Monday, July 25, 2016

Homage to Stephen Crane

He was 28 when he died, at a health spa in the Black Forest of Germany.  What had we achieved by that age, reader?  For my part, very little.  Perhaps you achieved more, or much.  But it's his age at death that makes him most remarkable, in light of what he did in his short life.

I wonder if they still make students read The Red Badge of Courage in high school.  It was during that four year--what?--that I read it.  I suppose that by making us do so at the time, it was intended in some respect to honor Crane.  I think that requiring books to be read during those years does an author a disservice.  It's difficult to enjoy or appreciate a book one is required to read.  But I suppose something else was intended as well, enjoyment and appreciation not being something to be expected by high school students in their studies, at least.

That particular work of Crane made quite a stir when published.  It was, for the time, a different depiction of war.  It's difficult to think of any other depiction in novels of the same sort up until then.  Ambrose Bierce served in the Civil War and wrote some striking short stories about it, but such as Tolstoy were too busy making grand moral points or indulging in Romantic fantasies to do it what can be called justice.  Unlike Bierce, however, Crane had never experienced war when he wrote that book.  It was entirely a work of his imagination, though considered by most to be unusual in its realism.  Crane experienced war subsequently in his capacity as a newspaper correspondent, "embedded" as we (curiously) say now with soldiers fighting the Greco-Turkish and Spanish-American wars.

I remember the words "realism" and "naturalism" associated with his works.  I read now that "impressionism" is associated with them as well.  It's difficult for a mere reader like myself to keep track of literary categorizations, let alone understand them.  But certainly he wrote of things that took place in life and that were not evidently such as it would be unlikely to encounter in life.  He's been compared, I see, with the prolix Emerson and the less prolix Thoreau among American writers.  I don't see it, really, especially the comparison with Emerson.  Crane was far too direct and spare an author to be compared with Emerson, who bloviated on many things; too many things, in fact.  One can understand why Hemingway thought well of him.  Now and then, Hemingway seems to have expressed admiration for certain writers already dead.  Hemingway thought well of Henry James and Mark Twain also.

Twain is an author I was also forced to read in high school and so neither enjoyed nor appreciated at the time.  I revisited him later, and alas was unimpressed.  That's not the case with Crane.  I confess I've paid no attention to James.  Perhaps I'm unduly concerned as it's been claimed that he wrote novels like a philosopher, while his brother William wrote philosophy like a novelist.  The thought of a philosopher writing a novel troubles me.

I think Crane was at his best writing short stories.  The Monster, The Blue Hotel, The Open Boat are certainly among the best I've read.  Short stories have an unfortunate reputation.  It seems to me that they're not taken seriously enough; all are looking to write or read The Great Novel.  Novels invite excess, however, and imprecision; or so it's seemed to me, and I've read my share of them.  Unless, that is, their chapters are written as short stories themselves, as a kind of serial or series of scenes in the life of a person or event.

With apologies to such as Chekov and others, I think it may be said that American authors have written the finest short stories, and it may also be said (by me at least) that this is to be expected.  American civilization isn't quite what Oscar Wilde claimed it to be (nonexistent) but it doesn't seem to encourage extended reflection or effort on any particular thing, and this would be a prerequisite for creating a novel. 

I'm not a fan of Crane's poetry.  His poetry makes him appear immature, while his prose does not.  His prose was innovative in a way we can't understand now, being used to Hemingway and others who succeeded in extending its precision and simplicity in description.  I'm old now, or old enough, and am astonished he wrote as he did and by what he did so young.  Certain geniuses (Mozart, Schubert come to mind in music) are at once prolific and intensely focused, and are enduringly special and unique as a result.  Crane was one of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment