“It was no more to be noted than if a troop of dim and silent gray monkeys had been climbing a grapevine into the clouds”: Notes on Stephen Crane’s Monster
Following are some notes on Stephen Crane‘s novella The Monster. I will assume some familiarity with the book, but the plot is easy to summarize. Dr. Trescott, an important figure in Crane’s fictional Whilomville, employs an African-American hostler named Henry Johnson, who has an affectionate relationship with the Trescotts’ young son, Jimmie. When a fire destroys the Trescott house, Henry dashes in to rescue the boy, and manages to reach the rear exit of the house (via the doctor’s laboratory). There he sets the little boy down at the threshold before himself being overcome with the fumes and smoke of the fire, which has now enveloped the lab, with all its beakers of pharmaceutical chemicals, etc. He collapses. The heat of the fire causes the beakers to shatter, and an acid of some sort streams down along the table and falls directly onto Henry’s face, disfiguring him appallingly, and—though by means never made clear—rendering him feeble-minded. Some of the townsfolk accuse Henry of arson, others celebrate him as a hero, and then once the truth emerges—the fire was an accident—the problem around which the novella is built becomes clear. What’s to be done with the newly incapacitated “hero” Henry? What white man will take up his burden? Dr. Trescott manages to save his life. But other town worthies advise him that it would be better—would have been better—simply to let Henry die. Household by household the town ostracizes him and his family, until they alone are left with to handle what used to be called, in the 1890s, “the negro problem.”
Some regard The Monster as an indictment of racism. It will become clear that I find that notion, well, “problematic,” as the English professors say. Others regard it as a satire of small-town pettiness, such as we find in Mark Twain‘s The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg. I think Crane’s investment isn’t really in moralizing or satire of any kind, but instead in the writing itself—in the prose. (I’d say the same of nearly everything he wrote, and intend this entry in The Era of Casual Fridays to the first in an occasional series devoted to Crane’s style. Well, so much by way of preface.
* * *
Often one encounters in Stephen Crane’s prose metaphors that startle and disorient the reader, at times to surreal effect. Here’s a description of the house fire, as it begins, in The Monster, a short novel published in 1899:
A wisp of smoke came from one of the windows at the end of the house and drifted quietly into the branches of a cherry tree. Its companions followed it in slowly increasing numbers, and finally there was a current controlled by invisible banks which poured into the fruit-laden boughs of the cherry tree. It was no more to be noted than if a troop of dim and silent gray monkeys had been climbing a grapevine into the clouds.
Several things strike me. The first is the comparison of the smoke to water—a confusion of the elements that works by paradox: air, too, can be “poured,” after all. But the truly odd feature of the passage, the feature so characteristic of Crane, is the suggestion in the last sentence: namely, that the progress of the smoke is “no more to be noted than if a troop of dim and silent gray monkeys had been climbing a grapevine into the clouds.” No more to be noted? How are we to understand such a remark? Most observers would “take note” if they saw a troop of dim and silent gray monkeys climbing a grapevine into the clouds, even if they saw it in Crane’s fictional town of Whilomville. To an extent, the metaphor works by visual analogy on the basis of color: a rising column of smoke is compared to a chain of gray monkeys trooping their way up—to a chain of something gray, anyway. But the monkeys and the grapevine are sheer extravagances, as is also the disclaimer that there might be nothing “noteworthy” in the prospect they afford.
This brings me round to what I like to call the technique of narration by inappropriate affect—sometimes used to sound ironic purposes, sometimes not, and sometimes not really “used” at all but simply stumbled into. In The Monster the structure of feelings that might be said to characterize Crane’s narrator often seems oddly out of place. The fire that lies at the center of the novella’s action is for him an occasion for play of a notably whimsical sort. I feel little gravity in the narration. The tone always alerts us to the fact that Crane is an observer, but never, sympathetically speaking, a participant-observer in the scenes he describes. He is a god paring his nails who hardly deigns to notice when a troop of silent gray monkeys climbs a grapevine into the clouds. So, he describes Mrs. Trescott, in her alarm for the safety of her son Jimmie, in language that veers toward ridicule. She is incontinent in her emotions. And Crane—always cool, no matter what the situation—disdains her. She is said to wave her skinny arms about “as if they were two reeds.” He makes a straw woman of her. She is “maniacal.” She “babbles.” She is as much a spectacle as an object of sympathy. Come to that, Crane’s art often works in a region somewhere amid spectacle, ridicule, and sympathy.
