Stephen Crane

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Christopher Metress (essay date winter 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2626

SOURCE: Metress, Christopher. “From Indifference to Anxiety: Knowledge and the Reader in ‘The Open Boat.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 1 (winter 1991): 47-53.

[In the following essay, Metress examines how the structure of “The Open Boat” creates an epistemological dilemma that directs the reader from indifference to anxiety.]

In recent years, critical response to Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” has shifted dramatically, focusing less on the tale's philosophical agendas than on its epistemological implications. The story no longer stands as merely a naturalistic depiction of nature's monumental indifference or as simply an existential affirmation of life's absurdity. Instead, we have slowly come to realize a new level of the text, one that, according to Donna Gerstenberger, explores “man's limited capacities for knowing reality” (557). Gerstenberger's conclusion that the tale “may be best viewed as a story with an epistemological emphasis, one which constantly reminds its reader of the impossibility of man's knowing anything, even that which he experiences” (560), is further developed by Thomas L. Kent:

If we insist that the text be interpreted naturalistically, if we insist that the text must have some sort of overarching meaning—even a meaning that shows the universe to be existentially absurd—we place ourselves in the same boat as the deluded castaways [who “felt that they could then be interpreters”]. On both the narrative and extra-textual levels, the subject of “The Open Boat” is epistemology, and the text suggests that meaning in the universe is secondary to man's ability to perceive [sic] it.


Building upon the insights of Gerstenberger, Kent and others, I hope to show how the structure of “The Open Boat” creates an epistemological dilemma, moving the reader from a position of epistemological indifference to a state of epistemological anxiety. Four key moments in the story create this shift from indifference to anxiety: first, in Section I, the opening sentence and its emphasis on what is not known; second, in Section IV, the narrator's revelation that the crew is miles from a life-saving station; third, also in Section IV, the impenetrable meaning of the man on the beach waving his coat and the unattributed dialogue surrounding this uncertainty; and, finally, in Section VII, the concluding sentence and the revelation that the survivors “could then be interpreters.”

Much has been made of the story's opening sentence “None of them knew the color of the sky” (68). For our purposes, what is important is that the story begins by focusing on the crew's lack of knowledge. Certainly the crew “knows” other things: the color, the size, and the frequency of the waves for instance. Yet with this famous first sentence the narrator chooses to foreground the absence of knowledge, thus establishing an epistemological void, a looming unknown. Though the crew's remaining struggle at sea is as much a struggle for knowledge as it is for survival, the members of the crew do not here desire to fill the void created by the opening sentence: not only do they not know the color of the sky, they do not care. In fact, it does not matter whether they know the color of the sky, for “they knew it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald-green streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow” (70).

We should note as well that nowhere in Section I of “The Open Boat” does the reader discover the color of the sky. In this sense, the reader is like the crew—neither of them knows about the sky. And, in another sense, neither of them cares, for there is ample knowledge of other things so that they might know their surroundings. Certainly, the epistemological void of the first sentence calls our attention to a lack of knowledge, and yet this lack of knowledge is ultimately without consequence for either the reader or the characters. Thus, to be without knowledge in Section I poses no threat to either the reader or to the characters, nor does it stir within either a desire to seek that knowledge. At that moment, both the reader and the crew assume the same epistemological posture: both are, as it were, indifferent to their lack of knowledge.

As the tale continues, however, this indifference becomes too difficult to maintain. Recall that at the end of Section I the cook and the correspondent argue as to the life-saving capabilities of a house of refuge near Mosquito Inlet. This unknown remains unresolved (in fact, the cook admits that “perhaps it's a life-station” that he is thinking of), and the section concludes with the oiler's observation that their argument does not matter because “We're not there yet” (70). By Section IV, however, the crew arrives there (or at least believes it has) and this problem of knowledge can no longer be so easily dismissed: what the house on the shore represents (either a house of refuge or a life-saving station) and what it is capable of doing for them must be known. The unknown on the horizon is intimately connected to their survival.

Section IV, the structural center of the tale, begins with the crew's frustration over this unknown, which they believe to be, in the cook's words, “the house of refuge, sure” (75).

“Cook,” remarked the captain, “there don't seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge.”

“No,” replied the cook. “Funny they don't see us!”

A broad stretch of lowly coast lay before the eyes of the men. It was of low dunes topped with dark vegetation. The roar of the surf was plain, and sometimes they could see the white lip of a wave as it spun up the beach. A tiny house was blocked out black upon the sky. Southward, the slim lighthouse lifted its little gray length.

Tide, wind, and waves were swinging the dinghy northward. “Funny they don't see us,” said the men.


At that moment the “tiny house … blocked out black upon the sky” could be or could not be a house of refuge. Neither the crew nor the reader knows what this house represents, and both are, I would suggest, anxious to know the answer. The unknown that confronts the crew and the reader in the beginning of Section IV is markedly different from the unknown represented in “None of them knew the color of the sky.” The crew, concerned for its survival, need not know the color of the sky, but it must know what the tiny house represents. The reader, concerned with narrative conflict and resolution, need not know the color of the sky either, but the reader must know if the crew is any closer to resolving its dilemma.

A curious thing then happens. Almost immediately following the above passage, the narrator tells the reader that:

It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction; but the men did not know this fact, and in consequence they made dark and opprobrious remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation's life-savers. Four scowling men sat in the dinghy and surpassed records in the invention of epithets.


This statement severs the epistemological equality of the reader and the crew: the two no longer share the same anxieties over the problems of knowledge raised by the crew's struggle. We could say that the reader now assumes a privileged epistemological stance, possessing knowledge that the crew sorely lacks. Whereas the crew remains frustrated (“There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter and bitter to them that from it came no sign” (76), the reader's anxieties are quelled. In this story, where not knowing reigns supreme from the opening sentence, the reader is finally in a position to know something that had previously been unknown. But the security and privilege brought about by this knowledge are ephemeral.

Soon, the man on the shore appears. The crew is once again faced with the epistemological problem of interpretation: who is this man and what is he doing? The reader, encouraged by the narrator's benevolence only a few moments before, expects soon to discover some answers. Instead of answers, however, only more epistemological problems arise. As another figure on the shore begins to wave his jacket, the crew seeks to interpret his actions.

“That ain't a flag, is it? That's his coat. Why certainly, that's his coat.”

“So it is; it's his coat. He's taken it off and is waving it around his head. But would you look at him swing it.”

“Oh, say, there isn't any life-saving station there. That's just a winter-resort hotel omnibus that has brought over some of the boarders to see us drown.”

“What's that idiot with the coat mean? What's he signaling, anyhow?”

“It looks as if he were trying to tell us to go north. There must be a life-saving station up there.”

“No; he thinks we're fishing. Just giving us a merry hand. See? Ah, there, Willie.”

“Well, I wish I could make something out of those signals. What do you suppose he means?”


The crew's wish to make something out of these signals reflects the reader's desires as well. But the reader never does discover the meaning of this man's frantic waving. The narrator does not choose to intervene as before and supply the missing information. This withholding effectively negates the reader's momentarily privileged position, returning the reader to the same epistemological posture as the crew. As if to highlight further the loss of the reader's privileged position, the dialogue remains unattributed throughout this segment. Thus, not only does the reader not know what the waving of the coat means, but there is also no way to know which member of the crew is uttering which reflection. Any attempt by the reader to assign lines of dialogue to specific characters is mere speculation. Seeking anticipated knowledge from the narrator, and never receiving it, the reader remains frustrated, and is thus once again realigned with the crew and its posture of epistemological uncertainty.

The story's final sentence, which has caused so many critics so much frustration, creates a resonant twist in this whole movement of epistemological positionings and repositionings. In this concluding line readers learn that “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters” (92). What happens here is a complete reversal of the moment when the narrator reveals information about the life-saving station. Instead of the readers' knowing something which the crew does not know, the crew now knows something that the readers do not know. The survivors are now able to be interpreters, to have access to knowledge. The readers, however, do not know what the survivors are now interpreters of. The best that readers can do is speculate (as have generations of critics), but they can never know for sure what special knowledge is held in the “great sea's voice.” Thus they are now effectively “below” the characters on the epistemological scale. Since this moment occurs at the end of the story, the readers' desire for resolution is challenged, and, since no more information is made available (the story is over), readers cannot remain indifferent to their lack of knowledge, as they could be when confronted with the epistemological challenge of the first sentence.

Stripped of anticipated knowledge and anxious about their own epistemological inequalities, readers must now ask why it is that the characters (and not they) have achieved interpretation. The solution posed by the tale creates even more anxiety in readers, for Crane seems to suggest that experience itself, and not the mitigated experience achieved by reading, is our true source of knowledge. Readers have only the words on the page before them out of which to create meaning. The characters have only their experience in the open boat. In having his characters reach interpretation and not his readers, Crane here empowers direct experience of life over the act of reading.

An example from the story manifests this privileging of experience over reading as the true generator of meaning. In the midst of his evening watch in Section VI, the correspondent reflects on his position in the universe. At first angered that “nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him,” the correspondent moves beyond his “wishes to throw bricks at the temple” and accepts that “a cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that [nature] says to him” (85). With this acceptance of nature's indifference, the correspondent “knows the pathos of his situation” (85, emphasis added). Following this knowledge gained by experience, the correspondent “mysteriously” (85) recalls a poem from his childhood. Though he “had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow” (85), the correspondent now perceives the poem as “a human, living thing” (85). At one time “perfectly indifferent” to the soldier's plight, the correspondent, “plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers” (86, emphasis added).

At that moment, because of his direct experience in the open boat, the correspondent moves from indifference to comprehension. He becomes, as it were, a better interpreter because of his experience. The correspondent's movement from indifference to perfect comprehension mocks the movement we have traced in the reader—from indifference to anxious incomprehension. Note also the paradox of the correspondent's new-found empathy with the soldier in Algiers. The correspondent, with experience as his guide, becomes a better reader of texts, but the reader, with the text as guide, does not become a better interpreter of experience (the reader has no such moments of empathy with the characters of Crane's story). This failure of reading alone, without the aid of experience, to open up and create a more profound and perfect understanding engenders further anxiety in the reader, for while the characters can listen to the “great sea's voice” and achieve interpretation, the reader can listen only to the text—not experience—and thus now feels necessarily limited in the quest for meaning.

In “The Open Boat,” Crane has been able to move his reader from indifference over his epistemological frustrations to a point of unresolvable anxiety over them. For Crane, the problem of knowledge is perhaps the most important dilemma (if not the most important then certainly the most frustrating), and in this story, by both bestowing and denying knowledge at key moments (and also by suggesting the limitations of reading as a tool for meaning), Crane has driven the reader to experience this dilemma. In suggesting that the survivors have become interpreters, and not in any hard and fast way allowing us to know what it is they are now interpreters of, Crane highlights more than our own inability to achieve interpretation, to gain access to knowledge. Rather, he has placed us in such a position that we must shed our casual indifference to our epistemological failures and embrace, unwillingly perhaps, the anxiety that will attend all of our efforts to “read” life's impenetrable meanings.

Works Cited

Crane, Stephen. “The Open Boat.” The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane: Volume V, Tales of Adventure. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1970.

Gerstenberger, Donna. “‘The Open Boat’: An Additional Perspective.” Modern Fiction Studies 17 (1971-72): 557-561.

Kent, Thomas L. “The Problem of Knowledge in ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘The Blue Hotel.’” American Literary Realism 14 (1981): 262-268.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1368

Stephen Crane 1871–-1900

(Full name Stephen Townley Crane; also wrote under the pseudonym Johnston Smith) American short story writer, novelist, poet, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism of Crane's short fiction works from 1991 to 2001. See also, "The Open Boat" Criticism.

Crane was one of America's foremost writers of realism, and his works have been credited with marking the beginning of modern American naturalism. His Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a classic of American literature that realistically depicts the psychological complexities of fear and courage on the battlefield. Influenced by William Dean Howells's theory of realism, Crane utilized keen observations, as well as personal experience, to achieve a narrative vividness and sense of immediacy realized by few American writers before him. Although The Red Badge of Courage is acknowledged as his masterpiece, the often-anthologized short stories “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” and “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” are considered among the most skillfully crafted stories in American literature.

Biographical Information

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Crane was the youngest in a family of fourteen children. His desire to write was inspired by his family: his father, a Methodist minister, and his mother, a devout woman dedicated to social concerns, were writers of religious articles, and two of his brothers were journalists. Crane began his higher education in 1888 at the Hudson River Institute and later enrolled at Claverack College, a military school that nurtured his interest in Civil War studies and military training—knowledge he later used in The Red Badge of Courage. During two subsequent and respective semesters at Lafayette College and Syracuse University, Crane was distinguished more for his prowess on the baseball diamond and football field than for his ability in the classroom. During his college years, however, Crane also began his writing career. He worked as a “stringer” for his brother's news service. In 1891, deciding that “humanity was a more interesting study” than the college curriculum, Crane quit school to work full time as a reporter with his brother and part time for the New York Tribune. In 1893, after several publishers had rejected his manuscript of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) on the grounds that his grim descriptions of slum realities would shock readers, Crane privately published this first novel under a pseudonym. His second novel, The Red Badge of Courage, won him international fame following its publication in 1895. During the mid-1890s Crane continued to work as a journalist, traveling throughout the American West and Mexico for a news syndicate. He later used his experiences as the basis for fictional works, including the stories in his early short fiction collections The Little Regiment, and other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896) and The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure (1898). In 1897, Crane met Cora Taylor, proprietor of the dubiously named Hotel de Dream, a combination hotel, night-club, and brothel. Together as common-law husband and wife they moved to England, where Crane formed literary friendships with Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Henry James. By 1900 Crane's health had rapidly deteriorated due to his own general disregard for his physical well-being. After several respiratory attacks, Crane died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight in 1900.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Although Crane achieved the pinnacle of his success with the novel The Red Badge of Courage, many critics believe that he demonstrated his greatest literary strength as a short story writer. Such stories as “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and “The Monster” are widely anthologized and are considered among his major achievements in the genre. “The Open Boat” is based on Crane's experience as a correspondent shipwrecked while on a filibustering expedition to supply Cuban revolutionaries in 1897. This naturalistic story pits a handful of men stranded for days in a lifeboat against the destructive power of an indifferent, though violent, sea. Characteristically, Crane uses vivid imagery throughout this story to underscore both the beauty and terror of natural forces and to convey the antagonism between the survivors and the sea, which Crane viewed as indicative of the struggle of all humanity against nature.

Crane's facility with the short story form is again displayed in the tragicomic story “The Blue Hotel.” In this deceptively simple Western tale, an outsider, “the Swede,” becomes an inevitable victim of his own preconceptions about the “Wild West”—expecting a lawless, uncivilized Western world, he creates in a quiet Nebraska town the unrest he is seeking and is killed in a brawl. Using a mixture of fantasy, realism, and parody in this work, Crane treats such themes as the nature of fear and courage and the role fear plays in acts of violence. In another Western story, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” Crane parodies the “shoot 'em-up” Western myth. In this comic story Yellow Sky marshal Jack Potter arrives in town with his new bride and is confronted in the street by his old nemesis Scratchy Wilson, an aging cowboy who reverts to the role of tough gunfighter when drunk. Unarmed and with his wife beside him, Potter convinces Scratchy that he can no longer act out their ritual mock gunfight. Reluctantly, Scratchy lowers his gun and walks away disheartened.

Like a number of Crane's short stories, “The Monster” is set in the fictitious town of Whilomville, New York, a site loosely based on Crane's childhood hometown of Port Jervis, New Jersey. In this tale Crane relates the story of Henry Johnson, a black coachman whose face is brutally and permanently misshapen by fire when he rescues his employer's son from a burning house. Henry's employer, Dr. Trescott, not only preserves Henry's life after the accident, but gratefully vows to take care of him as long as he lives. However, the people of Whilomville are terrified of Henry, whom they have transformed through gossip and half-truths into a horrific monster. Dr. Trescott's son, whom Henry rescued, and his companions play games at Henry's expense, and even Dr. Trescott's friends demand that he keep Henry elsewhere and then abuse the doctor when he refuses to comply. Several critics have assigned deep symbolic meanings to the characters in the story—Henry as Jesus Christ and Dr. Trescott as God, for example—though interpretations vary. However, most critics agree that although Henry is the ostensible monster in this tale because of his physical deformity, Crane's depiction of small-town hypocrisy and cruelty reveals society as the true monster.

Critical Reception

Critics have long debated whether Crane's fiction should be considered a product of any specific literary movement or method. His work has been claimed by several schools and referred to as realistic, naturalistic, symbolistic, and impressionistic. Proponents of realism view works like Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, The Red Badge of Courage, and “The Open Boat” as unromanticized accounts of urban slum life, the Civil War, and survival at sea in a lifeboat, respectively. Defenders of a naturalistic reading contend that the actions and experiences of many of Crane's protagonists are shaped by social, biological, and psychological forces and that their “development” as characters is incidental to Crane's expert depiction of how these forces determine human existence. Stylistically, Crane's writings contain elements of both impressionism and symbolism. For example, some critics note that such works as The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” and “The Monster” are laden with symbols and images, while others explain that Crane's episodic narrative structures and consistent use of color imagery are indicative of an impressionistic method. While commentators generally agree that for the most part Crane disregarded plot and character delineation in his work and was unable to sustain longer works of fiction, many contend that Crane's artistry lies in his ability to convey a personal vision based on what he termed his own “quality of personal honesty.” In his short stories and in most of his work, Crane utilized an incisive irony that suggests the disparity between an individual's perception of reality and reality as it actually exists. In doing so, according to most critics, Crane pioneered the development of literary naturalism and other forms of fiction that subsequently supplanted the genteel realism characteristic of late nineteenth-century American literature.

Sura P. Rath and Mary Neff Shaw (essay date June 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6044

SOURCE: Rath, Sura P., and Mary Neff Shaw. “The Dialogic Narrative of ‘The Open Boat.’” College Literature 18, no. 2 (June 1991): 94-106.

[In the following essay, Rath and Shaw use Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the dialogic to analyze “The Open Boat.”]

In 1884, commenting in Longman's magazine on the “organic wholeness” of fiction, Henry James wrote that “a novel is a living thing, all one and continuous, like any other organism, and in proportion as it lives will it be found, I think, that in each of the parts there is something of each of the other parts” (“Fiction” 15). To achieve this narrative cohesion, he later prescribed the use of a “central intelligence” that would open one privileged window to the “house of fiction” and illuminate the characters and incidents for the readers (“Preface” 46). But if in his zeal to focus the meaning(s) of a work and thus justify the ways of authors to their fictional offspring, James favored empowering one narrative voice to swallow all characters' voices, some 20 years later Mikhail Bakhtin claimed that fiction's richness depends on the very multiplicity of its silenced voices.

For Bakhtin the “independent and unmerged voices” that reach us in spite of the narrator's mediation are an integral part of the “dialogic” narrative; they remind us that the characters exist not in one objective world “illuminated by a single authorial consciousness,” but in a world not unlike our own, where a number of consciousnesses, “each with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event” (Problems 67). In order to understand the narrative text in its proper social context, Bakhtin says in the true Jamesian spirit, readers must listen to each of these voices rather than to the single domineering voice of the author; they must distinguish between the “drily informative, documentary discourse” of the narrator and the live discourse of the individual characters (Problems 250). Such critical distinction between the actual speech of characters and its representation by a mediating consciousness offers important insights into the living world of the fiction, especially in works where narrative summary and characters' dialogues are juxtaposed, or where the author and the narrator are ethically distanced from the plot and its action.

Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat,” with its four characters in the dinghy and its narrator functioning as a fifth overarching character, offers an interesting example of what Bakhtin is describing. Insofar as the four sailors, bound together by misfortune and camaraderie, form a community, and insofar as each of them is defined and limited by our understanding of their joint predicament, Bakhtin's dialogic perspective helps us explain the plot beyond the story's irony, the focal point of most traditional interpretations. It throws light on the curious triangular relationship among the three Cranes in the story: Crane the “correspondent”/character, who experiences the Commodore accident as a passenger on the wrecked ship; Crane the sailor/author, who relives the trauma by telling the story and who agonizes over the irony of his mate's death; and Crane the author/narrator, who rewitnesses the accident for us as a fifth character observing himself and his companions. The correspondent Crane, who suffers and survives the capricious fury of nature, has no foreknowledge of how it will end. Like his comrades, he is privy only to the present moment. The author Crane, privileged by his distance from the accident, can look upon the experience retrospectively and see the irony of its outcome. He carries the burden of his omniscience. Finally, the narrator Crane, who forges the correspondent and the author into one, must reconcile the dramatic unfolding of the events in time and his own foreknowledge of the narrative irony of the oiler's death at the story's ending. As a third-person witness to the first-person experiences of the correspondent and the author, he is both an actor and a spectator. The four characters in the story, passing through these three consciousnesses, give a complex dimension to the plot unexplained by the traditional analysis of irony.1

Bakhtin's dialogical approach addresses this complexity because it engages us in an epistemological inquiry into the communal life central to the story. The key to reconstructing a real image of this marine life lies in the recorded dialogues, the dramatized events, and the witness accounts. Bakhtin cautions us, however, that ultimately such an image cannot be restored, because every utterance is unique, its original context forever unrecoverable and its original meaning forever lost:

At any given time, in any given place, there will be a set of conditions—social, historical, meteorological, physiological—that will insure that a word uttered in that place and at that time will have a meaning different than it would have under any other conditions; all utterances are heteroglot in that they are functions of a matrix of forces practically impossible to recoup, and therefore impossible to resolve.

(Imagination 428)

Thus the reader's reconstruction of the experiences of the four men of the “Sunk Steamer Commodore” in this tale “Intended to Be after the Fact” must account for the difference between two disparate elements embedded in the story's discourse: the characters' recollection(s) of the events and the narrator's representation of these events through selective memory and reflection. According to Bakhtin, such discourse—serving two speakers—expresses two intentions: the “direct intention of the character who is speaking, and the refracted intention of the author” (Imagination 324). This double-forked intention, which Bakhtin terms “heteroglossia,” often renders the interpretation of characters and texts difficult, because one must pierce through the seeming wholeness of a voice to the underlying plurality of the embedded voices.

However, by distinguishing among the levels and degrees of representation in the available discourse, the dialogical reader seeks to account for the suppressed voices and consciousnesses. Bakhtin identifies five basic types of discourses into which the novelistic whole usually breaks down:

  • (1) Direct authorial literary-artistic narration;
  • (2) Stylization of the various forms of oral everyday narration;
  • (3) Stylization of the various forms of semiliterary (written) everyday narration;
  • (4) Various forms of literary but extra-artistic authorial speech;
  • (5) The stylistically individualized speech of characters.
  • (Imagination 262)

Following this pattern of discourse analysis but using Ann Banfield's terms “Represented Speech and Thought” for the device of free indirect discourse, Christine Brooke-Rose has recently examined the unstable nature of irony in The Red Badge of Courage, and we will use her abbreviations in this analysis as follows: RT (Represented Thought), NS (Narrative Sentence—that is, direct from the author), and DD (Direct Discourse, or dialogue between characters). She uses NS/RT for an unclear case and NS > RT for a Narrative Sentence that turns into Represented Thought (130).2

A commonplace of Crane criticism is to read “The Open Boat” as a classic story of man's battle against the malevolent, indifferent, and unpredictable forces of nature (see Conder 32; Gerstenberger 560-61; Bergon 36ff, 148ff; Holton 167, 284). This reading is confirmed by the final irony of the death of the oiler, physically the strongest man on the scene and the one most favored to withstand the ordeal. To some critics such a battle offers a growth experience: it either allows us existentially to know our place in the universe as we realize “the absurdity of [our] experience” and of “the human condition,”3 or it forces us to acknowledge the “impossibility of man's knowing anything, even that which he experiences” (Gerstenberger 560; Kent 262). However, the meaning of this experience has remained the crux of critical disagreement over interpreting the final meaning of the work, a problem compounded by Crane's multiple role in the story and by the sailors' consciousnesses and voices, especially those that the narrator seems to gloss over in the interest of his own perspective. Thomas Kent, who claims that this epistemological uncertainty passes from the characters even to the audience, pointed out in 1981 that “for the reader the difficulty is knowing how to comprehend the meaning of the text” (263-64). More recently David Halliburton has noted that the hermeneutic question of the text inheres in “the uncertainty of the role of the men as interpreters: uncertainty as to their competence if they should eventually interpret, and uncertainty as to just what it is, after all, that is supposed to be interpreted” (254). The uncertainty is deeply rooted in the narrator's juggling of two polarized forces, one being Crane's omniscience and the other the dramatic structure of the plot.

Crane's narrative strategy of turning the first-person actor-character into a third-person spectator-narrator provides an ambiguous relief from this burden. As Roland Barthes points out, the “he” (or “they” in “The Open Boat”) is a “typical novelistic convention” that signifies and carries through the action of the story while all the time hiding under the “I” of the author: “If the third person is absent, the novel is powerless to come into being, and even wills its own destruction” (35). Crane's narrator constantly points to his own mask, yet seeks to cover the very tracks to the author whom he relies on to carry out his function. Practically a reflection of Crane's “I” correspondent, he carries out the paradoxical task of providing us simultaneously with the uncertainty of the realistic firsthand experience of the scene and with the certainty of his own security and survival. He both destroys and resurrects the first-person author-character, Crane and the correspondent, art and history.

The problem of the meaning of “The Open Boat” lies somewhere between the story's two poles: the narrator's journalistic duty to maintain strict fidelity to the events of the marine accident that inspired the tale, and the author's artistic desire to dramatize the ethical conflict underlying an intensely human situation.4 In the sequence of the actual events of the accident, the oiler's death, which is presented as a chance incident, vindicates Crane's helplessness in the face of his mate's unexpected death and perpetuates the naturalistic doctrine of nature's capricious ferocity toward humankind. In the formal structure of the plot, however, the death presents an incongruous conclusion to the dramatic developments in the story. It suddenly silences several voices audible throughout the story, voices that appear independent of the narrator's telling. Consequently, caught between two contrasting demands—the correspondent's for historical accuracy and the author's for a formal retrospective logic to the plot—Crane's narrator betrays an internal conflict between his conscious, objective self, which confirms the chronology of the facts, and his subconscious, subjective self, which questions the poetic justice of the oiler's destiny.

The conflict is embodied in the shifting styles of discourse. The narrator's NS and RT reflect Crane's own oscillation between accepting and questioning the reality of Billy's death, an equivocation that generates a rhetorical distance between the degrees of knowledge Crane allows the characters and the narrator. As a result, at some points the characters develop momentums of their own and break away from the control of the narrator, threatening—indeed, compromising—Crane's foreknowledge of the ending; at others, they appear as ludicrous or pathetic victims of Crane's dramatic irony.

In the opening section, a tonal shift between the narrator's description of the sea and the natural setting (NS) and his report of the characters' thoughts and dialogue (RT and DD) reveals Crane's manipulation of the narrator's internal division. The NS begins to vacillate between omniscience and limitation as it becomes generally more narrow amid the characters' RT and DD. The descriptions of the sea are poetic, laced with figures of speech (personification, animal imagery, and similes) and a lyricism conspicuously absent from the prosaic, halting presentation of characters. In the following description of the waves, the point of view is that of someone in the dinghy, yet it is not Reported Speech or Thought (DD or RT):

A seat in this boat was not unlike a seat upon a bucking broncho, and, by the same token, a broncho is not much smaller. The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an animal. As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse making at a fence outrageously high. The manner of her scramble over these walls of water is a mystic thing, and, moreover, at the top of them were ordinarily these problems in white water, the foam racing down from the summit of each wave, requiring a new leap, and a leap from the air. Then, after scornfully bumping a crest, she would slide, and race, and splash down a long incline and arrive bobbing and nodding in front of the next menace.

(69; emphasis added)

This is clearly NS masquerading as RT. In the midst of this description of the castaways' life-threatening situation, the reader notices a romantic nostalgia, a longing to return, a recollection in tranquillity at a safe distance. Yet the NS is zoomed to the preterit, allowing us a proximity to the scene that only the sailors can rightfully claim.

In contrast to the unwavering tone of these observations of nature, the narrator's report on the sailors' thoughts and perceptions is marked by ambivalence and doubt. The shift to RT, noticeable especially in the narrator's informal second-person apostrophizing of the reader, is illustrated in the following lines:

A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats. In a ten-foot dingey one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves that is not probable to the average experience, which is never at sea in a dingey. As each slaty wall of water approached, it shut all else from the view of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean, the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible grace in the move of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.

(69; emphasis added)

Who speaks here? Whose voice echoes? Why does the narrator move from the confiding “I-speaking-to-you” rhetoric pattern to the impersonal “one can get an idea”? What is the purpose behind the shift in the verb tenses from past to present and again to past? Is this ambivalence a symptom of the narrator's growing discomfort with reconciling the events' temporality with their causality, and the return to the preterit in the final sentence an authorial decision to reestablish the narrator's control?

Even in the paragraph following the one quoted above, the supposedly omniscient narrator betrays his limitations, confirming the onset of doubts plaguing his confidence. The most visible indicator of his loss of control is Crane's suspension of the simple past tense: “In the wan light the faces of the men must have been grey”; “Their eyes must have glinted in strange ways as they gazed steadily astern”; “The whole thing would doubtlessly have been weirdly picturesque” (69 NS/RT; emphasis added). In spite of the narrator's avowed role as a witness to the accident, the RT lacks the conviction that characterizes the NS. The preterit, which Barthes calls the “cornerstone of Narration,” signifies the presence of art and the author; its function is

to reduce reality to a point of time, and to abstract, from the depth of a multiplicity of experiences, a pure verbal act, freed from the existential roots of knowledge, and directed towards a logical link with other acts, other processes, a general movement of the world: it aims at maintaining a hierarchy in the realm of facts.

(Barthes 30)

The sailors' experiences in “The Open Boat” resist any one hierarchical order, because Crane's ethical system conflicts with the outcome of the accident. A single authoritative narrator, in Crane's design, would stifle the characters and fail the author's purpose.

Therefore, the narrator, unwilling or unable to effect a complete merging of the witnessing “I” in the acting “he,” negotiates alternate foregrounding for the sailor and the author, and Crane appears to manipulate this pattern of narrative engagement and withdrawal. The pendulum swings again as the narrator regains control. For instance, contrast the speculative tone above with the assertiveness about halfway through that same paragraph:

But the men in the boat had no time to see it, and if they had had leisure, there were other things to occupy their minds. The sun swung steadily up the sky, and they knew it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald-green, streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow. The process of the breaking day was unknown to them. They were aware only of this effect upon the color of the waves that rolled toward them.

(69-70 NS/RT; emphasis added)

The narrator's almost playful forays into and out of the psyches of the characters begin to cast shadows on the authenticity of his presence at or absence from the scene, his observations, his total reliability.

The equivocation continues through the next section of the story. Contrast, for instance, the reckless vividness of the details in the following sentence—“The crest of each of these waves was a hill, from the top of which the men surveyed, for a moment, a broad tumultuous expanse, shining and wind-riven” (NS)—with the tame surrender in the very next line: “It was probably splendid, it was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber” (70 RT; emphasis added). A few lines later, the assertive voice returns:

To express any particular optimism at this time they felt to be childish and stupid, but they all doubtless possessed this sense of the situation in their mind. A young man thinks doggedly at such times. On the other hand, the ethics of their condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of hopelessness. So they were silent.

(71 NS/RT; emphasis added)

Once again, the third section begins with a relapse into uncertainty: “It would be difficult to describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. … There was surely in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt” (73 NS/RT; emphasis added). The tentative voice of the narrator provides an index to the degree of his own inconsistent participation in that brotherhood as the fifth character on the scene. Every time the NS comes close to the RT, the narrator withdraws, as if to profess his lack of omniscience.

From time to time the narrator flaunts his privileged position, highlighting an opposition between the characters' assessment of their own situation (DD) and Crane's retrospective perception of the scene (NS). Indeed, the tension between the author and the characters is so one-sided that every time the characters engage in a direct dialogue—reported to us by the narrator—a powerful dramatic irony dominates the scene. When the cook says, “Gawd! that was a narrow clip” (68), the author knows and reassures us that it was not too narrow for them to escape. When the castaways comfort themselves with the possibility of getting help from the “house of refuge just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light,” the author knows that their hope is baseless. When the captain soothes his “children” by asserting that they will “get ashore all right,” or revives their hope for “making it” to the shore alive with bold words such as “If this wind holds and the boat don't swamp, we can't do much else,” we are invited to question his confidence and to fear for their safety. The irony becomes so pervasive that the author appears as the sea's accomplice in the torture of the sailors.5

True, to a degree the subtitle of the story, “A Tale Intended to Be after the Fact: Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore,” prepares the reader for the author's and the narrator's privileged status. The story's first line establishes this pattern. As the story opens we are told that “none of them knew the color of the sky,” a reminder focusing our attention on “their” ignorance and blindness as opposed to the author-narrator's knowledge and insight (68; emphasis added). The pattern lingers on as the narrator retreats time and again to supply information earlier withheld from the chronological sequence of events. In the third section, for example, he backtracks, casually—but strategically—informing us that “previously to the foundering, by the way, the oiler had worked a double-watch in the engine-room of the ship” (74). Later, after a long dialogue among the sailors about the apparent sighting of a lighthouse, he highlights a piece of information for us in the form of an aside: “It is fair to say here that there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction; but the men did not know this fact, and in consequence they made dark opprobrious remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation's lifesavers” (76; emphasis added). Crane by design, and his narrator by default, seem here to be enjoying the dubious pleasure of omniscience, as the reader wonders what other information is being withheld from the narrative.

A similar uncertainty clouds the exact personalities of the characters. Bakhtin postulates that a character exists not simply as a “center of consciousness” that yields perspective for the reader, but as a valid entity in itself, one for whom the author may consciously or unconsciously permit freedom. As characters experience an autonomy unsuppressed by the narrator's single authoritative voice, they command unrestricted character “zones” or territory. As free agents they provoke an ongoing exchange of dialogue, a “polyphony,” with the author, the other characters, and the reader in an unceasing dynamic interplay of discourse, which “can never be exhausted thematically” (Imagination 326).

Billy, for instance, emerges through a pattern of dialogue and action: the oiler aboard the ship, he is presented as a stout sailor who is ready to row and steer the boat with short resuscitative intervals. The only character in the story individualized with a name, he alone exhibits the stamina one would count on for survival and reassures us with his ability to brave the trauma. He is “a wily surfman” who “by a series of quick miracles and fast and steady horsemanship” turns the boat around in the middle of the surf and “takes her safely to sea again” in a threatening situation. Every time the other occupants of the dinghy are tired, they call on Billy to take the oars, and we are informed that he “plied the oars until his head drooped forward and the overpowering sleep blinded him; and he rowed yet afterward” (82). Dramatized scenes such as this and the echoes of the consciousnesses of the three men around him create an ethical image of the oiler that renders Billy's destiny untenable without creating a perception of Crane's violence toward the integrity of the character. By the time we approach the end of the story, Billy has become autonomous.

The uncertainty hanging over the characters also colors the thematic content of their discourse. For Bakhtin, the idea of a discourse is “interindividual and intersubjective. The sphere of its existence is not the individual consciousness, but the dialogical intercourse between consciousness. The idea is a living event which is played out in the point where two or more consciousness meet dialogically” (Problems 71). In “The Open Boat” the “plurality of consciousnesses” mirrors the narrator's divided consciousness, the two parts representing the two Cranes—the correspondent who records the facts and the author who seeks poetic justice—and setting up a “polyphony” between his two voices as the actor and the spectator. These two competing motifs provide the two poles of the narrator's discourse: the discourse of the characters, defined by human values, and the “documentary discourse,” delimited by the events.

The story thus envelops two plots, a human plot and an events plot, each developed and resolved independently of the other in the narrator's consciousness. The human plot builds on the narrator's limited omniscience, and the events plot draws on the author's full omniscience. Two conflicting tasks, to resolve the poetic injustice of the oiler's death and to record the arbitrary supremacy of nature over man, arise out of these plots as the reader witnesses the polyphony of independent and “unmerged voices.” The narrator reveals at once the “direct intention of the characters,” which focuses on the human plot, and the “refracted intention of the author,” whose final accounting ends in the abrupt, inexplicable death of the oiler. The matrix of the intercourse between these two consciousnesses of the narrator constitutes what Bakhtin has called the collision of “centripetal and centrifugal forces,” a fertile contextual area conducive to epistemological understanding that ensures “the primacy of context over the text” (Imagination 428).

The two consciousnesses scar each other, though, generating a pattern of rescission and/or cancellation of perceived images from two separate perspectives, Crane's and the characters'. These perspectives are oddly coupled in the narrator, who, as both a witness and an authorial instrument, remains a victim of the irony he helps create in the story. As a result, even he fails to escape unscathed after the violence to the human plot. Although in the conventional critical view the violence to our—and the narrator's—expectations is explained as a naturalistic element of Crane's irony, the story of “The Open Boat” actually reveals a chain of situations and dialogues that undercut the narrator's control over the characters, revealing Crane's discomfort with the fictional representation of the factual outcome of the accident. The tension between the narrator's artistic voice and his journalistic voice manifests itself in the string of dialogues where the spectator/witness becomes enveloped by the scene and thus becomes an actor.

Indeed, Crane handicaps his irony by the very instrument he uses to create the distance between himself and the sailors. The narrator, entrapped by his own position in the story, participates in what Brooke-Rose calls “a swallowing act” (129) and weakens the ironic stance. In the scenes where he seeks to display his strongest control over the characters by keeping himself separate from the drama, he merely serves as an impotent witness. The wall between NS and RT gets too thin. The narrator's equivocation in representing the characters in several key scenes—carefully developed as a means of emphasizing his discourse and objectivity—steadily degenerates into a sequential play on his presence and absence, engagement and withdrawal, configuration and erasure, signifying the author's obtrusive manipulation of the plot. In spite of his privileged position as a participant in the Commodore accident, his foreknowledge of the oiler's death before the narrator even begins the narrative, and his rational self's wish for the oiler's survival, Crane removes himself time and again from the narrative, allowing the characters (RT and DD) to carry the plot forward. In these scenes, where NS is either suspended or merged with RT, the narrator loses the advantages of authorial omniscience. The characters act independently of the narrator's objective accounting, showing directions of change that Crane comprehends and the reader sees but that the narrator does not notice. The agent of irony becomes his own victim.

Crane manipulates the story by coloring its setting, the sea, though the line between NS and RT often remains blurred, indicating his own equivocal feelings toward the elements. Initially the sea appears cold and indifferent. More, it is destructive: “the waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt” (68 NS > RT) and a “menace” (69 NS > RT), with “terrible grace” and “snarling” crests (69 NS/RT); the water is “grim,” wrathful (69 NS > RT). As the story develops, the sea is portrayed as splendid and glorious, but as matters near their conclusion, these “babes of the sea” (65 NS) perceive nature primarily in nurturing imagery: the “boat snuggled deeper into the sea” (169 NS), which the characters find to be “a great soft mattress” (78 RT) or a “seawater couch” (82 RT), “cold” but “comfortable” water that “had no power to break their repose” (86 RT). Indeed, the men submit to the sea with paradoxical stoicism: the “ominous slash of the wind and the water affected them as it would have affected mummies” (87 NS).

The author's obtrusive manipulation of the plot is also evidenced in the characters' direct dialogue, grounded in conflicting epistemological viewpoints. The narrator, present on the scene, shows empathy toward the sailors in distress. But the feeling evidenced by the comment that “these waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall” (NS > RT) is clearly absent from the cold report that “each froth-top was a problem in small boat navigation” (68 NS). The characters, left in the dark about their fate, merely complain; one sailor, who realizes the ramifications of his precarious situation, lashes out against the “old ninny-woman, Fate”: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?” (77 DD). Shaking his fist at “the seven mad gods” who would drown him “despite the abominable injustice of it,” another character joins the polyphonic litany: “For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural” (84 NS > RT). This argument is momentarily rebutted by the narrator's calculating, but uncertain, rational voice: “Other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails” (84 NS/RT). Finally, uninformed by the author, the narrator's ethical voice reports the captain's anguished feeling that “if he should drown it would be a shame” (89 RT; emphasis added). The conditional “if” places the narrator back in the privileged position of omniscience, away from the characters on the scene.

At the narrative's conclusion only three of the men seem to have learned, through their submission to nature, to interpret “the great sea's voice”: the correspondent, who “paddle[s] leisurely” and who is “caught … and flung … with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it” by a large wave (90, 91 NS); the cook, who turns over on his back and paddles “with an oar … as if he were a canoe” (90 NS); and the captain, who while “clinging with [his one good] hand to the keel of the dinghy” instructs the correspondent and the cook, who have not darted ahead, how to submit to the sea. The oiler, relying on himself rather than giving in to the sea, seems to fight: “[he] was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and rapidly” (90 NS). His death is foreshadowed by an isolated reference to the sea as “cold,” “sad,” and “tragic,” which appears in the paragraph immediately preceding. The tension among the participants' consciousnesses in this “double-voiced” discourse echoes Crane's personal internal conflict after the shipwreck. According to Louis Senger, who visited him a week after this experience, Crane “looked like a man from a grave. He jerked and thrashed in his sleep, and sometimes he cried out in anguish” (Crane, Correspondence 323). By listening to the narrator's voice as an extension of Crane's personal “anguish,” the reader may identify the characters as interpreters of the colors and voice of the great sea.

Typically a naturalistic reading of “The Open Boat” suggests that the puzzling idea that the four characters may comprehend the sea, which is introduced in the story's opening paragraph and repeated in its closing sentence, should be understood ironically, as we move from the comment that “these waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea” (68 NS; emphasis added) to its restatement in the final line: “When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea's voice to the men on the shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters” (92 NS; emphasis added). The audible voices of the “others” throughout the story, however, render dubious the narrator's ironic stance and create a picture of stark realism. By dialogically reading the story, by listening to the voices that clamor beneath the narrator's mask, by recognizing the way the narrator himself collapses under the burden of the cover-up, we can see that the men can indeed be interpreters of the sea.


  1. Similarly, in a recent essay, “Ill Logics of Irony,” Christine Brooke-Rose argues that the major concepts of The Red Badge of Courage “deconstruct themselves as we read,” rendering its irony “unstable.” She examines “four major oppositions”: “the hero/the monster, running to/running from, separation/membership, and spectator/spectacle,” all of which “are intertwined with each other and caught up in the opposition that subsumes them—that of courage/cowardice.” She suggests that “the whole of that deconstructive swallowing act is itself part of a more basic in/out opposition that comes into play in the outsideness or insideness of the author” (129).

  2. Banfield, in turn, adapts “represented speech and thought” from Otto Jaspersen's The Philosophy of Grammar (1924). For a history of the evolution of the concept of style indirect libre, see Banfield 277n14.

  3. Peter Buitenhuis claims that we gain a transcendental self-understanding from our reading of “The Open Boat”: “Every man is in the same boat, which is not much more substantial than a ten-foot open dinghy on a rough sea” (250). Similarly, Milne Holton observes that in this story Crane demonstrates how the four men “come to terms with their situation” (160), and Donna Gerstenberger holds that the characters assume an attitude that provides an opportunity for growth in understanding and knowledge (560).

  4. Crane was on assignment aboard the filibustering steamer Commodore as a reporter for the Bachellor-Johnson syndicate. On 2 January 1897 the steamer foundered 15 miles off the Florida coast. Crane and three others—Captain Edward Murphy; Steward C. B. Montgomery, the cook; and William Higgins, the oiler—boarded a dinghy that capsized after almost 30 hours off the Daytona beach (see Crane, Reports 85-94).

  5. Kent observes that “not only does the narrator's ambiguous and noncommittal commentary increase the extra-textual uncertainty in the story, sometimes his refusal to comment, his silence, increases our uncertainty as well.” For Kent, “The Open Boat” presents a “kaleidoscope of meaning” in which the epistemological difficulties transform the text into a study in uncertainty, and its text wrestles with “the problem of how we know and if we know more than with what we know” (267).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. 1975. Ed. Michael Holquist; trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

———. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. 1929. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Banfield, Ann. Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. Boston: Routledge, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. 1953. Trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill, 1968.

Bergon, Frank. Stephen Crane's Artistry. New York: Columbia UP, 1975.

Brooke-Rose, Christine. “Ill Logics of Irony.” New Essays on “The Red Badge of Courage.” Ed. Lee Clark Mitchell. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. 129-46.

Buitenhuis, Peter. “The Essentials of Life: ‘The Open Boat” as Existentialist Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 5.3 (Autumn 1959): 243-50.

Conder, John. “The Red Badge of Courage: Form and Function.” Modern American Fiction: Form and Function. Ed. Thomas Daniel Young. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989, 28-38.

Crane, Stephen. The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. Ed. Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.

———. “The Open Boat.” The Works of Stephen Crane V. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1970. 68-92.

———. Reports of War. The Works of Stephen Crane IX. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1969-75.

Gerstenberger, Donna. “‘The Open Boat’: Additional Perspective.” Modern Fiction Studies 17.4 (Winter 1971-72): 557-61.

Halliburton, David. The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Holton, Milne. Cylinder of Vision: The Fiction and Journalistic Writings of Stephen Crane. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1972.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Rpt. The Future of the Novel. Ed. Leon Edel. New York: Vintage, 1956. 3-27.

