico remain U.S. territories, the Philippines and Cuba are independent countries.
1890s: Just as newspaper stories promoted the conflict, popular songs celebrate the Spanish- American War by honoring its heroes and victories. Songs like “Brave Dewey and His Men” and “The Charge of the Roosevelt Riders” laud war heroes Commodore Dewey and Theodore Roosevelt. Other songs, like ‘Ma Filipino Babe” and “The Belle of Manila,” sentimentalized the struggles abroad and romanticized the idea of intervention.
Today: Films such as Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket are explicitly critical of America’s military interventions abroad, while other films such as Rambo and Missing In Action romanticize such interventions.
1892: The People’s Party, sometimes known as the Populists, pushes...
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Topics for Further Study
Find women who have lost a husband, lover, father, brother, or son in a military conflict and interview them. Write a description of the ways in which they have or have not accommodated their loss.
After viewing a few popular war movies, for example, The Thin Red Line, Forest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, etc., compose an essay comparing and contrasting the ways in which Crane’s description of battlefield suffering and death match up with late twentieth-century visual depictions of the same.
Choose a military conflict or war from the nineteenth century and research the material ways in which families who lost someone in the war suffered as a result. For example, what happened to the economic lives of women who lost husbands in war?
Rewrite Crane’s poem, but without the irony. Also, update the imagery to represent a twentieth- century military conflict. Discuss the changes you made and why you made them.
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Project Gutenberg contains the entire texts for Maggie, Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage: http://promo.net/pg/_authors/i-_ crane_stephen_.html
The University of Texas at Austin maintains a website dedicated to Stephen Crane, his critics, and his admirers: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/ ~mmaynard/Crane/crane.html
In 1951 John Huston directed the film version of Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Narrated by James Whitmore, and starring Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin, the film went through heavy editing after negative previews.
Alan Oskvarek’s search engine (www.goodnet. com/thewall/) lets you search the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by name, hometown and branch of service. When a name is returned, it tells you at which panel and line the person’s name can be found, along with the birthdate, length of service and how they died.
The following site, sponsored by the Public Broadcasting System, allows you to view sheet music covers, listen to popular songs from the Spanish-American War era, and read 1890s sheet music: http://www.pbs.org/crucible/music. html
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Beer, Thomas, Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters, Knopf, 1923.
Berryman, John, Stephen Crane, William Sloane Associates, 1950.
Cady, Edwin H., Stephen Crane, G. K. Hall & Co., 1980.
Crane, Stephen, The Red Badge of Courage, Buccaneer Books, 1990.
Davis, Linda H., Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Follet, Wilson, ed., The Collected Poems of Stephen Crane, Knopf, 1930.
Gilkes, Lillian, Cora Crane: A Biography of Mrs. Stephen Crane, Indiana University Press, 1960.
Hoffman, Daniel, “The Many Red Devils upon the Page: The Poetry of Stephen...
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