The interest of the narrator is more in the fire itself than in anything the fire might destroy. The fire is to him a lovely thing. Little Jimmie Trescott’s room, we are told, “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.” The narrator misses not the smallest effect of grace in this tableau. His investment in the scene is essentially that of a connoisseur, as when he reports that Jimmie, having been seized by Henry Johnson, the man who will save him, “let out a gorgeous bawl.” A a bawl to be appreciated, on its own terms, and not simply as a cry of distress. Plainly, the narrator’s interest in the scene stands somewhat apart from the interest the characters themselves take in it. His “affect” is dislocated.
But the best awaits us in Dr. Trescott’s laboratory. “At the entrance to the laboratory,” Crane writes, Henry Johnson and the boy he carries meet “a strange spectacle. 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. There was an explosion at one side, and suddenly before [Henry] there reared a delicate, trembling sapphire shape like a fairy lady. With a quiet smile she blocked his path and doomed him and Jimmie.” Henry is able, in his last exertion, to lay Jimmie down near a window. But he himself collapses onto the floor beneath a table on which sit beakers and jars of various chemicals, one of which seems “to hold a scintillant and writhing serpent. Suddenly the glass splintered, and a ruby-red snake-like thing poured its thick length out upon the top of the old 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 a mystic impulse, it moved again, and the red snake flowed directly down into Johnson’s upturned face. Afterward the trail of this creature seemed to reek, and amid flames and low explosions drops like red-hot jewels pattered softly down at leisurely intervals.”
In connection with this remarkable passage, I want to ask a question about point of view that is also a question about the narrator’s mood. What sort of mind could see this particular fire in this particular way? It must be a mind unaffected and unsentimental, a mind capable of seeing in the fire a show of light, color, and form; a mind provisionally indifferent (Olympian, even) to the exquisite suffering the fire causes the men and women immediately touched by it. After all, they are—or so the possessor of such a mind must feel—a little selfish in seeing the fire only in terms of what it can do to them. Doesn’t, and shouldn’t, the fire have a life of its own?
Crane’s manner, if I may say so, allies him with the “high cold star” that looks on the suffering men in “The Open Boat” with such sublime indifference. Crane’s narrator is like the Universe in his best-known poem. When reminded that men exist, the Universe replies that the fact creates in it “no sense of obligation.” Such is the indifferent force with which Crane affiliates himself as a writer, or so the evidence of his cool prose suggests. The Monster may be about a black man, defaced and compelled to live behind a veil. But no one, I think, would find in it any real exception to the general drift of things in a nation that was (as W.E.B. DuBois said) “a little ashamed,” in the 1890s, “at having bestowed so much sentiment on Negroes.” This will become much clearer when I consider, in a moment, a passage describing Henry Johnson and his sweetheart Bella Farragut.
William James points out in Pragmatism that, from our point of view, the astonishing “fitness” of the woodpecker’s beak to get at the grubs hiding beneath the bark of a tree appears beautiful and perfect. It seems to argue “design” in the universe of a remarkably harmonious and symbiotic sort. From the point of view of the grubs, of course, it is evidence of something else altogether: a diabolical sort of “design” (if design govern in a thing so small, as Robert Frost puts it). All depends on perspective.
One sometimes hears epidemiologists speak of the “elegance” or “beauty” of a particularly nefarious virus. It is possible to regard ebola zaire, for example, with a certain aesthetic detachment—to regard it as ebola zaire might wish to be regarded. Namely, as a strand of RNA ideally suited to painting a room with human blood. When we think that way we are, finally, interested only in power, only in force. We have, so to speak, transcended merely “human” interests. Crane’s fiction usually tends in precisely this direction. We are in any case—to recur to the novella at hand—well beyond jeremiads about the plight of black folk in the 1890s, and the nuanced interest these jeremiads inevitably take in the more “human” significance of events.