———. “Preface to The Portrait of a Lady.” Rpt. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. Intro. Richard P. Blackmur. New York: Scribner's, 1962. 40-58.

Kent, Thomas L. “The Problem of Knowledge in ‘The Open Boat’ and ‘The Blue Hotel.’” American Literary Realism 14.2 (1981): 262-68.

Principal Works

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The Little Regiment, and Other Episodes of the American Civil War 1896

The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure 1898

The Monster, and Other Stories 1899

Whilomville Stories 1900

Wounds in the Rain: A Collection of Stories Relating to the Spanish-American War of 1898 1900

The Monster 1901

Last Words 1902

Men, Women, and Boats 1921

The Sullivan County Sketches 1949

Stephen Crane: An Omnibus (poetry, short stories, and novels) 1952

The Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane 1963

The New York City Sketches of Stephen Crane, and Related Pieces 1966

The Works of Stephen Crane. 10 vols. (poetry, short stories, novels, and journalism) 1969-72

The Western Writings of Stephen Crane 1979

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry (novels, novellas, short stories, sketches, journalism, and poetry) 1984

Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry 1988

The Blue Hotel and Selected Works 1991

The Red Badge of Courage, and Other Stories 1991

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York) [as Johnston Smith] (novel) 1893; revised as Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, 1896

The Black Riders, and Other Lines (poetry) 1895

The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (novel) 1895

George's Mother (novel) 1896

The Third Violet (novel) 1896

Active Service (novel) 1899

War is Kind (poetry) 1899

The O'Ruddy [completed by Robert Barr] (novel) 1903

The Collected Poems of Stephen Crane (poetry) 1930

Stephen Crane: Letters (letters) 1960

The Complete Novels of Stephen Crane (novels) 1967

Jules Zanger (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Zanger, Jules. “Stephen Crane's ‘Bride’ as Countermyth of the West.” Great Plains Quarterly 11, no. 3 (summer 1991): 157-65.

[In the following essay, Zanger suggests that Crane's attempt to subvert the myth of the American wild west in the story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” fails.]

It has become a critical cliche to recognize Stephen Crane's “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” as a parody of the traditional, cliche-ridden Western. His transformations of that form's conventional hero, heroine, and badman, as well as of the climactic, de rigueur shootout are amusing and obvious. In the story Crane depicted the Pullman journey of a middle-aged, honeymooning couple, Jack Potter, a Texas marshal, and his plain, “under-class” bride, to their home in Yellow Sky. There they are confronted by the rampaging Scratchy Wilson, the last of the badmen, who on learning that the marshal has taken a wife, holsters his revolvers and slouches off in confused disappointment, “a simple child of the earlier plains.”1

Eric Solomon, in his Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism, writes, “All the donnees of the Western story are reversed; the empty forms are shattered. The marshall is an unarmed honeymooner; the gunman is a childish old man; the gunfight is aborted.” Donald B. Gibson describes it as “a spoof on the kind of sentimental Western fiction written earlier by Bret Harte and the many lesser writers who have turned out drivel about the frontier West ever since.”2

The identification of this particular parodic intention of Crane's story seems unassailable, if a little reductive; why, however, Crane should have chosen to parody what had become in his own time a moribund and juvenile mode—“drivel” and “empty forms”—and why McClure's, the leading muckraking journal in America, should have chosen to publish such a self-limiting parody are questions that perhaps deserve consideration.


I believe that “Bride” [“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”], beyond its parodic deflating of a minor popular juvenile form, was a response to what was in 1898 a much broader and more significant issue: the transformation of an American myth of the West, not by reality, but by an alternative myth empowering and justifying the extension of an eastern, bourgeois hegemony of values. Western lands from the beginning had been settled by large corporate groups for mining, lumbering, and agricultural purposes. Following this pattern, in the last decades of the century the open range was transformed into the Cattle Kingdom, divided into baronies, some as large as a hundred miles long, mainly held by corporations that had sprung into being as the railroads penetrated the Great Plains. The great cattle boom attracted not only eastern entrepreneurs but also British and continental investors who competed for range and cattle rights. Ray Billington observes that “by the end of 1885 the Plains country was entangled in a barbed-wire network.”3 Though this pattern of settlement did not actually mark a significant change in the economic development of the West, it did violate a deeply held popular perception. The new West was a precarious amalgam of feudal authority and venture capital that in most regards was the opposite of that individualistic, pastoral, democratic myth of the West that had dominated the American imagination throughout the earlier part of the century.

Consequently, this transformed West of wired pastures and corporate investment required a transformed myth that would justify these departures from tradition, invite eastern confidence, and obscure the new West's unchecked entrepreneurial aggressiveness, an aggressiveness beginning to be threatened in the industrial East by unionization and legislative controls. The new myth was to take the form of a celebration of the West as the true, essential America, embodying Anglo-Saxon ideals and achievements, not simply in opposition to western savagery, but to eastern decadence and metropolitanism as well.4

A leading articulator of this vision was Theodore Roosevelt, who had invested a fifth of his fortune in two cattle ranches in the Dakota Badlands. Out of his experience in the West, Roosevelt wrote three frequently reprinted books, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1885), Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (1888), and The Wilderness Hunter (1893), as well as numerous articles, in which he romantically idealized the West and especially the cowboys and, at the same time, reassuringly insisted on their potential for bourgeois co-option, assimilation, and appropriation.5 This was a relatively new perception. In the decade of the 1870s, according to Henry Nash Smith, “the term ‘herder’ was as likely to be used as the classic name of ‘cowboy’ and it usually called up the image of a semibarbarous laborer who lived a dull, monotonous life of hard fare and poor shelter.” Whether regarded as semibarbarous or as ruggedly individualistic, the cowboy was seen as possessing an untameable, even sinister potential for anarchic violence.6

In Roosevelt's books written in the 1880s, however, the cowboys are “sinewy, hardy, self-reliant, their life forces them to be both daring and adventurous, and the passing over their heads of a few years leaves printed on their faces certain lines which tell of dangers quietly fronted and hardships uncomplainingly endured.” These are the new heroes, he tells the reader: “In place of these heroes of a bygone age, the men who were clad in buckskin and carried long rifles, stands, or rather rides, the bronzed and sinewy cowboy, as picturesque and self-reliant, as dashing and resolute as the saturnine Indian fighters whose place he has taken.” Despite these heroic and adventuresome qualities, the image Roosevelt presents of his cowboys is comfortably domestic:

My home ranch stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cottonwoods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men who loll back in their rocking chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking chair?), book in hand … The long winter evenings are spent sitting around the hearth stone, while the pine logs roar and crackle, and the men play checkers and chess in the firelight.7

In The Rough Riders (1899), appropriately prefaced by a Bret Harte poem, Roosevelt adopts Harte's technique of discovering in his crude and violent characters those sterling qualities most reassuring to his eastern readers. Where Harte, however, reveals the capacity for gentleness and love in his roughest characters, as he does in “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” Roosevelt discovers patriotism, loyalty, and the capacity for discipline, service, and obedience. He begins by describing his recruits:

They were to a man born adventurers, in the old sense of the word. … Some of them went by their own name; some had changed their names; and yet others possessed but half a name, colored by some adjective, like Cherokee Bill, Happy Jack of Arizona, Smoky Moore, the broncobuster, so named because cowboys often call vicious horses … “smoky” horses, and Rattlesnake Pete, who had lived among the Moquis and taken part in the snake dances. Some were professional gamblers, and, on the other hand, no less than four were or had been Baptist or Methodist clergymen—and proved first-class fighters, too, by the way. Some were men whose lives in the past had not been free from the taint of those fierce kinds of crime into which the lawless spirits who dwell on the border-land between civilization and savagery so readily drift.

Nevertheless, he reassures his readers,

The men were singularly quick to respond to any appeal to their intelligence and patriotism. The faults they committed were those of ignorance merely. When Holderman [the Indian cook], in announcing dinner to the Colonel and the three Majors, genially remarked, ‘If you fellars don't come soon, everything'll get cold,’ he had no thought of other than a kindly and respectful regard for their welfare, and was glad to modify his form of address on being told that it was not what could be described as conventionally military. … It was astonishing how soon the men got over these little peculiarities. They speedily grew to recognize the fact that the observance of certain forms was essential to the maintenance of proper discipline. They became scrupulously careful in touching their hats, and always came to attention when spoken to.8

At a time when the East was being massively transformed by the influx of the “New Immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe, the West had become for Roosevelt and many like him—eastern, Ivy-League educated, well-born, and wealthy—a last bastion of the Anglo-Saxon establishment. In this period Roosevelt shared his beliefs with his friends Henry Cabot Lodge and Madison Grant, who in 1915 was to write the elegiac The Passing of the Great Race, a racial vision of history derived from the theories of Gustave Le Bon, leading Roosevelt to support immigration restriction.9 At best, Roosevelt's attitude toward foreigners was an amused condescension. In The Wilderness Hunter, he approvingly wrote,

Native Americans predominate among the dwellers in and on the borders of the wilderness and in the wild country over which the great herds of the cattlemen roam; and they take the lead in every way. The sons of the Germans, Irish, and other European newcomers are usually quick to claim to be “straight United States,” and to disavow all kinship with the fellow countrymen of their fathers.

Owen Wister, another member of the Roosevelt circle, particularly emphasized the ethnic background of the cowboy in his essay “The Evolution of the Cowpuncher”: “the knight and the cowboy are nothing but the same Saxon in different environments, the polished man in London and the man unpolished in Texas.” Roosevelt's friend and illustrator, Frederic Remington, was less moderate than either in his ethnic predispositions; in a letter to his friend Poultney Bigelow he wrote, “Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns—the rubbish of the Earth I hate—I've got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins, I can get my share of them, and what's more, I will …”10

The older western myth had emphasized its hero's individualism, his idiosyncratic, outlaw (in the sense that he was outside the social order) nature. If the West was to be rewon for eastern interests, the westerner as wild man, as semisavage, and the West as wilderness landscape had to become tamed, domesticated, ultimately utilizable and coherent. Roosevelt's longtime friend, admirer, and Harvard schoolmate, Owen Wister, who was introduced to the West by Richard Trimble, manager of a Wyoming cattle company and member of the notorious Wyoming Stock Growers Association, first presented this new westerner in a series of sketches in Harper's Weekly in 1893 and then in a novel, Lin Mclean, in 1897. Wister's civilizable, compatible western hero was to receive his popular apotheosis in The Virginian in 1902. In the course of that extremely widely read novel, dedicated to “my dear critic” Theodore Roosevelt, its cowboy hero was transformed from a happy-go-lucky, gun-toting, prank playing “child of the earlier plains” into a perfect bourgeois: married to the new school marm, property-owning, and off his horse and into a buckboard—“an important man, with a strong grip on many various enterprises, and able to give his wife all and more than she asked for or desired.”11 Five years earlier, Stephen Crane had anticipated this re-vision in “Bride.” There, however, Crane did not celebrate the bourgeois conversion.


A major thematic element in “Bride” is the triumph of a bourgeois culture over a primitive one. It is important, therefore, to recall that at the end of the nineteenth century the American bourgeoisie had as its critic and avowed enemy what Peter Gay called “the implacable avant gardes … disdaining the bourgeoisie as bereft of taste, avid for money, and hostile to cultivation.”12 Crane the ironist was, in many significant ways, a leading member of that avantgarde, as a religious iconoclast, as an experimental artist, as an enthusiastic critic of bourgeois morality and hypocrisy in his writings, and as an equally enthusiastic dissenter from that morality in his private life.13 It is from this point of view, I suggest, that “Bride” is written, rather than from that celebratory one expressed in the works of Wister and, before him, of Theodore Roosevelt, in whose accounts of the West traditional bourgeois values were conjoined with longings for aristocratic privilege and prestige. The essential parodic target of “Bride” is not the trivial literary form it employs but rather the self-congratulatory bourgeois transformation it dramatizes.

The instrument of transformation in Crane's story is the great Pullman carrying Jack and his bride into their new lives with all the speed and power of the industrial age itself. Its appearance among “the woods of light and tender trees” had become sufficiently commonplace by the end of the century that the oneiric and sinister metaphor that opens the story is immediately accessible.

The great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward. Vast flats of green grass, dull-hued spaces of mesquit and cactus, little groups of frame houses, woods of light and tender trees, all were sweeping into the east, sweeping over the horizon, a precipice.

(p. 109)

The shock and dismay felt earlier in the century by Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson at the intrusion of the great hooting machine into their pleasant Concord woods are no longer so apparent:14 The landscape has now become evanescent and dreamlike. Significantly, Crane's landscape has none of the epic grandeur—the overwhelming mountains, stark deserts, steep canyons—traditionally associated with the West. Instead he shows the reader a muted, domesticated, curiously fragile topography. The machine, however, is all dignity and solidity and, running on its iron schedule, denies the watcher even surprise.

Though grown familiar by the end of the century both as literary trope and as cultural experience, this conjunction of railroad train and rural American landscape remains in Crane's story filled with tension. In part this was because the myth and countermyth those images represented still were deeply rooted in the American consciousness. In part, also, each of the opposing elements is shown as containing its own negation. Scratchy Wilson represents most immediately the real toad (or snake) in the earthly garden that was the mythic West; Crane had no need to belabor the hollowness of the western pastoral. On the other hand, that vision of modernity, technology, progress, and triumphant bourgeois social order emblemized by the train had to be subverted, as we shall see, more subtly because the social forces it represented were so powerfully on the ascendant. Finally, however, Crane's presentation of the familiar trope is unsettling because he has inverted its most basic dynamic: instead of presenting the train conventionally as an intrusive, invading presence thrusting itself into the idyllic garden, we are shown, paradoxically, the “whirling,” speeding train as the still center of an otherwise unsubstantial world from which all of the familiar elements of solidity and order—the farmhouse, the homestead, the earth itself—are in flight.

Crane's perception of the train as destructive of the ordered past had been comically anticipated in a newspaper article he wrote while visiting San Antonio in 1895. Instead of the Pullman, however, he wrote of its diminished, urban version, the trolley: “Trolley cars are merciless animals. They gorge themselves with relics. They make really coherent history too like an omelet. If a trolley car had trolleyed around Jericho, the city would not have fallen: it would have exploded.”15

If Crane's Pullman destroys the old natural order of the West, it carries a new order emblemized in the marriage of Jack and his bride. For both Crane and his opposite number, Owen Wister, a major symbol of the changes the West was undergoing was marriage. Wister's Lin Mclean and The Virginian are as much about marriage as any Jane Austen novel and offer to the reader an idealized vision of that institution that corresponds to Wister's approving perception of the social and economic forces changing the West. The courtship of Molly Wood shows us the Virginian learning to read Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott as well as how to settle down and invest his money. Retaining his manly western attributes, his honor and courage, his grace and speed with his six-gun, in marrying Molly and becoming a landed proprietor, the Virginian has achieved a superior degree of civilization and fulfilled the western promise of the transformation of the lowly. His achievement, however, is only part of the general transformation the West is undergoing:

By the levels of Bear Creek that reach like inlets among the promontories of the lonely hills, they [the cowboys] came upon the schoolhouse, roofed and ready for the first native Wyoming crop. It symbolized the dawn of a neighborhood, and it brought a change into the wilderness air. The feel of it struck cold upon the free spirits of the cow-punchers, and they told each other that, what with women and children and wire fences, this country would not long be a country for men.16

Crane's presentation of marriage, while as central as Wister's, is significantly different. Peter Gay has suggested that for the nineteenth century the train had become a powerful erotic symbol, “a conjunction of change and sensuality.”17 Appropriately Crane links the train and sensuality by presenting his newlyweds in the charged public intimacy of the Pullman, speeding them, implicitly, toward sexual consummation. It is difficult, however, to anticipate a more awkward, embarrassed, and angular union. It is not merely that these two are not the conventional handsome hero and pretty ingenue of the traditional Western. What Crane shows us, especially in the case of Jack, is that the bourgeois transformation involves a loss of grace, confidence, and potency, precisely those attributes of manliness so central to Roosevelt's and Wister's image of the heroic westerner. We see Jack, previously “a man known and feared in his own corner” (p. 111) now as “furtive and shy” (p. 109), seized with “a new cowardice” (p. 112) with fumbling hands “heavy and muscle-bound” (p. 112), and, in his encounter with Scratchy, without a gun, unmanned. In contrast, Scratchy Wilson, the unregenerate man for whom Crane shows no slightest shred of elegiac nostalgia, is described as walking with “the creeping movement of the midnight cat,” while his hands move “with an electric swiftness” and “like lightning” and “in a musician's way” (p. 117). When he is confronted with the bride, however, he slouches heavily away, dragging his feet, his boots making “funnel shaped tracks in the heavy sand” (p. 120).

Crane's perception of a fracturing, unravelling world both denies that earlier anarchic pastoral vision of the West and challenges the new, ordered bourgeois vision that was replacing it. Crane's West, at least as he establishes it in “Bride,” is made up of jarring cultural discontinuities to which all of the story's allusions to caste and race contribute.

The first section of “Bride” introduces both these elements. Jack and his bride are not “furtive and shy” in the Pullman simply because they are rustic and newlywed; they are awkward and uncomfortable because they are intensely aware that they, according to the mores of their time, are where they do not belong. At the end of the century, the Pullman was a luxury car intended for the very rich. Lord Charles Russell, who visited the United States in 1883, wrote, “It is clear that in this country of so-called equality, one thing that most strongly recommended the Pullman was the fact that it enabled the rich to create the clearest possible inequality in the conditions of even ordinary travel.” Pullman travelers in the West were customarily “a superior class—of Easterners:—it costs too much to get here for the scum of the earth to be among them.”18 It is this social and economic inequality that informs the amusement with which Jack and his bride are regarded by their fellow passengers and is underlined in that devastating, by today's more hypocritical standards, description of the bride's “under-class countenance.” When Jack suggests that they eat in the dining car where they “charge a dollar,” the bride's response, “Charge a dollar? Why, that's too much—for us—ain't it, Jack?” (p. 110) wavers between an indignant realism and a naive and plaintive hope. The correctness of her initial response is validated by the amused superiority of the Negro waiters in the diner who patronize them in a manner very like that of plantation house servants patronizing white trash. The “dazzling fittings of the coach,” the numerous mirrors, the figured velvet seats and bronze figures and frescoes, may suggest European high culture as they refer the reader to palaces and museums, but their primary allusion is not so much to European culture as it is to eastern wealth and tasteless bourgeois acquisitiveness and display: the “environment of the new estate” (p. 110) to which Jack aspires. The overwhelming impact of the Pullman on the bedazzled newlyweds is undercut for the reader by the realization that the “separated chamber” sturdily supported by a “bronze figure” can be nothing else than the toilet, and that the evocative effect of the “frescos [sic] in olive and silver” is deliberately negated by the observation that they have been painted “at convenient places on the ceiling” (p. 110).

If Jack and his bride are awkward and plain and naive, the dazzling new estate they find themselves in is at least equally flawed. The malice and snobbery of the other travelers, the porters, and the waiters, the ostentation and pretentiousness of the Pullman car, all suggest the hollowness of the culture symbolized. The social divisions expressed in the encounters between Jack and the waiters are extended in a series of allusions that suggest something of the past and future complexity of Crane's West. In the very limited context of the story, Crane introduces references to a whole series of marginal Americans: Negro porters, Mexican sheepherders, Apache scalp-hunters, Jewish shirt-makers, eastern drummers. This West is hardly the seamless Anglo-Saxon garment Roosevelt shows us.19

The pattern of cultural disjunctions established in “Bride” is echoed by its structural and stylistic divisions. This barely twelve-page story is formally divided by Roman numerals into four separate sections, each with its own cast and locus: Jack and his bride on the train, the townsfolk in the Weary Gentleman Saloon, Scratchy on the street in front of the saloon, and, finally, the Potters and Scratchy in front of Jack's house. The fragmented presentation of the action is made even more striking by the chronological violence done to the conventional sequence of events when section II is made to begin twenty-one minutes before the conclusion of section I.

Many of the images Crane creates contribute to this sense of disorder. John Cawelti, in his The Six-Gun Mystique, defines the Western, among other things, as “a story that takes place somewhere in the western United States in which the characters wear certain distinctive styles of clothing.”20 The detailed and persistent clothing imagery Crane employs in “Bride”—Jack's new and uncomfortable black suit, the bride's embarrassingly elaborate blue cashmere dress, Scratchy's maroon shirt and child's boots—in denying the conventional expectations established by the setting, further suggests a world of skewed or broken connections. From the initial verbal disjunction of “Yellow” and “Sky” in the title to that final one in which Scratchy picks up his “starboard” revolver, Crane's style hints at an almost surreal incoherence underlying the common sense surface of the new image of the West and represents a denial and subversion of it.


Crane's antagonism to the Roosevelt-Wister myth of a triumphantly bourgeois new West is rooted certainly in his habitual avant-garde mind set as well as in the experience of his visit to Texas in 1895. Crane felt a strong personal animus for Roosevelt, however, that would have made him particularly skeptical of Roosevelt's vision. In 1896 Crane presented Roosevelt, who was currently New York City's commissioner of police, with a signed copy of George's Mother; Roosevelt then requested an autographed copy of his Red Badge of Courage, which he, at that time, especially admired, and the two apparently became enthusiastic friends. According to his niece, Helen Crane, Crane could “talk all night with Theodore Roosevelt.” In the same year, Crane felt sufficiently confident of Roosevelt's good will to show him the unpublished manuscript of one of his Mexican stories. This story, “A Man and Some Others,” elicited from Roosevelt a response that both reflected Roosevelt's conventional ethnic biases and anticipated the issues that would divide them: “Some day I want you to write another story of the frontiersman and the Mexican Greaser in which the frontiersman shall come out on top; it is more normal that way.”21

Their relationship was to change in September 1896, when in the course of the notorious Dora Clark affair, Crane, defending the falsely accused prostitute, testified against one of Commissioner Roosevelt's policemen, preferring charges against him for false arrest. Crane believed that Commissioner Roosevelt had whitewashed his policeman, and Roosevelt insisted that Crane was “a man of bad character … consorting with loose women.” The quarrel was never made up. Crane, who later became war correspondent for the New York World, accompanied the Rough Riders led by Roosevelt into their first action, the Battle of Las Guasimas, where they were promptly ambushed. His dispatch to the World was headlined “Stephen Crane Calls It a Blunder.” Roosevelt, in turn, though he praised the other correspondents, never mentioned Crane's considerable presence throughout the campaign, except obliquely: “I did not see any sign among the fighting men, whether wounded or unwounded, of the very complicated emotions assigned to their kind by some of the realistic modern novelists who have written about battles.”22


If, as I have been suggesting, one of Crane's intentions in writing “Bride” was to subvert both the older myth of a wild, romantic West and Roosevelt's bourgeois myth supplanting it, that intention failed. Existing as established structures of reference and emotional resonance, these myths contributed to and helped shape Crane's story, but each of them had its own positive narrative that was to prove stronger in an expansive, confident America than Crane's ironic negations. Crane's unpopular point about the West in “Bride” might have been summed up by Milan Kundera when, in quite another context, he wrote “Stupidity [ugliness, mediocrity, dullness] does not give way to science, technology, modernity, progress—on the contrary, it progresses right along with them.”23 Within three years of the publication of “Bride,” The Great Train Robbery (1903) appeared, and the newly born moving picture industry would take up both myths and eventually discover for them broader audiences than those to which any literary work could aspire.


  1. Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970), vol. 5, pp. 109-20. (Hereafter cited in parentheses in the text.)

  2. Eric Solomon, Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 256; Donald B. Gibson, The Fiction of Stephen Crane (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), p. 125. For similar appraisals see Edwin Cady, Stephen Crane (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962), p. 124; and Milne Holton, Cylinder of Vision (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1972), p. 226.

  3. Ray Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1982), p. 625.

  4. Patricia Limerick in The Legacy of Conquest (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987) traces the persistence of this attitude about the West in her chapter “Racialism on the Run,” pp. 259-92.

  5. Theodore Roosevelt, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1885); Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail (New York: The Century Company, 1888); The Wilderness Hunter (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1893).

  6. Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (New York: Vintage Books, 1950), p. 122; see also Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment (New York: Atheneum Press, 1985), especially Chapter 12, “The Inversion of the Frontier Hero,” pp. 242-78.

  7. Roosevelt, Hunting Trips (note 5 above), pp. 7, 25, 10-11.

  8. Theodore Roosevelt, The Rough Riders (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1899), pp. 19-20, 30-31.

  9. See John Higham, Strangers in the Land (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955), p. 149.

  10. Roosevelt, Wilderness Hunter (note 5 above), p. 36. (This belief in the capacity of the West to transform European newcomers into “straight United States” had been more academically expressed in the same year as the publication of “The Wilderness Hunter” by Frederick Jackson Turner in his The Significance of the Frontier [1893]; Wister quoted in John Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique, 2nd ed. (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1984), p. 70; Remington quoted in G. Edward White, The Eastern Establishment and the Western Experience (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 109.

  11. For a detailed account of Wister's association with the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association and the Cheyenne Club, see White, Eastern Establishment (note 10 above), p. 123; Owen Wister, The Virginian (1902; rpt. New York: Macmillan Company-Pocket Books, 1972), p. 364.

  12. Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), vol. 1, p. 7.

  13. See in this regard Edwin H. Cady's account of Crane's complex and individual relationship to the avant-garde and “modernity” in his critical biography Stephen Crane (note 2 above), pp. 69-95.

  14. For a detailed discussion of this phenomenon, see Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).

  15. Stephen Crane, “Patriot Shrine of Texas,” Omaha Daily Bee, 8 January 1899, rpt. Stephen Crane in the West and Mexico, ed. Joseph Katz (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1970), pp. 35-37, quotation pp. 36-37.

  16. Wister, The Virginian (note 11 above), p. 69.

  17. Gay, Bourgeois Experience (note 12 above), p. 67.

  18. Russell quoted in White, Eastern Establishment (note 10 above), p. 47.

  19. Crane here anticipates those criticisms of the “bipolar” perception of the West as containing only “whites” and “redskins” that dominated the popular imagination in this century. See Limerick, Legacy of Conquest (note 4 above), pp. 259-61.

  20. Cawelti, Six-Gun Mystique (note 10 above), p. 35.

  21. Helen Crane quoted by Robert W. Stallman, Stephen Crane (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. 45; Roosevelt quoted in Works of Stephen Crane (note 1 above), vol. 5, p. 1.

  22. Stallman, Stephen Crane (note 21 above), pp. 45, 607 n. 10, 382; Roosevelt, The Rough Riders (note 8 above), p. 107.

  23. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 163.

John Feaster (essay date fall 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9374

SOURCE: Feaster, John. “Violence and the Ideology of Capitalism: A Reconsideration of Crane's ‘The Blue Hotel.’” American Literary Realism 25, no. 1 (fall 1994): 74-94.

[In the following essay, Feaster proposes a less cosmic reading of “The Blue Hotel” by looking at it through a specific cultural context.]

Critical commentary on Stephen Crane's “The Blue Hotel” during the past four decades provides an instructive example of the general dominance of interpretive critical methods that regard literary works, in the words of Jerome J. McGann, as “modeling rather than mirroring forms.” From this dominant a-historical (and at times rigidly antihistorical) viewpoint, literary works “do not point to a prior, authorizing reality (whether ‘realist’ or ‘idealist’), they themselves constitute—in both the active and the passive senses—what must be taken as reality (both ‘in fact’ and ‘in ideals’).”1 Readings of Crane's provocative story of course differ widely in interpretive details; what they also share widely, however, is a strenuous formalist insistence that somehow it needs rescuing from the taint of “mere” referentiality.2

With the exception of a very few readings that have treated it as a story concerned largely with the passing of the Old West,3 the trend in interpretation of “The Blue Hotel,” consistent with what McGann has observed about interpretive strategies in general, has been to regard the story in rarified symbolic terms—as a “model” of reality, not a “mirror,” in which universal man plays out his destiny in a placeless and timeless context devoid of any “authorizing” historical circumstance. When the work is regarded as having any mirroring function at all, what it reflects (consider Bruce L. Grenberg's references to Crane's “religious and philosophical values,” for example) is approvingly regarded as transcending the trivially historical through achievement of some cosmic level of significance. While such readings may bring the story more in line with the “isolative sensibility” (the phrase is Daniel G. Hoffman's4) of Crane's poetry, they ignore certain of the universalizing versus particularizing distinctions inherent in the whole question of genre, isolate the story from other of Crane's works (fictional as well as journalistic) which, I will argue, are related intentionally, and, above all, dissociate the story from its specific and clarifying social ground. What I will argue, on the contrary, is that the issues of first order importance in “The Blue Hotel” are not cosmic but cultural, and as such are definable with reference to the complex social and economic factors, and accompanying ideology, that shaped the evolving frontier culture in which the story is set and of which Crane had exact “historical” experience. Whatever the cosmic implications of the story, and I would suggest that they are peripheral and slight, they cannot be wrenched free from these containing and shaping objective as well as subjective circumstances. Crane was hardly unique in his fascination with the western experience and its effects on the development of American character and moral identity. For Crane, as for others of his time, the Old West may have been dead, but this hardly lessened his interest in it as a site of alleged human progress.


“The Blue Hotel” was first published in 1898, just five years after Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his famous address on the “Significance of the Frontier in American History” before the American Historical Association meeting at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That the Exposition was being held in Chicago at all, as Larzer Ziff observes, was a tacit acknowledgement that by the 1890s the center of commercial energy in the United States had shifted dramatically to the west. “Those who came to see the Exposition would also see Chicago,” Ziff writes, “and that young city, if it had no past to display, was at least equipped to give visitors a glimpse into the future and show them how things were done in a wide-awake commercial fashion.”5 Turner's purpose was to explain the whole complex process of social evolution involved in the civilizing of the American people and their institutions, to explain, in more specific terms, how the “complexity of city life” had evolved from “the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier.”6 As Crane would be just five years later, Turner was concerned (somewhat more optimistically than Crane) with the process by which American society evolved from “savagery” to “civilization.” For Crane, the process was far from complete.

The phenomenon of the Western frontier, according to Turner, has made our experience peculiarly American. For Turner, the development of that frontier was not accomplished by a simple process whereby the civilized was extended into and displaced the uncivilized. This may have been true of the Eastern experience, which occurred in a relatively limited geographical area, but such a theory hardly explains the complexity of social development in such large areas as those involved in the American West. According to Turner's thesis, settlement of these vast areas was characterized by successive returns to primitive conditions along an advancing frontier line. This meant that different stages in the evolution of social, political, and economic organization could be seen at any one time on the leeward side of that advancing line. Moreover, “as successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics.”7 A place like Nebraska, for example, would still possess certain displaced frontier characteristics even when it had ceased to be front-line frontier.

Turner's theory was meant to explain, and did so in idealistic and at times even poetic terms, the relationship between the American character and the harsh environment that had shaped it. But however eloquent Turner might have been in his description of the American character and the environmental press in which it developed, it is clear that his ideas were rooted very firmly in the practical realities of political economy. Indeed Turner's vaunted Individualism, as his biographer, Ray A. Billington, has pointed out, must be understood more as economic individualism than as some kind of ideal or heroic “distinctiveness.” As Billington somewhat trenchantly observes, “individualism in its distinctly American usage does not apply to the non-economic world,” a world in which, as a matter of fact, Americans tend to be decidedly conformist. “The legend of frontier individualism,” Billington goes on to say, “rested on what people thought should be true, rather than what was true. The West was in truth an area where cooperation was just as essential as in the more thickly settled East.”8 The inevitable conflict between an unrestrained individualism and the more complex cooperative needs of a settled society, as John Cawelti has shown in his Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, was a central feature in the development of the western formula.9 In a somewhat modified form, I will suggest, this conflict is equally central to the evolution of social organization depicted in “The Blue Hotel.” Of particular relevance in this context is that, for Turner, social evolution meant economic (even, more basically, commercial) evolution, development from a primitive hunting society up through various stages of trading, ranching, farming, to an urban manufacturing society, the highest form of social and economic organization, and precisely the kind of organization, according to Scully, that Fort Romper is well on its way to achieving.

Without attempting to show the utterly improbable, that “The Blue Hotel” is in any sense “influenced” by Turner's thesis, however influential that thesis in fact turned out to be, I nonetheless want to suggest that, like Turner, Crane is similarly concerned with fundamental issues of cultural evolution involved in development of the American West. Unlike the more idealistic Turner, however, the ironic Crane provides not only cultural description but cultural critique as well. The world of “The Blue Hotel,” microcosmic in a socio-cultural sense, provides an ideologically rich ethnographic portrait of a culture caught at a significant moment of social and economic development and, ultimately, of moral failure.


Stephen Crane's only direct experience of Nebraska was acquired during a brief tour of the West, Southwest, and Mexico in the spring of 1895 sponsored by the Bacheller, Johnson, and Bacheller newspaper syndicate. What made Nebraska newsworthy at this particular time was a severe drought in the north central area of the state that had begun in the summer of 1894 and by the time of his visit, as Crane would eventually write, had brought “this prosperous and garden-like country” to a “condition of despair.”10 During the years between the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the late 1880s, the plains states had experienced an unparalleled boom, made possible, as it was then becoming apparent, by a period of uncharacteristically generous rainfall. In the period alone between 1880 and 1890, the population of Nebraska had increased by 134٪ (from 452,402 to 1,058,91011), but by the time of Crane's arrival in February of 1895, a process of exodus eastward had begun that was not to reverse itself until after 1897 when a period of relative prosperity returned—but by which time, of course, Crane was living in Ravensbrook, England, far away from the scene where a set of lasting impressions of economic devastation had been formed. “In the single year of 1891,” according to John D. Hicks, “no less than eighteen thousand prairie schooners crossed from the Nebraska to the Iowa side of the Missouri River in full retreat from the hopeless hard times,” with the eventual result that “from one-third to one-half of the counties in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota had a smaller population in 1900 than in 1890.”12

When Crane arrived in Lincoln in February of 1895, as Joseph Katz writes in his Introduction to Stephen Crane in the West and Mexico, he arrived unsuspectingly “in the midst of a Situation.”13 If the region were to survive economically, then the kind of Eastern capital investment that had flowed westward so plentifully during the prosperous 1870s and 80s would have to continue. But, as Katz points out, “Nebraska business interests feared that Eastern investors would shy away from a state that lived so perilous a relationship with nature.”14 Although Crane's fame was somewhat limited in 1895, his arrival was nonetheless heralded by Nebraska newspapers as an opportunity for Eastern readers to acquire a “true” conception of conditions in the drought-stricken area. “Mr. Crane's newspapers have asked him,” the Nebraska State Journal reported (in an article that Crane in fact clipped for his scrapbook), “to get the truth, whether his articles are sensational or not, and for that reason his investigations will doubtless be welcomed by the business interests of Nebraska.”15

In his resulting report, “Nebraska's Bitter Fight for Life,” Crane does in fact emphasize that “the grievous condition is confined to a comparatively narrow section of the western part of the state,” and quotes freely then-governor Silas A. Holcomb, who in an interview with Crane described incipient irrigation projects that would return Nebraska to conditions “‘safe and profitable for agriculture,’” and assured Crane that “in a year or two her barns will be overflowing”’ (“Nebraska's Bitter Fight,” 13). To some extent, given the burden placed on him by certain “interests” to “get the truth,” Crane must have felt compelled to enter into this suspiciously optimistic rhetorical defense of Nebraska as a safe place for capital investment. And while Crane did attempt to counter “extraordinary reports which have plastered the entire state as a place of woe” (“Nebraska's Bitter Fight,” 12), his overall account of conditions is decidedly bleak.

The “business interests of Nebraska,” as a consequence, could hardly have been entirely pleased by Crane's imaginative portrayal (somewhat sensational after all) of the onset of the drought in the summer of 1894:

From the southern horizon came the scream of a wind hot as an oven's fury. Its valor was great in the presence of the sun. It came when the burning disc appeared in the east and it weakened when the blood-red, molten mass vanished in the west. From day to day, it raged like a pestilence. The leaves of corn and of trees turned yellow and sapless like leather. For a time they stood the blasts in the agony of futile resistance. The farmers helpless, with no weapon against this terrible and inscrutable wrath of nature, were spectators at the strangling of their hopes, their ambitions, all that they could look to from their labor.

(“Nebraska's Bitter Fight,” 4)

Nor would those business interests have been much pleased by Crane's account of the subsequent winter of 1894-95, one of the harshest in memory, which he experienced first-hand and therefore gave a sense of impressive immediacy, writing from an Eddyville rooming house where “the temperature of the room which is the writer's bedroom is precisely one and a half degrees below zero”:

Meanwhile, the chill and the tempest of the inevitable winter had gathered in the north and swept down upon the devastated country. The prairies turned bleak and desolate.

The wind was a direct counter-part of the summer. It came down like wolves of ice. And then was the time that from this district came that first wail, half impotent rage, half despair. The men went to feed the starving cattle in their tiny allowances of clothes that enabled the wind to turn their bodies red and then blue with cold. The women shivered in the houses where fuel was as scarce as flour, and where flour was sometimes as scarce as diamonds.

(“Nebraska's Bitter Fight,” 6)

It was during Crane's journey by rail from Lincoln to Eddyville, according to Thomas Beer, that at “a dreary junction town” in Dawson County he chanced to see the light blue hotel that was to serve as the germ of “The Blue Hotel.” “In a hotel painted so loathsomely,” Beer suggests, “some dire action must take place and, after four years, he made it seem so.”16 Of Eddyville itself, very likely one of the small towns later to serve as a partial model for Fort Romper,17 Crane reports: “Approaching it over the prairie, one sees a row of little houses, blocked upon the sky. Most of them are one storied. Some of the stores have little square false-fronts. The buildings straggle at irregular intervals along the street and a little board side-walk connects them. On all sides stretches the wind-swept prairie.” “This town was once a live little place,” Crane writes of Eddyville, “where the keepers of the three or four stores did a thriving trade.” What he saw when he arrived there, however, was “as inanimate as a corpse,” a place where “in the rears of stores, a few men, perhaps, sit listlessly by the stoves” (“Nebraska's Bitter Fight,” 9-10).

What Crane saw in Eddyville was a scene of economic depredation brought about by a set of unfortunate natural conditions, not malevolent cosmic ones; and when he finally set about writing “The Blue Hotel,” these conditions along with their practical economic implications could hardly have been far from his mind—and all of this associated with that memorable blue hotel. But Crane's conceptions of the “true conditions” of the West had been formed in some measure even before he arrived in Eddyville. His journey there from Lincoln had been delayed by his much-reported “arrest” (more likely only a brief detention, as Bernice Slote has suggested) on unspecified charges for interfering in a barroom fight in a Lincoln hotel the night before his departure for Eddyville. As Beer recounts this episode, Crane pushed himself between “a very tall man” who was “pounding a rather small one.” “‘But thus I offended a local custom,’” Crane wrote of the encounter. “‘These men fought each other every night. Their friends expected it and I was a darned nuisance with my Eastern scruples and all that. So first everybody cursed me fully and then they took me off to a judge who told me that I was an imbecile and let me go. …’”18

This episode, actually more reminiscent of the staged confrontations between Jack Potter and Scratchy Wilson in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” than of the grim and savage encounter between the Swede and Johnnie in “The Blue Hotel,” must have impressed Crane with the peculiarities of local custom on the Western frontier, especially as it pertained to the display, and the containment, of human violence. His consistent vision of the West, in the group of Western stories he wrote between the summer of 1897 and late 1899, is of a place where the inclination to violence is never far from erupting to the surface, though as a matter of carefully calculated public policy that particular feature of Western reality is generally suppressed by a not disinterested citizenry. And as I am about to suggest, this is exactly the social reality that Crane depicts in “The Blue Hotel.”


What Crane accomplishes in “The Blue Hotel” (if the story is viewed, as I am suggesting, as a kind of cultural critique) is essentially the “unmasking” of a coercive socio-cultural situation, one in which significant economic forces operate beneath the social surface to inform what may broadly be considered a motivating and, in the general context of theories like Turner's, a peculiarly American frontier ideology. I am using the term ideology here to describe, in the words of Sacvan Bercovitch, “the system of interlinked ideas, symbols, and beliefs by which a culture—any culture—seeks to justify and perpetuate itself; the web of rhetoric, ritual, and assumption through which society coerces, persuades, and coheres.”19 At the root of this ideology in “The Blue Hotel” is the submerged but nonetheless powerful assumption that peaceful order is the sine qua non of a modern economic progressivism, that violence—whether man-made or meteorological, reputed or real—is the absolute nemesis of the capitalist free enterprise system. Substantively, this ideology is inscribed in “The Blue Hotel” in a number of ways, as I shall try to show, but most notably in a rhetoric and an accompanying system of (what for want of a more suggestive literary term we may call) “manners” that deny violence, suppress it, attempt to veil or curb it, and, when all else fails, work ceremonially, almost ritually, to defuse, contain, or otherwise mask its presence behind an affirming guise of civilized normalcy.

The violent snowstorm in which the action of “The Blue Hotel” occurs need hardly be considered the manifestation of some transcendent and malign cosmic force. It is a real storm, even “historical” in the sense that Crane experienced one like it during his Nebraska visit.20 It is symbolic, I would suggest, only in the limited sense that it represented for Crane the whole complex of naturally occurring violent conditions that threatened the economic recovery, indeed survival, of a radically depressed area. It represents the causes of the oppressive anxiety and frustration for which, at the same time, it serves as a highly suggestive background. Uncontrollable and unrestrained, moreover, this natural violence serves the artistic end of accentuating the proclivity for violence in the human community it contains. Crane ironically suggests, more to the point, that the human community has an even greater potential for violence than the storm itself: the Palace Hotel, with its garish blue contrast to the colors of the natural world, “was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush” (“Hotel,” 142).21

It is of course Pat Scully, that priestly entrepreneur, who has the most to gain or lose in this fragile economic environment and therefore Scully who works the hardest (in both language and act) to affirm a benign climate that has at least all the superficial appearance of peacefulness and civilized stability. His guests are made to feel, with a purpose, that attempting to escape his kindly blandishments would be “the height of brutality” (“Hotel,” 143). Yet Scully's propitiatory acts are almost comically at odds with the volatile situation he is struggling to control. Having captured the cowboy, the Easterner, and the Swede at the railway station he subsequently ushers them, “with boisterous hospitality,” into a room dominated by an enormous stove “humming with god-like violence” where Johnnie and an old farmer are involved with almost equal heat in a game of High Five: “They were quarreling. Frequently the old farmer turned his face toward a box of sawdust … and spat with an air of great impatience and irritation. With a loud flourish of words Scully destroyed the game of cards and bustled his son upstairs …” (“Hotel,” 143). This is followed by a kind of initiatory rite in which Scully conducts these guests through (what the cowboy and the Easterner have almost certainly been through before) an almost liturgically precise series of tranquilizing “ceremonies” by which they are “made to feel that Scully was very benevolent. He was conferring great favors upon them” (“Hotel,” 143). Scully's language and his actions seem clearly and deliberately calculated to create a placid atmosphere free of physical threat. But the Swede, who merely “dipped his fingers gingerly and with trepidation” in the basin of water Scully has offered him, is dangerously and mysteriously dissident. He represents, and acts according to, that mythologized view of the West as a place of violence and danger (viz., the Eastern view) that Scully and the others are determined, in the full sense of that word, to deny, in a kind of unwitting in-group conspiracy through which this society, to repeat Bercovitch's terms, “seeks to justify and perpetuate itself.” To put this more succinctly, Western ideology, spurred on at a subliminal level by largely capitalist considerations, motivates the production of a peace-affirming counter-myth. The Swede's particular myth, according to the Easterner (who is probably right), is derived from a fictional, dime-novel context; but as events of the story ultimately make clear, the competing counter-myth is equally fictitious. As Richard Slotkin points out in “Myth and the Production of History,” “myth is fictional in a double sense: it is an artifact of human intelligence and productive labor (although it may be made to appear as a ‘fact of nature’); and it is a ‘falsification’ of experience—a partial representation masquerading as the whole truth.”22 Myth and ideology, in this respect, are essentially inseparable. At least in this particular context, myth might profitably be thought of as the end-product of the distortions worked upon reality by an informing ideology.

The extent to which language, behavior, and event in “The Blue Hotel” are markers of competing ideologies, competing myth and counter-myth, is made clear if, as an instance of culturally purposeful narrative, the story is approached as an example of what Clifford Geertz has called, borrowing the term from Gilbert Ryle, ethnographic “thick description.” “Doing ethnography,” Geertz explains, “is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherences, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.”23 Whereas Geertz is here making a case for culture being “read” as literature (“as interworked system of construable signs,”24) it is obviously the case that much is gained, invoking Geertz's corollary idea of “blurred genres,” if we read literature culturally. This way it is far easier to understand the extent to which, in “The Blue Hotel,” the violent reality of a frontier cultural situation is being systematically distorted in the service of specific ideological interests, even though the specific actions through which this distortion is accomplished or even the ultimate purpose of these actions is not fully understood, not fully willed, by those collectively engaged in them. Human activity, the “human movement” noted by the Easterner at the conclusion of the story, all inclines towards the accomplishment of an economically progressive cultural assent.

