Today I am taking on three short works by Stephen Crane:
- Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novel about the fall of a young woman from the slums of New York
- The Red Badge of Courage, a novel about a young Union soldier who craves battle glory, but when faced with an actual battle fights, then flees, then fights again.
- The Open Boat, a short story about a man who survives 30 hours stranded at sea.
Before starting this project, the only work I’d read by Stephen Crane was “The Open Boat,” an excellent tale of survival at sea. Based on the strength of this story, I was looking forward to him. I should have known better. Naturalism is not my genre and Crane is a scion of American Naturalism.
The Naturalists were an offshoot of the Realists. They pushed further after the ideal of impersonal, objective literature. A scientific literature. Both movements were born out of a distaste for Romanticism. Emile Zola lead this movement that scorned fanciful, imaginative fiction with supernatural elements.
I have two questions about that. Why and how? Imagination is fun, y’all. Take Shakespeare for example. He’s a great writer. If you want to read something great by Shakespeare, you have some choices, and you can choose witches! Or ghosts! I will always choose something great with witches over something great with no witches. Sometimes I’ll choose something mediocre with witches. Stop taking yourselves so seriously, Naturalists. I understand that they were trying to better represent human experience. Which brings me back to how? How are you going write impersonal, scientific fiction, Zola and company? You simply can’t. Try as you might, you cannot remove yourself from your prose. Your personal ideals and your worldview are central to the act of writing from the outset. Even choosing what to write about is an act of self-expression, a value judgment. No author can escape their self.
It seems to me that when endeavoring to create literature that is a “more authentic” representation of human experience, the axiom “write what you know” becomes less a suggestion and more a requirement. In his two short novels Stephen Crane did not write what he knew. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, follows an impoverished family in New York City’s Bowery neighborhood. Crane did spend some time in the Bowery, you know, visiting prostitutes as “research” before he penned his first novel. So, yeah, he wrote about the slums from the vantage of a slum tourist. Blergh. In The Red Badge of Courage, Crane wrote a psychological novel about the Civil War. He was born after the war and had never seen combat, although he did graduate from a pseudo-military school. These novels are inherently fantasies. A young man’s fantasies of the slums and of war. I spoke with a friend who is a veteran about The Red Badge of Courage. He said he’d take a non-veteran’s psychological portrait of war about as seriously as “Call of Duty.” This psychological portrait isn’t edifying. It isn’t beautiful. It isn’t fun.
I’m not going to say that Crane was wrong to write these novels. Plenty of readers found value in them, and that’s fine. They just don’t have much value for me. I don’t get anything out of The Red Badge of Courage. I actually found it unreadable. One third of the way through, I had to switch to the audiobook, because Crane’s writing style was so awful that my eye kept sliding over the words without gleaning any meaning. I physically could not read the book. This is not a problem I’m used to having. Crane’s sentences lack variation in style and structure. Ideas do not flow between sentences to create meaning effectively. The result is a dull and scattered narrative. Short, plain sentences don’t necessarily convey meaning more effectively than long, complicated ones. I’m willing to give him the credit of assuming that the scattered narrative style is meant to reflect the scattered mental processes of the protagonist, but it doesn’t work for me.
Crane clearly subscribes to the still prevalent concept that brutality somehow makes a story more “real.” I hear this often. Heath Ledger’s Joker is more realistic because he’s more violent than previous versions. Nope. Still an implausible fantasy character in an implausible fantasy world. In Crane’s case, I won’t argue that the Civil War wasn’t bloody and brutal, just that perhaps he was drawn to that topic because of it’s brutal potential. In Maggie, his heroine is the only slum resident who isn’t drunk, violent and stupid. Which is just great. So glad Stephen Crane finally gave a voice to poor people. Even Maggie doesn’t find true affection. She is ruined by an alliance with a bartender who she’s drawn to not out of love, but because he is slightly less poor than her family and therefore seems glamorous. Because love and affection are just not a part of life in the slums? It’s equally unreal to ignore the human capacity for kindness and love as it is to ignore our brutal tendencies.
Due to Victorian publishing constraints, Crane couldn’t openly describe Maggie’s fate as a fallen woman. So, he implies that she resorts to prostitution out of desperation and either kills herself or perhaps is murdered. We are meant to sympathize with Maggie, a controversial stance even though authors like Elizabeth Gaskell began suggesting that fallen women weren’t hell-beasts decades ago. There is some decent social commentary in Maggie’s rejection by her family. Her drunken, violent, sinful mother and brother throw sweet, kind Maggie out of the house for the sin of being ruined. That element is well done. Similarly, Crane’s examination of Henry’s behavior after he runs from battle is not unworthy of interest. Henry expresses his shame by turning his self-hate outwards and becomes so annoying to his fellow soldiers that one of them beats him over the head with a rifle, resulting in an injury that you could call a “red badge of being a real asshole.”
Not long after Crane became famous for The Red Badge of Courage, he was on his way to Cuba as a war correspondent when his boat sank off the coast of Florida. He and three crewmembers tried to reach the shore for thirty hours. Three of the four men survived. Crane fictionalized this experience in The Open Boat. Finally, he had an ordeal of his own to write about. It turned out great. Very good story. His theme of the ironic indifference of nature to the suffering of men who consider themselves precious works much better in this story than in TRBoC. It’s a well-told thriller. I recommend it.
Final thoughts: Read The Open Boat. If you want to read fiction about the Civil War, read Ambrose Pierce. I’m worried about the Modernists, because lately every book I don’t like is a seminal work that influenced the Modernist movement. Oh, well there’s only one way to find out. Keep reading.