A Nietzschean detachment, combined with often startlingly incongruous metaphors, is what accounts for the peculiar feeling of disorientation we feel in reading Crane’s most characteristic prose. In The Monster, the fire that disfigures Henry Johnson is described precisely as a fire might like to be described. The fire is done justice to. The fire is flattered. It has good reason to deploy its flames like “flags” “joyfully” waving in the wind, as Crane puts it. No wonder the townspeople look up with eyes that “shine” with “awe,” as Crane says they do. For they, too, are pyrophiliac, and can appreciate a fire. To appreciate it—as theater, as a spectacle, as a thing of force and beauty—is in fact what they came to the Trescott’s burning house to do. They are, so far as their moral investment in the scene is concerned, rather like the narrator himself: indifferent, and, as the story soon permits them to show, for the most part incapable of empathy. They would as soon kill the disfigured Henry Johnson as look at him—if they could do so merely by taking thought. The local boys, as boys will, hurry to the fire as to a circus. They are “deeply moved” by the “whole affair,” and take special pleasure in it (after all, “it was fine to see the gathering of the [fire] companies,” and the lads display an “impish joy” at the sight of the flames). One might write this off as childish insouciance, which is what it is, but the adults are the same. Their eyes “shine with awe” at the spectacle; the men are at their best when describing the affair to their fellows in a theatrical, self-dramatizing way. The whole business takes on, by turns, the holiday air of a parade and the histrionic air of bad melodrama. And lest we ascribe this to a forgivably human weakness for excitement and sensation, Crane soon shows us that the townsfolk care nothing at all for the suffering of Henry Johnson. The judge speaks for them all: “Somehow,” he says, “I think that that poor fellow ought to die.” It is “one of the blunders of virtue,” he suggests, to care for him any longer, because to care for him is a nuisance, an embarrassment. So much for the white man’s burden, which Rudyard Kipling admonished Americans to take up in 1899, the same year The Monster was published. The Monster might well be a satire of the bad faith with which that “burden” was everywhere assumed.
Now, clearly Crane invites us to condemn the townspeople for their detachment. They cut Dr. Trescott off when he refuses to turn Henry out to die. They abandon him. No woman comes to his wife’s afternoon teas. His medical practice suffers. But we’re never invited to judge the narrator, and I want to make the implications of this fact clear. The reason we condemn the townsfolk is apparently that, under the circumstances, they ought to be committed to seeing the fire in terms chiefly of what it can do to them, and to their fellows; they ought to be humanists. That is to say, they ought to be humanly self-centered, as the grubs in James’s analogy are self-centered in a grubbish way, for that would mark the beginning of real empathy. No time out to admire the woodpecker’s plumage (i.e., the fire). After all, they are not writers describing imaginary events, as is Crane; they are characters in a story behaving like writers describing imaginary events. That is precisely the moral problem to which Crane’s novella alerts us. At the end of the day, Henry Johnson is not, for the good white people of Whilomville, real. He is not one of their fellows. They see him, if they see him at all, as through a veil of unreality. In fact, Crane has Henry wear a veil, as if anticipating W.E.B. DuBois’s great metaphor in The Souls of Black Folk: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The townsfolk do, in fact, look on Henry, veiled as he is, with “amused contempt and pity.” And it would have been much more convenient (as they let the doctor know) if Henry Johnson had been allowed to die.Now, some might suggest the reader is left to suppose, in indignation, that they’d never have felt this way had little Jimmie Trescott’s savior been white. But the story hardly insists on this point, and I suspect it was not uppermost in Crane’s mind. Here is Crane’s account of Johnson getting ready to meet his sweetheart, Bella Farragut:
After Johnson had taken his supper in the kitchen, he went to his loft in the carriage house and dressed himself with much care. No belle of a court circle could bestow more mind on a toilet than did Johnson. On second thought, he was more like a priest arraying himself for some parade of the church. As he emerged from his room and sauntered down the carriage-drive, no one would have suspected him of ever having washed a buggy. It was not altogether a matter of the lavender trousers, nor yet the straw hat with its bright silk band. The change was somewhere, far in the interior of Henry. But there was no cake-walk hyperbole in it. 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. In the morning, when in his working-clothes, he had met a friend—”Hello, Pete!” “Hello, Henry!” Now, in his effulgence, he encountered this same friend. His bow was not at all haughty. If it expressed anything, it expressed consummate generosity—”Good-evenin’, Misteh Washington.” Pete, who was very dirty, being at work in a potato-patch, responded in a mixture of abasement and appreciation—Good-evenin’, Misteh Johnsing.” The shimmering blue of the electric arc lamps was strong in the main street of the town. At numerous points it was conquered by the orange glare of the outnumbering gaslights in the windows of shops. Through this radiant lane moved a crowd, which culminated in a throng before the post-office, awaiting the distribution of the evening mails. Occasionally there came into it a shrill electric street-car, the motor singing like a cageful of grasshoppers, and possessing a great gong that clanged forth both warnings and simple noise. At the little theatre, which was a varnish and red plush miniature of one of the famous New York theatres, a company of strollers was to play “East Lynne.” The young men of the town were mainly gathered at the corners, in distinctive groups, which expressed various shades and lines of chumship, and had little to do with any social gradations. There they discussed everything with critical insight, passing the whole town in review as it swarmed in the street. When the gongs of the electric cars ceased for a moment to harry the ears, there could be heard the sound of the feet of the leisurely crowd on the bluestone pavement, and it was like the peaceful evening lashing at the shore of a lake. At the foot of the hill, where two lines of maples sentinelled the way, an electric lamp glowed high among the embowering branches, and made most wonderful shadow-etchings on the road below it. When Johnson appeared amid the throng a member of one of the profane groups at a corner instantly telegraphed news of this extraordinary arrival to his companions. They hailed him. “Hello, Henry! Going to walk for a cake to-night?” “Ain’t he smooth?” “Why, you’ve got that cake right in your pocket, Henry!” “Throw out your chest a little more.” Henry was not ruffled in any way by these quiet admonitions and compliments. In reply he laughed a supremely good-natured, chuckling laugh, which nevertheless expressed an underground complacency of superior metal.
Young Griscom, the lawyer, was just emerging from Reifsnyder’s barber shop, rubbing his chin contentedly. On the steps he dropped his hand and looked with wide eyes into the crowd. Suddenly he bolted back into the shop. “Wow!” he cried to the parliament; “you ought to see the coon that’s coming!” Reifsnyder and his assistant instantly poised their razors high and turned towards the window. Two belathered heads reared from the chairs. The electric shine in the street caused an effect like water to them who looked through the glass from the yellow glamour of Reifsnyder’s shop. In fact, the people without resembled the inhabitants of a great aquarium that here had a square pane in it. Presently into this frame swam the graceful form of Henry Johnson. “Chee!” said Reifsnyder. He and his assistant with one accord threw their obligations to the winds, and leaving their lathered victims helpless, advanced to the window. “Ain’t he a taisy?” said Reifsnyder, marvelling. But the man in the first chair, with a grievance in his mind, had found a weapon. “Why, that’s only Henry Johnson, you blamed idiots! Come on now, Reif, and shave me. What do you think I am—a mummy?” Reifsnyder turned, in a great excitement. “I bait you any money that vas not Henry Johnson! Henry Johnson! Rats!” The scorn put into this last word made it an explosion. “That man was a Pullman-car porter or someding. How could that be Henry Johnson?” he demanded, turbulently. “You vas crazy.” The man in the first chair faced the barber in a storm of indignation. “Didn’t I give him those lavender trousers?” he roared. And young Griscom, who had remained attentively at the window, said: “Yes, I guess that was Henry. It looked like him.” “Oh, vell,” said Reifsnyder, returning to his business, “if you think so! Oh, vell!” He implied that he was submitting for the sake of amiability. Finally the man in the second chair, mumbling from a mouth made timid by adjacent lather, said: “That was Henry Johnson all right. Why, he always dresses like that when he wants to make a front! He’s the biggest dude in town—anybody knows that.” ††
The “biggest dude in town.” “Lavender trousers.” A hat with a “silk band.” Henry’s “effulgence.” Belles “of a court circle” who “do not bestow more mind on a toilet” than does Henry Johnson. The stock, off-the-rack dialect of “Good-evenin,’ Misteh Johnsing.” The ironic disingenuity of this remark: “But there was no cake-walk hyperbole in it. 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.” And then, of course, the inevitable ”coon.” So the townsfolk regard Henry. Well, of course they do. We are in America in the 1890s.