If we return to the story itself with this in mind, then, behavior that at first might seem random, trivial, purposeless, cosmically meaningless, is revealed as culturally meaningfull. In this sense, “The Blue Hotel” is not simply cultural portrait; it is, more complexly, cultural interpretation as well. Like ethnographic description, to again cite Geertz, “what it is interpretive of is the flow of social discourse; and the interpreting involved consists in trying to rescue the ‘said’ of such discourse from its perishing occasions and fix it in perusable terms.”25

What is it, then, that is getting “said”? The Swede, as I have already suggested, is the dissident outsider in this otherwise homogeneous group, and it is worth noting that his outsider status is reinforced by a narrative voice that consistently measures him from an insider viewpoint. In our first extended view of the Swede, he “seemed to be occupied in making furtive estimates of each man in the room. One might have thought that he had the sense of silly suspicion which comes to guilt. He resembled a badly frightened man” (“Hotel,” 144; emphasis added). What this distancing accomplishes is to intensify reaction to the Swede as an unfathomable cipher, representative of an ideologically conflicting viewpoint that, when finally vocalized, can be neither accepted nor acknowledged, as the baffled reactions of his listeners indicate: “Finally, with a laugh and a wink, he said that some of these Western communities were very dangerous; and after his statement he straightened his legs under the table, tilted his head, and laughed again, loudly. It was plain that the demonstration had no meaning to the others. They looked at him wondering and in silence” (“Hotel,” 144).

What immediately follows is a series of failed attempts to co-opt the Swede, to get him to “play the game” in real as well as ideological terms. But even before the Swede joins the game of High Five, it is plain to see that this game, played amidst the “profligate fury” of the storm, is a means by which the latent violence of the human community is simultaneously revealed and ceremonially contained. The old farmer, for example, agrees to the game “with a contemptuous and bitter scoff,” and it is not long before the game is “suddenly ended by another quarrel.” The old farmer leaves, but only after “casting a look of heated scorn at his adversary.” Small wonder that when the Swede agrees to join the game, he does so “nervously, as though he expected to be assaulted” (“Hotel,” 144-45). Far from placating him, the game only intensifies his fears, and understandably so since it is dominated by the “boardwhacking” cowboy:

Each time he held superior cards he whanged them, one by one with exceeding force, down upon the improvised table, and took the tricks with a glowing air of prowess and pride that sent thrills of indignation into the hearts of his opponents. A game with a board whacker in it is sure to become intense. The countenances of the Easterner and the Swede were miserable whenever the cowboy thundered down his aces and kings, while Johnnie, his eyes gleaming with joy, chuckled and chuckled.

(“Hotel,” 145)

As the only truly indigenous citizens of the West in this group, the cowboy and Johnnie appropriately, but with some irony given their shared protests of bewilderment at the Swede's view of Western conditions, come to represent the latent violence of Fort Romper in its rawest and least calculating form. It will be Johnnie who eventually fights the Swede and, in a litany of savage accompaniment, the cowboy who shouts “‘Kill him, Johnnie! Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!’” (“Hotel,” 160), this in spite of his earlier assertion that “‘this ain't Wyoming, ner none of them places. This is Nebrasker’” (“Hotel,” 152).

During this first card game the Swede's sense of being “formidably menaced” becomes, literally, most pronounced. Clearly, because of their reactions in common to the cowboy's board-whacking and because both are from “back East,” the Swede has mistakenly come to regard the Easterner as a kind of ideological ally. But now that the Swede asserts his belief that “‘a good many men have been killed in this room’” (“Hotel,” 145-46), the Easterner (who, as a travelling “drummer,” must have a good deal to win or lose in this economic environment) obtusely aligns himself with the others and their cooperative fiction of a peaceful West. “‘They say they don't know what I mean,’ he remarked mockingly to the Easterner. The latter answered after prolonged and cautious reflection. ‘I don't understand you,’ he said impassively” (“Hotel,” 146). Thus having “encountered treachery from the only quarter where he had expected sympathy if not help,” the Swede is now fully convinced that he “‘won't get out of here alive’” (“Hotel,” 146-47), and at this point therefore represents the greatest menace to the peaceful front Scully has taken such pains to create at the Palace Hotel—especially in view of the Swede's threat to take his custom elsewhere. Unwilling to lose a paying customer, Scully redoubles his efforts to pacify the dissident Swede: “‘You will not go 'way,’ said Scully. ‘You will not go 'way until I hear the reason for this business. If anybody has troubled you I will take care of him. This is my house. You are under my roof, and I will not allow any peaceable man to be troubled here’” (“Hotel,” 148).

That Scully's deeper motives are imbedded in the practical economics of the situation is made apparent in his subsequent efforts to convert the Swede to his own carefully nurtured ideology of non-violence, although during his attempts to proselytize the Swede he is not much helped by the fact that in the feeble light of the Swede's room “he resembled a murderer” (“Hotel,” 149). Scully's chamber-of-commerce exhortation on the virtues of Fort Romper as a commercial and cultural center is infused with the kind of “rhetoric of mission” that Bercovitch has elsewhere associated with that peculiarly American form of public address in which fact and rhetoric are seriously at odds, the “American Jeremiad,” a form with Puritan origins that has nonetheless persisted, according to Bercovitch, “throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in all forms of the literature, including the literature of westward expansion.”26 In the person of the immigrant Irishman Scully we see distilled the ideological views of what Bercovitch describes as “a population that, despite its bewildering mixture of race and creed, could believe in something called an American mission, and could invest that patent fiction with all the emotional, spiritual, and intellectual appeal of a religious quest.”27 Crane underscores the gulf between the fact of violence and the rhetoric of peace, prosperity, and progress, in subtle ways, as evidenced in the nature of Scully's sermonic delivery: “Scully banged his hand impressively on the footboard of the bed. ‘Why, man, we're goin' to have a line of ilictric street cars in this town next spring.’ ‘A line of electric street cars,’ repeated the Swede stupidly. ‘And,’ said Scully, ‘there's a new railroad goin' to be built down from Broken Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin' big brick school-house. Then there's the big factory, too. Why, in two years Romper'll be a met-tro-pol-is’” (“Hotel,” 149-50).28

While Scully is thus absorbed in establishing a relationship of backslapping camaraderie with the Swede upstairs, the others are engaged below in an analysis of the Swede's fearful state of mind. According to the Easterner, whose viewpoint on the matter seems entirely credible, “‘this man has been reading dime-novels, and he thinks he's right out in the middle of it—the shootin' and the stabbin' and all.’” After all, the cowboy adds (“deeply scandalized”), this isn't one of those really violent places, like Wyoming; this is Nebraska. “‘Yes,’ added Johnnie, ‘an' why don't he wait till he gits out West?’” (“Hotel,” 152; Crane's emphasis). This suggests that the cowboy and Johnnie have the same misconceptions about conditions of violence “out West” that the Swede, in their biased view, has about Nebraska. Because, as I suggested earlier, he is not altogether economically disinterested, the Easterner now finds himself in the somewhat compromising position of having to repudiate everyone's preconceptions about Western violence and laughingly denies that there is such a thing even in the “far” West: “‘It isn't different there even—not in these days. But he thinks he's right in the middle of hell’” (“Hotel,” 152). Given that the text of “The Blue Hotel” is saturated with terms of violent suggestiveness, it is hardly too much to submit that the Easterner's refutations have about them the hollow ring of false rhetoric, a rhetoric that has become second nature to him since in some (admittedly vague and unspecified) way he is himself representative of Eastern commercial interests and therefore bends the truth to meet his own needs. Unlike the Swede, whose deeper motives are as yet unformed, Mr. Blanc is a man of easy virtue, a “converted” Easterner who has been effectively seduced by the violence-denying ideology of the West.

But what, then, are we to make of the elaborate reversal that takes place in the Swede's behavior after the upstairs episode with Scully? Up to this point, quarrels, registrations of scorn and contempt, a general atmosphere of just-barely-submerged brutality—a kind of generalized “board-whacking” demeanor—all have served in complex ways to reveal a latent predisposition to violent behavior, but at the same time have either displaced or masked that predisposition through a series of small rituals and rhetorical gambits, the most typical being the regulars' expressions of dismay at the Swede's fears and their insistent efforts to explain away those fears as part of some completely fictitious Eastern myth. At the evening meal—where he “fizzed like a firewheel”—it appears that the Swede is prepared to play a version of this game himself, but with this considerable difference: while he may model his behavior on a pattern he has seen operating around him, his particular brand of violence is not informed, and therefore not defused, by the same underlying cultural purposiveness—is not, that is to say, a part of the same social construction of violence that informs the behavior of the Fort Romper regulars. What Scully has created in the Swede, quite to the contrary, is a monstrous distortion of the terms of the game being played here. If Scully's instinctive strategy has been to exaggerate peace, the Swede's equally instinctive counter-strategy is to exaggerate violence. Neither drunk nor insane, as has been widely suggested, the Swede is simply, accommodating himself to the aggressive terms of his environment—doing as the Romans do, so to speak, with the result (as J. C. Levenson has observed) that his “wild fear” is changed to “wilder courage.”29 The consummate irony of “The Blue Hotel” is that in this process of change the Swede becomes the very thing he has feared. More precisely, he becomes a gross caricature of the reality of human violence untempered by either fear or the restraining influence of “interests.” He had been “scared,” Johnnie observes, but now he's “too fresh”:

The Swede domineered the whole feast, and gave it the appearance of a cruel bacchanal. He seemed to have grown suddenly taller; he gazed, brutally disdainful, into every face. His voice rang through the room. Once when he jabbed out harpoon-fashion with his fork to pinion a biscuit the weapon nearly impaled the hand of the Easterner which had been stretched quietly out for the same biscuit.

(“Hotel,” 154)

In the card game that follows, significantly, the Swede (having adopted a “new viewpoint,” as Johnnie puts it) now becomes the aggressive board-whacker, with the difference again that his aggressiveness does not serve as a masking strategy but serves, rather, to unmask duplicity. His accusation that Johnnie is cheating reveals that more than one kind of deception has been taking place in Fort Romper, that place of play and false fronts.

This fragile and deceptive system of order, this whole house of cards, it is too tempting to resist saying, comes falling down with incredible rapidity; it is as if “the floor had been suddenly twitched out from under the men. … The whole company of cards was scattered over the floor, where the boots of the men trampled the fat and painted kings and queens as they gazed with their silly eyes at the war that was waging above them” (“Hotel,” 156). Neither the Easterner (“importuning in a voice that was not heeded”) nor Scully (who “undoubtedly made the most noise, [but] was the least heard of any of the riotous band” [“Hotel,” 157]) can muster a sufficient rhetorical authority to counteract the violence that the Swede has unleashed. And so it is that Johnnie and the Swede must fight.

Given his usual efforts to go against the grain of events (and against his own suppressed inclinations, as it turns out), it is hardly surprising that Scully still seems convinced that some semblance of regularity can be preserved through ceremonial arrangement of the preliminaries, but once the fight begins, “the cowboy bounded into the air with a yowl,” and Scully stands “immovable as from supreme amazement and fear at the fury of the fight which he himself had permitted and arranged” (“Hotel,” 160). When the fight is finally over and Johnnie has been savagely defeated, the extent of Scully's suppression of his own potential for violent behavior is fully revealed. The Swede departs, and—

As soon as the door was closed, Scully and the cowboy leaped to their feet and began to curse. They trampled to and fro, waving their arms and smashing into the air with their fists. “Oh, but that was a hard minute!” wailed Scully. “That was a hard minute! Him there leerin' and scoffin'! One bang at his nose was worth forty dollars to me that minute!”

The old man burst into sudden brogue. “I'd loike to take that Swade,” he wailed, “and hould 'im down on a shtone flure and bate 'im to jelly wid a shtick!”

(“Hotel,” 164)

Consistent with his dominant economic motives, the wrathful Scully is still capable of placing a carefully deliberated cash value on a therapeutic poke at the Swede. One can only speculate as to why Scully (or Crane) should have settled on the particularly complex figure of forty dollars.

If the events occurring in and around the Palace Hotel can in some respects be considered comically ironic, what follows in the saloon is tragically so. The Swede, still bloody from the fight, opens his visit by announcing that he has just “‘thumped the soul out of a man down here at Scully's hotel’” (“Hotel,” 166), hardly a welcome revelation to this thoroughly “civilized” audience of “prominent local business men,” the Fort Romper district attorney, and a gambler, “delicate in manner,” “explicitly trusted and admired,” a man of “quiet dignity,” whose peacefulness is underscored by the rumored (certainly not actual) possession of “a real wife and two real children in a neat cottage in a suburb, where he led an exemplary home life” (“Hotel,” 166-67). Like the denizens of the Palace Hotel, who have refused to acknowledge what this dissident Swede represents, these men “in some subtle way incased themselves in reserve” (“Hotel,” 166). The same deceptive facade of civilized order, domestic normalcy, and moral decency that characterizes the Palace Hotel, in short, is recapitulated here in the fatal saloon. But none of this can obscure the reality that the gambler's virtuous identity is a sham, a convenient social construction (“popular,” Crane calls it) through which the practiced violence of this man, nothing more than “a thieving card-player” (“Hotel,” 167), is conspiratorially justified. He is a man just like any other man in this community of deceptions: “a scrutiny of the group would not have enabled an observer to pick the gambler from the men of more reputable pursuits” (“Hotel,” 166). As a means of preserving his economic hegemony, the gambler appears to be—indeed is collectively made to appear—what he is not: “so generous, so just, so moral” (“Hotel,” 167). He is just another man of business, like Scully, whose prosperity has been momentarily threatened by the Swede's disruption of the rigorously correct system of social forms by which his authority is established, maintained, and, worst of all from Crane's moral point of view, given a sanctifying and corrupting cultural assent. As the Easterner later remarks to the cowboy, “‘Seems there was a good deal of sympathy for him in Romper’” (“Hotel,” 169).

It is not simply environment either as some vaguely malevolent or randomly disinterested cosmic force that has created conditions leading to the Swede's death, but environment understood in exact cultural terms as precisely what the Easterner says it is, a “collaboration,” “a human movement” that has programmatically conspired to deny violent “true conditions” in order to simulate an atmosphere of stability favorable to a progressive economic achievement. Thus Fort Romper as a society “justifies and perpetuates” itself by constructing itself in its collective mind as something it is not. It therefore seems entirely appropriate and profoundly suggestive, in economic terms, that after his murder, the eyes of the dead Swede should be fixed on a message that appears atop a “cash-machine” (“Hotel,” 169).


Those who read a profound cosmic significance into what R. W. Stallman has called this “dramatic ending of the story” are set somewhat adrift by Crane's actual conclusion—“a second ending, a moralizing appendix,” as Stallman dismissively refers to it.30 What such readers find baffling to their cosmic interpretations is that Crane so plainly attributes the Swede's death to socio-cultural causes, and the moral failure arising out of those causes, rather than to the preferred transcendent ones. “The two endings,” Stallman insists, “contradict each other in their philosophical import. What traps the Swede is his fixed idea of his environment, but according to the second conclusion it is the environment itself that traps him. The two endings thus confound each other and negate the artistic unity of ‘The Blue Hotel.’”31 What Stallman is assuming here is that the Swede's “fixed idea” of the dangers inherent in this environment is false, and that the Swede in fact creates the conditions of violence that lead to his death. While it is true that the Swede adopts a mode of behavior that serves as a catalyst in provoking violence, he is subtly persuaded to adopt the fashion of aggressiveness and false bravado by what he is convinced are the accepted, indeed the demanded, terms of that environment. As events plainly prove, the Swede's views about violence finally turn out to be a more accurate conception of “true conditions” than the deceptively peaceful views collectively expressed by the citizens of Fort Romper. What causes the Swede's death, ultimately, is a general collusion on the part of Fort Romper society to deny its actual organizing principles, to indulge, in Slotkin's terms, in a cooperative “falsification of experience.” That only the Easterner finally recognizes what has taken place makes the entire society no less morally culpable, and redoubles the irony of the Cowboy's final protest, “‘Well, I didn't do anythin', did I’” (“Hotel,” 170).

The disposition towards violence and the felt need to conceal that disposition by various means is never far from the surface of “The Blue Hotel” but it is not the almost sole issue as is the case with two western stories Crane was to publish the following year (1899), “Twelve O'Clock” and “Moonlight on the Snow.” The themes he treats with subtlety and ambiguity in “The Blue Hotel” he treats with a directness, even a crudity, in the two later stories that makes them less memorable and less effective as artistic accomplishments but nonetheless valuable as indicators of his earlier intentions.

The first of the two stories, “Twelve O'Clock,” opens with the citizens of a nameless western town lamenting the negative effects on their economic progress of visiting cowpunchers' gunplay. In what follows, Ben Roddle, who returns to his home and sits in the cellar whenever the cowboys ride into town, is speaking of the latest outrage, the shooting of ten pumpkins in front of a local store:

“That don't do a town no good. Now, how would an eastern capiterlist”—(it was the town's humor to be always gassing of phantom investors who were likely to come any moment and pay a thousand prices for everything)—“how would an eastern capiterlist like that? Why, you couldn't see 'im fer th' dust on his trail. Then he'd tell all his friends that ‘their town may be all right, but there's too much loose-handed shootin' fer my money.’ An' he'd be right, too. Them rich fellers, they don't make no bad breaks with their money. They watch it all th' time b'cause they know blame well there ain't hardly room fer their feet fer th' pikers an' tin-horns an' thimble-riggers what are layin' fer 'em. I tell you, one puncher racin' his cow-pony hell-bent-fer-election down Main Street and yellin' an' shootin' an' nothin' at all done about it, would scare away a whole herd of capiterlists. An' it ain't right. It oughter be stopped.”

A pessimistic voice asked: “How you goin' to stop it, Ben?” “Organize,” replied Roddle pompously. “Organize: that's the only way to make these fellers lay down.”

(“Twelve O'Clock,” 171-72)

While this is admittedly a wilder West than the Nebraska setting of “The Blue Hotel,” the above quotation should make it clear that Crane is working out a very similar set of concerns: the perceived negative effects of violence on the “capiterlist” system; the felt need, as a result, to suppress those disruptive conditions; and, finally, the consequent justification of a defusing social “organization.” Certain formal elements of “Twelve O'Clock,” moreover, make it clear that Crane is working with a set of background circumstances ironically reminiscent of those in “The Blue Hotel.” Placer, proprietor of the “best hotel within two hundred miles,” is in nearly every respect the direct opposite of the garrulous Scully: “His customary humor was so sullen that all strangers immediately wondered why in life he had chosen to play the part of mine host.” He responds to a request for a banquet for a group of celebrating cowboys “with a certain churlishness, as if it annoyed him that his hotel was being patronized,” and seems mainly engaged in entering figures in his ledger behind “a wooden counter painted a bright pink” (“Twelve O'Clock,” 173). An entrepreneur of a different stamp from Scully, Placer is nonetheless just as ineffectual in quelling violent disturbances. He is killed intervening in an argument over what a cuckoo clock is and does: “Big Watson laughed, and, speeding up his six-shooter like a flash of blue light, he shot Placer through the throat—shot the man as he stood behind his absurd pink counter with his two aimed revolvers in his incompetent hands. … Placer fell behind the counter, and down upon him came his ledger and his ink-stand, so that one could not have told blood from ink” (“Twelve O'Clock,” 177). Blood and ink—the means for recording random violence on one hand, peaceful economic transaction on the other—are here commingled in a complex image that captures the insanity of their competitive ideological status in the violent West, an image of cultural dementia further enhanced (as it is by the image of the cash-register in “The Blue Hotel”) when “the tiny wooden bird appeared and cried ‘Cuckoo’—twelve times” (“Twelve O'Clock,” 178).

Crane was obviously aware of the cultural ironies involved in the strenuous pursuit of this ideology of peace and equally aware that its roots lay not in a high-minded pursuit of Justice on the western frontier (as it was popularly mythologized) but almost entirely in the unabashed desire for a prosperous and progressive economy. This is made clear beyond any serious doubt in the bland irony with which he portrays the conflict between a rhetoric of peace and the reality of violence in the second story, “Moonlight on the Snow.” As does “Twelve O'Clock,” this story opens with a group of citizens in the appropriately named town of War Post waking up to the economic facts that their widespread reputation for violence, of which they hitherto have been “grotesquely proud,” is keeping them from getting their fair share of Eastern dollars being invested in the West by the “serene-browed angel of peace.” Other, less deserving towns, which have “listened to his voice,” are selected as the sites of “mammoth hotels” and parceled into building lots—

But no change had come to War Post. War Post sat with her reputation for bloodshed pressed proudly to her bosom and saw her mean neighbors leap into being as cities. She saw drunken old reprobates selling acres of red-hot dust and becoming wealthy men of affairs, who congratulated themselves on their shrewdness in holding land which, before the boom, they would have sold for enough to buy a treat all 'round in the Straight Flush saloon—only nobody would have given it.

War Post saw dollars rolling into the coffers of a lot of contemptible men who couldn't shoot straight. She was amazed and indignant. She saw her standard of excellence, her creed, her reason for being great, all tumbling about her ears, and after the preliminary gasps she sat down to think it out.

The first man to voice a conclusion was Bob Hether, the popular barkeeper in Stevenson's Crystal Palace. “It's this here gun-fighter business,” he said, leaning on his bar, and, with the gentle, serious eyes of a child, surveying a group of prominent citizens who had come into drink at the expense of Tom Larpent, a gambler. They solemnly nodded assent.

(“Moonlight,” 179-80)

In the end, the citizens of War Post “resolved to be virtuous,” and “decreed that no man should kill another man under penalty of being at once hanged by the populace” (“Moonlight,” 181), all of this for what Crane paints as purely economic motives.

What finally distinguishes Crane's treatment of conflicting ideologies in “The Blue Hotel” from its treatment in the two stories I am discussing only briefly here is the pronounced difference in the level of awareness of motive in the characters themselves. In “The Blue Hotel,” only the Easterner recognizes, or expresses, any awareness at all of the extent to which the reality of violence has been masked by a collusive behavior. In both “Twelve O'Clock” and “Moonlight on the Snow,” on the other hand, this masking is proposed as an overt and deliberate social policy, and assent is public and vocal. As Tom Larpent, the cynical gambler in “Moonlight on the Snow,” remarks, “the value of human life has to be established before there can be theatres, water-works, street cars, women and babies” (“Moonlight,” 180). It is the cynical Larpent, moreover, who realizes that what is at issue is not a superficial matter of law and order, but a larger matter of economic expedience. Chiding his fellow citizens for their reluctance in carrying out this new “law” they have agreed on (he is its first and almost immediate transgressor), he says: “‘It seems to me there should be enough men here who understand the value of corner lots in a safe and godly town, and hence should be anxious to hurry this business’” (“Moonlight,” 182-83). Fortunately for Larpent, but unfortunately for the reputation of War Post, the planned lynching is witnessed by a stagecoach filled with Easterners and thus becomes just one more example of the town's essential lawlessness. The plan to hang Larpent turns back on itself, only having secured the image for unbridled violence it is meant to dispel. In the same sense that the killing of the Swede in “The Blue Hotel” is described by the Easterner as “a culmination, the apex of a human movement,” the willingness to hang Larpent is described as nothing more than “a detail in a set of circumstances at War Post” (“Moonlight,” 190), and of course those circumstances, as only Larpent is capable of understanding, amount to nothing more than shrewd economic policy, nothing more, finally, than “speculation in real estate” (“Moonlight,” 182).


  1. Jerome J. McGann, ed., Historical Studies and Literary Criticism (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), p. 4.

  2. Joseph N. Satterwhite, for example, has suggested that “‘The Blue Hotel’ is more nearly a parable than an immediate transcript of experience” (“Stephen Crane's ‘The Blue Hotel’: The Failure of Understanding,” Modern Fiction Studies, 2 [1956-57], 239). For James Trammel Cox, “Crane's fictional method is that of the symbolist rather than the naturalist in that he carefully selects his details not as pieces of evidence in a one-dimensional report on man but as connotatively associated parts of an elaborately contrived symbolic substructure” (“Stephen Crane as Symbolic Naturalist: An Analysis of ‘The Blue Hotel,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 3 [1957], 148). Hugh N. Maclean regards the world of “The Blue Hotel” as “isolated, mysterious, highly symbolic; it is not an ideal world, but one in which … the actions of men seem to have meaning beyond the immediate environment” (“The Two Worlds of ‘The Blue Hotel,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 5 [1959], 263). For Chester L. Wolford, “the hotel is an expression of ego and order, a worthy antagonist to the chaos of nature represented by a mindless, indifferent blizzard …” (Stephen Crane: A Study of the Short Fiction [Boston: Twayne, 1989], p. 31). Finally, Bruce L. Grenberg, in what may be taken as a representative summary of critical views on the story, asserts that “however interesting the literal story of ‘The Blue Hotel’ might be there can be little doubt that Crane was interested in depicting higher values related directly to the ultimate nature of man's existence.” In Grenberg's view, the storm is the “sine qua non” of the story's meaning and clearly has “symbolic,” “metaphysical,” and “cosmic” implications. The meaning of “The Blue Hotel,” ultimately, is imbedded in and must be made consonant with Crane's “religious and philosophical values” (“Metaphysic of Despair: Stephen Crane's ‘The Blue Hotel,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 14 [1968], 204).

  3. See particularly Frank Bergon, “Introduction,” The Western Writings of Stephen Crane (New York: New American Library, 1979), and J. C. Levenson, “Introduction,” The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, Volume V: Tales of Adventure, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1970).

  4. Daniel G. Hoffman, The Poetry of Stephen Crane (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957), p. 6.

  5. Larzer Ziff, The American 1890's: Life and Times of a Lost Generation (New York: Viking, 1966), p. 4.

  6. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History, ed. George Rogers Taylor (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1972), p. 6.

  7. Turner, p. 5.

  8. Ray A. Billington, “Frontier Democracy: Social Aspects,” The Turner Thesis: Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History, ed. George Rogers Taylor (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1972), pp. 162, 165.

  9. John G. Cawelti, Adventures, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976). See esp. Ch. 8, “The Western: A Look at the Evolution of a Formula,” pp. 192-259.

  10. Stephen Crane, “Nebraska's Bitter Fight for Life,” Stephen Crane in the West and Mexico, ed. Joseph Katz (Kent, OH: Kent State Univ. Press, 1970), p. 4. Future references are cited parenthetically in the text.

  11. John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. 20.

  12. Hicks, pp. 32, 34.

  13. Joseph Katz, “Introduction,” Stephen Crane in the West and Mexico, ed. Joseph Katz (Kent, OH: Kent State Univ. Press, 1970), p. xii.

  14. Katz, p. xiii.

  15. Qtd. by Katz, p. xii.

  16. Thomas Beer, Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (New York: Knopf, 1924), p. 113.

  17. For a complete account of the Nebraska towns that might have served as a composite model for Fort Romper, see Bernice Slote's “Stephen Crane in Nebraska,” Prairie Schooner, 43 (1969), 192-99.

  18. Beer, pp. 113-14.

  19. Sacvan Bercovitch, “The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History,” Critical Inquiry, 12 (1986), 635.

  20. See Slote, 195-96.

  21. Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel,” The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, Volume V: Tales of Adventures, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1970). All references to “The Blue Hotel,” “Moonlight on the Snow,” and “Twelve O'Clock” are to this volume and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  22. Richard Slotkin, “Myth and the Production of History,” Ideology and Classic American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch and Myra Jehlen (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 74.

  23. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic, 1973), p. 10.

  24. Geertz, p. 14.

  25. Geertz, p. 20.

  26. Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978), p. 11.

  27. Jeremiad, p. 11.

  28. The town Crane apparently has in mind here is Broken Arrow, Nebraska; and the fact that he changes it to Broken Arm (surely not a mere slip of the pen) seems calculated to embellish the image of a violent West, Scully's protests notwithstanding.

  29. Levenson, p. xcvi.

  30. R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: Braziller, 1968), p. 488.

  31. Stallman, p. 488.

Further Reading

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Bochner, Jay. “The Coming Storm of Modernism.” In American Modernism across the Arts, edited by Jay Bochner and Justin D. Edwards, pp. 7-30. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Includes Crane's work in a discussion of the beginning of modernism in America.

Church, Joseph. “Reading, Writing, and the Risk of Entanglement in Crane's ‘Octopush.’” Studies in Short Fiction 29, no. 3 (summer 1992): 341-46.

Uses Michael Fried's theories as presented in his book Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane to analyze “The Octopush.”

Dooley, Patrick K. “‘A Wound Gives Strange Dignity to Him Who Bears It’: Stephen Crane's Metaphysics of Experience.” War, Literature and The Arts (1999): 116-27.

Posits that the philosophy that Crane develops in his writing puts him in the company of thinkers like Plato.

Evans, Mark W. “Messianic Inversion in Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” American Literary Realism 31, no. 3 (spring 1999): 58-61.

Investigates the inverted relationship between the character's actions in “The Monster” and the Messianic actions in specific verses of the Bible.

Giles, Ronald K. “Responding to Crane's ‘The Monster.’” South Atlantic Review 57, no. 2 (May 1992): 45-55.

Addresses a variety of issues in “The Monster.”

Kersten, Holger. “‘The Pace of Youth’ and the Phantoms of Hope,” War, Literature and The Arts (1999): 172-82.

Explores the explicitness of meaning in “The Pace of Youth.”

Marshall, Elaine. “Crane's ‘The Monster’ Seen in the Light of Robert Lewis's Lynching.” Nineteenth Century Literature 51, no. 2 (September 1996): 205-24.

Relates the lynching of Robert Lewis to “The Monster.”

Robertson, Michael. “Stephen Crane's Other War Masterpiece.” War, Literature and The Arts (1999): 160-71.

Suggests that Crane's “War Memories” deserves a place next to The Red Badge of Courage.

Schaefer, Michael. “Life During Wartime—And After: Some Thoughts on Stephen Crane's Spitzbergen Tales.” War, Literature and The Arts (1999): 209-22.

Shares the author's thoughts on Crane's Spitzbergen stories.

Shaw, Mary Neff. “Crane's ‘The Sergeant's Private Madhouse.’” The Explicator 58, no. 4 (summer 2000): 204-06.

Refutes the “popular” reading of Crane's “The Sergeant's Private Madhouse.”

Sorrentino, Paul. “Stephen Crane's Manuscript of ‘The Devil's Acre.’” The Papers of the Bibliographic Society of America 94, no. 3 (September 2000): 427-32.

Offers a bibliographic study of Crane's manuscript of “The Devil's Acre.”

Szumski, Bonnie, ed. Readings on Stephen Crane. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Collection of essays on Crane's fiction.

Additional coverage of Crane's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 21; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865–1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 109, 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 84; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 54, 78; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Poetry for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 11, 17, 32; World Literature Criticism; Writers for Young Adults; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.

Oliver Billingslea (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Billingslea, Oliver. “Why Does the Oiler ‘Drown’? Perception and Cosmic Chill in ‘The Open Boat.’” American Literary Realism 27, no. 1 (fall 1994): 23-41.

[In the following essay, Billingslea investigates the question of whether perception can alter what is seen and its importance to “The Open Boat.”]

Essential to any reading of Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat” is the recognition that its presentational mode—its emphasis on experience preceding essence—is a technique which precludes ideological truths. Much more important to Crane's work than naturalistic determination is his concern with both the “limitations of knowledge” and the “potentiality for sudden flashes of insight in moments of recognition or epiphany.”1 For instance, when the narrator informs us at the story's conclusion that the men “felt that they could then be interpreters,”2 there is no guarantee that what they interpret will be correct. In fact, once ashore, the men may have second thoughts and like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage read auguries where there are none. They may be as far removed from understanding reality as ever, and so may we—unless we examine carefully every detail of our reading experience.

What does, however, remain a certainty about our reading of “The Open Boat” is the centerless process reflected in an impressionist mode—an artistry which depicts “the thing itself” in terms of sensory data—which in Crane, as in the impressionist works of James or Conrad, gets at the essence of the thing while maintaining a sense of the “supreme fiction” of all experience. Crane's art is clearly focused upon “seeing.” As an impressionist and in contrast to the dominant realism of his time, he “chose to emphasize not the nature of an external reality but the problem of perceiving it.”3 What is disturbing and challenging to the reader is Crane's placing him at a point between a character's apprehension of a reality and the narrative perception of that apprehension. The place from which we see things in Crane's writings, as David Halliburton has shown, can be “anywhere and everywhere, now a character, now a group, now a ‘somewhere’ from which an indeterminate voice—if it is a voice—says things only the author would know, but does not seem to be the author's.”4 In “The Open Boat,” drama alone is the thing; the fictive process, the essence—all other certainties deconstructed. Like Wallace Stevens' poetry, Crane's art is a search for the Supreme Fiction, embracing, like the title of one of Stevens' poems, “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.”

Stephen Crane knew that “experience” is a relational term and that no experience can be regarded apart from the experiencer. Perception affects the emotions of an observer to the degree that he alters what he sees, which in turn renders further emotional effect, which in turn further alters. As Joseph Conrad once defined the term, an impressionist writer is one who concerns himself with “the imaginative analysis of his own temperament”5 in the act of perceiving. For a painter like Claude Monet, each rendering of a grain stack, of waterlilies, or of the cathedral at Rouen was an act of perception; in other words, Monet was not just painting grain stacks, but in each canvas was rendering an interrelationship between object and personal temperament. Crane's quest, like that of Monet, like that of James and Conrad, was to see an object, in the words of Walter Pater, “as it really is”—which was in effect “to know one's impression as it really is.”6 His style, as Frank Bergon has deftly pointed out, “is one which interprets life as fragmented and unpredictable … about which it is difficult to form conclusions. It attempts to render immediacy through presentation of sensible data before that data has been integrated and perhaps falsified by reflection.”7


“The Open Boat” begins by contending its characters' visual innocence—“None of them knew the color of the sky” (885)—and in the final section only then clarifies what the correspondent has come to see through a learned and stoical detachment:

When the correspondent again opened his eyes, the sea and sky were each of the gray hue of the dawning. Later, carmine and gold was painted upon the waters. The morning appeared finally, in its splendor, with a sky of pale blue, and the sunlight flamed on the tips of the waves.


For the correspondent, by the seventh section, vision has been stripped of illusion, the scene an unambiguous configuration of color (except of course for the verb “was painted” which still involves sensory perception as well as objective reality). Any propensity we might have to read symbolic coloration has been replaced by the existential reality of the thing itself (in this case, a sunrise upon the sea) and by the correspondent's cogent analysis of his own temperament. Without transcendent expectations, it is a scene preparatory to what happens as the men try to get ashore—where what awaits them is a scene like “a deserted village” (905). What man learns is his own insignificance and impotence. At one point, like a truant altar boy, he may wish “to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples” (902), but there is available to the man neither the godhead, nor even its building blocks—but only the sea, against whose metronomic time he has had to measure himself. It is the sea—the great matrix of life—to which he must adjust his own rhythm. The phrasal repetition, as the story open in media res—“None of them knew the color of the sky … [yet] all of the men knew the colors of the sea” (885) —establishes the reiterative rhythm for the remainder of the story. As part of Crane's presentational method, it also establishes the problem of perceiving an ideal—the heavens—in conjunction with the necessitated knowledge of the immediate, suggesting that facts must precede interpretation.

From the story's outset, then, Heraclitean contraries abound: for every widening of the horizon there is a narrowing, for each falling a rising; even the imagery is comprised of mixed metaphors, the “jagged” waves accentuated as dangerous “rocks” lending the situation a kind of epic quality, but imitating simultaneously the etched, nerve-jarring experience of the sea—“at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks” (885)—the monosyllabic style of the passage complementing its content. In the story's opening lines, as later on, the men are “played upon” as much as they act. Their eyes “glance” level, but in turn are “fastened” (885) upon what they see; they both act and passively receive action. When the narrator does intrude, as he does immediately in the second paragraph, it is to lend a jocular contrast to a dangerous situation. His venturesome “Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea” (885) is at once singular and inclusive; the verb “ought” is conjectural, not actual; and the “bath-tub,” a device for holding water, is a comic inverse of the boat which of course must ride upon the sea and resist filling. Mocking as he does the failed perceptions of the men in the boat, the narrator entertains the “wrongful” and “barbarous” nature of the waves, not because they are in fact so, but because they seem so in the eyes of the men. Deliberately distancing us from the experience, Crane writes: “In the wan light, the faces of the men must have been gray. Their eyes must have glinted in strange ways as they gazed steadily astern [italics mine]” (886). Clearly the men have no time to observe one another in the face of oncoming waves, but neither are we allowed to see their faces—we who have never been at sea in a dinghy, vulnerable before the face of Nature.

These contraries, especially the relationship between the object perceived and the temperament of the perceiver, are, of course, what Crane intends the reader to see and what the men in the boat are to learn if they are to learn anything of value. The voice of the narrator with his limited-omniscient point of view already knows the nature of the learning process, but he will allow us at present no more than a glimpse.

Modulating its mood, as if “The Open Boat” further shared something in common with impressionist music as well as painting—one critic has, in fact, called it “Debussy in the subjunctive”8—Crane juxtaposes, for example, the reiterative and somber tones of “‘We're not there yet,’ said the oiler in the stern” (887)—the line which closes part one—with the lightsome opening of the second movement: “As the boat bounced from the top of each wave, the wind tore through the hair of the hatless men” (887). In contrast to the cello-like tone which forebodes the story's sorrow, hinting as it does at the oiler's pessimism, part two announces the nerve-wringing excitement of the ride. The modulating, musical quality of the broad vowels in the phrase “broad tumultuous expanse” contrasts with the higher-pitched vowels in “shining and windriven” (887). The overall impression is one of grandeur and a sort of apocalyptic trumpet-announced resolution—a linguistic sense-data explosion—just prior to Crane's once again reminding us that the story remains a “presentation” and that we are not in the boat: “It was probably splendid,” he writes. “It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber [italics mine]” (887). The point is that there are things we cannot know or should not carelessly celebrate. The dispassionate narrator, who well knows what we are worth in the scheme of things, distances us from the sea's glories, which are presented as “probabilities.”

It is clear that the imposition of a distant perspective serves to qualify whatever absolute reality there might be. Crane's persona continuously distances us from the men in the boat. And like cinematic blackouts or episodic closures in modern theatre, Crane's divisions seem arbitrary and based more upon “exigencies of tone and theme rather than those of time.”9 As one critic has summarized, “Based on Crane's own experience, the story presents a test which occurs when tension stretches the thinking process to the limit of its capacity for order, or pushes thought into a state of arrested liminality.”10

Crane's mode of literary “presentation,” then, emphasizes acts of seeing, both literal and metaphorical, on the part of persona, characters, and reader. It is altogether appropriate to apply to his practice Joseph Conrad's famous credo from “The Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus”:

All art … appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to seek the secret spring of responsive emotions. … My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.11

But while Crane's commitment to “impressionism,” like Conrad's, was to make us see—was, in fact, an involvement of temperament as well as eyes—his commitment was also primarily to keep before himself and before the reader the presentational process itself—as Michael Fried has pointed out, perhaps keeping before us “the written words themselves, the white, lined sheet of paper on which they were inscribed, the marks made by his pen on the surface of the sheet, even perhaps the movement of his hand wielding the pen in the act of inscription”—and, more than that, to “metamorphose” writing and the process of writing “in images, passages, and, in rare instances, entire narratives.”12 What Fried, of course, is describing is a technique prevalent in post-modernism, which in respect to music, for example—that “art of arts”—becomes “sound about sound, technology about technology.”13 Outside of Emily Dickinson's poetry, such a technique is admittedly rare in the nineteenth century, but in “The Open Boat,” when the land, which earlier had been “thinner than paper” (891), rises from the sea—“from a black line it becomes a line of black and white” (892)—although we are told we eventually see “trees and sand” (892), we are also keenly aware of the event as a written process. It is a tenet of literary impressionism that never must the written word efface itself totally in favor of its meaning, but like the impressionist painting must always recognize that what is important is the “process” by which fictions are realized. As Halliburton has shown, “In a world of signifiers, a world in which everything seems weighted with sense, no ultimate signifier emerges, but only, if you will, a sense of sense,”14—a sort of “impress” of the pen. Stephen Crane asks us “to take the phenomenal world on its own merits”15 It is a human desire to interpret, to confer meaning, and to “say” to the universe that “Sir, I exist!”16 but as Crane says in his famous poem, this desire does not create a sense of obligation on the part of nature. His perspective draws a consonance between perception and the object being perceived and comforts, warms itself against the universe's indifference—against its “cosmic chill”—with the conceptual truth that all experience is a supreme fiction, a “made” thing that celebrates the human spirit.


It is with caution, then, that we approach two of the major questions often asked by inexperienced readers of this short story: Why does the oiler perish? And does his perishing carry any significance? Eric Solomon posed these questions most firmly in his book, Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism,17 but his answers today seem unsatisfactory—too simplistic. There are of course possibly a number of reasons why the oiler perishes, as well as a number of morals to be drawn from his death, but given the context of literary impressionism, we should from the outset now recognize that all remain conjectural. What is most important in our reading of the story is the process of deciphering, repeating the process the men undergo as they try to be interpreters—readers of their own experience. The similarity between the content and the form of the story is the result of literary impressionism, the stylistic/epistemological process—its “presentational” mode—constantly qualifying its moral/existential matter.

Even an elementary reader can catch the odd-man out routine: that among three c's and an o, the o doesn't fit; and surely more than one student has smirked that “oil and water don't mix.” We note after a first reading that only the oiler is given a name, suggesting perhaps the Darwinian dictum that Nature cares nothing for the individual, only the type. Ideologically that is a reason the oiler may drown: that Nature, as Crane's peer Jack London put it, “had no concern for that concrete thing called the individual.”18 In any sort of “spelling game”—the men do “spell” one another (899-900; 904), that is, they aid one another in their endless struggle against the sea—in any sense of the word, the oiler is clearly dependent upon their “brotherhood.” In fact, it is that brotherhood—that basic society—which protects us as “the naked ape,” otherwise vulnerable to the elements. But facts, of course, precede ideologies, and there are facts about this “tale intended to be after the fact” to which we must return before we decide that it is Billie's prodigal nature that determines his fate.

Most apropos to the oiler's drowning is his exhaustion. Though he might have originally been the most fit, Crane makes it clear that he and the correspondent do most of the rowing—“They rowed and they rowed” (889)—and (though the correspondent consciously rows much of sections five and six) it appears that the oiler does more than the correspondent. Even when the captain offers his overcoat as a makeshift sail, it is the oiler who steers; and it is he who always seem to be responding “‘A little more south,’ sir” (886) or “‘A little more north,’ sir” (892). In section five when overpowering sleep blinds him, “he rowed yet afterward” (899)—warmed perhaps by his belief in “the subtle brotherhood of men” (890). Though all have gone without proper sleep during the ship's foundering and have “forgotten to eat heartily,” the narrator—reminding us that none of the men is in “pink condition”—at this point slips in his ironic little “by the way” (891): telling us that prior to his embarking into the dinghy, the oiler had worked a double shift in the engine-room. Like “the thin little oar … that seemed often ready to snap” (885), the oiler's body from the outset is clearly fatigued and ready to break; “weary-faced” (891), he has become only more exhausted by the thirty hours at sea.

Edwin H. Cady's contention, however, more than thirty years ago, that Billie is every bit as much a Christ-figure as Melville's Billy Budd19 now seems ill-considered on both counts—Eric Solomon argued convincingly that “the reader cannot identify the whole man by a number of Christ echoes”20—but Marston LaFrance's subsequent suggestion that the oiler's death “is in [no] way sacrificial”21 seems equally amiss.22 Like the cook, the oiler shares for a time a piece of the boat, which, though frail, suffices: be it “the six inches of gunwale which separated [the cook] from the ocean” or the “thin little oar” (885) by which the oiler rows. Clearly, a participant in what the narrator describes as a friendship of “a more curiously iron-bound degree than may be common” (890), the oiler does sacrifice himself in his willingness to take upon himself the brunt of the rowing, but it is not a Christian sacrifice. It was his duty—or so the oiler perceived. It was his absolute respect for authority. According to the narrator, “It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for common safety. There was in it a quality that was personal and heartfelt” (890)—a total “devotion” to the commander, this indefatigable “iron man” (900) of the boat whose quiet voice, despite its tone of “humor, contempt, tragedy,” often soothed “his children” (888).

In exploring other avenues, one might be tempted to argue a bit humorously that the oiler suffers in some sense from the “Ancient Mariner” syndrome. At one point, they encounter a flock of Canton flannel gulls, which “flew near and far” or “sat comfortably in groups,” and to whom “the wrath of the sea was no more … than it was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand miles inland” (888). Clearly adaptability is at issue here. The birds have adapted; the men are having trouble. But what does not seem natural is the gulls' attempt to invade the sanctity of the boat. Misreading their conduct as “uncanny and sinister,” as “somehow gruesome and ominous” (888), the men react with some degree of Romantic illusion to these “Coleridgean albatrosses.”23 When the gull with black bead-like eyes tries to alight on the captain's head, it is the oiler who is the first to swear at it. To others than the captain, its presence seems ominous, and the oiler's comment that it is an “ugly brute,” appearing as though it “were made with a jack-knife” (888), later comes back to haunt the correspondent in the form of a shark who furrows the water like a “monstrous knife” (901). While his middle-of-the-night encounter with the shark of course assures us that “intention” plays no part in the sea's dealing with these men, perhaps only the captain understands that in the encounter with the sea gulls. Wisely the captain seems more interested in protecting his hair than he is in reading any symbolism into the bird's actions. He is probably not of the “some” (888) who envy the birds their adaptability, nor of the “others” (888) who find them ominous.

Neither a naturalist nor a romantic himself, certainly Crane would never punish the oiler because he swore at a bird. Yet, the fact is there: the oiler condemns. Later the correspondent may swear softly at the sea in his encounter with the shark, but he learns something in that experience that the oiler does not: that “the speed and power of the thing was greatly to be admired” (901). He may not at first appreciate the rawness of sound and light—the grainy texture of experience—but like his more sophisticated counterpart, the dispassionate narrator, he is coming face to face with “the thing itself.” As I have suggested—not as cause and effect, but as a kind of rhyme—the oiler, having cursed one of “God's creatures,” the correspondent receives in a return visitation something tantamount to a palpable “presence” (901), a message of force or energy like Adams' dynamo, which in its subverbal voice communicates only the fact that “I am.” Of the four men in the boat, it is the oiler alone who misses seeing the shark.

Then there is the little numerological matchgame that forebodes the precarious comradeship of these men. When the correspondent discovers the eight cigars—four of which are soaked, four scatheless—we are presented with the numerological possibility that at least a fifty percent chance of survival hangs in the balance—that is, if the three dry matches subsequently produced are shared. This clever little matchgame suggests of course the possibility of surviving by the men's bonding together, though we should be forewarned that the complicity of men can at times have an adverse effect, as it does in “The Blue Hotel.” Their pomposity as they “puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men” (893) is both inflated and mocked by the narrator's subsequent observation that “Everybody took a drink of water” (893). It is a marvelous line, Crane's way of punctuating the scene with a “dash of hubris.”24

In that subsequently published story men bond together in acts of both commission and omission to drive the Swede out into the snowstorm where he will violently meet his death in a “red” saloon beyond the portals of the blue hotel. There Pat Scully's fatherly patronage of his “adopted” child contributes to his death by fueling his arrogance. Having granted the Swede a “license” to prey on his own ne'er-do-well son Johnny whom he is all-too-willing to sacrifice—having granted the Swede a temporary sanctuary against the murderous world in which “the snow-flakes were made blood-color”25—Pat Scully cannot protect him once he has abandoned the blue hotel, any more than can the captain, let us say, protect the oiler, once the boat has been swamped by the sea. Expelled into a deterministic world in which “lice [are] caused to cling to a whirling, fire-smote, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb,”26 with nothing but the engine of his own pride, the Swede meets the gambler, who has been given his own predator's “license” by the citizenry of Fort Romper. In “The Blue Hotel,” according to the Easterner, all are to blame, the gambler functioning as a sort of “adverb” to the Swede's demise—Pat Scully, we sense, chief among them as Crane's false “father-god.” Still, the observation remains: surely the captain is a better man than Pat Scully; surely the “subtle brotherhood” should have forged a life-saving bond—not a false one—in the direct encounter with the sea. Even though the Easterner may well be wrong in his theory of collaboration—in his interpretation “after the fact”—(from the outset the Swede's paranoia had led him in search of an assassin), Crane's impressionist's technique should indicate that “The Open Boat” will be less deterministic than “The Blue Hotel.” In other words, we should be cautious in arguing too strongly the “brotherhood” reason for the oiler's death.

As might be said of Conrad's The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” this story is about the inexorable closing in of circumstance to reveal the temperament of men aboard a ship, and that temperament, as we have shown, is that of obedient children—so long as the men are in the boat. Why, then, when the boat swamps, does the oiler heedlessly set off swimming toward shore, embracing it seems an “every man for himself” philosophy? He alone at that point does not have a part of the boat, abandoning, it appears, whatever lessons about sharing he might have learned. The cook has a life-jacket, the correspondent a piece of lifebelt, the captain himself the keep of the overturned dinghy for a time being. Has the Captain somehow failed his “child”—like Pat Scully, the Swede? Whatever the case, the oiler sets out “swimming strongly and rapidly” (907), as if he had never heard of Ecclesiastes' moral lesson that “the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong,” nor of the tale of the tortoise and the hare. He seems to have forgotten everything the brotherhood might have taught him. What this story has meant to critics like Eric Solomon is a rather simplistically drawn moral: that “man's ambitions are limited” and that the survival of “[t]hree out of four is pretty fair success.”27

Significantly, “The Open Boat” is subtitled “A Tale Intended to Be After the Fact. Being the Experience of Four Men from the Sunk Steamer Commodore.” But what is “fact” and what is “fiction” is difficult to determine—not only in respect to why the oiler “drowns,” but in respect to the several accounts of the disaster itself. First of all, a great deal of irony may lie in Crane's “intentions.” For though the story is “a tale intended to be after the fact,” we can demonstrate various discrepancies between it and reported fact. Despite the anecdotal tale of Crane reading his manuscript aloud to Captain Edward Murphy in one of the private dining rooms at the Hotel de Dream “in order to find out whether he had his facts right,”28 the story may be “after the fact,” simply in respect to its order of publication. A third possibility is that Crane intended the story to be “natural,” experiential. He most likely meant that as an artifact “The Open Boat” is a paradigm of what happened off the coast of Florida and rendered without reductive moralism. Beginning in media res, he certainly shows little interest in the causes that led up to the experiences of four men being suddenly flung together, nor does he show any interest in what will subsequently become of the three men who survive.

Of course one might argue that crucial to answering the question as to why the oiler drowns—perhaps even mitigating the multiple choices raised from examining the text—is the fact that on January 2, 1897, the chief engineer, William Higgins, who had made it to the dinghy with the others, died in trying to get ashore. Perhaps, then, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein's famous assertion, the oiler drowned, because he drowned, because he drowned. That would certainly explain “a tale intended to be after the fact”—except that we know that Crane was certainly free to change the facts when he wished. To what extent Crane heightened the seas that day off the coast of Florida or glossed over the ethics of Captain Murphy's conduct in leaving the seven men behind with the sinking Commodore, his work in “The Open Boat” as consummate artist cannot be denied. We know that there are details which Crane omitted from either his journalistic piece or “The Open Boat.” In addition to the cigars, there was “a little store of brandy” in the boat; Captain Murphy “repeatedly fired his pistol” to attract the attention of the people on the shore; and in the face of the undertow, Crane “jettisoned his chamois-skin belt containing the $700 in Spanish gold he hoped to expend in Cuba to report on the insurrection.”29 What is also clear in the various press accounts is that Higgins does not appear to have swum far away from the others.30 That seems to be an action limited to the fictional intent of “The Open Boat.” We know Crane changed facts as he saw fit, principally to enhance the power of his fiction published in Scribner's Magazine six months after the nearly fatal experience as reported in the New York Press (January 7) as “Stephen Crane's Own Story.” Most notably, to his short story he added the halo around the head of the man who tries to rescue the men.

With all due respect to the victim, then, it was not necessary that Stephen Crane “drown” the prodigal Billie—and yet he drowned, died, was killed—whatever! In fact, Marston LaFrance has claimed flatly that the oiler is killed by blind chance—“a death which could have come to any of the others with exactly the same significance in context.”31 If this is true, does his death signify, then, only the “immense value of brotherhood among living men”—a kind of stoic human will in the face of the world's contingencies, which, as LaFrance argues, is the “sole remnant of theology that survives in Crane's world”?32 As James Nagel has reiterated, “If human beings are unimportant to the universe, they can nevertheless be vitally important to themselves in their thoughts and feelings.”33 Does “The Open Boat” anticipate human commitment as the first step toward what Sartre would define as the dignity of the existential?

As was pointed out long ago, just as there is a slowly changing “three-fold view of nature” revealed in the characters' thoughts—“they see nature first as malevolently hostile, then as thoughtlessly hostile, and finally as wholly indifferent”—so a similar progress of ideas “also accompanies the men's deepening concept of brotherhood.”34 Their first is a mutual commitment of selfless co-operation to counteract physical danger; subsequently, the correspondent begins to realize (exemplified in his compassion for the dying soldier of the Legion) the symbolic universality of their situation; and finally, upon seeing the wind-tower, the correspondent—and perhaps the others as well—come to see not only the “unalterable indifference of nature,” but the “indefensible indifference of moral man.”35 In the face of “the lonely and indifferent shore” (906), they have developed for themselves a sense of ethical humanism.

At the end of the story, then, their sense of ethics seems reflected by the naked man “who had been running and undressing, and undressing and running” (909) to their rescue. He in a sense shatters the amorality of the shore, as do the men and women who instantly populate the beach, bringing with them blankets, clothes, flasks, and coffee-pots “and all the remedies sacred to their minds” (909). His fortuitous appearance precludes the natural phenomenon of what he is—“naked as a tree in winter”—and allows him to take on the iconography of a saint: “a halo was about his head, and he shone” (909). Schooled in “minor formulae” (909), the correspondent may see less than our dispassionate narrator sees, or what we in turn are learning to see—that this fellow is a “saint” stripped now of transcendence and seen as an “impression” or “fiction.” Like the near-naked soldier in Crane's “War Memories,” he is the human saviour crucified for us—the “naked tree,” the “halo” coalescing in “something meaningless and at the same time overwhelming, crushing, monstrous”36 that draws back the curtain briefly. The naked man loses his name in the short story (we know from the Press piece that he was John Kitchell, the manager of a boatyard and a ferry) but gains a “halo.” This symbol, not present in the New York Press article, was later added to the short story, then, partly as comical theophany, but mostly as representative of the actions of a moral being. If read impressionistically, he becomes one of those “life-saving illusions” Conrad writes about, and though he saves no one, remains necessary for our sustaining a belief in the “brotherhood of man.”

Did Billie, then, fail to learn this ethical responsibility one must have for another? Is this why this “wily surfman” drowned, taking his chances with the sea? I do not think so, because nowhere in Crane's work do we find a moral universe or the fact that man is necessarily punished because of his lack of ethics. Eric Solomon clearly oversimplifies when he writes: “The oiler dies because he did not retain the lesson of the sea that he learned while in the boat—the value of group action—and because, obeying his own hubris, he deserted the group at the end.”37

In examining why Billie broke away from the boat and failed to stay with the others, we might remember that we have been dealing in the boat with a hierarchical structure38 among the four men. At the top is clearly the captain—within him resides authority and wisdom. He is the one to give orders and have them obeyed, not only previously on the Commodore, but even in the dinghy which he commands despite his injury. Even when the correspondent thinks he is alone facing the shark's wrath, it turns out that the imperturbable captain has been all along aware of the situation—granting, it seems, a measure of dignity and freedom to his “child.” When the cook later encounters the same or a similar shark, the text again indicates that the captain was “wide-awake” (904). It is the captain who in “Stephen Crane's Own Story” gives advice upon the swamping of the boat, “as clearly as if he had been on the quarterdeck of a battleship,”39 who likewise in the short story tells those who will listen when to stay with the boat and when to let it go. It is he who knows how to call an action within the framework of a split second. Second in the hierarchy is the correspondent, the communicator who bridges politics with the social world, who as our central focus in this existential plight is learning what our worldly-wise narrator already knows. He is singled out for a mediating role because he alone understands the power of words to correspond to the experiential. He is most like Crane though he is not Crane. Consistently he “actualizes perceptions and attitudes that are potential in the others.”40 Next is the cook, the steward, who aboard the Commodore served his function as precisely as had the oiler his, but who has become incapacitated by both the loss of his role as food preparer and by his own weight, which is a liability. At the bottom of the social scale, it is the oiler who makes things run as smoothly as he can. He is most completely the worker, the proletariat, whose job is hierarchically taught him and which he has come to respect, even covet. Like Yank at the beginning of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, he has not come to question his function in society. On occasion his speech is archaic. His sacrifice, when it comes, is not one of Christian love, though it be “heartfelt”; his is an unquestioning duty in the hierarchy.

What Crane has perhaps done is to tap into a classist understanding of power and its delegation—of the relation between those who give orders and those who take. Once the boat capsizes, the oiler loses his assigned role. The sea—which represents absolute freedom—becomes his master. Just as Billie (the common man) has never had to think for himself—he has not needed to in the face of his father-figure—so when the boat capsizes and he sets out swimming rapidly, he fails to pace himself, to account for the sea's tempo and its total indifference to his being. Without a piece of the boat, without a remnant of his captain's protective power, he succumbs to the icy January waters, much as the Swede does when he is set at liberty into the blizzard outside Scully's blue hotel.

If actions register “the amount of your purchase,”41 then to some extent the oiler's thoughtless independence brings about his own death. Capacitated by the events, both the correspondent and the oiler share the rowing, but it is the thinker, not the doer, who survives. It is possible, of course, that muscle fatigue, coupled with the icy water, may have brought on some form of debilitating cramps. Stallman cites testimonies given by Captain Murphy that Crane himself suffered cramps and had to be held up by his one good arm. Those same testimonies also suggest (though the story does not state it) that Higgins may have been struck in the head by the dinghy or by an oar or other piece of debris. What is important is that in “The Open Boat” Crane has the oiler swimming away from the boat, not staying with it as he apparently did in reality,42 and that swimming away has got to be symbolic.

Temporarily, as it is clear from the text, the dinghy could become a life-preserver, as for a time it serves the captain, but also in the breaking surf, a lethal object. At one point, its seriousness is underscored by the narrator's intrusive reminder that “an overturned boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man” (908). As Bill Brown has pointed out, lest we mistake this life-and-death struggle only for a game—given as we are the histrionic, presentational nature of the story—Crane's remark is far from superfluous.43 It is a constant reminder that amid this “theatre of the absurd” man not only acts, chooses (as does the oiler) from among the illimitable choices allotted, but is acted upon, “played” as an actor is played by the drama. No matter what freedom man may feel he has, he is still an actor within a prescribed text. For while the correspondent may partially realize the danger in the boat, he seems less aware of “playing” and “being played.” As Brown has shown, “whereas the correspondent considers ‘his one little marvel’ an ‘event in gymnastics’ [908], the narrator wants it known that the event in fact has nothing to do with gymnastics.”44 Nor, we might add, with miracles. Though “the correspondent performed [italics mine] his one little marvel,” actually it was “a large wave [that] caught him and flung him [italics mine] over the boat and far beyond it” (908). It is the wave and not the man that has controlled the event; “another wave, another chance … might permit no such coloring of fact.”45 The correspondent is being “played,” as will be the oiler. The correspondent's brief joy at being nearly delivered must be contrasted with what has simultaneously happened to the oiler: one man's play, another man's agony. This is what the correspondent must come to understand if he is to embrace the reality of the cosmic chill. If the engine that warms his life—his illusory play—predominates, then he will have confronted nothing. His becoming most human is to embrace the relation between his temperament or perception and objective reality. Impressionism is everything.

If the lessons learned could not save Billie, if there were no one of the brotherhood who could save him—the sainted man with the “halo” certainly saves no one—there was something that could kill him. That thing is the sea. The same wave—that “miracle of the sea”—that caught the correspondent and “flung him with ease and supreme speed completely over the boat and far beyond it” (908) may in its undertow have caught the oiler and pulled him under. Then, again—perhaps it did not. Perhaps the oiler did not after all drown, but was struck and killed by the dinghy—the very object that had been his salvation for thirty hours. At any rate, there is great irony in the way Crane visualizes the aftermath of the oiler's death. His forehead touching sand “that was periodically, between each wave, clear of the sea” (909) suggests that the sea mocks the “wily surfman,” granting him arrival, as one critic has pointed out, “on its own terms … by subjecting the seat of his intelligence to the implacable rhythms of its own great factuality.”46 If the image of the “upturned face” throughout Crane's work represents tragedy writ large on the consciousness of the perceiver of each face47—one thinks of the several corpses which Henry Fleming encounters in The Red Badge of Courage; of Henry Johnson's disfigurement in The Monster; of the derelicts in “An Experiment in Misery”; of the dead body in the story appropriately named, “The Upturned Face”; or those ghastly corpses in “When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers” or “Death and the Child”—perhaps the oiler lying “face downward” (909) symbolizes the occasional utter mystery of closure. As J. C. Levenson has pointed out, “at the end of the story the vanity of life and the somber reductiveness of death”48 exist side by side. If Darwin's explanations help clarify the oiler's death (he did not adapt), so too do Marx's (he willingly sacrificed himself, perceiving it his place)—so too does the Newtonian mechanistic indifference of the universe (he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time). Upon his arrival at shore, there is no further sight on his part, no further insight to be made on the part of the survivors.

All theories about “this great stage” and our perception of it, of course, depend upon our understanding Crane's theme of Nature's indifference to the plight of man. Well established in the works of Stephen Crane is the lack of obligation the Universe has toward mankind, what in “The Open Boat” is called “the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual” (905). Perhaps the gold and bluish lights that appear as “the furniture of the world” (899) near the outset of section five represent the extremes of comedy and tragedy between which man acts out his human drama. In the fact of the sea's waves, one scarcely knows whether to laugh or cry. All illusory notions, however, cease with the knowledge one gains of “a high cold star on a winter's night” (902). When we, like the men in the open boat, realize that the universe, like the wind-tower, is “a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants” and is “indifferent, flatly indifferent” (905), thereafter we know the pathos of our situation. In the flash of an impression that is like light, illuminating for an instant (as Crane recalled in his “War Memories” the scene of that near-naked body of a soldier, illuminating “all the dark recesses of one's remotest ideas of sacrilege, ghastly and wanton”49), so in an epiphanal moment in “The Open Boat” is something meaningless made “overwhelming, crushing, monstrous”50: no star of Bethlehem, this, but a work written as “a high cold star”—a light distant even to the nadir of our despair, rendering all experience pathetic and subject to a “cosmic chill.”


Just how deep this “cosmic chill” runs is demonstrated in the fourth of seven sections, wherein there is a drama on the beach—a sort of play within a play, depicting man's pathos. Like the greater whole, this structural center of the story, in respect to what happens on both water and land, is a series of reiterations, revisions, and contradictions of fact: for instance, a tide tries to force the boat southward, but wind and wave northward; St. Augustine cannot be the city spotted, because it is “too near Mosquito Inlet” (895); comforts are juxtaposed with pains in a “theatre of innumerable muscular conflicts” (895). Things are “almost certain” (895), but not assured, and the dangerous ocean becomes “a great soft mattress” (895) onto which one might tumble “comfortably.” Crane, inverting the theatrical metaphor, the men in the boat now become an audience witnessing a drama unfold upon the shore, which “lower than the sea” (896) is now the stage.

When the “man on the shore” (895) appears, the play of mental paralysis begins. Ironically, the oarsman, with his back to the shore, can see nothing. But according to the interpretive commentary of various other members of the crew, the man walks, stops, faces his audience, waves, goes on—runs. Equally incongruous of course is the bath-towel (which will dry no one), but which “by some weird chance is in the boat” (896) can be used as a signal (which will be understood by no one). The man stands still, looks, goes on, stops—the play a forerunner of Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The man is then joined by another “actor” who does much the same. The revisionist view of things is accentuated by the discussion of the life-boat omnibus “sure as fate” (896). But when the two men are joined by a third who waves “a little black flag” (896) which under revisionary procedure becomes “his coat” (897), frustration sets in, and we witness a kind of Pinteresque nightmare. Nothing makes sense. And what is peculiar about the whole sequence is the anonymity of speaker, as if we could overhear, but not see the play's audience. In a sense we see nothing directly: we experience only impressions and disembodied words voicing those impressions. What happens on the beach unfolds in silence; what happens in the boat is reflected only in sound. We are not even sure who “the oarsman” (896) is during this sequence. When we do momentarily focus on Billie, it is merely a prelude to more anonymous speech and frustration. The rapidity of speech gives us a sense of urgency, and the men, by speaking as one voice, the impression only of a unified goal. The reader himself is drawn into the process as he is forced to make an effort to connect speaker with sound. Mimesis becomes perception—realism the process unfolding. The drama, on the other hand, which unfolds upon the beach and which the men try to interpret resembles nothing so much as a scene from the Theatre of the Absurd, for after some time of fruitless explanation, the men realize that the man revolving the coat about his head “like a wheel” (897), whatever the reason for his signals (we are never really sure what he is doing—we have only the words of the men in the boat), “don't mean anything. He's just playing” (897).

As the man continues his performance, “a faint yellow tone [comes] into the sky” (898), ominously suggesting, as “yellow” does throughout Crane, what is to come. As he blends gradually into the gloom, together with the rest of the objects on his stage, the sea “when it dashed uproariously over the side, made the voyagers shrink and swear like men who were being branded” (898). Like Cain's children, they face their fate. Interpretation, which is a constant process of revision, becomes a multiple guess, mocking our own quest to interpret in the conclusion why the oiler drowns—or if the “drowns” at all. Perhaps, after all, the story deconstructs and there is no reason—Crane himself only “playing” (897), venting his anguish.

Whatever the “reality” of that man waving the coat, theatre and audience constitute one logos, and the distinguishing characteristic of reality is that it is “played” on the minds of the audience “caught up in the play of concepts which designate [reality].”51 As Wallace Stevens so succinctly put this concept in “Of Modern Poetry,” “an invisible audience listens / Not only to the play, but to itself.”52 The cosmic chill rises as perception fails to find a suitable meaning—“what will suffice.”53 It is only human that in the face of the sea—of the great “I Am”—the men “feel” that after so much experience they can be interpreters. To face the void otherwise would be madness.

If “The Open Boat” has an argument, it is less the indifference of the universe to mankind, less the need for brotherhood and community which alone might mitigate the dangers inherent in the universe as regards the individual, but more properly the failure of the imagination to confront the forces of the universe relativistically. As an impressionist work, it denies, as it must, the transcendental, except as an illusion in the theatre of the mind. We do not “play” as much as we are “played.” We do not act as much as we are killed.

“The Open Boat” fuses the tale of adventure with the fiction of consciousness. As a tale told after the fact, its immediacy is its consciousness imposing an imaginative order upon the anarchy of Crane's experience. Its plot is a “movement toward understanding”; its theme, that although men cannot control what happens, they “can at least come to a rational perception of their fate”54 and like Wallace Stevens understand the “colors of the mind.”55

How far Crane had wandered from the Methodism of his father—from the man whose moral principles were so strait-laced that his contemporaries declared him “an unusually noble mind straitened by dogma and a narrow education,”56 who in obeisance to his “wrathful Jehovah” and “the right way” had advocated “total abstinence from novel reading henceforth and forever”57—is made clear by an investigation of “The Open Boat.” In its epistemological concerns, we see how much Crane distrusted dogma and fixed truth, which were disengaged from perceptual realities. Like his contemporary, E. A. Robinson—another of the late nineteenth-century's “children of the night”—Crane found what blocks he could by which he might spell God. Those blocks were the sensory data of impressionism. His ruling passion was curiosity. Like Henry James, who found refuge in a “religion” of consciousness, and like Joseph Conrad, who embraced the saving “illusions” of mankind, Crane is truly one of Cain's children—one of us—struggling to make an acceptable sacrifice. Against the inhumanity of his father's creed, he was to write of his kinship with fallen humanity:

I stood upon a high place,
And saw, below, many devils
Running, leaping,
And carousing in sin.
One looked up, grinning,
And said, “Comrade! Brother!”(58)

The story's final paragraph embraces the quotidian truth of the constancy of wind and waves in the imagination of men; as the wind brings forth “the sound of the great sea's voice”—the eternal “I Am”—like Satan in the Book of Job, the waves pace “to and fro” (909).


  1. James Nagel, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism (University Park: The Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1980), p. 113.

  2. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” rpt. in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, ed. J. C. Levenson (New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 909. All subsequent references to this primary text will be cited parenthetically.

  3. Nagel, p. 113.

  4. David Halliburton, The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. 11.

  5. Joseph Conrad, cited in Stephen Crane: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), p. 2.

  6. Walter Pater, cited in Bloom, p. 2.

  7. Frank Bergon, Stephen Crane's Artistry (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1975), p. 28.

  8. John Ditsky, “The Music in ‘The Open Boat,’” North Dakota Quarterly, 56 (Winter 1988), 123.

  9. Ditsky, p. 124.

  10. Angus Fletcher, Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), p. 109.

  11. Joseph Conrad, “The Preface” to The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1979), p. 146.

  12. Michael Fried, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 119-120.

  13. John Leland, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Newsweek, 27 Jan. 1992, pp. 56-58.

  14. Halliburton, p. 249.

  15. Halliburton, p. 245.

  16. Stephen Crane, War Is Kind, rpt. in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, ed. J. C. Levenson (New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 1335.

  17. Eric Solomon, Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 158-176.

  18. Jack London, “The Law of Life,” rpt. in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 3rd Edition, ed. Nina Baym et al. (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1989, II, 860.

  19. Edwin H. Cady, Stephen Crane (New Haven: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962), p. 154.

  20. Solomon, p. 174.

  21. Marston LaFrance, A Reading of Stephen Crane (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 204.

  22. Crane's novella, The Monster, is in this respect pertinent. It is about two kinds of sacrifice: an unintentional one, which results in Henry Johnson's disfigurement; and a conscious one, which results in the Trescotts' ostracization. One seems fated, the other free-willed; and both types may be applicable to Billie.

  23. Solomon, p. 164.

  24. Solomon, p. 166.

  25. Stephen Crane, “The Blue Hotel,” rpt. in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, ed. J. C. Levenson (New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 822.

  26. Crane, “Hotel,” p. 822.

  27. Solomon, p. 167.

  28. R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1968), p. 257.

  29. Stallman, p. 252.

  30. Stallman, p. 252.

  31. LaFrance, p. 204.

  32. LaFrance, pp. 204-205.

  33. Nagel, p. 104.

  34. Mordecai Marcus, “The Three-Fold View of Nature in ‘The Open Boat,’” Philological Quarterly, 41 (April 1962), 512.

  35. LaFrance, p. 203.

  36. Crane, “Memories,” cited in Nagel, p. ii.

  37. Solomon, p. 174.

  38. If we look for comparison to contemporary literature—at the twentieth-century equivalent of “four men in a boat,” James Dickey's Deliverance—we see that both stories are built upon hierarchies—levels of maleness in Deliverance—class strata in “The Open Boat.” In neither instance is it the apparent strong-man who necessarily survives or saves the rest. In both cases a degree of adaptability is essential.

  39. Stephen Crane, “Stephen Crane's Own Story,” rpt. in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, ed. J. C. Levenson (New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 884.

  40. Halliburton, p. 246.

  41. Crane, “Hotel,” p. 826.

  42. Stallman, p. 252.

  43. Bill Brown, “Interlude: The Agony of Play in ‘The Open Boat,’” Arizona Quarterly, 45 (Autumn 1989), 24.

  44. Brown, pp. 24-25.

  45. J. C. Levenson, “Introduction,” The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, V: Tales of Adventure, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: The Univ. of Virginia Press, 1970), p. lxv.

  46. Ditsky, p. 129.

  47. Fried, Realism, pp. 93-161.

  48. Levenson, “Introduction,” lxvi.

  49. Crane, “Memories,” cited in Nagel, p. ii.

  50. Crane, “Memories,” p. ii.

  51. Brown, p. 26.

  52. Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), p. 240.

  53. Stevens, p. 239.

  54. Levenson, “Introduction,” lxvi-lxvii.

  55. Stevens, p. 466.

  56. Stallman, p. 5.

  57. Stallman, p. 15.

  58. Stephen Crane, The Black Riders and Other Lines, rpt. in Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, ed. J. C. Levenson (New York: Viking Press, 1984), p. 1301.

Price McMurray (essay date spring 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9377

SOURCE: McMurray, Price. “Disabling Fictions: Race, History, and Ideology in Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Studies in American Fiction 26, no. 1 (spring 1998): 51-72.

[In the following essay, McMurray provides a historical reading of “The Monster.”]

The critical history of Stephen Crane's story of a black man who becomes a social outcast after his face is destroyed in a laboratory fire is divided unevenly between moralists, theorists, and historians.1 Irony and textual unity are no longer fashionable, but common sense and the bulk of informed opinion continue to find Henry Johnson less of a “monster” than the community that ostracizes him. If one scholar's recent defense of the citizens of Whilomville is meant as pragmatic historicism, this argument nonetheless reverses the traditional moral and might be grouped with the more theoretical accounts of scholars like Fried and Mitchell, who describe a writerly and less realistic Crane.2 Without joining a rich debate about Crane's understanding of ethics or the categorical problem of his relationship to realism, we can classify most treatments of the novella as either moral and implicitly humanistic or hermeneutic and post-structuralist. That both these strands of reading have tended to bypass the problem of history is not surprising, for Crane's text invites a universalizing reading, and his treatment of race exposes the historicity of novella and critic alike. Because Henry's marginalization seems to be primarily the result of an accident, it makes sense to see his blackness as incidental to a transhistorical moral about the need for tolerance or, somewhat more subtly, interpret his unusual plight as a meditation on the defacing effects of writing. Moreover, the story presents racial stereotypes—Crane's likening, for instance, of Henry and the Farragut women to “three monkeys”3—that seem to imply a disconnection between Crane's sympathy for Henry and any progressive racial awareness.4 In this light, Patrick Cooley's anachronistic indictment of Crane's “sadly limited racial consciousness” (p. 14) is persuasive, while Stanley Wertheim's rejection of readings which attempt “to modernize “The Monster” by reductively centering attention on Henry Johnson's blackness” (p. 98) seems a rearguard action, a generic appeal to historical difference which will not suffice in our era of highly politicized canons.

While we might understand Crane's acquiescence in racial stereotyping as a corollary of his naturalism, a strategy for negotiating the marketplace, or as part and parcel of his general contempt for humankind, we would still be left with the problem of why “The Monster” offers the interpretive temptation Wertheim urges us to resist. Henry's accidental “monstrousness” is not at a great remove from the racist constructions of the black as “burly beast” or “savage” current when Crane wrote the story. Similarly, the community's response may be Crane's way of making a general statement about intolerance, but given the context of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), it is difficult not to think that the more specific issue is segregation.

Situating “The Monster” in the context of late nineteenth-century racial ideology, I suggest that the central problem of the story—what to do with Henry after his accident—restages a debate about black extinction and white philanthropy. Less abstractly, I speculate that Henry's precarious existence recalls the death of Robert Lewis, who was lynched in Crane's home town of Port Jervis, New York, in the summer of 1892. In light of these connections, Crane does not so much act as polemicist writing a roman à clef (or an apologist offering the rationalization that racism is an accident) as he allows ideology to shadow his story and disrupt the realistic surface of his text. If Crane's passing allusion to the burning of the engraving “Signing the Declaration” in his description of the destruction of the Trescott house is a nod to one of the enduring contradictions of American political life, it is also the most obvious marker of a densely allusive ideological subtext that runs beneath—often counter to—the surface of “The Monster” and links it to contemporary debates about segregation and miscegenation. In short, although Crane has made it easy for us to rehearse his novella as a universal story about social misfits, a sufficiently historical reading of “The Monster” may serve to show that his thinking about race (and realism) was more complex than is generally acknowledged.

Both the fact of Crane's ideological involvement and the obliquity of his procedure are suggested by pursuing the hypothesis that Plessy is a shaping context for the novella. While “The Monster” does not allude to the case with the explicitness, say, of Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, several details nudge us in this direction. Jimmie's destruction of a flower in chapter 1, which almost all critics understand as foreshadowing Henry's fate, is a case in point, for he is playing train. Recalling the nineteenth-century habit of likening black suffrage to a child's driving a train, we might feel that the novella begins not with a young boy's fantasy but with the politics of segregation.5 When Henry is removed from the burning house by “a young man who was a brakeman on the railway” (p. 26), or Reifsnyder and the engineer Bainbridge debate in chapter 14, it would be difficult not to suspect Crane of quietly establishing a meaningful pattern of detail.

The most suggestive appearance of this motif is in chapter 18, after Henry has been pursued through the streets of Whilomville and finally captured by the police. Concerned about growing unrest within the community and faced with a problem because “no charges [can] be made” (p. 48) against Henry, the chief of police visits Trescott, urging him to intervene and recalling the events of the previous evening: “He began to run, and a big crowd chased him, firing rocks. But he gave them the slip somehow down there by the foundry and in the railroad yard. We looked for him all night, but couldn't find him” (p. 48). While the chief's bafflement is credibly realistic, Henry's disappearance in the railroad yard is also a narrative correlative for his ambiguous legal status. The irony here is that the historical and allegorical (in this case ideological) senses of Crane's text contradict rather than reinforce one another. Henry Johnson the “monster” may represent a category outside the law and find refuge in the railway yard, but Henry Johnson the black man would have found that it was in the neighborhood of the railroad that his legal status was defined with the most punishing clarity.

Crane's references to the railroad are few enough that we might suppress historical and ideological irony in the name of realist common sense, but to do so would complicate rather than simplify the novella. Crane's decision to cast a physician as Henry's protector, fundamental to the story's conception, has a similar complicating irony, for the role the nineteenth-century medical community played in establishing and promulgating racist ideology is well documented. John Haller, for instance, notes that “throughout the late nineteenth century the physician remained the chief source of information for comparative race analysis”; on the basis of census numbers, crime statistics, and anthropometrical data such as cranial measurements, the members of the medical community found themselves “generally agreed on the condition of the Negro.”6 The grim consensus, to which Crane seems to allude when he locates Henry's accident in a physician's laboratory, was that the extinction of the black race was a certainty.

Trescott is not a proponent of scientific racism, and the broad irony of a doctor's acting as Henry's protector could be fortuitous; however, Crane hints that Trescott's reaction to Henry's destruction is shaped by his education as a physician. Upon learning that Henry is still within the burning building, the generally mild-mannered doctor lapses into a fit of rage: “These cries penetrated to the sleepy senses of Trescott, and he struggled with his captors, swearing, unknown to him and to them, all the deep blasphemies of his medical school days” (p. 26). The phrase “unknown to him and to them” may make the ironic point that the closest Trescott can come to “deep blasphemies” (or heroic resistance) is to mutter under his breath, but there is no doubt that Henry's fate returns Trescott to his medical school days. This academic history, which Trescott fails to recognize in the spectacle before him and Crane declines to detail, lies at the back of the doctor's determination to protect Henry and is presumably the source of the barely-suppressed emotion a “leonine” (p. 30) Trescott shows when Judge Hagenthorpe suggests that Henry should be allowed to die.

The doctor seems psychologically compelled rather than ideologically aware, but his dilemma, generally understood as an abstract problem about the competing demands of obligation and a need for acceptance in the social order, also reflects the discourse of race. One of the by-products of nineteenth-century scientific racism was a critique of philanthropy that held that any attempt to resist the Darwinian certainty of black extinction was unintentional cruelty. William Benjamin Smith, for example, waxes naturalistic and elegiac as he presses the case against “racial immorality” in The Color Line (1905):

But even if it were possible for us to turn back the tide of time, to stay or slacken the rolling of the wheel of birth, would it be well or wise to do so? We venture to question it most seriously. There is a personal and even a social morality that may easily become racially immoral. There are diseases whose evolutionary function is to weed out the weak, and so preserve the future for the strong. The sufferers cannot be treated with too careful attention, too loving gentleness, too tender sympathy. It is the glory of our humanity to cherish these frail flowers, to water them with dew, to shield them from the sun, and not to suffer even the winds of summer to visit them too roughly. But not to gather from them the seed for generations to come! Let theirs be the present, but not the future. He who should discover some serum and apply it greatly to prolong their lives and give them equal chance with the vigorous in the matter of offspring, whatever thanks he might win from individuals or the community, would deserve and receive the execration of his race as its deadliest and most invidious foe. So too, we hold it to be certain that all forms of humanitarianism that tend to give the organically inferior an equal chance with the superior in the propagation of the species are radically mistaken.7

The disconnection between tenor and vehicle in this cloying endorsement of genocide may strain belief, but its floral and medical imagery are reminiscent of “The Monster,” as is The Color Line's concern with the problem of monstrousness. Smith presupposes black regression, imagines miscegenation as a Frankensteinian “serum,” and predicts that the humanitarian will become a moral monster worthy of the “execration of his race,” but couches his argument in an insistently naturalistic rhetoric which, while perhaps meant as a palliative for a Christian audience, is more distressing than any straightforward declaration of racist intention would have been. Smith's attack on misguided sympathy illuminates the ideological subtext in the crucial conversation between Trescott and Judge Hagenthorpe in “The Monster”:

There was in Trescott's face at once a look of recognition, as if in this tangent of the judge he saw an old problem. He merely sighed and answered, “Who knows?” The words were spoken in a deep tone that gave them an elusive kind of significance.

The judge retreated to the cold manner of the bench. “Perhaps we may not talk with propriety of this kind of action, but I am induced to say that you are performing a questionable charity in preserving this negro's life. As near as I can understand, he will hereafter be a monster, a perfect monster, and probably with an affected brain. No man can observe you as I have observed you and not know that it was a matter of conscience with you, but I am afraid, my friend, that it is one of the blunders of virtue.”

(p. 31)

The “old problem” is less scientific hubris or simple euthanasia than the familiar race question. Trescott and Hagenthorpe consider the specific case of Henry Johnson, maimed by an accident, but their conversation moves within the precincts of a larger system of belief in which black regression and eventual extinction were givens. When the judge makes the chilly determination that Trescott would be “performing a questionable charity in preserving this negro's life,” it is difficult not to hear the racist critique of philanthropy in the background.

The real bone of contention for racist ideologues was miscegenation or, as Smith puts it, “the matter of offspring,” and Crane's carefully-constructed ethical dilemma traps Trescott in just this sort of sacrificial logic. The doctor may acknowledge that his son's survival requires the destruction of a black man, or he may resist and follow a quixotic “blunder of virtue” to its logical and “monstrous” conclusion, but escape the dilemma he cannot. Or so we might infer from Trescott's halting account of his obligation: “What am I to do? He gave himself for—for Jimmie” (p. 32). Trescott's sense that his dilemma somehow involves a choice between Henry and Jimmie is inchoate; however, his limited capacity for insight here is consistent with his regressive rage during the fire and suggests a limit to the novella's critique: Trescott is at odds with the race analysis offered by his profession (and ratified by the law), but he cannot offer any sort of positive alternative.

Henry's plight restages the “monstrousness” of black regression, and Trescott's “blunder of virtue” is a version of the philanthropy attacked by racists; “The Monster” also investigates the central axiom of segregationist thought, namely, the construction of the black male as sexual predator. Henry's first tryst with Bella Farragut, for instance, is an exercise in low comedy which prepares for the grotesqueries of chapter 17, but this should not keep us from seeing that the central fact about Henry, at least so far as the community outside the Trescott household is concerned, is his sexuality. Similarly, the scene with the men in the barbershop allows Crane to establish Henry's dandyism without resorting to the inflammatory expedient of parading him before a group of white women.8 The obliquity of these scenes is of a piece with the latter stages of the novella, where Crane equivocates about whether the men or the women of Whilomville are most disturbed by Henry's disfigurement.

The event that most clearly links Henry to the sexual politics of segregation is his appearance at Theresa Page's party and subsequent flight through the streets of Whilomville. Henry is pursued by a stone-throwing crowd which includes men, women, and children, but the narrative dwells on the fear he inspires in women such as Bella Farragut, her mother, and the nameless Irish girl in the street. Henry's attempt to return to the community establishes a narrative trajectory which takes us from a party for a little white girl to a jail cell with a crowd gathered outside, a trajectory that just barely skirts the familiar scenario of a rape followed by a lynching.

The one recorded lynching of a black man in New York state in the last decade of the nineteenth century occurred in Port Jervis, Crane's hometown and the real-world model for Whilomville. While there is no direct evidence for Crane's whereabouts on June 2, 1892 or confirmation that he joined “Judge” William Crane in resisting the mob that lynched Robert Lewis for allegedly raping a white woman, it would seem beyond doubt that he knew of the lynching.9 On June 3, the day after the lynching, a front-page story appearing in the New-York Tribune under the headline “Mob Law in New-York” recounted the lynching, concluding melodramatically: “A noose was adjusted about his neck, and he was strung up to a neighboring tree in the presence of a howling mob of over a thousand people.”10 Damage control began almost immediately, and a much longer article appeared in the next day's paper, featuring the outrage of prominent citizens, promises of swift justice, and a spirited defense of the town by Mayor O. P. Howell: “We all deplore the lynching, as every decent citizen should. … Port Jervis is a thriving, growing place, and it is to be regretted that a disreputable mob should defy the officers of the law and commit a murder.”11 Editorials on June 4 and 5, the latter of which may have been written by the younger Townley Crane, echoed Howell, and the coverage of the proceedings of the coroner's jury, which began in a front-page article on June 7, featured testimony from a police officer who had been overpowered by the mob as well as continuing assurances that the identities of many of the culprits were known and indictments imminent.12 Yet the tide shifted quickly, and on June 10 a brief article declared that the coroner's jury probably would not implicate anyone in the lynching. On June 11, 1892, the Tribune printed the finding of the coroner's jury verbatim and without comment: “Robert Lewis came to his death in Port Jervis, June 2, by being hung by the neck by a person or persons unknown to this jury.”13

These newspaper articles indicate that the hypocritical intolerance of Crane's Whilomville is a good representation of the original article. Significantly, the affair was more one of intersectional public relations than race relations for Crane's contemporaries. The Atlanta Constitution mentioned the Lewis lynching in a brief editorial taking a dig at Northern criticism of Southern justice, and the June 7 Tribune article noted that Mayor Howell had been “fairly deluged with ‘crank’ letters from all parts of the country.” This snickering about a Northern “negro problem” suggests a ready and even gleeful cynicism on the part of Crane's contemporaries, but it is also indicative of a general cultural anxiety. There were forces at work in America in the 1890s that might erupt at a moment's notice and without regard for place or civic virtue.

The mixed messages of the lynching debate are recapitulated in twentieth-century universalizing accounts of Crane's novella, the primary difference being that we gloss over the uneasy repressions in the historical record. While Crane's contemporaries were unable to do the kind of cultural analysis that would led them link outbreaks of “lawlessness” with larger social and racial tensions, we seem to think the question too obvious to ask. Given the context of the Lewis lynching, might not the effect of “The Monster” be one of defamiliarization? Unless we want to see Crane's strategy as acquiescence at one remove, or, worse, a way of corroborating the analysis of his contemporaries, we have to assume that it was a critical gesture. The distance between the Lewis lynching and Crane's story could be reassuring, implying that a Southern eruption of racial violence in a town like Port Jervis was nothing more than an accident or a freak of nature; or it could be an oddly-veiled rehearsal of a painful scandal suggesting that the race problem had not yet been “faced.”

The conventional biographical reading is that the model for Henry Johnson was Levi Hume, who hauled ashes in Port Jervis and had a face disfigured by cancer.14 Simply to equate Henry Johnson and Levi Hume, however, not only depends on a largely uncritical endorsement of mimesis, as if Henry's facelessness were a simple equivalent to cancer, but it also seems inappropriate, for a story dramatizing the alienating effects of facelessness perhaps should not be so transparent in its historical references. Crane's belief that “The Monster” would be upsetting to the residents of Port Jervis, which he voiced in a letter to his brother, makes little sense if the story documents only the plight of a cancer victim ostracized by his community.15 A recent lynching would be greater cause for embarrassment. If not, we would have to assume that Crane's blindness was greater than we have imagined, that he was incapable of seeing any racial component in either the plight of Levi Hume or the lynching of Robert Lewis. Inasmuch as “The Monster” is clearly about race, and Henry's disfigurement is a rather studied example of what Fried describes as the “scene of writing” in Crane's work, we might do well to look for a more rather than a less complex solution to the problem of the historical referentiality of Crane's text. A more complex account might have it that Crane's conflation of a cancer patient and a lynching victim, though appearing to duplicate the medical and scientific account of race, marks a tension in his thoroughgoing naturalism. If Crane superimposes Levi Hume on Robert Lewis, effacing the racial content of his story and subordinating politics to biology, “The Monster” nonetheless details the anguish of a physician, and this anguish, which aligns Crane's art with the agon of resisting a naturalistic universe of death and disease, underscores his dissent from the consequences (if not the premises) of the naturalistic politics ratified by the findings of comparative race analysis.

That Crane's text alludes to the Lewis lynching, and does so quite warily, could be deduced from its treatment of journalism as Johnson lies injured in Judge Hagenthorpe's house after the fire:

The reporter of the Morning Tribune rode thither [to Judge Hagenthorpe's house] on his bicycle every hour until three o'clock. …

The morning paper announced the death of Henry Johnson. It contained a long interview with Edward J. Hannigan, in which the latter described in full the performance of Johnson at the fire. There was also an editorial built from all the best words in the vocabulary of the staff. The town halted in its accustomed road of thought, and turned a reverent attention to the memory of this hostler. In the breasts of many people was the regret that they had not known enough to give him a hand and a lift when he was alive, and they judged themselves stupid and ungenerous for this failure.

(pp. 29-30)

The premature report of Henry's death is striking, for the New-York Tribune was equally careless in its initial coverage of the Lewis lynching, referring to Lewis on June 3 as “Williams” and “Jackson.” While nineteenth-century newspapers were not as factually or typographically precise as their modern counterparts, this error is of a piece with the more disturbing banality that at least one other black man was nearly lynched in Lewis's stead.16 For either a lynching or its reporting, one black would do as well as another; and Crane's outlandish conceit of a man with no face, which the Morning Tribune inaccurately but rightly constructs as death, is a fitting representation of the racial status quo.