But no sooner do we follow out this train of thought than we board another one headed in a direction much less auspicious. To Crane himself, Henry Johnson is, in an important sense, unreal. As presented by the narrator, not by the characters in the story, Henry is drawn out of the worst clichés of the minstrel-show stage. He is a cartoon of a man—a caricature. He is—as many readers have felt—Zip Coon, the urban dandy counterpart to the rural Jim Crow. And having been educated by the story into condemnation of the townsfolk for their callous indifference to Henry’s humanity, should we condemn the narrator for his, and, after the narrator, should we condemn Stephen Crane himself? Is Crane’s condescending and essentially hollowed-out portrait of a black man somehow implicated in the general retreat from Reconstruction-era commitments to civil and political equality for black Americans?
Before dismissing these queries as impertinent, or “politically correct,” consider the scene describing the visit Henry makes to his girlfriend Bella Farragut at her home in what Crane, or Crane and the townsfolk, or the townsfolk alone—who’s to say, really?—call “Watermelon Alley”: “The duty of receiving Mr. Johnson fell upon Mrs. Farragut, because Bella, in another room, was scrambling wildly into her best gown. The fat old woman met him with a great ivory smile, sweeping back with the door, and bowing low.” “After a great deal of kowtow,” we are told, “they were planted in two chairs opposite each other in the living-room. Here they exchanged the most tremendous civilities, until Miss Bella swept into the room, when there was more kowtow on all sides, and a smiling show of teeth that was like an illumination. The cooking-stove was of course in this drawing room, and on the fire was some kind of a long-winded stew. Mrs. Farragut was obliged to arise and attend to it from time to time. Also young Sim came in and went to bed on his pallet in the corner. But to all these domesticities the three maintained an absolute dumbness.” Some may first suppose that Crane expects us to admire the studied dignity with which these three conduct themselves in their impoverished circumstances, as they politely ignore the fact that a single room serves for a parlor, bedroom, and kitchen. But Crane expects nothing of the kind. Bella is not vouchsafed much dignity in her “wild scramble” to make herself lovely after she sights her dandified beau on his approach to Watermelon Alley: she leaves off “gossiping at long range” (that is, shouting in an unseemly manner) only to “gallop like a horse” into the house (which is less a domicile than a stable). “Tremendous civilities” are not ones to admired, I should think. Once in the house, we learn that the stove is “of course” in the drawing room, and the force of this insertion is equivocal, in that it involves neither sympathy for, nor smiling at, the poverty of the family: “of course” their rooms are cramped and few; “of course” they cook in the parlor. But what of it? And are we to chuckle at the family’s culinary efforts—at the fact that their “long-winded stew” must huff and puff its way to a conclusion?