Inasmuch as Crane was a contributor to the New-York Tribune and worked summers from 1888 to 1892 at his brother Townley's news agency, it is reasonable to imagine that he was familiar with the coverage the Lewis lynching received. On this reading, the error in the Morning Tribune is both a sign of the times and an intertextual marker. The general shape of the fictional Johnson coverage, which includes a factual write-up, an interview, and an editorial, is reminiscent of the historical Lewis coverage, in which an initial story was followed by articles consisting primarily of interviews with persons close to the event and some editorializing. While any important event in a relatively small town might have been written up in this fashion, the New-York Tribune coverage of the Lewis lynching casts an odd shadow on Crane's apparently generic send-up of contemporary journalism. The hourly updates and civic boosterism mentioned in the Morning Tribune become all the more self-serving when set against the efforts of an embarrassed Port Jervis community at damage control. That the townspeople of Whilomville wish they had done more for Henry while he was alive becomes less a cynical commonplace of human psychology than a cutting allusion to the failure of the Port Jervis community in the face of mob violence. The phrase “a hand and a lift when he was alive,” which is at once an underestimation of Henry's initial status in the community and a redundant way of saying “help,” might be understood as a macabre glance at the mechanics of lynching.

The proposition that “The Monster” should be read against the backdrop of the Lewis lynching has a variety of interpretive advantages, not the least being that it makes the novella more culturally meaningful. Furthermore, Crane's experience might have predisposed him to weigh his culture's construction of race. It takes no love of psychology to imagine, assuming the story is reliable, that the experience of seeing a white woman stabbed by her black lover in the summer of 1884 had an effect on the twelve-year old Crane.17 The subject matter of Crane's first signed piece, a sketch of Henry Stanley published in 1890, suggests that race inhabited Crane's earliest sense of authorial vocation. While most adolescent boys like stories of travel and adventure, the life of the explorer appears to have interested the young Crane and might have shaped an (unconsciously) evolving literary program: much as Stanley explored and wrote of the exotic reaches of Africa, so too Crane would shortly find his métier by venturing into and describing the slums of New York.

That this “other” for Crane could be specifically black, rather than simply fallen, as were women like Dora Clark, could be inferred from “The King's Favor.” Published in May of 1891 in the Syracuse University Herald, “The King's Favor” is the story of Albert Thies, a tenor who performs for the Zulu King Cetewayo and, in recompense, is offered the King's wife.18 While the sketch's humor seems forced, its interest in miscegenation is reminiscent of a letter Crane wrote to Virginian Armistead Boland on February 16, 1892: “So you lack females of the white persuasion, do you? How unfortunate! And how extraordinary! I never thought the world would come to such a pass. … Just read the next few lines in a whisper:—I—I think black is quite good—if—it is yellow and young.”19 Crane's self-dramatization speaks volumes about what he considered transgressive, and still another early story suggests that he explored the issues of black regression and miscegenation in a consciously inflammatory fashion. Written in February of 1895, rejected by Harper's, and ultimately destroyed by Crane, “Vashti in the Dark” was reportedly the story of a Methodist preacher who kills himself after learning that his wife has been raped by a black in a forest.20 “Vashti in the Dark” does not survive, of course, and the story concerning the summer of 1884 may be apocryphal, but these events can be read as consistent with a larger pattern.21 If it is going too far to say that the shadow of race fell across Crane's adolescence and literary career, serving, perhaps, as the unstated premise of The Red Badge of Courage, the letter to Boland implies at least a prurient interest in miscegenation.

A somewhat more philosophical version of this interest is central to the argument of “The Monster.” We need not read Crane's psychobiography into the interstices of the narrative to see that the novella investigates miscegenation and gives the sexual component of this problem an oedipal inflection. Trescott's dilemma, his inchoate sense that Jimmie and Henry must either perish or prosper together, allows us, as Joseph Church has suggested, to put the cultural analysis of “The Monster” in the form of a question: in a society dependent on the institution of black infantilism, how are white boys are to become men?22 This question emerges from the oddly-textured opening scenes of the novella, where Jimmie has an accident and destroys a peony. Noting that the flower “would only hang limply from his hand” (p. 9) and explaining that Jimmie “felt some kind of desire to efface himself” (p. 11), Crane invites the suspicion that Jimmie suffers from castration anxiety and links the boy's dilemma with Henry's later fate, thus overdetermining the story from the start. What presumably allows Jimmie to satisfy his desire without having to efface himself is Henry's availability as a scapegoat. Particularly suggestive in this regard is Henry's admonition to Jimmie lest he get wet washing the wagon: “Look out, boy! look out! You done gwi' spile your pants. I raikon your mommer don't 'low this foolishness, she know it. I ain't gwi' have you round yere spilin' your pants, an' have Mis' Trescott light on me pressen'ly. 'Deed I ain't” (p. 12). Not only does this passage suggest that the black man might function as a substitute in oedipal fantasy, but Crane's use of the verb “light” confounds cause and effect and is a brilliant intuition of the contradiction in a culture which demanded sexual maturity on the part of white males while forcing black men to remain “boys.” The mother's act of “lighting” on the black man may be read as cause: Henry's ambiguously adult status makes him available as a substitute in oedipal fantasy, leading the boy to spoil his pants. Or it may be read as effect: because the boy's fantasy is interrupted by a mother who “lights” on the black man, the act of oedipal repression is coterminous with the violation of racial propriety.

The color line was a central problem of the American 1890s, and my aim in this excursus to the Lewis lynching, the young Crane's experience of race, and the opening of the novella has been to argue that “The Monster” should be read in the context of contemporary debates about miscegenation and segregation. While some of the evidence is conjectural, consideration of Crane's treatment of Henry's accident will make the large picture less speculative. What I suggest is that the appearance of the “fairy lady” in Dr. Trescott's laboratory replays the fantasy of Mrs. Trescott's “lighting” on Henry. Both moments raise the issue of miscegenation indirectly, but to read them in tandem gives the novella a thematic center, and the obliquity of Crane's procedure is of a piece with his cautious treatment of the sexual component of Henry's dandyism. If the linkage between racial and psychological narratives in the opening of the novella seems idiosyncratic or peculiar to Crane, the climactic scene in which Henry reprises his role as Jimmie's protector is more culturally analytic.

The ideological strands surrounding the central event of the novella nevertheless take some untangling. Crane's narrative is a disabling fiction, for it not only recounts Henry's disfiguring and disabling accident but also highlights the vexed relationship between history and ideology in the novella. Although the fact that Henry is destroyed in a burning building would seem to preempt any specifically historical, racial, or ideological reading of his situation, it is at this moment that Crane most overtly presents “The Monster” as political allegory. The crucial detail is the burning of an engraving hanging on the wall of the Trescott house: “In the hall a lick of flame had found the cord that supported ‘Signing the Declaration.’ The engraving slumped suddenly down at one end, and then dropped to the floor, where it burst with the sound of a bomb” (p. 21). Since Crane is sparing in his use of the Howellsian realistic detail, and a phrase like “the sound of a bomb” is not credibly verisimilar, the detail implies an interpretation of American history that smuggles a political and specifically racial subtext into the fiction that Henry's accidental facelessness is the reason there is no place for him in Whilomville.

That the burning of this engraving is meant both to foreshadow the central event of the story and to anchor it in a political context becomes more apparent in light of the likely historical original of this fictional image. Crane is not specific, but any engraving of the Signers present in a late nineteenth-century home probably would have been a mass-produced reproduction of John Trumbull's famous painting accompanied by a “Key” or chart identifying each figure in the picture.23 Both Trumbull's painting and the “Keys” accompanying reproductions of it had the effect of calling attention to both the factitiousness of political myth and the precariousness of identity in the very gesture of memorializing the patriarchs of American history. At the time of the painting's composition, for instance, there was acrimonious debate about whether to include all the Signers or just those present on July 4. While Trumbull was not troubled about modifying history for the sake of myth, his decision to include all of the Signers left him with a variety of practical problems, and many of his portraits were based on the work of other artists. On at least two occasions, he resorted to the expedient of using sons of the original Signers as models. The “Durand Key” of 1823 and the “Mercein Key” of 1826, which were the most famous of the early “Keys” and based on Trumbull's original identifications, actually mislabel several figures. As this history suggests, the timeless mimetic present/presence of painterly mythology was in need of some discursive help.

Generally consisting of a row of numbered heads with a corresponding list of names, the “Keys” imply that one's countenance secures one's person and depend on a synecdochical logic that is clearly appropriate to Crane's “The Monster.”24 More than a generic complaint about the cultural contradictions surrounding the declaration “all men are created equal,” Crane's allusion to the Declaration establishes a relay between Henry's facelessness and the overdetermined visages of the Signers and critiques the logic of historical commemoration. If the faces of the Signers are numbered to preserve their identities, this is rather different from the numeration, for example, which led Frederick Hoffman in 1896 to urge the Prudential Life Insurance Company of America not to insure blacks. Subject to the incursions of both segregation and a world of statistical persons, Henry is a man whose “facelessness” dislocates a timeless myth into the realities of late nineteenth-century America.25 The most trenchant irony in Crane's procedure is that Henry's situation is the truth of the matter. Barring the intervention of the “Keys,” the faces of the Signers are effectively blank or unrecognizable. Henry's facelessness reveals that what distinguishes him from the patriarchs of American history is what we make of him. What we make of these men, however, through slavery and segregation or the biographical and autographical cults of the Signers, is not so much a universal drama as it is the stuff of history.

That Crane might have been predisposed to see these ambiguities is quite likely. Although Townley Crane's letter of November 2, 1871, announcing Stephen's birth and explaining that he had been named for the ancestor “who signed the Declaration,” is either Beer's fabrication or simply erroneous, the Cranes were proud to trace their lineage back to the days of the Revolution and the Stephen Crane who was a member of the Continental Congress.26 Responding in December of 1896 to John Hilliard's request for biographical information, for instance, Crane showed a suggestive scrupulousness about the family history, writing of his ancestor: “he was sent by New Jersey to the Continental Congress and he served in that body until just about a week before the Declaration was signed.”27 If not quite family romance, this does seem the “aching missed opportunity” described by one biographer.28 Given Crane's investment in the Revolution and its ethos, his lapidary account of the burning of “Signing the Declaration” is less an instance of the realism of detail than a “signature” moment in which Crane swaps personal belatedness for the aggressive insights of modernity. Were we to see the link between Henry's face and the faces of the Signers as an instance of Crane's obsession with the motif of the “upturned face,” we could argue that this brief allusion marks the point at which textuality confounds the distinction between history and ideology.

What Crane's allusion does more obviously is register a protest; like the attorneys for Homer Plessy, he pits the promise of the Declaration against the encroachments of segregation. Yet this complaint is complicated by an admixture of historical pessimism, as becomes clear when Crane again intrudes to underscore the political dimension of his story: “He was submitting, submitting because of his fathers, bending his mind in a most perfect slavery to this conflagration” (p. 23). While the allusion to Henry's fathers conjures up a specific historical moment, his “slavery” seems more metaphorical and psychological than historical, and the logic of this often-discussed indictment of slavery is that of a political naturalism more naturalistic than political. The facts of history fade, but their legacy, whether construed in the language of deterministic psychology or genetics, remains. Thus it is not surprising that Crane thoroughly divests Henry's actions of heroism (e.g., “His legs gained a frightful faculty of bending sideways” [p. 23]). This may be the “passion and irony” we have come to see as a distinctive feature of Crane's art, but the balance of the evidence is that Henry's capacity for heroism is limited, and limited primarily because of race. Indeed, a similar notion of diminished capacity can be discerned in the way the citizens of Whilomville react to Henry—a rite de passage which Crane codes, with varying degrees of explicitness, in terms of heroism. Although we are told that Henry frightens everyone (the universalizing point), what we see for the most part is the fear Henry inspires in white children and black adults (a more local notion of black infantilism).

In saying as much, however, I do not want to suggest that Crane was not deeply invested in his story, or that “The Monster” exists merely to confirm some axiom about black inferiority. That the protagonists of “The Monster” and The Red Badge of Courage have the same first name and similar fates—Henry Fleming dies while trying to rescue some horses from a burning building—suggests that Crane was working through his deepest imaginative concerns.29 What we view as acquiescence in racial stereotyping might have seemed nothing more than a remorselessly consistent naturalism to Crane. The naturalistic suggestion that Henry is unlikely to escape his unfortunate patrimony may qualify the complaint in Crane's allusion to the Declaration, but it does not nullify it. Nor do Crane's ironies dilute the meaning of a scene which is meant as an allegorical miniature of American racial history: Henry resists and triumphs over the legacy of his slave fathers only to be destroyed by Reconstruction and the rise of segregation.

If Crane's naturalism made it easy for him to blunt the political implications of his story, Crane's analysis is no less incisive for its caginess. The phantasmagoric description of the accident in Dr. Trescott's laboratory, the central event of the novella, is a case in point.

The room was like a garden in the region where might be burning flowers. Flames of violet, crimson, green, blue, orange, and purple were blooming everywhere. There was one blaze that was precisely the hue of a delicate coral. In another place was a mass that lay merely in phosphorescent inaction like a pile of emeralds. But all these marvels were to be seen dimly through clouds of heaving, turning, deadly smoke.

Johnson halted for a moment on the threshold. He cried out again in the negro wail that had in it the sadness of the swamps. Then he rushed across the room. An orange-colored flame leaped like a panther at the lavender trousers. This animal bit deeply into Johnson. There was an explosion at one side, and suddenly before him there reared a delicate, trembling sapphire shape like a fairy lady. With a quiet smile she blocked his path and doomed him and Jimmie. Johnson shrieked, and then ducked in the manner of his race in fights. He aimed to pass under the left guard of the sapphire lady. But she was swifter than eagles, and her talons caught in him as he plunged past her. Bowing his head as if his neck had been struck, Johnson lurched forward, twisting this way and that way. He fell on his back. The still form in the blanket flung from his arms, rolled to the edge of the floor and beneath the window.

Johnson had fallen with his head at the base of an old-fashioned desk. There was a row of jars upon the top of this desk. For the most part they were silent amid this rioting, but there was one which seemed to hold a scintillant and writhing serpent. Suddenly the glass splintered, and a ruby-red snakelike thing poured its thick length out upon the top of the desk. It coiled and hesitated, and then began to swim a languorous way down the mahogany slant. At the angle it waved its sizzling molten head to and fro over the closed eyes of the man beneath it. Then, in a moment, with mystic impulse, it moved again, and the red snake flowed directly down into Johnson's upturned face.

(p. 24)

This is Crane at his most mystified and mystifying. While the writerly extravagance in this oneiric account of a chemical accident dazzles, distracts, and implicitly makes great claims for art, imagery overdetermined enough to find a woman in a cloud of gas must have a point. A glowing garden, a mysterious woman, and a destructive serpent mark a version of the Eden story, but for Crane slavery and racial injustice constitute the American fall from grace. Recalling that a series of racist ideologues from Buckner Payne (a.k.a. “Ariel”) in 1867 to Charles Carroll in 1902 maintained that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was none other than the “Negro,”30 we might suspect that Crane, the skeptical son of a preacher, took a certain satisfaction in exposing self-serving credulity.

A closer estimate of Crane's act of historical re-cognition, though, could probably be had by comparing his scene with the following passage from The Color Line:

Flood and fire, fever and famine and the sword—even ignorance, indolence and carpet-baggery—she may endure and conquer while her blood remains pure; but once taint the well-spring of her life, and all is lost—even honour itself. It is this immediate jewel of her soul that the South watches with such a dragon eye, that she guards with more than vestal vigilance, with a circle of perpetual fire. The blood thereof is thereof; he who would defile it would stab her in her heart of heart, and she springs to repulse him with the fiercest instinct of self-preservation.

(The Color Line, p. 63)

While it was not novel to call the South a woman or sexual purity a jewel, this passage's imagery of fire, jewels, a woman, and a dragon is reminiscent of “The Monster.” Smith's personification, of course, is less a private fiction than an example of the anxiety documented in historian W. J. Cash's classic analysis of the “feminization” of the South during Reconstruction.31 The “fairy lady” who appears before Henry is presumably her relative, Crane's version of the post-Reconstruction South, if not the nation as a whole. Indeed, the description of Henry after he is caught in the woman's “talons”—the justice of the American eagle supplanted by the lex talionis?—seems almost a subliminal reminder of what happened to black men caught in the insidious web of segregationist racial and sexual politics: “Bowing his head as if his neck had been struck, Johnson lurched forward, twisting this way and that way.”

Henry Johnson is “effaced” rather than literally lynched, and his story is the more meaningful for it. The verisimilar narrative of a man ostracized by his community, “The Monster” is shadowed by a story of the ideological construction and marginalization of black Americans. Because Henry is trapped in a doctor's laboratory, we are reminded of the role science and medicine played in validating and consolidating racism in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Because it is Henry's face that is disfigured, we realize that his life, unlike the hallowed biographies of the Signers, is imperiled by a “scene of writing” that is nothing less than coextensive with the founding of the nation.

This dissenting subtext is not so much something we might arbitrarily impose on Crane's phantasmagoric effects as it is an essential feature of the novella's conception and structure. If a series of brief but cogent allusions to the railroad remind us that we are in the world of Plessy, Crane's decision to cast a physician as Henry's protector points up the central motive of the story, namely, the testing of the logic of racial euthanasia. In this respect “The Monster” is a twice-told tale and makes the trenchant observation that black extinction is no more natural than a fire in a laboratory. Were we to assume some commerce between theory and practice, between the scientific findings of comparative race analysis and the business end of a rope, the novella could also be understood as a restaging of the Lewis lynching. Henry's facelessness is not an immediately apparent vehicle for such an idea, but any analysis of “The Monster” must answer the following question: Why does Henry's attempt to save Jimmie lead to an encounter with the “fairy lady”? One response is that in the America of the 1890s a black man's heroism consisted precisely of the impossible attempt to overcome the sexual politics of segregation. On this reading, the defamiliarizing effect of the fiction of Henry's facelessness is both a strategic necessity and a critical gesture: it allows Crane to broach sensitive issues without antagonizing a largely white readership and simultaneously implies that a town concerned with decency and the rule of law did not entirely know what it was about.

Yet if Crane's novella is the re-cognition of both a general ideological proposition (black extinction) and a specific event (the Lewis lynching), the fiction of having a black man rescue a white child still seems an odd way of getting at the problem of miscegenation. Part of the rationale for Crane's strategy could be deduced by recalling that The Color Line is sub-titled A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn. While ideologues like Smith argue that racial euthanasia will benefit children, “The Monster” reverses this: because Henry's attempt to rescue Jimmie and his attempt to escape Trescott's lab overlap, Jimmie's survival is not only dependent on the intervention of a black man, but this act of intervention is synonymous with resistance to the premise of racial extinction. A slightly different reading, however, one that more completely registers the obliquity of Crane's procedure, might emphasize the related issues of Trescott's blindness and Henry's motivation. After all, Trescott's inability to see beyond his dilemma is matched only by Henry's certainty that there is no dilemma at all: regardless of the risk, Jimmie must be saved. The most vexing and intriguing lacuna of the novella, Henry's determination to rescue Jimmie is a “mystery of heroism” and the unarticulated premise of “The Monster.”

While Henry is doubtless motivated by affection for Jimmie and loyalty to the Trescott family, more suggestive is the fact that it is his sudden recollection of a “little private staircase” linking an upper-story bedroom with the laboratory below which allows him to escape his “slavish” submission to the flames. We can account for these events in realist fashion, arguing that a servant would be familiar with the layout of a home but not too familiar with what is presumably the master bedroom, yet Crane's adjective “slavish,” his most overt allusion to slavery, gives Henry's retrieval of a repressed memory a political dimension. Indeed, that Henry's liberating recollection of private passages in the Trescott home happens at about the same time the doctor, outside the home, revisits the repressed “blasphemies of his medical school days” would seem to confirm that his escape through bedroom and laboratory reconnoitres the territory of reproduction, eugenics, and miscegenation. But it takes a great deal of work to see as much. One senses that the remorseless cultural analysis of “The Monster” wavers before the dark continent of oedipal drama, that what we might call Crane's primal scene of miscegenation is finally more psychological than political. Yet this too is arguably an American problem, for D. H. Lawrence warned us long ago of the difficulties in reading a literature comprised of “children's books.” If “The Monster” shares the adolescent emphasis of much of Crane's fiction, and seems too cagey (or irresolute) in its ideological negotiations, it is nonetheless a searching treatment of the American race question.


  1. For scholarship on “The Monster,” see R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Critical Bibliography (Ames: Iowa State Univ. Press, 1972), and Patrick K. Dooley, Stephen Crane: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Scholarship (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), pp. 204-9. A good New Critical reading is Thomas Gullason, “The Symbolic Unity of ‘The Monster,’” MLN 75 (1960), 663-68.

  2. Patrick K. Dooley, The Pluralistic Philosophy of Stephen Crane (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 97-102; Michael Fried, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 93-161; Lee Clark Mitchell, “Face, Race and Disfiguration in Stephen Crane's The Monster,CritI 17 (1990), 174-92.

  3. Stephen Crane, “The Monster,” Tales of Whilomville, Volume 7 of The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers, intro. J. C. Levenson (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969), p. 16. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  4. For discussions of “The Monster” that consider the problem of race see, in addition to Mitchell, Ralph Ellison, “Introduction,” “The Red Badge of Courageand Four Great Stories by Stephen Crane (New York: Dell, 1960), pp. 23-24; R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: George Braziller, 1968), pp. 332-34; Catherine Juanita Starke, Black Portraiture in American Fiction: Stock Characters, Archetypes, and Individuals (New York and London: Basic Books, 1971), pp. 160-62; Charles W. Mayer, “Social Forms vs. Human Brotherhood in Crane's The Monster,Ball State University Forum 14, no. 3 (1973), 29-37; John Cooley, “‘The Monster’—Stephen Crane's ‘Invisible Man,’” Markham Review 5 (1975), 10-14; David Halliburton, The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 182-200; Stanley Wertheim, “Stephen Crane's The Monster as Fiction and Film,” in William Carlos Williams, Stephen Crane, Philip Freneau: Papers and Poems Celebrating New Jersey's Literary Heritage, ed. John W. Bauer (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1989), pp. 97-105. One of the better treatments of race and history is Malcolm Foster's “The Black Crepe Veil: The Significance of Stephen Crane's The Monster,International Fiction Review 3 (1976), 87-91. The crucial intersection of race and psychology is discussed by John Berryman, Stephen Crane (New York: William Sloane, 1950), pp. 191-96, 305-13, and Joseph Church, “The Black Man's Part in Crane's Monster,American Imago 45 (1989), 375-88.

  5. That this metaphor was a commonplace of cultural analysis, limited to neither the ideological terrain of the ultra-racist nor the geography of the American South, is suggested by a lecture delivered at Oxford shortly after the turn of the century: “But the Backward race may be really unfit to exercise political power. … The familiar illustration of the boy put to drive a locomotive might in some communities be no extreme way of describing the risks a democracy runs when the suffrage is granted to a large mass of half-civilized men.” James Bryce, The Relations of the Advanced and the Backward Races of Mankind (1902), repr. in Racial Determinism and the Fear of Miscegenation, Post-1900, Vol. 8 of John David Smith, ed., Anti-Black Thought, 1863-1925, 11 vols. (New York: Garland, 1993), p. 36. This example is particularly compelling because Bryce was both a liberal and the foremost interpreter of America in Victorian England.

  6. John S. Haller, Jr., Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859-1900 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1971), pp. 50, 68. See especially pp. 4068, “The Physician versus the Negro.”

  7. William Benjamin Smith, The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905), repr. in Racial Determinism and the Fear of Miscegenation, Post-1900, Vol. 8 of Anti-Black Thought, pp. 244-45.

  8. In “The Knife,” for instance, Henry's dandyism is explicitly denoted as sexual prowess: “Peter Washington was one of the industrious class who occupied a position of distinction for he surely spent his money on personal decoration. On occasion, he could dress better than the mayor of Whilomville himself, or at least in more colors, which was the main thing to the minds of his admirers. His ideal had been the late gallant Henry Johnson whose conquests in Watermelon Alley as well as in the hill shanties had proved him the equal if not the superior of any Pullman-car porter in the country.” Tales of Whilomville, Vol. 7 of The University of Virginia Edition of the Works of Stephen Crane, p. 185.

  9. Robert Lewis was hanged in a tree in front of the Reformed church across from the home of “Judge” William Crane, Stephen's brother. One of the few men to resist the mob, William Crane was called on during the inquest, and his testimony was reported in the Port Jervis Evening Gazette. For a reprinting of this article, see Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane, 1871-1900 (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994), p. 73. For details of the affair, as well as Crane's possible involvement, see Stallman, A Biography, pp. 10-11, 564-65.

  10. “Mob Law in New York,” New-York Tribune, June 3, 1892, p. 1.

  11. “The Lynching Denounced,” New-York Tribune, June 4, 1892, p. 1.

  12. “Naming the Lynchers,” New-York Tribune, June 7, 1892, p. 11. For the attribution of the June 5th editorial to Townley Crane, Jr., see Stallman, A Biography, pp. 564-65.

  13. “The Port Jervis Lynching Case,” New-York Tribune, June 10, 1892, p. 11; and “The Port Jervis Lynching,” New-York Tribune, June 11, 1982, p. 8.

  14. See, for instance, Stallman, A Biography, pp. 13, 333.

  15. For the anticipated reaction in Port Jervis to “The Monster,” see The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, 2 vols., ed. Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), No. 479. Hereafter cited as Correspondence.

  16. See “The Lynching Denounced,” New-York Tribune, June 4, 1892, p. 1.

  17. Stallman, A Biography, p. 10. Although it has become the standard reference, Stallman's biography is not entirely reliable. For commentary about the state of Crane biography, and this incident in particular, see Wertheim and Sorrentino, Log, pp. xvii-xxv. See also Wertheim and Sorrentino, “Thomas Beer: The Clay Feet of Stephen Crane Biography,” ALR 2, no. 3 (1990), 2-16, and John Clendenning, “Stephen Crane and His Biographers: Beer, Berryman, Schoberlin, and Stallman,” ALR 28, no. 1 (1995), 23-57.

  18. For a psychoanalytic treatment of the story, see Berryman, pp. 306-7.

  19. Correspondence, No. 10.

  20. Because the story did not survive, its existence is speculative. See Stallman, A Biography, pp. 426, 602, and A Critical Bibliography, p. 228.

  21. Berryman's discussion in Stephen Crane (pp. 297-325) of how the young Crane thought about race warrants revisiting; his analysis has the virtue of recognizing and attempting to account for the most highly-charged recurrent metaphors in Crane's writing.

  22. For the linkage between race and psychology, see Berryman, pp. 191-96, 305-13, and Church, esp. pp. 379-81.

  23. On Trumbull, see Theodore Sizer, The Works of Colonel John Trumbull: Artist of the Revolution (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), and Irma B. Jaffe, John Trumbull: Patriot-Artist of the American Revolution (Boston: New York Graphics Society, 1975).

  24. There are later “Keys” to Trumbull's painting in which the individual's face is omitted entirely and replaced with a numbered oval. Yet the earliest of these “Keys,” or at least the earliest I have been able to track down, dates from circa 1925.

  25. For the realist project of “accounting for persons,” as well as illuminating remarks about Crane, see Mark Seltzer, “Statistical Persons,” Diacritics (Fall 1987), 82-98. Although statistics are not an explicit feature of “The Monster,” more than one critic has noticed that the novella is obsessively “about” numbers, and the motifs of counting and saving face come together in the idea of the countenance, motifs that appear in “Signing the Declaration.” Frederick Hoffman was a statistician for the Prudential Life Insurance Company, and his study, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, was published in 1896 by the American Economic Association. See Haller, pp. 60-68.

  26. This mistaken bit of genealogy seems to have originated with Thomas Beer, Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), p. 35. See also Berryman, pp. 6-7, and Stallman, A Biography, p. 1. Townley Crane's diary entry for November 1, which does not make this error, is reprinted in Wertheim and Sorrentino, Log, pp. 2-3.

  27. Correspondence, No. 169.

  28. Christopher Benfey, The Double Life of Stephen Crane (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), p. 52.

  29. Crane kills off Henry Fleming in “The Veteran,” a brief story that first appeared in McClure's Magazine in August of 1896.

  30. The primary texts can be found in The “Ariel” Controversy and The Biblical and “Scientific” Defense of Slavery, Vols. 5 and 6 of Anti-Black Thought.

  31. W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South (New York: Knopf, 1941).

James Nagel (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Nagel, James. “The Significance of Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” American Literary Realism 31, no. 3 (spring 1999): 48-57.

[In the following essay, Nagel provides historical information about “The Monster” and discusses multiple themes in the story.]

William Dean Howells called Stephen Crane's “The Monster” the best short story ever written by an American, and few people in the 1890s knew more about the national literature than did Howells.1 In many ways, it is the most complex work in the Crane canon, at once a children's tale, a grim social satire, an ambitious study of ethical responsibility, a painful examination of race in America, a devastating account of the village virus. No other work of short fiction in the decade was more important thematically, and nothing until William Faulkner's “The Bear” so enriched the genre in the United States. Indicative of the strong responses to “The Monster,” Joseph Conrad told Crane that it haunted him, while Harold Frederic urged his friend to throw it away.2 When Crane first submitted it to a magazine, Richard Watson Gilder at Century rejected it with the comment that “we couldn't publish that thing with half the expectant mothers in America on our subscription list.”3 After it was published, Julian Hawthorne called it “an outrage on art and humanity.”4 More than in any other fiction he ever wrote, in this story Crane touched on material that is at once deeply disturbing and profoundly philosophical, with issues incapable of easy resolution, beyond glib formulation. Perhaps for these reasons, it has appeared in none of the popular survey anthologies, and it has occasioned only a handful of scholarly articles over the last century.

Stephen Crane wrote “The Monster” in Ireland in 1897, while on holiday with Harold Frederic, and it was first published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in August 1898.5 The tale Crane told was the first in a series of stories set in the mythical town of Whilomville in upstate New York, and he planned to create a volume of interrelated episodes focused on the Trescott family, particularly young Jimmie and his father, a successful and popular local physician. Although Crane wrote fifteen of these stories in the next two years, he did not live to publish the book that brought all of them together according to his original conception, although a partial volume appeared posthumously containing only the lighter juvenile works.

The central events of “The Monster” move well beyond standard literature written for children, as even a brief summary indicates. The basic plot is about Dr. Trescott, his young son, Jimmie, and a black stable hand, Henry Johnson. Dr. Trescott is a loving father, much absorbed in his own work, who not only tends his patients but is conducting research as well, for his laboratory is filled with beakers of chemicals. For masculine warmth, Jimmie turns to Henry, who relates to the boy with genuine insight and sensitivity, commiserating with him about the doctor's moods, playing surrogate father or sympathetic friend as the situation warrants. For his part, Henry is the dandy of the black community, a polite gentleman decked out in lavender trousers, calling on Miss Bella Farragut in tones of exaggerated deference and civility. When fire breaks out in the Trescott residence, Jimmie is trapped in his bedroom upstairs; Henry rushes into the flames and carries the boy down into the laboratory before collapsing. Dr. Trescott arrives in time to take Jimmie to safety, but Henry's face is burned away by chemicals dripping from a broken container.

In the aftermath of the fire, Dr. Trescott cares for Henry with total resolve, even building a room for him in the restored house, oblivious to the frequent cries that Henry has been turned into a hideous monster. As community resentment grows, fueled by Henry's startling appearance at a children's party, and compounded by an aborted resumption of his genteel courtship of Bella, the community forms a delegation to advise Dr. Trescott to send Henry away, stressing that polite people are offended by the appearance of the monster, children rendered sleepless, women unable to eat. When Trescott refuses, arguing with passion that Henry had saved his son, he quickly loses his patients and his friends in the community. The story ends with the revelation that Mrs. Trescott has also been ostracized, with only one woman attending the weekly reception, and fifteen empty cups sitting unused on the dining room table.

Unique among Crane's stories, the basic plot and characters in “The Monster” reflect a synthesis of biographical, historical, and literary influences. Some of Crane's relatives could remember accounts of a Port Jervis man, Levi Hume, whose face had been eaten away by cancer, thus rendering him a faceless man, parallel with Henry Johnson; the numerous similarities between Crane's home town and Whilomville further reinforce the suggestion of biographical origins.6 A strong possibility for an historical source is the life of John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who became famous in 1886 when he came under the care of Dr. Frederick Treves, one of the most widely respected physicians in Britain. Merrick presented to polite society the uncomfortable prospect of intelligence and courtly manners embodied in a man with no discernible face, merely an unblinking eye peering out from beneath a mask. When Merrick died in April 1890, his story was widely carried throughout the United States.7 There is no doubt about the literary influence for Crane's plot, for “The Monster” duplicates in fiction the central circumstances of Henrik Ibsen's famous play An Enemy of the People, published in 1882 but just becoming popular in the United States in the 1890s, partly on the basis of Hamlin Garland's essay “Ibsen as a Dramatist” in The Arena.8 In Ibsen's drama, the protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, is a respected physician who discovers that the local baths sustaining the area as a tourist center have become polluted by wastes from a tannery. He publicizes his findings, feeling a moral and professional obligation to do so, only to see the community turn against him. His children are socially ostracized, and he and his wife end the play in isolation, clinging to the idea that those who would be morally strong, who embrace ethical responsibility, must learn to be lonely, living apart from society. Crane seems to have taken elements from all of these sources and added to them issues of race, modern science, and the tradition of the village virus to produce his own compelling plot, one of the most memorable in American literature.

The structural organization of Crane's fiction is always instructive, for he was a master of balance, juxtaposition, and framing, and “The Monster” is one of his works of symmetry. As Maggie is divided in half around her seduction, suggesting an even emphasis on cause and effect, and the twenty-four chapters of The Red Badge of Courage turn perfectly around Henry's rejoining of his regiment in the central episode, “The Monster” is also divided into twenty-four brief episodes, the first half essentially chronicling how Henry Johnson became a monster, the second revealing how the community became monstrous. Indicative of the balance of the plot, the key event of each half of the story also occurs in the center, Henry being burned in the fire in Chapter 6, the precipitating incident of that line of action, and the ostracism of Dr. Trescott beginning in Chapter 18, the pivotal point of the second half. The result is not simply a well-formed plot, delicately proportional in the unfolding of events, but a work that is thematically balanced as well, with a number of important ideas resonating in counterpoint throughout the sections of the story.

One important thematic line is that of the village virus tradition, the American translation of the “town and country” antithesis that ran throughout eighteenth-century fiction in Britain. In the United States the exploration of this motif was rather harsher than in genteel England, subordinating the idea of the appropriate populace for the good life to emphasize broadly misanthropic views. As Stanley Wertheim has observed, the story “is a study of prejudice, fear, and isolation in an environment traditionally associated with neighborliness and good will.”9 In this dimension the focus in “The Monster” is on the community at large rather than on Henry or the Trescotts. As Donald Gibson has observed:

In certain respects The Monster is the most ambitious piece Crane ever attempted. No other story is as broadly critical of society, nor is there any other work portraying in such realistic detail the life and character of a whole town. Usually Crane's concern is with depicting individuals whose problems are mostly private rather than social in nature.10

In these terms, the most important segment of the story is the second half, when the town exhibits its racial intolerance and its abhorrence of the deformed man and all who befriend him. From this point of view, the title thus refers not to Henry Johnson but to the society of Whilomville, which treasures middle-class complacency, and its facade of respectability, more than it does common decency or moral responsibility.

But there are also ways in which this tradition does not provide an adequate reading of the story. Crane does not capture the local color of Whilomville, nor is the community fundamentally a small village: it is large enough to be divided into districts; Trescott is one of ten physicians; the fire department is divided into six companies; a factory whistle announces disasters. Nor is Whilomville the subject of the nostalgic past. Martha Goodwin, who offers opinions on nearly everything, is concerned about the Cuban insurrection, initiated by Jose Martí in 1895, and she also comments on the Turkish extermination of the Armenians, which also occurred that year.11 Whilomville has become modern, with a railroad, electric street cars, and arc lamps. Although Crane lived in Port Jervis from 1878 to 1882, he placed this story in a contemporary age, dealing with issues current in the late 1890s, including the multi-ethnic society rapidly developing from regional population shifts as well as external immigration. “The Monster” is a masterwork within the village virus motif, but it transcends the historic limitations of that strain of American fiction.

Beyond the small town motif, the fundamental moral conflict of the story is played out on two levels, an ethical dilemma for Dr. Trescott and an awkward social problem for Whilomville. Prior to this story, Crane's work had not been based on the thematics of Realism. His Bowery Tales, including Maggie and George's Mother, as well as “An Experiment in Misery,” explored Naturalistic themes of socio-economic Determinism, with the decisions of the protagonists subordinated to the overwhelming forces that compel their tragedies. The Red Badge of Courage was essentially Impressionistic, rendering the sensory apprehensions of Henry Fleming involved in a hectic battle he cannot perceive, nor comprehend, clearly. The emphasis was on Henry's attempts to understand his situation clearly, on his epistemological growth to an epiphany, to the realization that he is insignificant, one young man among many others, just as his mother had said.12 In “The Monster,” however, Crane moved on to the ethical themes that were coming to define Realism. Beyond simple mimetic representation, Realism, based on the assumption that characters can understand reality and are free to make their own decisions, tended to focus on a moral crisis, as when Huck Finn must decide whether to turn Jim in or burn in Hell forever, or when Silas Lapham struggles to decide whether to enrich himself by selling a worthless company or to reveal the truth and lose his financial and social standing in Boston. Crane gave the responsibility for the crucial decision about what to do with Henry to both Dr. Trescott and the community.

Unlike Huck and Silas Lapham, Trescott is amazingly free of internal turmoil, for he never hesitates in his embrace of Henry, never wavers in his resolve. Even greater than his professional attention to his own son, who quickly recovers and is sent with his mother to visit grandparents in Connecticut, the doctor cares for Henry:

The doctor had remained to take care of his patients, but as a matter of truth he spent most of his time at Judge Hagenthorpe's house, where lay Henry Johnson. Here he slept and ate almost every meal in the long nights and days of his vigil.


Henry has saved Jimmie, and Henry must be helped at all costs. It matters not to Trescott that Henry is hideous in appearance; it does not matter that he is black; the opposition of the neighborhood does not figure in the doctor's calculations. As Donald Gibson has said, Trescott “goes about his business with the calm self-assurance of one who never doubts the truth or validity of his own values.”13 Even Judge Hagenthorpe, a portrait of normative judgment in the story, offers to Trescott what comes to be the common judgment: “I am induced to say that you are performing a questionable charity in preserving this negro's life.” As they discuss the issue, Hagenthorpe introduces the most dire of predictions: “You are making him, and he will be a monster, and with no mind.” Trescott's response reveals the depth of his resolve: “He will be anything, but, by God! he saved my boy” (31). It is a dramatic and compelling scene, one of Crane's best exchanges of dialogue in any of his works, and on Trescott's position rests the second half of the plot.

Trescott feels the complex issues of the situation deeply: he is angered by Alek Williams' open expression of shock when he sees his disfigured friend; the doctor is sensitive to Henry's feelings, not wishing to see a man so injured physically wounded emotionally as well (35). Closer to home, Trescott is deeply disappointed and saddened that Jimmie, for whom Henry suffered his disfigurement, joins his friends in making Henry the object of their play: “Trescott groaned deeply. His countenance was so clouded in sorrow that the lad, bewildered by the mystery of it, burst suddenly forth in dismal lamentations” (57). It is not insignificant that the concluding scene treats the consequences of Trescott's decision for his wife, who comes to bear part of the impact of her husband's implacability. Only then, with the ostracism of the community so plainly before him, would he seem to experience the depth of a difficult decision. But the emphasis throughout for Trescott is more on the result of his decision than on the moral struggle of making it.

The citizens of Whilomville deal with the problem on a more complex level. When Henry is first burned, and the rumor goes out that he is dead, he is praised as the epitome of virtue, with the adults lamenting that they had not been more appreciative of him:

In the breasts of many people was the regret that they had not known enough to give him a hand and a lift when he was alive, and they judged themselves stupid and ungenerous for this failure.


The high regard to Henry swells throughout Whilomville, and the children come to remember him as a saint. In the black community, Bella Farragut announces that they had been secretly engaged (30). Such praise is a masterful ironic stroke for Crane, at once revealing hypocrisy and self deception and setting up a satiric twist of fate that emphasizes social and personal duplicity. Once it becomes apparent that Henry will live, all of these attitudes change: the children mock the monster as the subject of their games, and Trescott's closest friends warn him of the social consequences of his continued treatment of Henry. White society has clearly become infected with the village virus, but the black community is not romanticized in all of this: Alek Williams attempts to enrich himself by taking care of Henry, and Bella relinquishes her pose as a grieving lover the moment he appears on her porch. The general controversy within Whilomville is revealed in a classic scene within Reifsnyder's barbershop, with the conflict between those who feel Trescott should have let Henry die and others who ask “how can you let a man die when he has done so much for you?” (40). There is general agreement that the most horrible aspect of Henry is that he has no face.

One character who is of particular interest throughout the controversy is Martha Goodwin, a village busybody of considerable presence who often exhibits “illimitable ferocity,” arguing current events, maintaining that the “Turks should be pushed into the sea and drowned” and that the United States should come to the assistance of the Cuban insurgents, events that date the action in the late 1890s. As the narrator indicates, “in regard to social misdemeanors, she who was simply the mausoleum of a dead passion was probably the most savage critic in town” (51). It is significant Martha, who in other scenes is portrayed negatively, comes to oppose the prevailing view that Dr. Trescott deserves to lose all his patients. She astonishes her friends by suggesting that Trescott is doing the right thing, meeting his human responsibilities, and deserves their support. As Gibson has said, other than Dr. Trescott, “only one other person in the story, Martha Goodwin, recognizes the human responsibility involved, understanding, by implication, why Trescott acts as he does.”14

Another social complexity is that when the men confront Dr. Trescott with their insistence that Henry be removed from the town, they do so at least in part out of genuine concern for their friend, who is clearly ruining himself. The Winter family, long patients under Trescott's care, call for another physician when their son becomes ill (49). It is the first indication of the ostracism to come. The Winters are quickly joined by other families, and Trescott's practice is over, save for caring for Henry Johnson. To resolve the matter, John Twelve offers to give Henry a farm, feeling that once the monster is removed from sight the matter will be settled. But Trescott is resolute: Henry must remain where he can be properly attended. From that point onward, the community treats the venerable doctor as a pariah, taking out its vengeance on him both socially and economically.

To these issues, the central dilemma of Ibsen's drama, Crane added the complex issue of race, giving the conflict a uniquely American application. There is nothing in the central dilemma of Dr. Trescott that requires that “the monster” be a person of color. Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is not multi-racial; historically, Levi Hume and John Merrick were white. When “The Monster” was made into a film entitled Face of Fire in the 1950s, written by Louis Garfinkle and directed by Albert Bond, there were no African-American characters.15 Crane's introduction of race into the events enriches the social satire of Whilomville, makes the story more “modern” for the 1890s by capturing the changing ethnic structure of America at the end of the century, and deepens the implications of Trescott's moral dilemma.

From the opening of the story, the character of Henry is identified in terms of race, “the negro who cared for the doctor's horses” (11). He is described as “very handsome” and as “an eminence in the suburb of the town, where lived the larger number of the negroes.” It is clear that Henry lives in the Trescott's carriage house, not in the “suburb,” and when he goes out of an evening he does so in style, as a dandy wearing lavender trousers and a straw hat with a “bright silk band” (13). Henry is described as a person of considerable substance who plays a role in society quite beyond his humble economic station: “He was simply a quiet, well-bred gentleman of position, wealth, and other necessary achievements out for an evening stroll, and he had never washed a wagon in his life” (13). He is oblivious to the satiric taunts of the “profane groups” in town, even when a local lawyer calls Henry a “coon” (14). Another dimension of Henry's gentle nature is revealed when he calls on Miss Bella Farragut, who is caught “galloping like a horse,” an interesting metaphor in the context of a visit from a suitor who works in a carriage house. But Henry maintains his demeanor and saves the moment: “In this awkward situation he was simply perfect” (15).

Henry is also nearly perfect in his relationship with Jimmie Trescott, who seeks out the stable hand rather than his father in moments of crisis. Part of the explanation for this might rest in the fact that Dr. Trescott is often at work, inaccessible to his son. But another dimension would seem to be that, in contrast to a physician's cold rationality, Henry is a warm and understanding man, sympathetic to Jimmie's childish dilemmas, willing to play surrogate father, happy to have Jimmie observe him at work: “He was always delighted to have the child there to witness the business of the stable” (12). Their relationship would seem to transcend economic or social status, and there is every indication that their affection for one another is genuine, neither a matter of satire nor calculation. Thus, when the fire breaks out, and it is discovered that Jimmie is still in the burning house, it is Henry who responds without hesitation: “There was one man who ran with an almost fabulous speed. He wore lavender trousers. A straw hat with a bright silk bank was held half crumpled in his hand” (21). He is undeterred by smoke and fire, and he carries the boy to safety before collapsing in Dr. Trescott's laboratory, where the chemicals in the beakers drain down upon his face, eating away the flesh (24). Even in the rescue, Henry functions as a replacement father, as Halliburton has commented: “Henry becomes literally the substitute of Jimmie's father—in the absence of the father he does what the father would do.”16 The tragedy is that in this heroic act, Henry becomes dehumanized for everyone in the story save Dr. Trescott. Even the brakeman who brings an unconscious Henry out of the building deposits not a man but a “thing” upon the grass.

Involved in the aftermath of the fire are three central issues: Henry's sacrifice in rescuing Jimmie; the fact that his face is burned away; and that he comes to wear a veil in public. All three of these matters are of interest in American literature. R. W. Stallman said that “no white American author had pictured a Negro performing a truly heroic act before Crane did it in ‘The Monster,’” which is true only if Jim's decision to stay with the wounded Tom Sawyer in Huckleberry Finn is discounted.17 But Henry's act is genuinely heroic, and it transcends race and social class to show a sensitive man, motivated by concern for a little boy, willing to risk his life to save him. On this level, Henry's decision to enter the burning building is the key moral choice in the story, the one with the most at stake, the one with the most dire consequences; Trescott's determination to care for Henry in the face of public condemnation is no more praiseworthy. That this profoundly humane act is performed by a black man suggests that the racial stereotypes that invest Whilomville are fundamentally corrupt, ethnically reductive, morally offensive. No character of any race, in any work by Stephen Crane, risks more out of selfless motives than does Henry Johnson.

The aftermath of Henry's rescue leaves him tragically disfigured, with his face eaten away by chemicals, a faceless man, an invisible black man in society five decades before Ralph Ellison portrayed the next one. Henry is invisible only metaphorically, of course, for he is very much present physically. What has been lost is the capacity of society to regard him as an individual human being; people of both races see him only as “monster,” which is not seeing him at all. That Trescott prevails on him to wear a veil in the second half of the book recalls John Merrick's situation, but it also antedates by five years the presentation of the metaphoric veil in W. E. B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, in which he lamented that a veil obscures the perception of black people in America: their identity has been hidden, denied, by persistent racial assumptions.18 No one but Dr. Trescott responds to Henry as a person after the fire, certainly not Bella, and not even Jimmie.

That development is all the more tragic if Henry is fully conscious of his situation, not insane or rendered an imbecile, as most readers have assumed. Burn victims, whether from fire or chemical causes, do not normally suffer cognitive impairment. The only evidence in “The Monster” that Henry has done so is offered by unreliable sources. Alek Williams, in his appeal for more money to Judge Hagenthorpe, adds to the horror that must be endured the observation that the monster is “crazier ‘n er loon,” but there is no confirming evidence of this statement (37). Alek's judgment cannot be trusted, for he also says that Henry is the devil, and he lies in saying that the family can no longer eat with Henry in the house, for he is later seen getting up from a “hearty meal.” As Alice Hall Petry has observed, Williams is “manipulative and histrionic, [and] would say virtually anything to have his pay increased to six dollars a week.”19 The evidence that Williams offers, that Henry is disfigured, that he whimpers in the night, that he frightens people, does not support the proposition that he can no longer think. His whimpering would seem a normal reaction to pain; if he is fully aware of what has happened to him, his wailing would suggest the psychic agony of his transformation. Judge Hagenthorpe's comment that Henry is now “a perfect monster, and probably with an affected brain,” is similarly unsubstantiated, part of his argument that Trescott should let the poor man die (31).

Nothing in Henry's behavior after the fire suggests brain damage except the fact that he continues to behave as he did before; his gracious manner, polite conversation, and concern for Jimmie all continue. He is hideous to look at, as was John Merrick, but, as with the elephant man, he does not behave “monstrously,” or stupidly, or offensively in any way. He expects to be treated as a human being, and he behaves as he did before the fire because there is nothing else for him to do. Morally, socially, racially, humanely, it is not Henry who has been rendered monstrous by the fire but the complacent, and inhumane, society of Whilomville, a typical town with commonplace citizens, a chilling American archetype. That is the thematic power of Crane's most disturbing story, the one he placed in the fictional portrait of his own background, the first episode in a book about children.


  1. See R. W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: George Braziller, 1968), p. 334.

  2. Quoted in J. C. Levenson, “Introduction” to Stephen Crane, Tales of Whilomville, in The Works of Stephen Crane, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969), VII, pp. xxix. All references to “The Monster” refer to this edition and will be given parenthetically within the text.

  3. Gilder is quoted in Levenson, p. xxx.

  4. Julian Hawthorne, [Review of The Monster and Other Stories], Book News, 18 (February 1900), 337-38.

  5. For an account of the composition history of “The Monster,” see Levenson, p. xxv. “The Monster” was first published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 97 (August 1898), 343-76.

  6. See Stallman, p. 333. For a family account, see Edna Crane Sidbury, “My Uncle, Stephen Crane, as I Knew Him,” Literary Digest, 4 (March 1926), 248.

  7. For the background on John Merrick, I am indebted to Alice Hall Petry, “Stephen Crane's Elephant Man,” Journal of Modern Literature, 10 (1983), 346-52.

  8. Hamlin Garland, “Ibsen as a Dramatist,” The Arena, 2 (June 1890), 72.

  9. Stanley Wertheim, “Stephen Crane's The Monster as Fiction and Film,” in William Carlos Williams, Stephen Crane, Philip Freneau: Papers and Poems Celebrating New Jersey's Literary Heritage, ed. W. John Bauer (Trenton: New Jersey Historical Commission, 1989), p. 101.

  10. Donald B. Gibson, The Fiction of Stephen Crane (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1968), p. 136.

  11. I am indebted here to David Halliburton, The Color of the Sky: A Study of Stephen Crane (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), p. 196. Levenson, on the other hand, says that “Whilomville is indefinite with respect to time as well as space” (p. xiii).

  12. For a more detailed examination of this point, see James Nagel, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1980).

  13. See Gibson, p. 137.

  14. Gibson, p. 138.

  15. For information about Face of Fire, I am indebted to Wertheim, pp. 97-105.

  16. Halliburton, p. 184.

  17. Stallman, p. 334.

  18. See W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1961), p. 170.

  19. Petry, p. 351. I am also indebted to Petry for her comments on Judge Hagenthorpe.

Thomas A. Gullason (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4853

SOURCE: Gullason, Thomas A. “Modern Pictures of War in Stephen Crane's Short Stories.” War, Literature and The Arts (1999): 183-96.

[In the following essay, Gullason explores four short stories that he claims provide “pictures of war” that deserve a place next to Crane's more well-known “civilian” stories.]

Of his twenty-two short stories dealing with the subject, Stephen Crane composed four “pictures of war” that were and still remain innovative, provocative, and modern, namely “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” “Death and the Child,” and “The Upturned Face.”1 Collectively, they made a significant contribution to Crane's periodic literary battles against the traditional and stereotyped fiction of his day, and are deserving of a place in the company of his great “civilian” stories, “The Open Boat,” “The Blue Hotel,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” and “The Monster.”

The four pictures mirror the Civil War, the Greco-Turkish War, and an imaginary war in the country of Spitzbergen. In drawing upon the recent past, contemporary reality, and the remote world of Spitzbergen, Crane, with his ironic vision, voice, and art, was more mature and more steadily and keenly focused on the day-to-day lives and the commonplace reality of men at war than in his classic, The Red Badge of Courage. Along with his great “civilian” stories, “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” “Death and the Child,” and “The Upturned Face” proved that the short story, and not the novel, was Stephen Crane's true métier.

With his ability at genre-crossing that he demonstrated in Red Badge, Crane added both body and substance to his highly individualized, fundamentally hybrid short story craft. On a smaller and surer scale than in Red Badge, he created mood and tonal paintings; dramatic and cinematic scenes, with sparse yet telling dialogue; psychological nuances; lyric and poetic reverberations; and the rhythm and pattern of music, in what were anti-stories for their day.

By telling and showing his four pictures in episodes or scenes, Crane was both battling the traditional short story and transforming it. The carefully orchestrated plot, with beginning, middle, and end, a clearly evolving climax and resolution, a character or characters to illustrate a standard and popular theme—none of these were acceptable to him. Crane instinctively knew this meant surrendering to the artificial, the contrived, and the prearranged, when he was aiming to discover and reflect the “real” and the “true.”

To liberate his imagination and his art, Crane employed the loose and open episodic form, partly acquired from his “schooling” in impressionistic painting, and that gave him the freedom, the mobility, and the flexibility to make impromptu twists and turns, ironic, dramatic, poetic, psychological, and cinematic probes into the nature of things. In this way Crane surrounded and revealed his inimitable pictures of war.

Two of Crane's pictures, “An Episode of War” and “The Upturned Face,” predicted the modern art of minimalism, “less is more.” He already showed this tendency in “A Mystery of Heroism,” an anecdote from his Red Badge that he turned into a short story. In it he skirted the “big picture,” crowded with people, places, and actions; and opted instead for a narrow, localized, almost private view underscored in the subtitle of the story: “A Detail of an American Battle.”2 This initial focus on a single “detail” helped Crane to release and display his greatest strengths: originality and intensity. By concentrating on brief episodes or scenes that he developed from workaday “details,” Crane engaged his reader in a one-to-one relationship to humanize, personalize, and universalize the daily “routine” events facing men at war.

Crane opens each of his pictures with a “domestic” detail. During the battle between northern and southern armies in “A Mystery of Heroism,” the private Fred Collins has a sudden urge for a drink of water. A lieutenant in “An Episode of War” is in the act of dividing coffee rations to representatives of his squads. “Death and the Child” depicts the flight of Greek peasants from the war zone. A lieutenant and an adjutant in “The Upturned Face” are making preparations to bury a fallen fellow officer named Bill.

Several features of Crane's episodic craft are revealed in the process and come to dominate the four pictures. All begin in medias res, that is, near the end of things; in using this technique, Crane bypasses the mechanical plot for a naturally unfolding scene or episode. All are involved in a tentative journey and often a “mystery,” in which nothing is resolved, but matters build to a climax or anticlimax, to a seemingly “pointed” ending. The endings, however, remain “pointless,” raising more questions than they answer.

Crane does all of these things with his minimalist eye. He first fixes on a domestic detail, then he extends and expands it with broader details to show its deeper and more complex relationship to universal themes. Although the four episodes suggest a similar pattern of development, they are strikingly individualized pictures of the life of war. Crane “arrests” his scenes or episodes long enough to fill in the shades and hues of their unique landscapes, and the stance of the individual character or characters toward initial details that lead to more complicated ones, thus affecting the cumulative experiences of each scene or episode.

Crane opens “A Mystery of Heroism” with the broad environment of war in the foreground—“the incessant wrestling of the two armies” and the “impressive” labors of the artillerymen (623). Within this environment, and only momentarily, an infantryman of Company A, Fred Collins, steps out from the background to level a complaint: “Thunder, I wisht I had a drink. Ain't there any water round here?” (623). A “complementary” sentence immediately follows: “There goes th' bugler!” Very early Crane has sounded the discordant ironic note that pervades the entire episode and points to the core experience of the “mystery” of heroism. Here Crane also puts into motion the double mood of life and death.

With his deft impressionism, Crane captures the once natural and now unnatural landscape to reflect and measure the ravages of war. First, there is the natural landscape: “Sometimes they of the infantry looked down at a fair little meadow which spread at their feet. Its long, green grass was rippling gently in a breeze” (623). Then, there is a rush of dissonant “music,” the havoc of war: the “civilian” house half torn by shells and by the axes of soldiers, who are looking for firewood; the heated discussion between two privates of Collins' company, “involved [in] the greatest questions of the national existence”; the battery “engaged in a frightful duel”; the “torn body” of a member of a “swing” team; the colonel ordering his infantry force to safer shelter; and a wounded lieutenant. In the midst of this many-sided panorama, Collins repeats his desire for water—“I wisht I had a drink”—which takes on a shrill “lyrical” quality, and completely out of place in a “theatre for slaughter” (624).

In his solo journey into no man's land to a well for water, Collins comes to and remains in the foreground to illustrate his essentially symbolic role. His private journey transforms into a public one, both in physical and psychological terms, making visible the invisible enigmas surrounding the myth of heroism.

“An Episode of War” opens with a lieutenant in the foreground as he distributes coffee rations at the breastwork (671).3 When he is wounded, other details come into play before he begins his journey to the rear lines, the field hospital, and the key irony and the moral center of the episode. Before this point, still other details are revealed. The corporals and representatives of the squads, in their compassionate response to the lieutenant's wound, foreshadow the later and more impatient response by the doctor who attends to the lieutenant's wound. At first “the men about him gazed statue-like and silent, astonished and awed by this catastrophe which had happened when catastrophes were not expected—when they had leisure to observe it” (671). Then, in a spirit of sympathy and camaraderie, they, like the lieutenant, stared at the wood “as if their minds were fixed upon the mystery of a bullet's journey” (671). They take leave of “their stone-like poses” when the orderly-sergeant sheathes the lieutenant's sword in its scabbard for him. Yet his helpless situation places the lieutenant in a special status: “[a] wound gives strange dignity to him who bears it” (672). It also explains his new-found sixth sense, “as if the wounded man's hand is upon the curtain which hangs before the revelations of all existence … and makes the other men understand sometimes that they are little” (672).

When he makes his journey to the rear lines, the lieutenant sees “many things which as a participant in the fight were unknown to him” (672). It leads to the crux of the episode, and poignant and painful revelations.

The most abbreviated episode—really a graphic, abrupt scene—is “The Upturned Face.”4 Placed next to “A Mystery of Heroism,” and “An Episode of War,” it forms part of a stereopticon. With remarkable skill, Crane forestalls an almost nonexistent in medias res long enough to prepare a final perspective. A small cast of characters in the foreground—two officers and two enlisted men—and the background of unceasing fire between the Spitzbergen infantry and Rostine's sharpshooters, put the life of the scene into motion. Of primary importance are the mood shifts, especially the adjutant's, and the somber tone that envelope the rite of burial (1283-1287). The literally stationary journey in “The Upturned Face” exposes both the outer and critical danger as well as the inner psychological pain and spiritual torment facing Lean and the adjutant on one level and the privates on another.

No longer the minimalist but his own kind of maximalist (where “more is more”) in “Death and the Child,” Crane creates the “big picture” in one of his longest short stories. He combines the “romance” of Red Badge, the literal realism of a correspondent's war, and the cryptic tragic and epic power of his Black Riders. In the story's opening, Crane is in medias res but with a difference. He presents a densely packed scene, not only of peasants running in fear and terror, but the distant blue bay, the white town, and a high vista “that a bird knows when … it surveys the world, a great calm thing rolling noiselessly toward the end of the mystery”—a convergence of sea, sky, and hills; the relation of “men, geography, and life” (943).

It is in this setting that the war correspondent Peza appears, who acknowledges from the outset that he knows nothing of war, that he is a “student” (944). He receives his preliminary education, his baptism of fire, by witnessing the “sharp terror” of the fleeing peasants and hearing the distant roar of Greek and Turkish artillery. This serves as a backdrop to Peza's journey of self-discovery, as well as his limitations as a representative “new” man.

The journeys in the four episodes that follow the preparatory rites of in medias res bring out into the open the range and depth, the fullest “exposure” of Crane's pictures of war, reinforced and substantiated by his varied art.

Collins' journey in “A Mystery of Heroism” invalidates the age-old notions regarding the meaning and value of heroism. To Crane, heroism is a mysterious amalgam of various paradoxical attitudes, and forces the interplay of selfish and private needs and wants (Collins' urge for a drink of water); rational and irrational behavior (“It seemed to him [Collins] supernaturally strange that he had allowed his mind to maneuver his body into such a situation”); ambiguous and ambivalent impulses (Collins' fear, courage, bravado, desperation, shame, pride, surprise, panic); and group pressure (Collins taunted by his fellow troopers, and called a “lad” by the colonel [628]). The climactic close to Collins' journey is really anticlimactic, underscoring the tentativeness of heroism and its fragile nature. The empty bucket sounds and resounds with aftereffects—of the praise lavished upon Collins by his fellow troopers, and the hollowness of his feat, with Collins graceless under pressure, where pride, panic, and group pressure have “conspired” to make him an “accidental” hero (631).

In his journey to the rear lines in “An Episode of War,” the lieutenant achieves his corrective vision by moving from a short view to a long view of the real nature and hazards of war. On the surface, though, the lieutenant's journey seems to be a rehearsal of the beginning scene of the episode, with the reference to coffee and the concern of fellow soldiers, now the officers, acting as wound dressers.

But all this is misleading. The stragglers the lieutenant meets indicate in advance the latent powers of his own sixth sense: “They [the stragglers] described its [the field hospital's] exact location. In fact these men, no longer having part in the battle, knew more of it than others. They told the performance of every corps, every division, the opinion of every general” (673).

Now, the lieutenant's own sixth sense comes to the forefront, first incidentally, without his seeming to recognize it, when he observes “a man with a face as grey as a new army blanket … serenely smoking a corn-cob pipe. The lieutenant wished to rush forward and inform him that he was dying.” Then the lieutenant is overpowered by his sixth sense, helpless to make use of it in that taut and ominous scene with the doctor:

The lieutenant had been very meek but now his face flushed, and he looked into the doctor's eyes. “I guess I won't have it [his arm] amputated,” he said.

“Nonsense, man! nonsense! nonsense!” cried the doctor. “Come along, now. I won't amputate it. Come along. Don't be a baby.”

“Let go of me,” said the lieutenant, holding back wrathfully. His glance fixed upon the door of the old school-house, as sinister to him as the portals of death.


The closing paragraph of “An Episode of War,” where the lieutenant, with the loss of an arm, shows stoical grace under pressure, is really anticlimactic, a false catharsis. He is masking his despondency, his agony and rage, the heavy price he has paid for duty and honor.

The “journeys” are several, subtle, and stationary in Crane's remarkable vignette, “The Upturned Face.” The call for privates to prepare a grave for the dead officer Bill; the officer Lean's grim duty of going through his dead companion's clothes; Lean and the adjutant together lifting then dropping the body into the grave; the prayer service; and the burial itself—all accentuate and heighten the pace, the tone, the moods of the journeys. The taut, somber tone and the moods—“troubled and excited,” “hurried and frightened”—also and more importantly reflect the psychological journeys of the “aggrieved” privates, and Lean and the adjutant (1283). The stress and strain show especially in the adjutant, who “croaked out a weird laugh. It was a terrible laugh which had its origin in that part of the mind which is first moved by the singing of the nerves” (1284).

Inanimate “actors”—the pick and the shovel—contribute to the deadly finality of the journeys, especially the devastating, eerie, “lyric” and choric incremental sound of the word “plop” (1287). The matter of “directions” also affects the journeys: the horizontal line of fire of the Spitzbergen and Rostina troops; the elaborate prayer to a higher Supreme Being; the “pendulum” swing of the shovel; the way the earth is thrown on Bill's body—first on his feet, last on his face. All together add up the falseness of the mystique of war, its terrible cost to man's humanism; yet the true and steadfast loyalty, duty, sacrifice, and courage shown by the living for a fallen comrade. With his minimalist art, Crane crafted a picture, reminiscent in some of its features to the macabre and grotesque power of Goya's Disasters of War.

Peza's journey in “Death and the Child” provides both a close-up and a distant view of the landscape of war, an arena of life and death, in the broadest and most comprehensive of Crane's stories dealing with combat. He achieves a tragic and epic scope by combining the fabric of fiction—character, dialogue, scene, mood, action, climax, and “denouement”—with the literal and factual newspaper headlines, and the social, economic, and political history of the times. The end result is a “non-fictional” war story. In a sense, “Death and the Child” is also a private journey for Crane, to prove to himself that the guesswork of Red Badge was “all right,” and it was. But it was “not all.”

On one level, in using Peza as a guide, Crane surveys and reflects on the public and contemporary perceptions of the politics, the machinery, and the philosophy of war. He brings all of these factors to three-dimensional life, and makes them dramatic and palatable by merging them within the province of fiction. In one place, the narrator of the story states:

Certainly this living thing [war] had knowledge of his [Peza's] coming. He endowed it with the intelligence of a barbaric deity. And so he hurried; he wished to surprise war, this terrible emperor, when it was only growling on its throne. The ferocious and horrible sovereign was not to be allowed to make the arrival a pretext for some fit of smoky rage and blood.


In another place, the narrator spells out the power of politics:

Peza was proud and ashamed that he was not of them, these stupid peasants, who, throughout the world, hold potentates on their thrones, make statesmen illustrious, provide generals with lasting victories, all with ignorance, indifference, or half-witted hatred, moving the world with the strength of their arms and getting their heads knocked together in the name of God, the king, or the Stock Exchange—immortal, dreaming, hopeless asses who surrender their reason to the care of a sitting puppet, and persuade some toy to carry their lives in his purse


The narrator describes further, and with some irony, the mundane effects of politics: “Other officers questioned Peza in regard to the politics of the war. The king, the ministry, Germany, England, Russia, all these huge words were continually upon their tongues” (956).

On its deep and profound level, Peza's journey is a discovery and recovery of man's failings, even as he is educated at one of the founts of learning, Italy. Crawling and disheveled, in the presence of one of God's messengers, the “cherubic” child of the mountain, Peza faces his judgment and the bankrupt experience of war in the anguished cry of the child—repeated twice—“Are you a man?” (963).

Whether in static, brief, or extended scenes or episodes, Crane confronts head-on the mystery of existence, and pictures of life's “little ironies.” “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” “The Upturned Face,” and “Death and the Child,” while “pointless,” reverberate with aftereffects; they are all momentary stays against the eternal presence and paradox of the life of war. Individually and collectively, they rehearse man's tragic fate in active service, his pain, torment, rage, and stoicism, and his struggle to retain and sustain his humanism against all odds.

In one way or another, Crane adds to the perspectives and dimensions of the everyday life and the routines of war, to the humanism of his short stories, with his constant art. He melds the inanimate and the animate worlds into an all-embracing oneness. He is poetic: in his striking images—e.g., “The battle lines writhed at times in the agony of a sea-creature on the sands” (“Death and the Child” 950); in his use of the pathetic fallacy and personification—e.g., “… a battery was arguing in tremendous roars with some other guns …” (“A Mystery of Heroism” 623); in incremental repetition, poetic and lyrical in effect—e.g., the several and cumulative references to “the wood,” “the hostile wood,” and “stared at the wood” (“An Episode of War” 671); in his reliance on the “sense” of sounds, on onomatopoeia (the devastating use of “plop” in “The Upturned Face” 1287).

Crane is dramatic, not only in the intensity of an act or a scene, he is dramatic in his use of a Greek device—stichomythia—where Collins' fellow troopers anonymously debate in one-line statements among themselves his action to go for water—e.g., “What's he goin' to do, anyhow? … Say, he must be a desperate cuss” (“A Mystery of Heroism” 628). Crane anticipates “cinematic” effects in his use of close-ups and long shots, adding to both immediacy and distance of scene, character, pace, tone, and mood—e.g.,

The two officers looked down close to their toes where lay the body of their comrade. The face was chalk blue; gleaming eyes stared at the sky. Over the two upright figures was a windy sound of bullets, and on the top of the hill, Lean's prostrate company of Spitzbergen infantry was firing measured volleys.

(“The Upturned Face” 1283)

Crane is often psychological, sounding the inner voices of his characters, and the impact on their outer actions or inactions—e.g., the scene between the lieutenant and the “busy” doctor (“An Episode of War” 674). He is musical—e.g., “In the dismal melody of this flight there were often sounding chords of apathy” (“Death and the Child” 944). Crane makes skillful use of counterpoint and dissonance; of stasis; of slow, moderate, fast tempo and pace; of the idyll; and the coda. They help to expose the conflicts and ironies, the stress and strain, the momentariness of peace amidst the persistent destructiveness of war. In Part II of “Death and the Child” there is a telling display of counterpoint and dissonance, as the child plays on a mountain while the battle rages on the plain; then the child is, ironically, “stirred” from his “serious occupation” to view the distant battle (950). The shifts in rhythm and pace are carefully modulated in “A Mystery of Heroism.” An idyll, a momentary reprieve, even occurs in the generally fast-paced “Mystery of Heroism,” when Collins rationalizes:

He was then a hero. He suffered that disappointment which we would all have if we discovered that we were ourselves capable of those deeds which we most admire in history and legend. This, then, was a hero. After all, heroes were not much.


There is an effective and modern coda to “An Episode of War.” It is a rounding off, a conclusive ending, which is ironically inconclusive, really a “double” ending:

And this is the story of how the lieutenant lost his arm. When he reached home his sisters, his mother, his wife, sobbed for a long time at the sight of the flat sleeve. “Oh, well,” he said, standing shamefaced amid these tears. “I don't suppose it matters so much as all that.”


All the episodes are simple yet subtle examples of symbolism, where Crane projects and extends the nature of war and the price paid, even though he begins and ends with seemingly incidental details. He is overt in “Death and the Child” as he describes the child in tears, who has time for “greater vision” while the men on the plain have less: “It was as simple as some powerful symbol.” Crane is less simple at the story's close. Following the child's words, “Are you a man?,” the narrator summarizes:

Peza gasped in the manner of a fish. Palsied, windless, and abject, he confronted the primitive courage, the sovereign child, the brother of the mountains, the sky and the sea, and he knew that the definition of his misery could be written on a wee grass-blade.


When these multi-leveled arts are channeled into his four pictures, and linked with Crane's well-known and much discussed painterly skills—of moods, tones, and colors—they reveal their important relation to the body and substance of his impressionism and naturalism, and his irony and realism.

In “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” “The Upturned Face,” and “Death and the Child,” Crane combined his first profession as a creative artist and his second as practicing journalist. From both his inexperience with war (The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War) and his experience (Wounds in the Rain and Last Words), Crane produced only a few outstanding stories and many pedestrian ones. There was some truth to his partly ambivalent complaints in his letters of January and February 1896. In one, he said: “I have invented the sum of my invention in regard to war and this story (“The Little Regiment”) keeps me in internal despair.” In another, he was more blunt: “I am engaged in rowing with people who wish me to write more war-stories. Hang all war-stories.” Crane's frustration showed in Civil War stories such as “Three Miraculous Soldiers” and “A Grey Sleeve,” where he succumbed to wholesale artifice;5 and in Cuban war stories such as “The Lone Charge of William B. Perkins” and “The Second Generation,” where he catered to popular tastes and popular magazines (McClure's and the Saturday Evening Post), with one-dimensional, slick adventures and misadventures.

But “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” “The Upturned Face,” and “Death and the Child” were worth it, for Crane left an imposing legacy to modern writers of war, beginning with Hemingway, who respected his literary style, poetic sensibility, and ironic vision.6

A definite link exists between Crane and Hemingway in their short stories on war and related themes. The extended vignette of fleeing Greek civilians at the beginning of “Death and the Child” prepares for the starker vignette, “Minarets stuck up in the rain out of Adrianople across the mud flats,” and the “revolutionary” new fiction of In Our Time (1924, 1925). The tough and tender scenes and situations in “A Mystery of Heroism,” “An Episode of War,” and “The Upturned Face”—especially the latter two—were valuable lessons for Hemingway.

In the end, Stephen Crane's four pictures demonstrate his innate talent, where he probed the “romance of war” with his powerfully acute realistic sensibility. He was no carbon copy of past and present literary traditions, nor of his literary fathers, Garland and Howells. Not only was he an avant-gardist of 20th-century writing in America, he remains even now one of our contemporaries. With his highly individualized art and vision, Crane broke through a forest of clichés to create incisive yet kaleidoscopic modern pictures that he transformed into permanent etchings of the life of war.


  1. Stephen Crane, Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry, J. C. Levenson, ed (The Library of America: New York, 1984). Subsequent references to these texts are parenthetical.

    Two stories, “An Episode of War” and “Death and the Child,” remained uncollected during Crane's lifetime. Twenty others were collected in The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896), Wounds in the Rain (1900), and Last Words (1902).

    The phrase “pictures of war” is drawn from the English critic, George Wyndham, and his sensitive and glowing essay of The Red Badge of Courage, “A Remarkable Book” (The New Review, January 1896). Wyndham's phrase was reused as the title of the volume, Pictures of War (July 1898), which included Red Badge and The Little Regiment.

  2. This subtitle was removed in the book version (The Little Regiment) of the story.

  3. This story has an intriguing history. It was meant for publication in The Youth's Companion, but was unacceptable to the editors in 1896, probably due to its violence (suggested in its original title, “The Loss of an Arm”); the magazine eventually published “An Episode of War” in March 1916. It did appear during Crane's lifetime, in England, in The Gentlewoman magazine (1899).

    The plain and direct style, without subtle images and symbolic flourishes, suggests that Crane was writing “An Episode of War” for uninitiated youths, introducing them to the ways of war.

  4. “The Upturned Face” probably served as a model for Irwin Shaw's antiwar play, Bury the Dead (1936). The implied and muted undertones of Crane's “drama” (he planned it for theatrical presentation) were translated into an angry and defiant condemnation of war, in a basically melodramatic-surrealistic absurdist, nightmarish play by Shaw.

  5. Crane was entangled with his romantic sensibility, which surfaced in “Three Miraculous Soldiers” and “A Grey Sleeve,” and elsewhere. In the two Civil War stories he labored with romance, sentimentalism, and melodrama, very seriously, but with nothing resembling his well-known critical irony. He created one-dimensional characters, awkward and stagy dialogue, silly twists and turns of shopworn plots, and a pedestrian style. Only when he looked at romance realistically, as in Red Badge and in stories like “A Mystery of Heroism,” did his powers as an artist become clear and apparent.

  6. In his several reading lists, Hemingway mentioned “The Open Boat” and “The Blue Hotel.” In his 1968 Paris Review interview, John Dos Passos recalled that “Ernest … talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane's ‘The Blue Hotel.’ It affected him very much.” In Men at War (1942), Hemingway praised Red Badge as a “poem.”

    Hemingway did have his eye on the opening of Red Badge for the opening to his own Farewell to Arms. The grim humor and sardonic swagger in “The Blue Hotel” found their way into “The Killers.” The symbolic and epic flights of “The Open Boat” helped Hemingway in the shaping of The Old Man and the Sea.

William M. Morgan (essay date autumn 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11590

SOURCE: Morgan, William M. “Between Conquest and Care: Masculinity and Community in Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Arizona Quarterly 56, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 63-92.

[In the following essay, Morgan explores the constitution of white masculinity in “The Monster” and how this is called into question through division of community.]

“The Monster” (1897) was penned while Stephen Crane lived in exile in England and shortly before he made his mark as a front-line reporter during the Spanish-American War. The novella records Crane's ambivalence toward the strenuous ethos of white masculinity that Theodore Roosevelt championed and came to embody, and that Crane often represented in his journalism during the 1890s. TR's triumph over his own sickly Victorian adolescence and then over the bodies of racial others to become a “Rough Rider” is perhaps the Anglo-American story of masculinist ideology the nation has inherited from the cultures Crane experienced. Roosevelt, in his zeal to spread his message of Anglo-Saxon, masculine superiority, had even written to Crane in 1896 suggesting: “Some day I want you to write another story of the frontiersman and the Mexican Greaser in which the frontiersman shall come out on top; it is more normal that way!” (qtd. Correspondence 1: 128).

This passage is brief and blunt, yet it sets forth the racial mandate implicit to the strenuous ethos. According to Roosevelt's logic, the “Mexican Greaser” is to serve as a foil, as a figure less than fully manful, against which to construct the “frontiersman.” As in The Winning of the West (1889-1896) and his other writings and speeches advocating for imperial engagement, Roosevelt's vigorous emphasis here is that the “frontiersman,” the “peculiarly American” (qtd. Bederman 191) individual who could only be a white man, has “to come out on top” if fiction, life, and national identity are to be “normal.” Roosevelt stresses to Crane that, although Crane fictionalizes the right material, Crane's fiction would be better if he too would observe a “normal” logic of race and masculinity. In “The Monster,” Crane in a sense writes back to Roosevelt.

When read in the context of cultural and biographical history, Crane's “The Monster” depicts how the strenuous ethos of white masculinity was constituted, suggests its cultural power, yet demystifies its imagined moral force. On the one hand, the displacement of an inward-looking, sentimental, Victorian American cultural order by a more outward-looking and militant formation of United States culture is readily decipherable in the novella. Still, the most profound result of the grotesque effacement of Henry Johnson, a black stable-hand whose fate divides the community, is to call this cultural reorientation into question.1 As the character of Dr. Trescott is partially maternalized through his care and sense of responsibility for the maimed patient, Crane's novella recuperates a nurturing masculine ethos with links to the tropes of a woman's domesticity. In addition, during the final four years of Crane's life, he increasingly turned away from a masculinist ethos of self-control, physical virility, and racial conquest and toward one of communal care, intersubjective compassion, and responsibility.2 “The Monster,” structured by its various aesthetic, ideological, and generic tensions, depicts a divide between a residual and nurturing masculine ethos, which Crane comes to associate with high culture and his own sense of exile, and the strenuous ethos ascendant in his time.3


“The Monster” was first published in Harper's Magazine in 1898 during the heyday of a local-colorist project that was sponsored, according to Richard Brodhead, by Eastern high-cultural periodicals and their elite and middle-class urban readerships (107-41). Crane sets the novella in “Whilomville,” which seems, at least on some narrative surfaces, a timeless small-town. Closer to Winesburg, Ohio than Dunnet Landing, Maine, Whilomville sometimes produces nostalgia by offering glimpses of the routines and rituals once organizing the cultural life of the nation's village-communities. Sharing with Crane's other Whilomville Stories (1900) their fascination with the “pure animal spirits” (“The Carriage-Lamps,” Prose [Prose and Poetry] 1209) and “meanings of boyhood” (“Showin' Off,” Prose 1191), The Monster also brings the imagery of boys out of an insulated world of fantasy and into relation with a larger, rationalizing community. Indeed, Crane's novella flickers continuously with imagery of rowdy boys playing in neighborhood yards and “being sent out of all manner of gardens upon the sudden appearance of a father or a mother” (499), delicately-dressed genteel children who sit “quite primly in the dining-room, while Theresa and her mother plied them with cake and lemonade” (488), white men who humorously rib each other while waiting to be shaved at the immigrant's barbershop, middle-class women who gossip, hold teas, and police the neighborhood from the kitchen, and black people who smile, imitate and play on white society while living on ghettoized alleys or in the outlying wastes.

The most important source for Whilomville in Crane's life was Port Jervis, a small town in New York's Sullivan County. Crane lived there between his seventh and twelfth years and, early in the 1890s, frequently escaped to a family house in Port Jervis, owned by his eldest brother William, as a haven from poverty, incipient fame, and the bohemian experimentation characterizing his life in New York City. Biographers recount Crane's fondness for riding horses, playing with his nieces, and romping in the woods nearby (Berryman 121-22). “The Monster,” however, both draws from and repudiates the culture of Port Jervis, creating an adversarial stance against local color in narrative based on a favored locality. In a letter written to his brother William in 1899, Crane states: “I forgot to reply to you about the gossip in Port Jervis over ‘The Monster.’ I suppose that Port Jervis entered my head while I was writing it but I particularly don't wish them to think so because people get very sensitive …” (Correspondence 2: 446). Crane's desire that people in Port Jervis not imagine themselves as the citizens of Whilomville was warranted, given the contradiction between his nostalgic musing to William in 1897 about someday returning to his childhood home—“My idea is to come finally to live at Port Jervis. … I am a wanderer now and I must see enough but—afterwards—I think of PJ …” (Correspondence 1: 301-2)—and his realistic representation of the townspeople.

“The Monster”'s Whilomville has experienced soul loss while undergoing a transformation. Its citizens are emotionally crippled by racially-figured, despotic mores. The dominant strand of local color actually corresponds with what Leslie Fiedler describes as “the rigor mortis of Anglo-Saxon rigidity” (126). As with Martha Goodwin and Judge Hagenthorpe, who wear the “contemplative frown” (495) marking the elders, Dr. Trescott is also introduced to the reader as “frowning attentively” and initially evokes the image of the “moon” (450-51) for his son Jimmie and Henry Johnson. Even the young men attending the summer concert in the park practice at reserve. They stand “beyond the borders of the festivities because of their dignity, which would not exactly allow them to appear in anything which was so much fun for the younger lads” (457). Compulsive attempts to rein in nature, purify the body, and purge the community of affectionate displays round out Crane's delineation of emotional severity among the white citizenry. Throughout the novella, Crane highlights the loss of feelings of enjoyment or pleasure as the cost of Victorian restraint.4 In addition to Anglo-Saxon rigidity, however, vertigo also plagues Whilomville. In fact, the entire novella is made decidedly surreal by the various urban, national, and international images circulating throughout the local tableaux. Whether it is when the vocabulary of a labor dispute shows up in the conversation of Judge Hagenthorpe and Alek Williams or when thronging crowds rushing to the fire at Trescott's house turn the streets into a riot scene, a sense of “weightlessness” informs this parochial culture. Neither rural, urban, nor international imagery ultimately achieves primacy in the text, for all exist simultaneously, at once visible and invisible, creating many “situation(s) … without definitions” (493) as between Martha and Kate Goodwin in their kitchen.5

Crane undermines the imagery of the white village and challenges the consciousness of the middle-class citizenry by putting into question the cultural system of racial classifications on which the illusions of stability were based. Most obviously, Henry Johnson/the monster, the text's pre-eminent liminal image embodying “a confusion of type” (Harpham 6), emblematizes the social and epistemological crisis plaguing not just manhood but all of Whilomville. Johnson/the monster appears in the novella as a result of a mystic eruption of grotesque energy.6 In the fire-scene, as wisps of smoke are drawn from the Trescott house to “the boughs of the cherry-tree” (suggestive of an agrarian past) in “increasing numbers” by “a current … controlled by invisible banks” (punning on numbers, current/currency and banks), flames break out as if planned “by professional revolutionists” to destroy a facsimile of the “Signing of the Declaration.” “Fire imps,” like threatening, primitive (non-white) others, are said to be “calling and calling, clan joining clan, gathering the colors” as if for a revolt of the oppressed (461-62). This sensational and heavy-handed mixing of images invokes the paranoia of the times, what Jackson Lears deems the 1890's “crisis of cultural authority” (5) in the midst of an exploding volcano. As the Doctor's edenic laboratory erupts in “billows of smoke,” kaleidoscopic flaming-colors, assailing odors, and as a lava-like “red snake” of acid bursts from a beaker to flow “down into Johnson's upturned face” (465), Crane draws on the trope of the volcano that was ubiquitously employed during the 1890s to represent persistent “fears of domestic insurrection” (Lears 31). Disfigured beyond recognition, Henry Johnson, who entered the house to save Jimmie Trescott, becomes the victim of the volcanic imagery.

The white racial ethos of extreme reserve and remanded pleasure (Lott 482) persists throughout “The Monster” despite being challenged by the communal crisis figured as the grotesque effacement. Still, Whilomville is not passed over by the American push toward modernity. The novella's few fleeting images of the cult of domesticity—most stereotypically evoked by Mrs. Trescott's empty teacups in the final scene—are usually displaced by others associated with the masculinist cult of fighting. Just as the tea-making ceremony, which had engaged the most intense feelings of Ellen Montgomery and her mother in The Wide, Wide World (1850), remains evident as a fading memory trace in “The Monster,” the joys of public companionship formerly shared by the March sisters in Little Women (1868) are revisited as a “curious public dependency,” an “inheritance” shared “in silence” and with “no particular social aspect” (457) among the girls of Whilomville. In one passage about Martha Goodwin's dreams, Crane both distills the social reorientation overtaking Whilomville—the substitution of an outward-looking, martial, home-town imaginary for an inward-looking, sentimental image of village-life—and begins to demystify it:

Her dreams, which in early days had been of love of meadows and the shade of trees, of the face of a man, were now involved otherwise, and they were companioned in the kitchen curiously, Cuba, the hot-water kettle, Armenia, the washing of dishes, and the whole thing being jumbled.


A spinster, iron maiden and easy target for masculinist irony, Goodwin is represented as “a mausoleum of a dead passion” and an “engine” (494) of communal opinion. The text's jingoist, she becomes identified with Theodore Roosevelt's expansionist doctrine. Like Roosevelt, who asserts in a speech given in 1893 to the Naval War College that “All the great masterful races have been fighting races. … No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war” (qtd. Zinn 293), Goodwin is “a woman of peace, who … argued constantly for a creed of illimitable ferocity” (493) and a social activist whose “plan … for the reform of the world … advocated drastic measures.” As her desires are divested from traditional matronly fantasies and transfixed by international events, she is imagined, then, not as a feminist, but as a bold person of “adamantine opinions” (492) and “blood-thirsty” (495) utterances who shares Roosevelt's conservative convictions about the social order (Kaplan, “Romancing” 673-75). Given the chance, Goodwin too, Crane suggests, would assert that “if this country had not fought the Spanish War; if we had failed to take the action we did about Panama; all mankind would have been the loser” (Roosevelt, Autobiography 545).

While Mrs. Trescott's sentimental teacups may be almost empty of meaning, then, Martha Goodwin, with her belief that the flirtatious “Mrs. Minster and young Griscom should be hanged” (493) and her new-found interest in “the duty of the United States towards the Cuban insurgents” (492), moves in tandem with the nation. The white culture of Whilomville, on the surface of things, implies a historical truth: that a vigilant change in gender conceptions and communal mores occurred almost simultaneously with the rapid development of great home-front interest in United States military activities abroad. According to Richard Harding Davis, “nearly every [local] paper in the country that could afford to send” (938) a reporter to cover the Spanish-American War did so. Covered widely and without federal censorship in the press, this War became the most popular war in American history, rivaled afterward only by World War II and Desert Storm (Linderman 60-90, 148-73; Brown 125-66). As numerous communities rooted for their own local regiments fighting in Cuba as if cheering for football teams, star reporters like Crane were able to gain reputations for being “quite as much of a soldier as the m[e]n whose courage … [they] described” (Davis 942). Still, photographs of Crane's slight and often sickly frame, even when stylishly dressed for war, indicate how far he was from actually embodying the physical image of masculinity celebrated in and among the yellow press.7 Indeed, although Crane, as his war-reporting shows, was complicit in United States imperial activities, his equation of TR's world-vision with Goodwin's domestic ferocity and his parodying of both indicates his sense of ambivalence about the patriotic righteousness behind imperialist zeal.

“The Monster”—part boy's book, part regionalist excursion, part grotesque exploration of social codes, and part realist critique of provincial vigilance and zealous masculinity—is above anything else generically dissonant.8 Rather than functioning as either a paean to backwater folkways or an incitement of the masculinizing ethos shaping imperialist fantasies, this radically impure tale has a more subtle cultural politics, one with a coherent moral logic and that places Crane into paradoxical relations with the dominant gender trends of his time.


Whilomville appears to be undergoing a transformation in “The Monster”: an effeminizing cultural ethos has nearly been replaced by a more masculinizing one. When viewed in the context of Crane's personal history, however, “The Monster” suggests that the recession of the domestic and the emergence of the strenuous is a cultural pattern Crane not only records, but also questions, qualifies, and at least partially repudiates. Crane's family had a fairly distinguished local lineage in New Jersey dating from before the American Revolution. His father was an ardent, uncompromising Methodist minister, and both parents were temperance workers. As Ann Douglas has shown, the Methodist minister as a mid-century cultural type was an active and important figure in the sentimental reformation of Victorian America. Still, although J. T. Crane ministered and administrated in various New Jersey churches and schools and wrote books “reproving intemperance, card-playing, … theater-going” (Berryman 8) and novel-writing, he died early (when Crane was nine) and is often assumed not to have had more than a residual influence on Crane's career. The artist notably rejected his family's path toward sanctimonious respectability and their religious ethos by dropping out of college, working as a journalist, and slumming in the New York Bowery during his formative years.9

If Crane seems not to have confused “physical strength and strength of character” (Rotundo 233) like many men of his time, he was popularly known for writing The Red Badge of Courage (1895), our culture's canonical text of coming to manhood in the Civil War, and as a reporter-hero in the same military theater where TR and his “Rough Riders” made their mark. “The Monster” was written, however, when Crane lived in the English countryside. England became a haven, albeit an exiled one, serving as a momentary yet important place of retreat between several of Crane's extreme experiences: between his departure from New York in sensational public scandal and his mysterious, four-month disappearance into impoverished Havana, between his self-acknowledged peak experience during the sinking of the Commodore and his apparent attempt at suicide during the Spanish-American War, and between his initially inept coverage of the Greco-Turkish War and his subsequent distinction, at least in Richard Harding Davis' mind, as “the best correspondent” (941) in Cuba. Crane's war-time contact with Roosevelt, Davis, and others made him well placed to comment on masculinity, and his use of the strenuous ethos in his writing makes his failure to toe the TR line that much more significant. Indeed, what is clear in the author's biography and in Whilomville is the excising of sentimental tropes and the insertion of more martial ones in their place. What is more surprising, however, is the way sentiments and virtues formerly associated with domesticity and women return to Crane's aesthetic and moral vision in a different guise.10

The development of a “metonymical process” wherein “turn-of-the-century manhood constructed bodily strength and social authority as identical” has been widely documented by many recent critics.11 In “The Monster,” Crane illustrates how the muscular, theatrical formation of masculinity emerges in Whilomville to repudiate the nostalgic imagery associated with a simpler communal past. At once evocative of organic communal life yet denied the illusions of permanence, a small-town tableau of a summer band playing patriotic tunes in the park is impressionistically suggested and then broken apart in the text. With typical Cranian speed, the band conductor's “look of poetic anguish” causes the crowd to smile in the pause between marches but also is interrupted by factory whistles and church bells warning of the fire in district two. As the crowd awakens from its complacent reverie, a new set of clichés invades the scene. The bells and whistles release the “muscles of the company of young men on the sidewalk” who “vanished like a snowball disrupted by dynamite” and then reappear pulling “madly in their fervor and abandon” at fire-trucks. Soon spectacular figures of stalwart white masculinity, like Jake Rogers “bent like hickory in the manfulness of his pulling … the heavy cart … slowly to the door,” arise in “the glare of the electric light” to transfix the eyes of young “lads” (458-59). According to Crane, strenuous masculinity is preeminently a public performance before a domestic audience in the 1890s. Imitating the volunteers who “perform all manner of prodigies” (468), Jimmie Trescott and a pal later make their own “white and desperate rush[es] forward” (498) to touch Johnson/the monster and prove themselves to their bratty peers.12

No other scene in “The Monster” more clearly establishes the martial character of the hometown culture while linking it to battlefront imagery. Crane describes “the thrill of patriotic insanity,” a thrill designed to generate patriotic feeling among those at home reading war reports, in his “Vivid Story of the Battle of San Juan” (Uncollected Writings 360); this same thrill also drives Whilomville's response to the fire. In addition, just as Jake Rogers is depicted in splendid isolation in “The Monster,” Crane, with similar admiration in a Cuban dispatch, isolates “a spruce young sergeant of marines, erect, his back to the showering bullets” as he “solemnly and intently [is] wigwagging [the flag] to the distant Dolphin” (336-40), an American ship in the harbor. Indeed, Crane's representation of the volunteers in Cuba and Whilomville can seem to contribute to what has been deemed the pressing “cultural work” of white masculinity in the 1890s: the erection of a strenuous, phallic, and unifying national image of American identity after the Civil War and Reconstruction (Kaplan, “Black” 219-36; Brown 142).