Doubtless this scene is meant to be funny, but with laughs at whose expense, and at what “social cost,” so to speak? In any case, Crane continues: “They bowed and smiled and ignored and imitated until a late hour, and if they had been the occupants of the most gorgeous salon in the world they could not have been more like three monkeys” (my emphasis). Clearly, here is an example of what I’m calling “inappropriate affect” on the part of a narrator, though in this case we have to do with an impropriety of which Crane is not a conscious manipulator. The Farraguts and Henry Johnson are minstrel show darkies—what with all their ivory-white “illuminating” teeth, their “monkeying” imitation of white civilities, and their comical pretensions. You can take a darkie out of Watermelon Alley, and put her in the finest salon in the world; but you can’t take Watermelon Alley out of the darkie. Crane is himself talking like one of the less generous characters in his own story (we can’t distinguish him, here, from the narrator). He is a citizen of Whilomville in good standing (as he would likely acknowledge with a shrug).
A continuity links the general mode of the comedy in this novella—what I have been calling the narrator’s inappropriate affect—to the sort of minstrel-show stereotype we find in this scene, with its monkeyshines and watermelon; and it is a stereotype that marks the story as very comfortably belonging in the rather savage 1890s, when the lynching terror was at its peak (all this notwithstanding that the story was likely occasioned by a lynching Crane personally knew of). That is why Crane’s satire in The Monster, if satire is the right word for it, never rises into indignation. Crane isn’t indignant at all. As I say, he isn’t writing any jeremiads about the broken promises of Reconstruction and the Republican Party in the 1890s—the decade which in many ways marked the nadir of American thinking about race, as more than one historian has pointed out. As often as not, he is simply amusing himself with observations about “long-winded stews” and parlor “monkeys.” Crane’s story about a persecuted black man is, at the end of the day, not a story about a man persecuted because he is black. In fact, the significance of his being black is more than a little obscure.
This novella is about a much more generalized, historically non-specific sort of intolerance—to the extent that it is really about intolerance at all. Also in point, here, are the shifting rhetorical and aesthetic strategies of The Monster: part farce, part satire, part minstrel show, and part exposé of small-town American pettiness of the sort we find in Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” The novella never takes coherent shape, until it becomes quite impossible, as I say, to determine whether or not, and even why, it should matter to the reader that Henry Johnson is black. A reader might object that we can say of Huckleberry Finn that it, too, shifts rhetorical and aesthetic modes: it is by turns satire, farce, and idyll; and in it, too, the main black character (Jim) appears before us now as a figure of sympathy and now as one of ridicule. But we never doubt that Huck Finn is a politically committed book, whatever its diffidence. That novel, written by the reconstructed Southern spouse of a Yankee abolitionist, does, in fact, wave the Bloody Shirt—if we think of it, as we should, as a document in the history of the Post-Reconstruction years. To the extent that a latent white supremacy infects the novel there is in it as well a kind of self-loathing—a fierce self-recrimination: the book is everywhere an inquiry into the poverty of its own imaginative resources, which is the poverty of the white imagination generally. We encounter no such thing in the only novel/novella Crane was ever to write on what was then called The Negro Question—The Monster.
“The surest thing one can say about Crane is that he did not care which way the world went,” says Alfred Kazin in On Native Grounds, and Kazin is surely correct. Crane’s interest is always in style. There is very little in The Monster, or anywhere else in Crane’s fiction, to suggest that the suffering to which he bears witness ought to, or can be very much, alleviated;—which may be simply to point out the obvious: he isn’t Ida B. Wells, and isn’t writing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases.The implication of Crane’s work seems rather to be that the best we who do not suffer like Henry Johnson, or who suffer less than him, can do is adopt a satisfying attitude with respect to bad conditions. We certainly can’t propose to “make the world over,” as the sociologist and historian W. G. Sumner said, though that is precisely what the Radicals after the Civil War had attempted to do. Consider the following remarks from Sumner’s 1894 tract “The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over,” the very title of which mocks cherished utopian American aspirations to dwell in a fairer house than prose (it appeared the year after Crane’s wickedly grim novel of slum life, Maggie, was first published). Sumner writes in defense of developments that concentrated capital in fewer and fewer hands, and reports, with no noticeable chagrin, that “democracy has never done anything, either in politics, social affairs, or industry, to prove its power to bless mankind.” Frankly, I find little in Crane’s writings anywhere to suggest that he felt out of harmony with these general sentiments, even as he made use of, for his own stylistic experiments, such genres as much-raking literature about the Bowery slums. He lays out his views in an 1896 letter to a Miss Catherine Harris (she’d dropped him a card with a question about Maggie):
“I do not think much can be done with the Bowery,” Crane says. “A person who thinks himself superior to the rest of us because he has no job and no pride and no clean clothes is as badly conceited as Lillian Russell [a popular actress]. In a story of mine called ‘An Experiment in Misery‘ I tried to make plain that the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice. Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or to willingly be knocked flat and accept the licking. The missions for children are another thing and if you will have Mr. Rockefeller give me a hundred street cars and some money I will load all the babes off to some pink world where cows can lick their noses and they will never see their families any more.” Cold charity indeed, even if said partly in jest. The down and out in the Bowery—the drunks, the homeless, the jobless, etc;—theirs, Crane says, as if speaking with the Robber Barons, is a failure of ambition and character. Maybe they should have been reading Horatio Alger’s novels instead of wasting their time in all those saloons.
In any case, they were, as Crane suggests, “willing” to be “knocked flat and accept the licking.” Really? Crane is not altogether with W. G. Sumner, who is reported to have said, in response to a tender-minded student who wandered into one of his classrooms at Yale: “It’s root, hog, or die! There are no rights. The world owes nobody a living.” But in reading his work I feel entitled to wonder—notwithstanding Crane’s famous remarks about “environment” being “a tremendous thing” —whether or not the lumpen-proletariat Irish of Maggie (say) infect their environment more than their environment infects them. But then again, Frederick Crews’s observation is well worth citing: “The widening chasm between rich and poor, the blind worship of money, and the use of military force for economic imperialism were teaching Crane and others that the meek were not about to inherit the earth.” What morals one drew from such a teaching was one’s own business, and Crane kept his to himself. At any rate he kept them out of his fiction, at least in any clear or decisive form. Why should we be surprised that his works are populated by caricatures, not characters—whether they are the “yokel” soldiers of The Red Badge of Courage (the term is Crane’s, not mine), or the “Irish apes” of Maggie, or the “darkies” on Watermelon Alley in The Monster? The result, for the reader of Crane, and especially for anyone reading The Monster, is a sort of muddle—an irresolution as to mode, motive, and aim, which is, after all, perfectly symptomatic of the 1890s.
After the smoke has cleared over he ruins of Dr. Trescott’s well-manicured home (he is said, sacramentally, to “[shave] his lawn as if it were a priest’s chin“); after the extent of Henry’s injuries is plain to all;—after all of this, the esteemed town Judge pays the doctor a visit. “He arose and entered the house,” we read, “his brow still furrowed in a thoughtful frown. His stick thumped solemnly in regular beats. On the second floor he entered a room where Dr. Trescott was working about the bedside of Henry Johnson. The bandages on the negro’s head allowed only one thing to appear, an eye, which unwinkingly stared at the judge. The latter spoke to Trescott on the condition of the patient. Afterward he evidently had something further to say, but he seemed to be kept from it by the scrutiny of the unwinking eye, at which he furtively glanced from time to time.” Henry’s “unwinking” eye. Above all, this is what the Judge and the townsfolk wish to extinguish, to evade. That eye is a standing reproach. Under the gaze of this black figure the white citizenry of Whilomville simply cannot get a good night’s sleep. Henry is like Banquo’s ghost. His “unwinking eye” witnesses against them all; no white man can bear it. The Judge simply must turn away from it, lest he be forced to confront the horrible importunities of Henry and all his suffering kind.