In “The Monster,” however, Crane deploys the tropes of the strenuous ethos only to challenge them in their turn. In addition to parodying Goodwin's domestic ferocity, Crane also satirizes the ineffectual actions of the strenuous fire-fighters. The volunteers may quicken the imaginations of Whilomville's boys, but they arrive too late to perform any real feat of heroism. Henry Johnson, Dr. Trescott, and an anonymous “young man who was a brakeman on the railway” (467) arrive before the volunteers, save Jimmie Trescott, and disappear from the scene as the volunteers douse the charred remains of the house with their hoses. The “brakeman” anticipates a significant difference in Crane's front-line journalism as well; in his dispatches from Cuba he turns away from the publicity-generating performances of Roosevelt's elite volunteers and the legions of hometown volunteers to make visible the unappreciated “regular” soldier, an underclass figure named “Nolan.”

Whereas Crane left Lafayette College and Syracuse University before ever finishing a year, Roosevelt studied at Harvard University with Owen Wister, several “Rough Riders,” and under William James. At Harvard in the 1890s, the institutionalized cult of manhood often served to stabilize class distinctions by, in James' words, “posit[ing] life” in place of vocational doubt and by kindling the “will to believe” through the experience of risk-taking (Townsend 38-47, 256-86; Cady 376-82). Although Roosevelt could seem to caricature the complexity of James' masculinist philosophy and pedagogy, and despite the vitality of James' own anti-imperialist stance and the yellow press' caricaturing of even Roosevelt, TR nevertheless achieved in Cuba a remarkable “display of an advanced individualism” that boosted him toward the presidency and consolidated federal power for the cultural elites he represented after William McKinley's assassination. As Roosevelt asserts in several lengthy recollections, he felt his regiment of cowboys and aristocrats was “worth bragging about” (Autobiography 232, 227).

Instead of memorializing the “Rough Riders” for singing “‘Fair Harvard’ in the rifle-pits” (Davis 944), however, Crane portrays them as gallant but blundering, as a “silly brave force … wandering placidly into a great deal of trouble.” After feigning to qualify his criticism by saying he knows “nothing about war, of course, and pretend[s] nothing,” Crane then suggests “this regiment of volunteers [also] knew nothing but their own superb courage” as they were “ambushed” because of their noisy approach and suffered “a heavy loss … due to a remarkably wrong idea of how the Spanish bushwack” (Uncollected Writings 345-48). The jingoistic tendencies of Crane's Cuban journalism appear more readily in his representation of the regular soldier as “the best man standing on two feet on God's green earth.” But even here, in the process of writing about “the sweating, swearing, overloaded, hungry, thirsty, sleepless Nolan,” who gets “shot” despite his strenuous effort and about whom “the public doesn't seem to care” (371-72), Crane depicts tragedy rather than manly conquest leading to a nationally regenerative victory (Cady 380). In these instances when he criticizes the Rough Riders and suggests tragedy for the common soldier, Crane passes beyond his earlier ambiguity about heroic masculinity in his depiction of Henry Flemming's confused and selfless heroism in The Red Badge of Courage. Crane's fiction and journalism, in their moments of most revealing realism, consistently register ambivalence over the status of spectacular heroism and other manly acts of individual aggression or physical assertion.

Crane's second apparent assent to but ultimate dissent from the strenuous ethos, which is more difficult to decipher yet important to “The Monster,” is along the axis of power configured by race relations. Rather than pathologizing physical masculinity directly as a pacifist might (Brown 129), Crane's critique is larger and more inclusive: he problematizes the dominant racial logic of the normative culture undergirding the strenuous life. In “The Monster,” whereas mature whites appear cold, humorless, and warlike, infantile blacks are depicted as warm, amusing, and cowardly. Before his effacement, Henry Johnson in particular bears the desires whites repress and against which they define themselves. Associated with the horse, a mythic sign of masculine potency, and commonly thought of as “the biggest dude in town—anybody knows that” (456), Johnson is a familiar, rollicking figure of fun and “revivification” to the theatrical imagination of the white citizenry.13 Demonstrating the “elasticity of his race” (451), Johnson strikes in quick succession the minstrel's poses of an old-time, happy-go-lucky negro, a conjurer using “seductive wiles” (452) to charm children, and an irrepressible dandy whom Bella Farragut finds “divine” (457).

Beyond just “grin[ning] fraternally” (451) at Jimmie Trescott, in a scene of panic and violence Johnson also encounters the figure of the white goddess—“a trembling sapphire shape like a fairy lady”—in the erupting laboratory. After she “blocked his path and doomed him,” the “fairy lady” catches Johnson in “her talons” (465), in effect initiating his disfiguration. This occluded meeting between a white woman and a black man not only evokes the conventional fears (and their cultural effects) of rape and miscegenation signified by black masculinity in the white imagination (Barryman 323), it also inverts the sentimental work of Eva and Tom in Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) by turning a black man back into “a thing” (467).14 Johnson's character, in fact, never appears rounded in the text, despite his heroism and care in attempting to save Jimmie Trescott. He is never more than a montage of stereotypes, and the predicament of the story remains a white predicament throughout. Crane puts on display the tendency of the white community to see African Americans primarily as figures in their own moral drama. Throughout the novella, Johnson is a moral index of Whilomville and a marker of the imaginative limitations of its white citizenry.

Arising from a millennial belief that “civilized” man has a duty to triumph both inwardly and outwardly over “savagery,” the dominant racial logic of the white society Crane problematizes was at once capacious and reductive enough to unite the culture's various drives toward self-control, social control, and imperial conquest. Indeed, a control-conquest continuum is evident in Roosevelt's The Strenuous Life (1899). In “Christian Citizenship,” the final essay of the collection, Roosevelt links the difficulty of self-control to his belief in the need for “leaders” capable of “suppressing” the passions of the people: “The truth is that each one of us has in him certain passions and instincts which if they gain the upper hand in his soul would mean that the wild beast had come uppermost in him. … What we need in our leaders and teachers is help in suppressing such feelings” (329). Correspondingly, in his jingoistic “Expansion and Peace,” Roosevelt argues: “whether the barbarian be the Red Indian on the frontier of the United States, the Afghan on the border of the British India, or the Turkoman who confronts the Siberian Cossacks, the result is the same. In the long run civilized man finds he can keep the peace only by subduing his barbarian neighbor; for the barbarian will yield only to force …” (31-32). As these passages suggest, Roosevelt believed that just as strenuous men must fight within themselves to gain control over their bodies and to subdue their psyches, they also must struggle vigorously (in their narratives of national community) to quell dissent at home and to conquer various racial others abroad (Takaki 1-55, 253-89; Townsend 256-86; Bederman 170-215). Ronald Takaki has suggested that this conceptual scheme for imagining selfhood and nationhood was derived from a blended heritage of Protestant asceticism, classical republicanism's valuing of homogeneity and social consensus, and social Darwinism's evolutionary hierarchies.

Roosevelt's account of the Spanish-American War in The Rough Riders (1899) exhibits not only his belief in Anglo-Saxon, masculine superiority but also the control-conquest continuum undergirding his stance toward domestic and international others. While the American conquest over the decadent, aristocratic Spanish and the Cubans who cannot protect themselves is TR's ostensible theme, an important counternarrative, as Amy Kaplan has shown, functions alongside his depictions of the conquesting “Rough Riders” to secure hierarchical racial relations among United States troops (“Black” 219-36). At one point in his narrative Roosevelt notices, in contrast to the Rough Riders who hold their positions in every case, “the colored infantrymen” fighting adjacent to him on San Juan Hill have lost their commanding officer and “begun to drift to the rear.” As the fighting intensifies, Roosevelt “jump[s] up,” confronts the retreating “‘smoked Yankees,’” and threatens to shoot those who disobey his order to hold their positions. The spectating Rough Riders attest to the legitimacy of TR's threat in “chorus.” The passage, written for the edification of the home-front audience, conveys TR's sense that “colored soldiers … are peculiarly dependent upon their white officers” while indicating how social control as a policy for national order depends on the very real threat of force. Once racial domination and hierarchical order are reassured, however, pleasure reappears in TR's attitude toward the colored troops. Taking obvious satisfaction in their acceptance of his authority, Roosevelt states that they “flashed their white teeth at one another, as they broke into broad grins, and I had no more trouble with them” (Rough Riders 92-93). African-American troops who played or could be represented as playing the parts of black-faced minstrels under his command signify to Roosevelt “normal” racial relations.15

As with TR on the imperial battlefront, the white men of Whilomville also gird themselves into aggressive imaginings of African-American men. Before the effacement of Johnson, they pay obsessive attention to his public actions. They attempt to secure interpretive mastery over him by contrasting him to themselves, and they enjoy fixing him in their gaze as a harmless minstrel player. A gang of young men on the street corner sees Johnson walking down the street and reads “cakewalk hyperbole” into his gait. They encourage him to “throw out your chest a little more” and reaffirm their gaze with rhetorical questions like “Ain't he smooth?” The men in the barbershop also debate excitedly about “the coon that's coming” (453-55). Their anxiety to manage the black masculine population of Whilomville is as intense as Roosevelt's need to master the colored troops in Cuba. Indeed, if only Henry Johnson could be made to smile again after the accident like a minstrel figure, he could be re-positioned within the social hierarchy and reassure Whilomville in the same way the “smoked Yankees” reassure TR. But by refusing to restore Johnson's absent face, Crane, instead of demonstrating Anglo-Saxon masculine superiority, problematizes it and explores the very racial anxieties that give urgency to white masculine efforts at conquest and control.

While Crane's imaginative act to disturb provincial culture in “The Monster” is not figured exclusively in relation to white masculinity, the effacement of Johnson disrupts the defensive drives to control or conquer the racial other which are most urgently acted on by white men. Moreover, Crane's exploration of racial pathology—of the pleasures white men take in imagining black masculine abjection—leads to his rejection not only of martial masculinity but also the bureaucratic manhood of self-control. For as “The Monster” and the writings of Roosevelt both suggest, the style of physical masculinity that achieved stability through self-repression and muscular acts of heroism often shared its racial logic with the type of bureaucratic masculinity that aimed to manage racial difference through equally insidious rational means. As the narrative focus of “The Monster” shifts from the muscular firemen who fail to save Jimmie Trescott to the town's business and judicial leaders who are eager to insulate the white community from Johnson/the monster after the accident, “The Monster” illustrates how neither style of white masculinity ultimately eradicates the sense of nervousness shaping the community's paranoid style of self-understanding and stimulating its racism.

Henry Johnson/the monster may still be “crooning a weird line of Negro melody” (496) even after his effacement, likely calling to mind for Crane's readership “coon songs” like “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” which sold millions of copies of sheet music during the 1890s (Roediger 98), but the fact remains that his return from unassimilable injury to minstrelsy is never more than suggested; similarly, the representation of him after the effacement as a non-human monstrosity is not an ideologically finished one, as Dr. Trescott's care for him shows. The destabilization of racial categories accompanying Johnson's effacement, the laying open and explication of the ambivalent workings of racial objectification, is the most obvious sign of the contrariness visited upon whiteness itself by the grotesque event of the effacement. By rendering Whilomville's vocabulary for racial categorization inadequate to the task of encoding Johnson's absent face, Crane indeed beleaguers the attempt of the home-front colonizer—more often an older bureaucratic man than a younger strenuous one—to objectify and manage the (non-white) home-front colonized.16 Moreover, although the novella, as Michael T. Gilmore suggests of Crane's realism more generally, remains “imbued with imperialist logic” (100), Crane dismantles the existing social order enough to suggest another kind of social organization and another style of masculinity, both of which are incompatible with the control-conquest continuum and the strenuous life.


As the local press eulogizes Johnson, whom the community presumes to be dead, six of ten doctors attending him after the fire also privately assert he is “doomed” (471). This collective reaction to the patient suggests the “kind of spectatorial paralysis” that Michael Davitt Bell characterizes as typical of middle-class, observer-figures in naturalist texts (110-11).17 Upon hearing the diagnosis of “doom,” however, Dr. Trescott springs “up quickly” from his own bed “to see if the bandages need readjusting” (471). Trescott's action to aid and treat rather than ignore and abandon Johnson/the monster are significant to the “cultural work” of Crane's novella. By depicting Trescott as a somewhat effeminized alternative to the strenuous man, Crane allows us to question the usual realist-naturalist trajectory of hyper-masculinity ushered in by Norris and London. “The Monster” suggests the continuities and unresolved tensions within white masculinity in the 1890s and that the men's project American literary realism is often taken to be is multivalent, conflictual in its manifestations, and morally diverse.

Resulting from Trescott's nearly maternal “vigil” of “long nights and days” at the “bedside” of the patient, a vigil which Judge Hagenthorpe cannot understand, Chapter XI depicts the breakdown of communication between the two professional men over what to call and what to do with Johnson/the monster. Hagenthorpe's assertion that “somehow I think that poor fellow ought to die,” suggesting Johnson/the monster ought to be erased from the community for his own sake, brings forth a “look of recognition” and disbelief from Trescott concerning what Crane names “an old problem” (472-73). The two men cannot agree upon a common vocabulary through which to signify the grotesque figure. As their speech fragments, the emotional structure of the scene recalls the opening of the novella where Jimmy Trescott, having destroyed a peony while imagining himself a train, “could do no reparation” and undergoes “a severe mental tumult” as if “the importance of the whole thing had taken away the boy's vocabulary” (449-50). It also initiates a return for the entire town to what Bill Brown deems an “originary moment in [the history of] American racism” (229) by deconstructing the racist vocabulary undergirding the white community. Trescott in particular refuses to validate the social Darwinist notion that blacks had to die because they were not the fittest—he rejects, in other words, the stigma of mortality often associated with being black in the 1890s.18

The rift between Hagenthorpe and Trescott serves as the origin of Whilomville's subsequently failed search for a unifying narrative and course of action through which to respond to Johnson/the monster. At least two contradictory ways of reading him/it emerge from the crisis of interpretation, and by extension, at least two irreconcilable propositions or stories are imagined for constructing the white male self in relation to the other.19 The more easily detectable story is the re-affirmation of an ethos for white masculinity derived from the control-conquest continuum. The story of Trescott's awakening, however, figures the capacity of white men for empathetic communal action despite the apparent costs. Part of what makes “The Monster” such a compelling fiction of United States community and masculinity is that it depicts the divided feelings, both the loathing and the regret, at the heart of white relations with African Americans.

The grotesque event of Johnson's effacement displaces onto white masculinity the contrasting racial logic used elsewhere to draw distinctions between men of different races. As the accident creates a perceptible gulf within the white community, white masculinity itself becomes a contradictory social category wherein “opposing processes and assumptions coexist” (Harpham 14). As with Judge Hagenthorpe, many in Whilomville wish to pass from the knowable reality through the unassimilable event to the knowable reality again without accepting or even acknowledging the altered presence of Johnson. If the minstrel face formerly making him familiar could only be restored, the difference he has become would not need to be recognized, admitted, cared for, or internalized. Without a recognizable face, however, Johnson/the monster is perceived as a threat, and the strategies for purging him/it from Whilomville run the gamut from death to deportation to re-objectification. In the barbershop, Bainbridge reiterates the Judge's position that the Doctor “should have let him die” (482). Once it is confirmed that Johnson/the monster will live, Mr. Twelve, the reputed millionaire and community leader, proposes to exile Johnson by getting him “a place somewhere off up the valley” (507); others suggest institutionalizing him/it. Finally, the drive to create narratives re-objectifying him/it returns with unrelenting force among the part of the community for whom Bainbridge speaks. Acting like a minstrel-player himself, Bainbridge turns the effacement into an occasion for pleasure as he sings his own adapted lines to the lewd song “No Hips at All”: “He has no face in the front of his head, / in the place where his face ought to grow” (483).20

By contrast, because of the moral burden placed on him by Johnson's attempt to save his son, Trescott cannot see Johnson/the monster in a way that allows him to cease caring for the patient. The Doctor refutes Hagenthorpe's suggestion that Johnson/the monster “ought to die” by asking the Judge: “Would you kill him?” When Hagenthorpe asserts that Johnson will “be a monster, and with no mind,” Trescott also refuses to accept this re-objectification or non-human naming by replying: “he will be what you like, judge, … but, by God! he saved my boy” (473-74). And in response to Twelve's plan to send Johnson/the monster up the valley, Trescott states: “You don't know, my friend. Everybody is so afraid of him, they can't even give him good care” (507). Although Trescott's care for Johnson/the monster has more to do with his debt of gratitude than with his/its questionable racial status after the accident, Johnson's race before the accident still shapes the white community's need to re-personify, re-place, or dispose of him/it. Trescott's actions thwart this compulsive need of the white community to purge itself of the unassimilable other.21

Critics have suggested that “The Monster” participates in the communal attempts to finish the othering and eradication of Johnson/the monster. As Joseph Church points out, “insofar as Crane, like the men of Whilomville, uses the disfigured black man to represent his own [aesthetic] power, he is guilty of the very [racial] logic that indicts the culture he condemns” (386). The justice of Church's critique lies in the fact that even Trescott's sociable and sentimental awakening can be read as resulting from Johnson's effacement. Still, this reading overlooks the fact that it is actually Johnson's act of care—his agency, not his effacement—which enables Trescott to recognize his humanity. In addition, it also remains blind to Crane's critique of a culture, and specifically a construction of white masculinity, that is repressive and fearful of black masculine agency. Indeed, the novella portrays those who advocate the strategies for purging the community of Johnson/the monster as emotionally crippled and childish. Bainbridge is identified as a “flint-hearted fish” (482); his aggressive refusal to grasp ethical subtleties is perhaps only equaled by Martha Goodwin. Hagenthorpe and Jake Winters, who stands on his porch “still yelping … like a little dog” (502) after expelling Trescott from his house, also exemplify moral coarseness and cowardice. Even Twelve mistakes his own shirking of responsibility for considerate leadership by arguing that although “this thing is out of the ordinary, … there must be ways to … beat the game somehow” (506-7). In these instances, Crane portrays the insensitivity and defensiveness he intuits to be the psychic companions of the unfinishable process of racial objectification.

As a capable medical practitioner who won't take anyone else's word that the patient has no chance for survival, Trescott treats Johnson/the monster rather than attempting to rid the community of the imagined threat posed by his/its alterity. After carrying his son from the burning laboratory where Johnson dropped Jimmie, Trescott hears Hannigan's howl that “Johnson is in there” and sentiments “penetrated to … [his] sleepy sense” (467). Later, upon learning of Jimmie's use of Johnson/the monster to test the courage of his pals in the performative mode of the firemen, Trescott “groaned deeply” and “his countenance was so clouded in sorrow that the lad, bewildered by the mystery of it, burst forth in dismal lamentations” (500-1). Indeed, Trescott becomes marked in these scenes by his compassion. He cannot seem to unburden himself of the thought uttered by the chief of police: “Guess there isn't much of him to hurt any more, is there? Guess he's been hurt up to the limit” (491). Rather than anxiety or loathing, he experiences the kind of sentimental or humanitarian grief over Johnson's injuries which Hawthorne suggests makes people capable of sympathy.22

Crane figures the novella's counternarrative around Trescott's compassionate alteration. The underlying trope of this counternarrative is a chiasmus, a crossing that entails an inverted exchange between past and present relations. Trescott passes from a professional ethos of control to one of care and from emotional reserve to the capacity for kindness as a result of his response to the crisis.23 Before the fire he rides home from his day's work “feeling glad” he has “subdued” his last case into “complete obedience,” as if practicing medicine were like breaking “a wild animal” (466), but afterward he nurses Johnson throughout the night. His original cold and distant demeanor associating him with “the moon” is replaced by a new tenderness. When Jimmie cries, Trescott “sat in a great leather reading-chair, and took the boy on his knee …” (501). He also attempts to comfort Grace Trescott when her tea fails, and as the maimed Johnson descends from a carriage, he holds “both arms [out] to the dark figure … [while] it crawled to him painfully” (476).

Trescott assumes a cultural function similar to that of a domestic mother by grieving and caring for Johnson and his family; he also comes to represent in the novella her formerly absent ethos. In Trescott's character, what Charlotte Perkins Gilman identifies as “the naturally destructive tendencies of the male have been gradually subverted to the conservative tendencies of the female.” Perhaps the most subtle gender theorist of her day, Gilman identifies in Women and Economics (1898) “maternal energy” as having the ability “to love and care for someone besides himself … to work, to serve, to be human” (126-28). In Trescott, Crane suggests the supersession of martial and managerial actions with “maternal” ones as a manly form of risk-taking. The Doctor's emotional reconnection to his family, of which Johnson becomes an integral part, consequently evinces the possibility of fashioning a more “maternal” and thus a more versatile formation of masculinity in the increasingly hyper-masculine culture of the turn of the last century. Moreover, in these instances when “The Monster” evokes the figure of the “man-mother” (125) Gilman delineates, Crane in effect rewrites post-bellum white masculinity itself as a grotesquely divided construct rather than a monolithic image.

As Crane attempts to retool and redeploy a culturally recessive, or more nurturing construction of manhood, which Anthony Rotundo suggests nineteenth-century doctors and ministers often cultivated because of their work in healing professions (205-9), Dr. Trescott, Jimmie, and Johnson/the monster are partially released from the discursive systems of the normalizing communal order. When one reads “The Monster” from a point of view that privileges Trescott's humanitarian extension beyond the emotional limits set by the normative culture, the grotesque event of Johnson's effacement begins to undermine the social conventions which create “reality” in Whilomville (Harpham 4). From this perspective, “The Monster” is a text which implies a desire to reanimate a revolutionary humanitarian or sentimental ethos and then channel it into communal action. Still, if Crane's novella shows the contingency of Whilomville, the impermanence of its mores, and opens a horizon of imaginative possibility, it doesn't suggest the end of the line for the emotional and discursive conventions governing this “reality.”24 Instead, a spliced narrative structure arises after the grotesque event, as Trescott experiences his difference from normative Whilomville (as Crane had experienced his difference from Port Jervis) without being entirely liberated from its imaginative constraints. Trescott's difference without liberation from a community vigilantly demanding like-mindedness suggests, then, the deep logic behind Crane's own aesthetic disposition and moral sensibility.

The alteration in Trescott's masculine ethos also doesn't provide an escape from the paradigms and imagery of colonization. With his grief and sense of a debt, his sincere desire to show charity but inability to save Johnson/the monster from his fate, Trescott embodies Crane's equivocations about the colonizer's obligations to the colonized. In an article Crane wrote from Havana in 1898 to indict United States imperial policy just after the war, he offers clear insight into the ethics of gender underlying his depiction of Trescott's transformation. Several weeks after the United States victory over the Spanish but before any American soldiers had arrived in Havana, Crane grows impatient with the American delay and writes of the United States government:

The next three months are likely to be more disastrous for Cuba than were the months of war. … If a man lacks a spine it is not of a surety his privilege to enter heaven without challenge as a just and charitable spirit. The lack of spine is not mentioned by any available authority as the supreme virtue of mankind. What we mistake for generous feeling for our late enemy is more than half the time merely a certain governmental childishness.

(Uncollected Writings 393-94)

Crane criticizes American “governmental childishness” in Cuba much as he criticizes the white men of Whilomville because of their inability to act charitably toward Johnson/the monster. To Crane, the American government is figured as a “man,” and Crane defines manhood as having a “spine” and a “just and charitable spirit.” Thus, the government's delay in providing care and security for the Cubans amounts to a failure of masculinity for Crane. This delay also announces the almost immediate erosion of national interest in the Spanish-American War, substantiating in Crane's particular account the widespread interpretation of this war as fought more for the domestic audience than the liberation of Cubans. Still, the ethos of masculine care-taking Crane advocates here and in Trescott's character remains imperialist, for Crane's ostensible hope is that white men will take up their burden in Cuba and Whilomville.

In 1900, while considering William Watson's response to allegations he had written unpatriotically about the English presence in South Africa, Crane suggests that he also cannot banish moral questions from his imperial experiences. He states:

In the end, one seems to find in Mr. William Watson's letter an expression of decent, equitable patriotism, which might be worth perusal. First, he approves of some of his country's acts because he can't help it. … [But] instead of being the letter of a fiery agitator, it is the letter of a saddened man.

A critical commonplace in Crane scholarship is that his was a deep patriotism, that even as an expatriate living in the English countryside he almost always wrote of his homeland, its people, and their issues. Still, despite initial chauvinism, Crane, like Watson and unlike a “fiery agitator,” identifies regret to be at the core of his sense of patriotism and imperialism. Moreover, unlike Watson, whom Crane identifies as having “failed to express that comic vanity which leads one to long that the enemy should know that one is an honorable man,” Crane admits to his own “burning wish for a quick success of the American arms in the Philippines” and “a still more burning wish that the Filipinos shall see us as just men” (Uncollected Writings 428). As he satirizes the “comic vanity” of his own desire to be recognized as “just” by the Filipinos, Crane shows his inability to fully accept the racial logic of white male superiority. Still, while emphasizing his difference from the “fiery agitator” and evincing his sense of the hubris of “big-stick diplomacy,” Crane refrains from rejecting imperialism outright.

When one returns to the local community of “The Monster,” charity, compassion, and a just demeanor also emerge as the salient features of the style of masculinity and social authority the novella privileges. From Shipley, the quiet fire-chief the boys can't grasp but whom the “fathers” vindicate, to the chief of police, who tips off Trescott to the rising communal outrage when Johnson/the monster returns to town, to Dr. Moser, who includes “a little history of each case” (501) in an envelope when Trescott volunteers to cover his rounds, the men who are not parodied by Crane, while often overshadowed by a more visible and muscular fraternity, are engaged in acts of communal service. It is as if Crane, in these rare moments without irony, seeks to suggest what communitarians continue to tell us: that “community and human relations … have … non-instrumental value, and are frequently constitutive of personal identity” (Flanagan 123). In “The Monster,” the latent ethos of masculine service and communal care—a barely glimpsed utopian possibility in the text which is all but invisible in recent studies of turn-of-the-century masculinity—is vindicated (however fleetingly) over of the manifest ones.

Furthermore, this ethos of communal commitment takes on greater significance in the context of Crane's own cultivation of a mutually supportive, literary community in England at the time of the text's composition. As Crane grew to feel he might be permanently exiled from Port Jervis, at one point complaining to his brother William that “so many of them in America … want to kill, bury and forget me purely out of unkindness and envy and—my unworthiness, if you choose” (Correspondence 1: 301), he sought to create what Harold Frederic referred to as a “community of comradeship” (qtd. 1: 339) in the countryside of Kent and East Sussex. At Ravensbrook and Brede Place, Crane frequently entertained Harold Frederic, Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, and Henry James. He also offered generous emotional support when Joseph Conrad suffered from depression. Conrad reciprocated by attempting to find Crane a more lucrative publisher to alleviate his financial distress. Moreover, Crane was thoroughly invested in a scheme to write a play with Conrad, and he wrote an appreciation of Frederic's oeuvre upon the publication of Frederic's now forgotten Gloria Mundi (1898). Because of his efforts to extend the sentiments, sympathy, and trust typically associated with familial relations into a model of professional affiliation founded on mutual appreciation and personal admiration, Crane became the central person generating community among the various writers (and their families) living in his proximity in the English countryside (Delbanco 39-81).

Crane, however, never finally sustained in his art or his life the nurturing style of masculine sociability he increasingly sought. If the effacement of Johnson and the transformation of Trescott demonstrate the contingency of Whilomville, by marking its temporal and spatial limits and opening a horizon through which to imagine possibilities extending beyond those limits, the final scene of “The Monster” depicts Trescott and his wife as abject and alienated from Whilomville. With his practice faltering and his social standing eroded, Trescott, like his tearful wife, is numb, “mechanically count[ing]” (508) empty teacups while trying to console Grace Trescott after her Wednesday afternoon tea has been boycotted. Rather than any kind of affirmation at the evacuation of meaning from the sentimental trope of the teacup, the novella's final scene suggests only the oppressive power of a vigilant communal ethos which condemns and excludes Trescott for his emotive and humanitarian response to Johnson's injury. Similar to the process of racial objectification criticized in the novella, then, Crane's redescription of white masculine sociability also remains unfinished in the text. Perhaps not coincidentally, Crane's proposed dramatic collaboration with Conrad and the hoped for “community of comradeship” among Crane, Frederic, and their mistresses also never materialized. As the scheme to pull together the two households deteriorated, Frederic would write to Cora, Crane's partner, expressing his sense “that any effort to put” his routine and Crane's “side by side under one roof would necessarily come to grief.” Frederic even expresses the skepticism about community more commonly associated with the perspective of a realist when he states: “there would be the common bond of great and deep personal attachment between the two households, of course—but when it came to a test of strength between that and the divergent impetus of two wholly different sets of habits, I have seen too much of the world to doubt that the bond would be injured much more easily than the habits would be harmonized” (qtd. Correspondence 1: 339).

In a letter likely written in 1897 but published one month after his death in 1900, Crane makes a rare and often-cited statement of his aesthetic principle. He identifies a double movement as foundational to his art and comments on his way of disguising his moral purpose.

I have been careful not to let any theories or pet ideas of my own creep into my work. Preaching is fatal to art in literature. I try to give the readers a slice out of life; and if there is any moral or lesson in it, I do not try to point it out. I let the reader find it for himself. The result is more satisfactory to both reader and myself. As Emerson said, “There should be a long logic beneath the story, but it should be kept carefully out of sight.”

(1: 322-23)

“Preaching,” the rejected occupation of Crane's father as well as the sister discourse of the sentimental novel, is juxtaposed to and superseded by a realist-naturalist description of “literature” as a fraternal “art” of presenting “a slice of life.” The biographical residues of this passage, like the argument of this essay, suggest that Crane's aesthetic temperament was shaped by an original revolt against the moralizing genres and tropes for which “preaching” stands and which are replaced by the less decipherable (“I do try not point it out”) but “more satisfactory” representations of real “life.” In the end of the passage, however, Crane makes the equivocal return to quote Emerson, equivocal not least because of the moralizing idiom Emerson uses concerning what “should be” done.

While the nascent reconstitution of Trescott's white masculine subjectivity does not fully reclaim “that part of a man's inner self that sought expression through intimacy,” a part of male identity Rotundo suggests was “being squeezed to the margins of men's lives” (282) at the turn of the twentieth century, Trescott's emerging emotionalism in the novella's chiastic counternarrative, his sympathy with a racial outcast, his warmth toward his child and wife, and his commitment to voluntary above tribal affiliations are significant in a novella whose narrative also participates in the strenuous reorientation of the national culture away from “the female” and toward “the male.” Caught between a residual and nurturing masculine ethos that Crane tries to recuperate and the strenuous ethos of white masculinity ascendant in the culture, “The Monster” ultimately maintains a sense of the moral diversity of, and tensions within, turn-of-the-century constructions of Anglo-American masculinity.

Despite the real costs of Trescott's gratitude and care for Johnson/the monster, the novella also leads to a clear moral position, figured by Trescott, concerning what Crane believed “should be” done about the problem of Anglo-American masculine sociability. While the teacups latent with effeminized ritual are virtually excised from the text, the sentimentalist's validation of humanitarian commitment and social feeling is not. Communal indifference and strenuous individualism instead are repudiated. In the end, however much Trescott may assert “I'm not trying to teach them anything” (506), Crane, who practically paraphrases Trescott when he suggests he does “not try to point” out the lesson of his art, is trying to teach his “reader” something. Trescott offers one of Crane's best expressions of his own longing for a masculine ethos of social care and communal commitment. Still, Crane's final gesture to leave Trescott alienated yet circumscribed within the provincial white community suggests the author's own ultimate deprecation to, not his self, but his reader's judgment of his art and life. Notwithstanding his remarks to the contrary, nor his concurrent advocary of United States imperialism, Crane's concern throughout his novella is to represent, and to cultivate in his readers, a humane formation of judgment and care.


  1. See Higham for his reorientation thesis about United States culture in the 1890s.

  2. Cady's is a suggestive and artful discussion of Crane's “temptation toward” and divergence from “Rooseveltian neo-romanticism” (379). He locates irony, before care, as the cause of Crane's difference from the more zealous advocates of the strenuous life.

  3. Many recent critics of “The Monster” have sharpened our understanding of the novella's stylistic and narrative complexity by identifying crucial tropes, metaphors, narrative techniques, and recurrent stylistic gestures as central features of Crane's writing. On the novella's narrative structure, see Warner. On Crane's use of the trope of prosopopoeia, see Mitchell. Also, Morace analyzes how the novella “is intricately developed by means of a game metaphor” (66). And even though he doesn't write specifically about “The Monster,” Bell reads Crane's cultivation of “a style that deliberately calls attention to itself” (132).

    This kind of attention to narrative, rhetoric, and style has resulted in a critical discourse about “The Monster” which often gives cursory attention to its historical and biographical contexts. More recently, Brown has analyzed the discourses and artifacts which surface in the novella's “material unconscious” from the turn-of-the-century recreational cultures of black-faced minstrelsy, freak shows, and photography. Also, Marshall reads the novella into a biographical context. The divergence of my work from Brown's and Marshall's demonstrates how, as Dimock suggests, even within a certain “slice of time” “context is not a fixture or a given” but a noisy “continuum” (1061, 1065).

  4. The racial codes through which Crane illustrates the regional themes of communal ossification and personal limitation are common among a range of turn-of-the-century novels which take Northeastern town-life as their subject. For example, as with Judge Hagenthorpe and Martha Goodwin, Deborah Thayer in Mary Wilkins Freeman's Pembroke (1893) and the Methodist residents of Octavius in Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896) dominate their emotional selves and have blighted, bellicose dispositions. The characters of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome (1911) also are scarred by self-repression and impotency.

    On the largely Protestant code which characterized the mores of small communities in the 1870s and 1880s and the often violent reactions of these (white) communities in the 1890s against perceived threats, see Wiebe 1-75; Takaki 1-55, 253-89; and Lott 482.

  5. “Weightlessness” is the term Jackson Lears uses to suggest the experience of dislocation felt by many citizens of the “new city” in the Gilded Age (32-46). On the distention of the “island community” during the Gilded Age, see Wiebe 11-75.

  6. According to Harpham, the grotesque is “an energy which aborts” all “systems of decorum” by “moving the bottom to the top,” the marginal to the center (8, 74).

  7. For instance, on his way to Cuba in 1898, Crane was described by another journalist as “one of the most unprepossessing figures that ever served as a nucleus for apocryphal romance; shambling, with hair too long, usually lacking a shave, sallow, destitute of small talk, critical if not fastidious, marked with ill-health—the very antithesis of the conquering male” (qtd. Berryman 177-78).

  8. Brown speaks of the Whilomville stories in terms of “generic syncretism: the use of a dominant genre to record an emerging phenomenon that disrupts that genre's conceptual precondition” (170). Generic dissonance is more accurate for “The Monster,” however, wherein generic experimentations preclude any form from being dominant. See Glazener on the generic dissonance structuring the literary and periodical marketplace during the postbellum period.

  9. Brown shows that Crane's father was an archetypal Methodist minister who advocated for the belief in “subordinating ‘all the emotions, passions, and appetites to the control of reason and conscience’” (28). In addition to Berryman and Brown, Wertheim and Sorrentino's The Crane Log is another useful source for biographical details about Crane.

  10. In my characterization of Crane's use of and biographical connections to the imagery and heritage associated with antebellum domesticity and sentimentalism, I am allowing these cultural forms to be reduced to their dominant meanings, as they frequently were within the largely anti-feminist, masculinist, postbellum set of discourses about sociability and community that are my subject in this essay. I am aware, however, of the recent revisionary criticism that advocates for separating these terms from each other and recharacterizes their multifarious cultural work, and the cultural work of nineteenth-century women, as more pervasively public than formerly acknowledged. In fact, my larger claim for Crane's paradoxical revaluing of an ethos of communal care among postbellum men gains resonance in relation to this recent scholarship. On the itinerant cultural power of domesticity, see especially Romero. And on the need to reconstruct “a long, broad view of sentimentality” (72), one which takes into account “the transatlantic and philosophical antecedents of the form” (69), see Howard's “What is Sentimentality?”; see also Camfield 22-59.

  11. Bederman 8; see also Brown; Kaplan “Romancing” and “Black”; Townsend; and Rotundo.

  12. This scene of children imitating manly actions in “The Monster” is similar to the boyhood war games depicted in the opening scene of Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, making evident the connection between Crane and Stone, both sensational impressionists, obsessed with war and patriotism, and intent upon implicating the structures of domestic life in the agendas of United States militarism.

  13. Harpham notes that in the cave art of Paleolithic man “‘the horse is the chief masculine sign’” (60); see also Lott 482.

  14. In addition to Berryman's speculative reading, Marshall argues more recently that Henry Johnson is a benign transmutation of Robert Lewis, a black rapist who was lynched in front of William Crane's house in Port Jervis in 1892.

  15. In his Cuban journalism, Crane was capable of deploying this contrasting racial logic without making a critique of it. He includes patently racist counter-points in several articles, in one case contrasting the “strong figures,” “bronze faces,” and “linen suits” of Anglo-American soldiers to Cuban soldiers who appear to him as “hard-bitten, under-sized … negroes” dressed in clownish costumes (Uncollected Writings 336, 340).

  16. My reading of the effacement of Johnson/the monster and Crane's use of the racial grotesque is influenced by Cassuto's argument for “viewing the colonial relation in terms of the encounter with the grotesque” (xvi). According to Cassuto, the process of racial objectification, as represented throughout nineteenth-century American literature and as an integral part of the antebellum American projects of Indian removal and the attempt to justify slavery, entailed huge imaginative efforts by the dominant (white) group to see “nonwhites as non-people” (xiii). He demonstrates that the attempt of the (white) colonizer to personify or objectify the (non-white) colonized is internally problematized in the antebellum period by a deeply anthropomorphic tendency in human perception, which simultaneously prevents ideological closure in the objectifying process and produces “unarticulated ambivalence” (16) or the deep anxiety of the racial grotesque (xiii-xix, 1-29).

  17. Bell is responding to arguments made by Howard in Form and History.

  18. On social Darwinism's active discourse about black mortality, see Mizruchi, 269-302.

  19. Warner has argued that the “uncanny experience” of reading the novella results from Crane's sophisticated creation of “two stories” (87), one heroic and one problematic, which develop simultaneously and undercut one another. Whereas Warner suggests that the contrariness of the narrative dismantles “our mechanism of valuation” (77) and demonstrates the text's ethical ambivalence, I posit that Crane's two stories actually lead to a clear ethical position about the sociable values imputed to different styles of masculinity. In addition, Brown argues that “The Monster” presents a “counterdramaturgy” (218) figured by Johnson/the monster which frustrates the evocation of sociological reality also evident in the text. He sees the contrary narrative, however, as becoming surreally modernist (239-245), whereas I emphasize its recuperation of aspects from a sentimental or humanitarian legacy despite its modernist moments.

  20. Katz identifies the song in an editor's note to “The Monster” (483).

  21. On William Crane's attempt to prevent a black man's lynching in Port Jervis and the similarities between his actions and Trescott's on behalf of Johnson, see Marshall 212-24.

  22. On the representation of emotion, personal injury and psychic pain in literary realism, see Travis.

  23. My understanding of the temporal dimensions of the figure of chiasmus is influenced by Caruth (50-51).

  24. This formulation is influenced by Said's discussion of Conrad's dating of imperialism (19-31).

I want to thank Anne E. Fernald for her keen intellect, careful reading of my writing and sustaining friendship. Thanks also to Michael T. Gilmore, John Burt, Wai Chee Dimock, and an anonymous reader at Arizona Quarterly for their cleareyed, helpful responses to earlier versions of this essay.

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Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economics of Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

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Camfield, Gregg. Sentimental Twain: Samuel Clemens in the Maze of Moral Philosophy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Caruth, Cathy. Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Cassuto, Leonard. The Inhuman Race: The Racial Grotesque in American Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Church, Joseph. “The Black Man's Part in Crane's Monster.American Imago: A Psychoanalytic Journal for Culture, Science, and the Arts 45 (1988): 378-94.

Crane, Stephen. Prose and Poetry. Ed. J. C. Levenson. New York: Library of America, 1996.

———. Stephen Crane: Uncollected Writings. Ed. Olov W. Fryckstedt. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1963.

———. The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. Ed. Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino. Vols. 1-2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

———. The Monster. The Portable Crane. Ed. Joseph Katz. New York: Penguin Books, 1977. 449-508.

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Nick Lolordo (essay date 2001)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9726

SOURCE: Lolordo, Nick. “Possessed by the Gothic: Stephen Crane's ‘The Monster.’” Arizona Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2001): 33-56.

[In the following essay, Lolordo argues that rather than classifying “The Monster” as realism or naturalism, it can be regarded as gothic.]

The time is perhaps ten years after the Civil War, the place a small town in New York State. A fire has broken out in the home of Dr. Trescott, the town's leading physician; trapped upstairs is his son. Henry Johnson, Trescott's coachman and former domestic servant, is first to the scene and unhesitatingly rushes inside in search of young Jimmie Trescott. In the course of saving the boy, Johnson's face will be horribly disfigured by an accident in the doctor's laboratory, rendering him “the monster” of the story's title. As Johnson enters the smoke-filled house, Stephen Crane's narrative gaze coolly shifts: “In the hall a lick of flame had found the cord that supported ‘Signing the Declaration.’ The engraving slumped suddenly down at one end, and then dropped to the floor, where it burst with the sound of a bomb” (21).

The historical picture is a recognizably Gothic piece of decor, evocative of a remote causality, the long arm of the past guiding events in the present. But how to understand the violent destruction of a representation which itself portrays the foundational American revolt against paternal tyranny? Is this fire a new revolution, a mysterious loosing of social energies that will disrupt the existing order? Or is it merely a parodic repetition, with its ironic echo of “bombs bursting in air,” that suggests history repeating itself as farce, revolution in reverse? I argue that the event might better be read as an interpretive key to the story's governing aesthetic: the destroyed engraving, as its title indicates, is a classically realist work of art, implicated in a historical or journalistic attitude towards American history that this particular story refuses to assume. The allegorical marker is planted in the text only to remain unacknowledged; Crane's mention of the Revolution must ultimately be understood as the destruction of the referent. Crane's realism, then, is a dehistoricized realism, in which the Gothic replaces history rather than interpreting it.1 This realism proves insufficiently capacious; the narrative as a whole is unable to acknowledge what it understands at the tell-tale level of style, and thus its realism, produced in part by a critique of popular or sentimental discourses, comes to seem an evasion, leaving a vacuum which Gothic figures rush to fill.

Crane's fiction, and specific aspects of Crane's style which I will treat as significantly Gothic, have been considered under various generic categories: realism or, more often, its subsets naturalism or impressionism.2 In the teleology of prose fiction, these terms refer to developments which are taken to supersede the Gothic, without banishing its components.3 Hints of this teleological reading can be seen in the initial responses to “The Monster.”4 Those who read it as a tale of horror were unimpressed: an anonymous reviewer in the Book Buyer found a conception “worthy of Poe” ruined by realism and “attention to irrelevant detail,” while Julian Hawthorne saw the story as a failed reworking of the Frankenstein dilemma in a “realistic style” (qtd. in Weatherford 262, 259). Favorable early comments on “The Monster” simply reversed this judgment and saw its success within the terms of realism, arguing that the moral failure of the community in forcing Trescott to abandon the horribly disfigured Johnson was meant to be instructively contrasted with the doctor's acceptance of his duty toward the man who saved his son. Both positions distinguish between realistic social critique and lurid horror; they notice the story's two aspects, but fail to account for the relation between them, the peculiar network of misrecognitions and disavowals that makes “The Monster” so troubling.