My question, then, is simple. Does Crane, too, shrink from that “unwinking eye”? Does all the minstrel show mischief at Henry’s expense—the “Zip Coon” dude-ishness, the monkeyshines, Watermelon Alley, the “tremendous” civilities, the stereotypical emphasis on his and Bella Farragut’s shining white teeth;—does all this mischief amount to a turning away, to a denial of (literary) quarter to this disfigured, ostracized representative of an outraged, persecuted, and abandoned people? Does the mode of comedy at play in The Monster really sort well with its half-hearted moralism, at least so far as this moralism has to do with the vexing problem of race (as opposed to the easier problem of small-town pettiness)? Obviously I am suggesting that Crane does shrink from that “unwinking eye,” though the fact that he sets that eye a-gazing in the midst of his novella may indicate that he (like Twain in Huck Finn) somehow wishes to be found out. It is a tell-tale eye, and its silent, sullen gaze weighs white gods and white men alike (to adapt a phrase from Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden”). It is a gaze that the writing in The Monster can neither control nor contain. Maybe that’s why Crane chose the word “unwinking” instead of what, I suppose, any reader would expect: “unblinking.” “Winking” is either precisely the right word (if Crane knows that the joke is partly on him), or precisely the wrong one (if he doesn’t).
After the fire, after the bodies of the injured are laid out upon the Trescott’s well-shaven, rich, green lawn—all a-shimmer in the newly installed arc-lights—the townsfolk and knockabout kids begin to take it all in. What they have in common in this enterprise, what Crane means to emphasize, is a tendency to assimilate the events to ready-made narratives, narratives so trite they might as well be called anecdotes of the lowest order. The rumors fly. (Rumors always flourish amongst the sort of American Crane takes aim at. Rumors constitute our common knowledge, even as I type today, April 16, 2010.) Some assimilate the events to racist anecdotes, others to anecdotes of martyrdom, and then, at last, there is the anecdotal vanity of Miss Bella Farragut.
But a great rumor went among the crowds. It was told with hushed voices. Afterwards a reverent silence fell even upon the boys. Jimmie Trescott and Henry Johnson had been burned to death, and Dr. Trescott himself had been most savagely hurt. The crowd did not even feel the police pushing at them. They raised their eyes, shining now with awe, towards the high flames.
The man who had information was at his best. In low tones he described the whole affair. “That was the kid’s room in the corner there. He had measles or somethin,’ and this coon Johnson was a-settin’ up with ‘im, and Johnson got sleepy or somethin’ and upset the lamp, and the doctor he was down in his office, and he came running up, and they all got burned together till they dragged ‘em out.”
The name of Henry Johnson became suddenly the title of a saint to the little boys. The one who thought of it first could, by quoting it in an argument, at once overthrow his antagonist, whether it applied to the subject or whether it did not.
“Nigger, nigger, never die.
Black face and shiny eye.”
Boys who had called this odious couplet in the rear of Johnson’s march buried the fact at the bottom of their hearts. Later in the day Miss Bella Farragut, of No.7 Watermelon Alley, announced that she had been engaged to marry Mr. Henry Johnson.
If The Monster sincerely attacks racism, it does so here. These boys bury that “odious couplet” out of shame, not genuine contrition. It will be deployed again soon enough, once the balance of popular opinion levels itself, again, in Whilomville. But notice this. Everyone comes in for ridicule of one sort or another. Crane cannot let even Bella Farragut of No. 7 Watermelon Alley alone. She’s made ridiculous for shining in the borrowed light of her former suitor, as she was earlier ridiculed, in classic minstrel-show style, for her gait, her way of talking, her vanity, her imitation of white civilities, and, in fact, for comporting herself like a “monkey.” Those are Crane’s aspersions. I’ll not let him off the hook by chalking them up to “the narrator.” In short, Crane himself assimilates African-American lives to ready-made categories, to anecdotes. That “odious couplet,” though here apparently condemned, somehow pervades the whole of the novella, as the ghost of Banquo haunts Macbeth. But read that couplet now as follows.
“Nigger, nigger, never die.
Black face, unwinking eye.”
†† N.B. In the passage from The Monster quoted above appears a reference to “the shimmering blue of the electric arc lamps” illuminating “the main street of the town.” These arc-lamps come up no fewer than tree times during the early chapters of the novella; they are weirdly salient. Add to this the “lawn-care” on which Crane lays so much emphasis in connection with Dr. Trescott, and I believe we can say that The Monster, whatever else it may be, is among the first novels of “suburbia” in our literature.