The Gothic motifs which disfigure Crane's narrative appear in the place which Eve Sedgwick, in her study of Gothic conventions, has designated as crucial to the genre: the descriptive surface. Observing that much criticism of the Gothic has been based on an implicitly Freudian model of depth psychology, Sedgwick argues that this governing metaphor generates particular readings in which depth (psychologized interiority) is privileged and the “surface” of the Gothic text (its conventions of description and presentation) is deemed insignificant (11-13).5 She goes on to suggest that a map of the previously neglected surfaces of the Gothic text can be used to organize a large number of diverse conventions. To redescribe the Gothic, Sedgwick offers the model of a structure of division that spatializes psychology; the defining condition of a self (or a community) so divided is to be powerfully denied access to something which it ought to possess. Without interchange between the two parts, their relation becomes instead one of homology, a “doubleness where singleness should be” (13). And the forces and energies within a text that are most typically Gothic are those devoted to breaching this barrier and restoring unity. A similar model of the self is implied by Neil Hertz's discussion of the Freudian notions of the uncanny and the repetition compulsion. Hertz sees the idea of violent energy exchange as “a characteristically Gothic rendering of experience” (opposing it to the exchange of linguistic signs, a more communication-based model of human behavior), and suggests that the crucial issues within such a framework are the ultimate origin of the circulating energies and their ability to produce lasting marks (110).

Crane's prose is marked by the duplicity Sedgwick and Hertz observe. In “The Monster,” a Gothic metaphorics of division, circulation and inscription—issues of “surface”—is at war with a realist social critique, the “deeper meaning” to which the transparency of realist prose would grant us access. The fundamental “doubleness where singleness should be” (to use Sedgwick's language) in “The Monster,” visible at the level of style, must also be understood in terms of social divisions. The black neighborhood called Watermelon Alley functions as the uncanny double of white Whilomville; Crane portrays an American small town organized by a sort of racialized Gothic repetition. The young men of the town are said to gather in groups “which expressed various shades and lines of chumship, and had little to do with any social gradations” (14). Michael Fried reads this visualized description of friendship as a hint that the story is not really about its “manifestly social subject”6 (what I have been calling its realist subject), taking it as suggestive of a metaphorics of writing. While I agree that Crane's language fails to be transparent, this particular phrase is surely evocative of the color line and its particular status within the narrative as a barrier that functions powerfully without ever being overtly thematized. Obscured by realism, Crane's latent subject is nevertheless writ large: this classless utopia of Whilomville is marked with the stigma of segregation (by which I refer also to the story's treatment of the domestic and childhood spheres). Moreover, the tension generated by the subject of segregation manifests itself in stylistic inconsistencies. The failed transparency of segregation is not so much thematized within Crane's realism as it is performed by it; the story's multiple styles are not in communication with each other.

Crane's Gothic, then, exists in two distinct veins, which are closely aligned with viewing perspective. Realism succeeds, if it does, as the style of pluralism, one within which differences can coexist: its potential for critique is grounded on the assumption that it can accurately refer to a real, shared social world.7 The reality seen by characters within Crane's narrative is one in which horrors exist only as illusions, failures of perspective judged relentlessly by the lofty irony of the narrative position. A vocabulary of slavery, revolution, and tyranny pervades the story even as the referents of such language are obscured or relegated to the ironized, subordinate realms of domestic, racial or childhood comedy.8 But the reading eye encounters a second order of spectacle, displays of fantastic visual metaphor which have a much less certain status. Flights of Gothic fancy, often concealed under the sign of descriptive realism, or occurring in scenes removed from the social gaze (extreme closeups, unseen spectacles), exist uneasily within Crane's narrative, at moments when no one, except the reader, is watching. The unwitnessed effacement of Henry Johnson, then, is merely the most spectacular example of a relentless series of Gothic motifs and metaphors which, taken together, can be read as a fragmentary portrait of the racialized and gendered disciplines that preside over the narrative. The real horrors of social relations are simultaneously exposed and concealed by the ironic handling of Gothic tropes and lurid figures within Crane's presumably realist account of Whilomville, the idyllic little American polis which serves as the setting for a number of Crane's late tales.9


All the Gothic aspects of Crane's story (albeit concealed, as I will discuss, under the sign of realism) can be found in its opening episode, a brief tale of family discipline within an all-male domestic space:

Little Jim was, for the time, engine Number 36, and he was making the run between Syracuse and Rochester. He was fourteen minutes behind time, and the throttle was wide open. In consequence, when he swung around the curve at the flowerbed, a wheel of his cart destroyed a peony. Number 36 slowed down at once and looked guiltily at his father, who was mowing the lawn. The doctor had his back to the accident, and he continued to pace slowly to and fro, pushing the mower.


Throughout the story, different viewpoints will be placed in relation to one another, both within scenes and in contrasted episodes. Here the process begins, as Jimmie's world of play and his father's world of work collide. The accident serves to collapse the boy's construct at a particular moment, revealing the priority of the real world, which his fantasy is unable to repair: he cannot “stand” the peony back “on its pins” (9). The development of the anecdote suggests that the perspective of mature adulthood, and its measured, appropriate punishment—“I guess you had better not play train any more today” (10)—will be normative. This is a mild example of what is generally called Crane's irony: child's play, conventionally understood as trivial, is presented in inflatedly serious language, preparing the reader for the inevitable deflations of reality. The retention of Jim's play name after its corresponding role is destroyed (“Number 36 … looked guiltily at his father”) performs this at the stylistic level.

Yet the adult world of labor proves hardly uncontaminated by fantasy: “The doctor was shaving this lawn as if it were a priest's chin. … All during the season he had worked at it” (9). The similarity between Jimmie's actions and those of his father can hardly be coincidental; both are absorbed in their own activities. And when they meet, for a moment we are in a liminal world where the reality of violence is disturbingly uncertain: “Presently his father came along with the whirring machine, while the sweet new grass blades spun from the knives” (9).10 The suggestion of castration is impossible to ignore in a father-son scene redolent of the displaced violence of socialization, and it casts its shadow over the remainder of the narrative. The Gothic has already escaped from its ironization. This occurs through a shift in point of view: the detached visual perspective of the scene, which might be taken as corresponding with its “ironic” detachment, is complicated by moments of close-up description. But this is not merely a free-indirect shift into Jimmie's consciousness. An alternative, implicated point of view asserts itself, marking the “sweet new grass blades” that “spun from the knives” of the lawn mower, and zooming in on Jimmie's “fresh and rosy” (9) lip at the moment of judgment—the very moment when a normative perspective might be expected. This latter, proto-cinematic swerve, with its sudden and drastic shift in focus and the strangely erotic coloring its conventionally feminine adjectives provide, can hardly be explained in terms of mere devotion to visual reality. I read it rather as an affective coloring that suggests the psychological while remaining stubbornly on the surface. Thus Crane writes, as it were speculatively, that “the child may have undergone a severe mental tumult” (10). Throughout “The Monster,” the concept of individual psychology is evacuated in a similar manner, even as affect floods the text in the form of imagery.

Immediately after Jimmie is chastised by his father, he retreats to the stable and the company of Henry Johnson, where a second scene of authority is acted out. Here the corrosive power of Crane's analysis of conventional pieties can be seen in much of its complexity, as he manipulates a series of equivalences and recognitions that obtain between the two subordinate figures. We are told that Henry and Jimmie (the first names themselves supply a parallelism) “were pals. In regard to almost everything in life they seemed to have minds precisely alike” (11). On the one hand, this depiction of friendship justifies segregation by enlisting the powerful related myths of the childlike African American and the primitive child.11 On the other hand, Crane immediately ironizes this conventional association, not only by spelling out Jimmie's incomprehension of Henry's status, but also by observing that at times Henry sides with the doctor rather than Jimmie in order to win the boy's deference and establish his own authority. The hierarchy that governs the relations of either with Trescott, then, is reestablished between the two inferiors on a basis not of empathy but of misunderstanding.

At the same time, Crane remarks that Johnson looks upon Jimmie as “gory from unspeakable deeds” (11). The mock-Gothic formula (the first of many in the story) highlights Johnson's exaggeration and the arbitrariness of his own, reducing it to a parody of Trescott's authority. Such a phrase is an example of the ironized, conventional “Gothic,” that which the narrative context renders tonally secure, very different from the (as it were) accidental Gothicity of the story's opening scene. One of Jimmie's minor offenses has already been judged by Trescott; Crane's Gothic formula applies to Johnson's redescription, not the offenses themselves. This language, and the notion of parodic repetition, will prove closely aligned with the story's subordinate spheres, and with the flawed judgments exercised by blacks, women and children. It functions as an index of the distortion of limited perspective, a failure Crane locates within segregated realms, implicitly naturalizing segregation by mocking the limited vision of its victims.

Yet this mock-Gothic imagery repeatedly escapes its confinement to infect the portrayal of other authorities in Whilomville. Indeed, Jimmie's accident is, to its perpetrator, an unspeakable crime. Only upon direct interrogation, and with great difficulty, is he able to explain the flower's fate to his father: “‘I was playin' train—and—now—I runned over it’”(10).12 What this fearfulness suggests—and what remains truly unspeakable within Crane's narrative—is the severity of disciplines perhaps already internalized by Jimmie.13 And when Crane observes that “it was apparent from Jimmie's manner that he felt some kind of desire to efface himself” (11), he hints, by displacement, at a genuinely brutal pun, for Johnson's rescue of Jimmie will result in a horribly literal effacement.

The doctor's yard work introduces a figurative treatment of signifying surfaces, a topic which, as I have already suggested, must be seen as crucial not only to descriptive realism but to Gothic conventionality. As a man all but obsessed with lawn maintenance, Trescott is an early suburbanite, concerned with keeping up appearances; a spectacle of conformity, the lawn conventionally expresses his rectitude just as the clean chin signifies that of the priest. It is a socially legible surface, on which acts of both inscription and erasure can take place.14 And such acts include not only the aggression of social demands but the resultant violence of segregation and subordination (the condition of powerlessness that afflicts the domestic and childhood realms in Crane's story). The potential violence of the mower establishes the nervous Gothicity of Crane's narrative, embodying Trescott's disciplinary role while simultaneously defining him as subject to larger disciplines: the “work” of mowing is the labor of conformity that maintains the social facade necessary to support Trescott's professional career. Trescott's fantasy differentiates this work from unpaid domestic labor; at the same time, his positive role in a “domestic” scene, creating and policing the boundaries that separate public from domestic space, coincides with the exclusion of women from the crucial role of family discipline.

In the story's paired opening scenes, we see the simultaneous beginnings of two distinct, if interwoven, processes: the use of an implicitly normative vocabulary dependent on the ironic handling of Gothic figures against the background of an available adult perspective, to describe the visions of those whose perspectives are limited, and the concomitant development of a genuinely Gothic view of discipline. Similar oscillations occur throughout the narrative, generating a pervasively Gothic tone even as they make a hierarchy of the two modes impossible to preserve. Thus one critic is able to view the story's opening scene as a utopian male revision of domesticity produced by the doctor's appropriately moderate interventions; and yet a slight shift in angle reveals a Gothic tableau at the beginning of a story that will entirely exclude women from positive domestic roles.15 While Doctor Trescott and Henry Johnson both appear in the story as child-rearers, on the rare occasions she appears Mrs. Trescott is either hysterical with fear or paralyzed by misery (21-22, 25, 64-65).


As I have already suggested, it is no easy matter to untangle Crane's Gothic from Crane's realism. Crane's clearest use for the former is as dead language; its denotative function, in these instances, is suppressed by its connotation of inaccurate perception. But Gothicity, in “The Monster,” tends to emerge suddenly, rising from the crypt of Crane's disillusioned realism; and when reanimated, it proves to be under uncertain control.

The generic, in Crane's story, is strongly associated with the conventional; in other words, with the false. This effect is visible at the level of the Gothic rhetoric I have been discussing, and it is clearly signposted in the narrative. After Henry Johnson's escape, in his role as the monster he terrorizes a children's birthday party, appearing at a window and then fleeing, unseen, while the little boys, fear vying with chivalry, pretend to search the back yard. One “lad” invents a story to impress the others: “He gave a number of details, rendering his lie more splendid by a repetition of certain forms which he recalled from romances. For instance, he insisted that he had heard the creature emit a hollow laugh” (46). Here the generic—romance, a term most significant at the time in its opposition to realism—is aligned simultaneously with the conventionally persuasive, the generically formulaic, and the false.16

Another way to understand Crane's treatment of genre is to see this work of discrimination as being made within what is, on its surface, a piece of genre fiction: a boy's story, set within a remembered childhood small town. As Bill Brown argues, the late nineteenth-century children's story typically involved an ahistorical, utopian nostalgia. The past of childhood stories is not a historical past but “a realist American reality … where nationhood can be embodied outside history” (451). If we see Crane's task as revitalizing this debased subject matter, we then realize that while any renewed realism would necessarily seek to define itself against the perceived falsity and sentimentalization of genre fiction, mounting such an attack would not itself be sufficient to renew realism. To revise the conventions of such a form is not to rehistoricize it.

Dismembered bits of American history appear in Crane's story, reintroduced as parodies and ornamental effects. Crane calls his town Whilomville, a name which evokes an unspecified historical past: the generic American town. Yet a certain crucial specificity cannot be avoided. The events of the story take place just after the Civil War (an event that goes entirely unmentioned in the narrative), in the period of Crane's childhood; he lived in Port Jervis, New York, from the age of seven to twelve. The “fabulous speed” (48) with which the house is said to be reconstructed after its destruction by fire is thus highly suggestive, an allegorical marker inviting pursuit. Given the further similarity between the plight of Henry Johnson after the fire and that of African Americans in post-Civil War society, the whole sequence might be read as an accelerated parody of the Civil War and ensuing Reconstruction. Once a monster, Johnson is no longer a source of service but a constraint upon the liberties of the households harboring him. John David Smith's study of postbellum proslavery ideology discusses a set of typical metaphors: the freedman would be, or was, an overgrown child, a reverted savage, a monster, a placeless vagabond, a master “enslaving” Southern whites (17-67).17 All these figures resonate with the portrayal of Henry Johnson. And yet the potential resonance of this metaphorical cluster—the kernel of a historical allegory, as I have suggested—remains unacknowledged. The story turns away from history to enter the realm of the “fabulous”: a realm that, within the realist world, is satirized and negated, but that returns in the interior spaces of Trescott's home.

The liminal states and outbursts of violence in the story's central scene project the typical tensions of the Gothic onto Crane's narrative. The fire that destroys the Trescott house is a massive energy discharge at the heart of a narrative dominated by repression. Lacking a literal source, it might seem directed against the various social barriers of Whilomville, but in a profound act of displacement, this symbolic energy, in the form of the contents of a jar in the doctor's laboratory, is redirected into the oval of Henry Johnson's face. Transforming him from a person to a nameless, placeless thing, it leaves the story's various hierarchies easily restorable: the house is rebuilt, tensions are repressed. But this monster remains, a ghostly presence embodying the excluded possibilities that haunt Crane's narrative.

When a factory whistle signals the fire, Crane's prose erupts into the sort of imagery conventionally associated with violent civil disturbances. The people racing to the scene of the fire are described as “dark figures,” a “black crowd,” a “dark wave,” “a kind of black torrent” (18-19). This emphasis on coloration and mass agency, along with Crane's refusal to explicitly identify the racial composition of the crowd (one which all other evidence suggests to be either mixed or predominantly white) hints at racial rebellion, while concealing the suggestion under the sign of visual realism. Similar stylistic moves—simultaneous suggestions and disavowals—occur as the fire develops gradually. A window brightens “as if the four panes of it had been stained with blood” (20); its panes shatter; “at other windows there suddenly reared other flames, like bloody specters at the apertures of a haunted house. This outbreak had been well planned, as if by professional revolutionists” (20). Here the repeated “as if” phrase performs a certain ambiguity by its very insistence. Moreover, this imagery is separated from any actual agency within the narrative. Crane never reveals the source of the fire, nor is anyone present to observe the scene; this flowering of metaphor occurs independently of any specific visual perspective. And Crane's metaphorics is also double: the energies are figured both as specters captive within the house, and thus presumably generated by internal (domestic or psychological) tensions, and in explicitly political terms as revolutionists. Thus, by proliferating phantasms of agency, Crane insinuates connections between private and public oppression while at the same time coyly preserving the possibility that these relations exist only at the level of fantasy.

It is no accident that Henry Johnson's entry into the house coincides with a shift from political to domestic imagery; explaining his familiarity with the upstairs, Crane tells us with a throwaway phrase that Johnson “had once held office as a sort of second assistant house-maid” (21). The nervous joke indicates the extent to which space is inherently gendered in the story. Moreover, it aligns subordinate figures by feminizing the potentially threatening black male, an anticipatory gesture that immediately precedes Johnson's discovery of Jimmie Trescott. Of all the story's moments of heightened intensity, this is surely the most uncannily reminiscent of a classic Gothic tableau:

The little chamber had no smoke in it at all. It was faintly illuminated by a beautiful rosy light reflected circuitously from the flames that were consuming the house. The boy had apparently just been aroused by the noise. He sat in his bed, his lips apart, his eyes wide, while upon his little white-robed figure played caressingly the light from the fire. As the door flew open he had before him this apparition of his pal, a terror-stricken negro, all tousled and with wool scorching, who leaped upon him and bore him up in a blanket as if the whole affair was a case of kidnapping by a dreadful robber chief. Without waiting to go through the usual short but complete process of wrinkling up his face, Jimmie let out a gorgeous bawl, which resembled the expression of a calf's deepest terror.


This astonishing passage pivots around the single word “pal.” Crane shifts registers with brutal abruptness, wrenching us from Gothic eroticism to race comedy. The scene is marked by the absence of any governing perspective; no one but the reader is watching Jimmie, and the boy is not simply “roused” but “aroused,” in a kind of sexualized trance that exhibits a blurring of desire and fear so characteristic of the Gothic heroine's plight. Crane's circuitous deployment of the “rosy” light eroticizes Jimmie, in another displaced presentation concealed (albeit barely) by descriptive realism; the ultimate source of the light “reflected” from the fire is the sourceless energies that caused the outbreak, freed energies that seem to seek Jimmie out. Surely an abduction—in Gothic terms, a displaced rape—is to follow.18

But the “apparition” is revealed to be merely a “pal,” and the ensuing episode is laden with that characteristic Cranian irony which signifies the comic while remaining too ponderous and too uncomfortable to be amusing. This shift of narrative focus from Jimmie's rapt absorption to a stock figure out of blackface minstrel comedy (“a terror-stricken negro, all tousled and with wool scorching”) is marked by a sudden proliferation of distancing devices: the “as if,” the ironic view and the final parodic diminishment of childhood “terror.” Here, at the first moment when Henry is visibly a “monster” to another character, Jimmie, we do not see him as such, and throughout the latter half of the story we neither see the monster's face nor are encouraged by the story to empathize affectively with those who do so (no figure in “The Monster” functions analogously to the Gothic heroine). Instead, Crane positions us as beholders of those who gaze at the monster; we observe, rather than participate in, their reactions. But all this distancing cannot dismiss the passage's powerful implications. The subtext of a sensationalistic and racialized abduction, the remains of a Gothic nightmare of miscegenation, is present as the ghost of the heroic rescue (in a scene witnessed by no other controlling perspective within the story, hence an example of what I have called the unsafe, unstable Gothic, here evoking particularly strong counter-efforts of irony). Jimmie's horror is anticipatory of the universal horror that Johnson will cause when he becomes the “monster” of the story's final phase.

Crane has one more temporary transformation of Henry Johnson in store, and it follows a similar logic. After seizing the boy, Johnson turns to escape and realizes that the lower hall, by which he entered the house, is full of flames. He momentarily loses control of himself: “He was submitting, submitting because of his fathers, bending his mind in a most perfect slavery to this conflagration” (23). Here Crane reinvokes slavery as an inherited compulsion to submit which overrides the conscious will, naturalizing history by inscribing the potential for reenslavement within the African American mind. The language of Gothic historical determinism infects the notion of Henry Johnson's heroism, indeed his humanity. In extremis, the mask he wears in social roles falls away, equating Johnson's transformation with a revelation of the “truth” about the African American in society.19 When Johnson recalls the existence of a back staircase, his racialized “submission” to the fire is replaced by a return of his original terror: “He was no longer creature to the flames, and he was afraid of the battle with them. It was a singular and swift set of alterations in which he feared twice without submission, and submitted once without fear” (23). This moment is not an atypical lapse into narrative omniscience, but a description of external forces that affect behavior; the passage describes not consciousness but mere responses to stimuli. This rudimentary binary model is never supplemented with any account of Johnson's understanding of the situation. The closest we are given to such an account is, revealingly, phrased again as affective response: “he knew only one thing, but it turned him blue with horror” (21).

As I have argued, in the first half of “The Monster” Crane associates subordinated groups (blacks, women, children). Yet here in the story's pivotal scene, this parallelism breaks down at the very moment when such an association might take on the realized form of critique. The fact that the interdependence of race and gender in Crane's analysis is at the same time an incoherence becomes most starkly apparent at the conclusion of Henry Johnson's flight. Johnson meets his fate in the doctor's laboratory, where the latter is said to conduct “experiments” for “study and leisure,” a male preserve within the home (23). Moreover, the lab is filled with flames, “like a garden in the region where might be burning flowers” (24), evoking the flower garden where the opening scene of the story took place, and thus associating what follows with that scene of discipline. Trescott, then, is implicated simultaneously at a variety of metaphorical levels, and while the doctor never specifically articulates this sense of obligation, instead simply repeating that Johnson saved his boy, it is tempting to read Johnson's fate as a casualty of Trescott's authority: as the horrifying literalization of the desire for self-effacement that he provokes in his guilty son. But the climactic outburst of imagery utterly contradicts this logic, with a swerve that should by no seem utterly characteristic of Crane's narrative. An explosion confronts Johnson with a sudden burst of flame: “before him there reared a delicate, trembling sapphire shape like a fairy lady … she blocked his path and doomed him and Jimmie” (24). He falls while attempting to escape this apparition, and the “sizzling molten head” of a “ruby-red snakelike thing” slips from a broken jar, glides slowly down the slope of the doctor's desk, and drips into Henry Johnson's upturned face (24).

What is Johnson being punished for, and by whom? The “fairy lady,” an image out of romance, is also a specter of feminine power, the manifestation of a delicate tyranny generated as if in compensation for the utter absence of literal feminine authority within the Trescott home. At the same time, she is a woman out of place, meddling, so to speak, in the male space of the laboratory with destructive consequences. This figure effaces the multiracial, male utopia hinted at in early sections of the story, reestablishing boundaries by dismissing Johnson from the domestic sphere, effacing the one figure capable of movement between social worlds (black and white, adult and child, male and female), and thus reifying the very distinctions that serve to maintain segregation. This reassertion of female authority will be repeated in the story's conclusion, when the town's women demand that the monster be banished, but the relation of this demand to the story's own racial separatism will go unacknowledged.


In presenting Henry Johnson's monstrous career, Crane endeavors to reestablish the separation of horror from realism, repeatedly attempting to ironize the language of tyranny and revolution. The monstrous Johnson is developed as a figure of domestic comedy; he appears in progressively smaller theaters, diminished by association. His deeds upon escaping the Williams cabin are handled in a heavily ironical manner; he breaks up a children's party and scatters the populace in Watermelon Alley (45-48). In these scenes, Crane harnesses Gothic imagery to provide readerly amusement (however sardonic), while the characters depicted experience terror. The carefully handled double point of view, in which the reader is always given an ironic perspective on the doings of children or blacks, provides this stability.

Only Henry Johnson's final appearance, in an episode which once again explicitly rewrites the story's opening scene of discipline, complicates this logic. As a last resort Dr. Trescott decides to lodge the monster himself, and Johnson is displayed in a terrible scene, half slave auction, half freak show, presided over by Jimmie as “owner and exhibitor” (53) and attended by the other neighborhood children. This is Crane's final diminishment of Johnson's monstrosity, here presented as a potential disruption of Whilomville boyhood's social hierarchies—and hence not a real threat to other hierarchies. The typically ironized Gothic and withdrawn narrative view of boyhood rivalries makes this clear: “He was an older boy than Jimmie, and habitually oppressed him to a small degree. This new social elevation of the smaller lad probably seemed revolutionary to him” (53). And yet the son makes a name among boys by displaying the very thing that his father must conceal to maintain his own professional reputation. At the same time, Johnson's exposure as an uncanny spectacle coincides with the emergence of what seems a sort of primitive blackness, itself expressed in Gothic trappings and figures of unspeakability and obscurity: the veiled monster “croons a weird line of negro melody” (53); the boys are “transfixed by the solemnity and mystery of the indefinable gestures. … It seemed to spellbind them with the power of a funeral” (56). In this tableau, our last view of what was Henry Johnson, his isolation is terrible. Crane's attitude is impossible to determine, but the absolute opacity he imputes to the monster is all too clear. Johnson's regression has followed Crane's naturalist racial logic; the social facts by which Johnson was always already isolated are invisible, beyond the confined backyard horizons of boyhood. In the ensuing father-son conversation Trescott's effort to explain what Jimmie has done wrong to the boy is entirely elided, and no one can put this situation to rights. Crane retreats to the distance of a weird Biblical pastiche, observing that the doctors's “countenance was so clouded in sorrow that the lad … burst suddenly forth in dismal lamentations” (57) before breaking off the scene. The phrase resonates with the description of the monster's “black crepe countenance” (56); Trescott's nobility is writ large on the surface that the monster no longer possesses, the surface that Henry Johnson never really possessed.

In the aftermath of the fire, attending physicians realize that Trescott and his son will survive. “As for the negro Henry Johnson, he could not live. His body was frightfully seared but more than that, he now had no face. His face had simply been burned away” (29). Here Crane leaves the precise force of the word “could” suspended between the factual and the prescriptive. The former meaning is initially the more apparent, as we are told that “The morning paper announced the death of Henry Johnson” (30), setting up an ironic contrast between the canonization of the “dead” negro as hero and the town's reaction to the inconvenient truth which later emerges by accident. But when the doctor and judge deliberate behind the scenes, it becomes clear that Johnson himself is doubly suspended: neither alive nor dead, he is faceless but not yet a monster. Crane's “could” reappears as an “ought” in Judge Hagenthorpe's discourse: “I think that poor fellow ought to die” (31). With the “cold manner of the bench” he then proceeds to revise the doctor's ethical dilemma into a repetition of Dr. Frankenstein's hubris: “He will be your creation, you understand. He is purely your creation. Nature has very evidently given him up. He is dead. You are restoring him to life. You are making him, and he will be a monster, and with no mind” (32).

While attributing responsibility to the doctor, the judge predicts Henry Johnson's fate, sentencing him to be “a monster, and with no mind,” as if Johnson's monstrosity were a product of, not a cause for, social sanctions. This logic is confirmed by what Crane describes as the “odious couplet” that was habitually chanted by little boys at the heels of Henry Johnson: “Nigger, nigger, never die, / Black face and shiny eye” (30). A tightly compressed racist nightmare, the rhyme takes on the status of an incantation. Cited at a moment in the narrative when all still think Johnson dead, it predicts Henry's uncanny survival and return as a monster, even to the extent of foreshadowing the single “unwinking eye” (31) that stares through his bandages in the scene at his bedside. Given this logic, Henry is a monster before his face is melted: the black man (or more specifically, the black man in unsegregated social life) is inherently monstrous.

This paradoxical double version of causality is prominent in the second half of the narrative. Just as the agency behind the fire that disfigures Henry Johnson is ultimately obscured within the narrative, the condition of facelessness, which creates and confirms Johnson's social status, is an unspeakable one. The testimony of Reifsnyder the barber, the story's authority on faces, reveals this. (The barber's “professional” authority and difficulty speaking parodies the judge and doctor, who are depicted similarly.20) Reifsnyder suggests the possibility of an identificatory stance, one of empathy for Johnson's plight. Such a position is articulated by no one else, and is impossible in terms of the story's anti-sentimental treatment of interiority. Thus he can manage only a mere repeated deictic phrase: “‘No, but look,’ said Reifsnyder; ‘supposing you don't got a face!’” (41). The barber points to what is ultimately a hypothetical and universalized state—a state which would deracialize the fact which in Crane's story proves to be both beyond discourse and racially specific. Even the author himself, in the end, will prove unable to cast such a glance. The faceless man has no place from which to look, and we have no place from which to regard facelessness.


A phantasmic woman transforms Henry Johnson into a monster; it might equally be said that a phantasmic body of women decides the monster's final fate. Throughout the story, movements into and within domestic space have been associated with a display of conventionally feminized figures: Johnson as housemaid, Jimmie as erotic spectacle, the fairy lady as demonized domestic angel. These powers seem to compensate for the overt absence of literal female influence, the virtual invisibility of Mrs. Trescott in her own home.

Once again, local outbursts of lurid language index deeper problems. A black family living on the outskirts of town are first selected by Trescott as borders for the monster, but trouble ensues when Alek Williams informs the judge that his wife can no longer receive “lady callahs” since Johnson's arrival. Judge Hagenthorpe's idiom mocks Williams' social pretensions, while at the same time being itself mocked by Gothic echoes: “‘Hang lady callers!’ said the judge, irascibly” (36). The judge speaks as if unaware of the relation between Watermelon Alley and Whilomville; as if the notions of society, domesticity, and feminine authority had no relevance in the former community, or as if he could work out his frustrations on this segregated community. But his misrecognition will return to haunt him: by the story's end he will have similar, but unspeakable, sentiments about white ladies, who, by refraining from calling on Mrs. Trescott, will stand as the ultimate hanging judges in the story. The realm from which the monster is observed and stigmatized is not simply a private space, but a feminized publicity that will prove able to triumph over the public authority of the town's leading men. Domestic borders prove ultimately permeable, and the governance Doctor Trescott has achieved over his own wife does not correspond to any larger authority.

Crane's portrait of this feminine authority is focused around another imperfectly assimilated Gothic figure, that old standby, the confined woman:

Martha Goodwin was single, and well along into the thin years. She lived with her married sister in Whilomville. She performed nearly all the housework in return for the privilege of existence. Everyone tacitly recognized her labor as a form of penance for the early end of her betrothed, who had died of small-pox, which he had not caught from her.


In a single brief paragraph is encompassed an entire Gothic narrative. Martha's servitude is punishment for the unspeakable crime of losing control of her betrothed; in return she wreaks her dreadful vengeance against society: “In regard to social misdemeanors, she who was simply the mausoleum of a dead passion was probably the most savage critic in town” (51).21 Martha's domestic reign is handled in the by now familiar mock-Gothic mode; her acquaintances are said to be in “secret revolt” (50) against her “mental tyranny” (60).

But if the kitchen is a cell, it is hardly windowless. Moreover, the Gothic figure of confinement—the woman in the kitchen—cannot be separated from Crane's vision of social power. The real tyrant here is normalcy, and in Crane's account, women are simultaneously the individual victims and the collective enforcers of this regime. Martha Goodwin, the woman who “walked her kitchen with a stern brow, an invincible being like Napoleon” (50), at the same time polishes already gleaming dishpans compulsively. Domestic segregation generates the powerful force of gossip; it circulates swiftly. When an embassy of men urges Trescott to give up the monster, the only significant thing said is a brief, reiterated phrase: “A man who had not heretofore spoken said, solemnly, ‘It's the women’” (63).22 The (unspeakable) implication is that women control public life by controlling reputation. No particular woman can be instanced here, and Martha herself proves ultimately as much subject to as source of this mysterious power. When the women she lives with tell her that “you can't go against the whole town,” she replies scornfully “I'd like to know what you call ‘the whole town’” (60). But her desire—and that of the reader—goes unanswered.

The story's final tableau displays the effects of this gendering of power in a most explicitly Gothic fashion. Upon returning home one evening Trescott discovers his wife weeping in an arm-chair upstairs; on the day that she customarily receives callers, there has been but a single visitor. In a description which clearly echoes that of the blood-red window which foretold the outbreak of fire, the new drawing room is “bathed in the half-light that came from the four dull panes of mica in the front of the great stove. … Sometimes the coal in the stove settled with a crumbling sound and the four panes of mica flushed a sudden new crimson” (64-65). Mrs. Trescott, already described as a madwoman (21, 25), is now confined in an attic—confined not by her husband or some other tyrannical patriarch but, Crane tells us, by the Gothic force of gossip that renders Whilomville subject to an ineluctable female authority that manifests itself by its absence. The small-scale echo of the pivotal fire scene is a crucial revision. Images assertive of revolutionary power have been replaced by a figure of productive sublimation. The forces contained within the stove repeatedly flash out without ever breaching the bounds that confine them. But against Crane, I offer this image as a figure for the narrative economy as a whole, for if the story satirizes a mystified version of female tyranny, this very satire confines deeper Gothic themes of segregation and oppression, which escape only in temporary outbursts of figurative violence.

Gothic conventions pervade “The Monster” story, and if the manner in which they do so seems less systematic than obsessive, it is because our treatment of the “genres” of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction has neglected the extent to which even American realism depends upon the Gothic. Crane's story shares in this neglect; as if unaware of its own ancestry, the narrative proves unable to account for the problems evoked by its own stylistic registers, within which the Gothic itself has the status of a symptom. It marks the presence, and the failure, of repression. “The Monster” is disfigured—and the monster is created—by its return.


  1. It should be mentioned that the tableau would have had special significance for Crane; in a letter of January 2, 1896, Crane tells of his namesake, an ancestor who was forced to leave the Continental Congress “just about a week before the Declaration was signed” (Wertheim and Sorrentino 166). Just as Whilomville is an abstracted Port Jervis, the Trescotts, in this light, might be a more abstractly American—a utopian—version of Crane's own family.

  2. The normative mode of American fiction between the Civil War and World War I is taken to be realism. See Sundquist 3-25, Pizer 1-18. Naturalism is variously defined, but is generally held to involve the depiction of a mechanistic, radically de-psychologized milieu and, with varying emphasis, an underlying philosophy of determinism (Sundquist; Pizer; Mitchell 96-99). Norris, Dreiser, London and Crane are considered the central American naturalists. Crane's impressionism, famously identified by Conrad, was first noted by reviewers such as Edward Garnett and H. G. Wells. Nagel's study codifies the technique as concerned with denaturalizing realism's assumed ground, our ability to perceive and interpret reality (1-32); he distinguishes its empiricism from the pessimism of naturalism.

  3. The Gothic has always been difficult to codify. In Kilgour's account, it is a kind of Frankenstein genre, “assembled out of the bits and pieces of the past” (4). Davidson, one of the first critics to historicize the genre, describes the early American Gothic as a historical mode operating in a place traditionally defined by its insufficiency of history (212-36). The category of American Gothic has received considerable attention of late. Martin argues that in a process begun by Fiedler, critics have come to see the Gothic as “definitional of American writing” (x). Goddu reads the American Gothic historically, arguing that it “registers its culture's contradictions” (3); she does not, however, relate this mimesis to that traditionally claimed for realism. Sundquist remarks that the Gothic is the grandfather of naturalism, and that the latter mode can entail “a Gothic intensification of detail that approaches the allegorical” (13). Winter links the Gothic novel and the slave narrative. Generally, however, the implications of the Gothic within American realism remain unexplored.

  4. See Weatherford.

  5. Goddu locates a similar opposition in the strain of Americanist criticism that defined American literature's “power of blackness” as symbolic or psychological depth, against the surface trickery of the merely Gothic or the sentimental (6-8). The beginning of such a model can be seen in the turn-of-the-century reviewers' notion that Crane's attention to detail obstructed his truly Gothic intentions.

  6. Fried was the first to notice the extent of the figuration of writing in “The Monster” (114-16, 136). His study of Crane is concerned with the paradoxical effects produced by the unconscious irruption of a graphic metaphorics within an impressionist literary style that sought after stylistic transparency; he describes an authorly dilemma in which the material surface of the text continually threatens to frustrate writing's presumed ability to provide unimpeded access to the depths of signification. But I see this imagery in terms of marking, rather than writing, and as a (rudimentary) semiotic system rather than a specific material practice. This aligns it with what I take to be a theme of the story, the failure of social transparency (whereas Fried argues that the play of materiality in the story is precisely incompatible with its thematic import, and only makes sense within a symptomatic reading of Crane's oeuvre).

  7. As Howard writes, standard accounts of realism view it as a vehicle for social critique; it “can and does refer to a ‘real world’ with a material existence somewhere outside the literary text” (11).

  8. Words such as “revolution,” “revolt,” and “suppress” appear in the presentation of virtually every social interaction in the story; their effect is more one of atmospheric coloring than of specific analysis. The best example of, and guide to, this phenomenon of stylistic excess is the description in section XI of Henry Johnson: the bandages around his head reveal only a single “unwinking eye” (31) which discomfits the judge greatly. This echo of Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” is set up by innocent idioms that turn deadly on rereading. Henry, for example, is said to have “an eye” for the reactions of others to his sartorial elegance (15). Once again, this strand of imagery marks the visual—the creation and viewing of lurid spectacles—as important.

  9. The weirdness of “The Monster” becomes still more intriguing in light of the predictability of Crane's later Whilomville stories—all written from the distance of England—with their focus on childhood and worlds of carefully secure ironies. It perhaps marks a final effort to produce a nuanced portrait of American social reality, as if Crane's honesty compelled him to undermine, in advance, the anti-sentimental, anti-feminine utopia that Whilomville would become. A recent article by Marshall locates the narrative impetus for Crane's story in a June 1892 lynching of an African American man accused of raping a white woman in Port Jervis (the model for Whilomville), an event observed by Crane's brother William, a judge. The homology is compelling in spite of the absence of verification; the event is nowhere mentioned in Crane's existing writings. It is tempting to speculate that Crane had to expunge the specter of racist murder (albeit in displaced form)—the Gothic specter of American race relations—before he could produce the Whilomville of the later stories.

  10. The scene can instructively be compared with the typically secure ironies of Crane's Whilomville tales, as in this scene from “Lynx-Hunting”: “Old Henry Flemming … had in his hand a most cruel whip. This whip he flourished. At his approach the boys suffered the agonies of the fire-regions. And yet anybody with half an eye could see that the whip in his hand was a mere accident and that he was a kind old man when he cared” (143).

  11. Fiedler describes a fictional tradition of such friendships between small boys and Negro men, beginning with Huckleberry Finn. Crane's portrayal of Henry and Jimmie's relation is a complex one, very different from the sentimentalized racism of William Lyon Phelps' foreword to Crane's stories of childhood: “Little children and big Africans make ideal companions, for the latter have the patience … and unfailing good humor necessary for such an association” (qtd. in Fiedler 352).

  12. The repetitive and deictic quality of spoken language, which first emerges here, indicates the extent to which communication in “The Monster” is governed by the Gothic problematic of unspeakability. After the destruction of the peony, Jim can only point and exclaim “There!” a word he repeats five times. “It seemed that the importance of the whole thing had taken away the boy's vocabulary. He could only reiterate, ‘There!’” (10). Similar failures of language punctuate the story. This condition of unspeakability intersects with the realist or impressionist moral problematic of description: the desire, expressed most famously in Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, to make the reader “see” (xxvi).

  13. In Crane's notes for the story, Jimmie's name in a list of main characters is followed by the ominous phrase, “Strict obedience to father” (Bowers xii).

  14. A late nineteenth-century guide to groundskeeping asserts that lawn maintenance is a civic duty, and tells us, in language similar to Crane's, that a “smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban home” (Scott 108). The distance from Whitman's variously signifying leaves to this carefully groomed surface registers the transition to modern America. (Scott's book was displayed at an exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, “The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life,” 16 June-8 November 1998.) Over the span of Crane's life (1871-1900), the signification of the lawn was in flux, from a leisure-class index of social standing to a site of virtuous labor. See, for example, Veblen.

  15. This utopian reading is the argument of Levenson, in his introduction to Tales of Whilomville (xix-xx).

  16. See, for example, Glazener's argument.

  17. The association of the freedman with Frankenstein's monster was made as early as the abolition debates that followed Nat Turner's revolt. See Ginsburg. In the mid-1880s, Century magazine became increasingly concerned with sectional reconciliation, publishing war reminiscences and debates over civil rights as well as serializing the fiction of realists such as Twain, Howells, and James (Warren 46-56). Crane read the magazine during this period and would certainly have been aware of these debates; he submitted “The Monster” to Century, which rejected it.

  18. Marshall (213-15) argues that the narrative's vagueness about the cause of feminine disapproval of Johnson might be seen as a trace of the racist demonization of black sexuality that Crane would have known from accounts of the 1892 Port Jervis lynching; she reads the crowd that is said to chase Johnson after his appearance in Watermelon Alley as a version of a lynch mob. Although the suggestion is carefully buried in the latter half of the story, Marshall's argument remains compelling. Indeed, the strongest evidence for such a demonization is a scene she does not discuss, the anxious portrayal of Henry Johnson's rescue of Jimmie—a scene, of course, that precedes his transformation into the “monster.”

  19. Here a determinism often described as characteristic of naturalism aligns perfectly with a Gothic account of selfhood. Racism is everywhere in the proliferation of cliches in this episode. Robertson contrasts the stereotype of the childlike “happy darky” in an 1896 New York newspaper sketch entitled “Stephen Crane in Minetta Lane” with “the complex and sympathetic portrayal of Henry Johnson” (108). I would argue that the latter complexity includes, without being entirely reducible to, racist stereotypes. Confronted with the conflagration in the doctor's laboratory, Johnson cries out “in the negro wail that had in it the sadness of the swamps”; avoiding a flame, he ducks “in the manner of his race in fights” (24). Nevertheless, the consistence of this presentation with the story as a whole, in its denial of specific interiority, should be noted.

  20. The presence of a barber to complete this ethical Trinity of professionals, rather than a clergyman, is itself revealing; the pointed absence of clerical or feminine moral authority in the story is congruent with an attempt to imagine an American culture free from what Douglas calls “feminization.” Crane's father, who died when he was eight, was a Methodist minister, and his mother lectured for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union of New Jersey.

  21. A persistent myth locates a source for this woman in a Port Jervis gossip whom Crane pilloried in a colorful letter of 1894. The relation between Crane's biography and his fiction is of course notoriously fraught with difficulties, for the most part engendered by the plethora of invented facts and letters in Beer's early biography. The letter in question was one of Beer's many fictions (in their 1960 Stephen Crane, Stallman and Gilkes include a number of letters for which Beer is the only source). What gives this particular letter away is the phrase, “this lady … is just the grave of a stale lust,” unmistakably a revision of the phrase Crane wrote in “The Monster” and hence testimony only to Beer's ingenuity (109).

  22. One initial response to the story, whether invented or actual, testifies eloquently to the relevance of Crane's attribution: the editor of Century magazine rejected “The Monster,” supposedly with the sensationalistic comment “We couldn't publish that thing with half the expectant mothers in America on our subscription list!” (Bowers xxx). In this little fantasy the story becomes the monster, a potential source of miscarriages or perhaps even monstrous births within the home.

Works Cited

Beer, Thomas. Stephen Crane: A Study in American Letters. Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1927.

Brown, Bill. “American Childhood and Stephen Crane's Toys.” American Literary History 7 (1995): 443-76.

Conrad, Joseph. The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and Typhoon & Other Stories. London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1974.

Crane, Stephen. Tales of Whilomville. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 1969.

———. The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. Ed. Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

———. Stephen Crane: Letters. Ed. R. S. Stallman and Lillian Gilkes. New York: New York University Press, 1960.

Davidson, Cathy. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Fielder, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. New York: Dell, 1966.

Fried, Michael. Realism, Writing, Disfiguration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Ginsburg, Leslie. “Slavery and Poe's ‘The Black Cat.’” Martin and Savoy 99-128.

Glazener, Nancy. Reading For Realism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Goddu, Teresa. Gothic America: Narrative, History and Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Howard, June. Form and History in American Literary Naturalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Kilgour, Maggie. The Rise of the Gothic. London: Routledge, 1995.

Levenson, J. C. Introduction. Crane, Tales xi-lx.

Marshall, Elaine. “Crane's ‘The Monster’ Seen in the Light of Robert Lewis's Lynching,” Nineteenth Century Literature 51 (1996): 205-24.

Martin, Robert K. and Eric Savoy, eds. American Gothic. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Pizer, Donald, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Realism and Naturalism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Scott, Frank Jessup. The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent. New York: Appleton & Co., n.d.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Smith, John David. An Old Creed for the New South: Proslavery Ideology and Historiography 1865-1918. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Sundquist, Eric, ed. American Realism: New Essays. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Veblen, Thorsten. A Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Macmillan, 1899.

Warren, Kenneth J. Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Weatherford, Richard M., ed. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Winter, Kerri. Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

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Stephen Crane Poetry: American Poets Analysis