Brief Notes on Stephen Crane’s Prose Style #1
N.B.: This is the first in a series of brief commentaries on the prose style of Stephen Crane.
None of them knew the colour of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colours of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust in points like rocks.
Many a man ought to have a bathtub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.
“Colours” may take on a quietly figurative significance, as the subsidiary, and somewhat archaic, meaning of “aegis” stands off somewhere in the background (as in the phrase “under colour of law”). We are concerned with the “colour” of the sea—with its integrity, its agency, its antagonism, its character, its felt “authority” to decide matters of life and death. To say that all of the men know the colours of the sea is to understate the case, of course. They are sick with knowledge of it. And what’s more, a certain knowingness attaches to the word “knew” as Crane uses it. Their common knowledge of the sea is the basis of the “brotherhood” Crane later speaks of—a notably “manly” camaraderie that allows these men to speak to one another in hints and gestures, in tones of irony, and in the blacker shades of humor.
Notice also how Crane gives an account of the ocean—as if contradicting its proverbial breadth—that is positively claustrophobic. His men are hemmed in; they inhabit a world circumscribed by the gunwales of a dingy and the next wave alone. And as for the waves, these are “of the hue of slate,” and appear to the men like jagged points of rock, as if they, in the little boat, were negotiating a mountain pass and not a patch of ocean—an arresting metaphor that paradoxically takes sea for land, water for rocks. Either way the passage goes hard. I should note here that, to my mind and ear anyway, Crane almost conscripts the word “jagged” into playing the role of a verb (pronounced with one syllable). This sort of grammatical boundary-testing is not at all uncommon in his prose. Consider an example from The Red Badge of Courage, where we read the following sentence: “Strange gods were addressed in condemnation of the early hours necessary to correct war.” The phrase “to correct” seems by turns to mean “to conduct war correctly,” or to “put war aright,” or “to admonish war,” and yet can be reduced to none of these; its grammatical ambiguity, its suspension, is precise and perfect (such grammatical ambiguity as there is has to do with whether or not “to correct” is an infinitive, or whether “correct” is an adjective modifying “war”).
A new element emerges in the second paragraph of *The Open Boat.” The comparison of bathtub to boat is no doubt funny, pathetically so. Why? Because our relation to water in a bathtub differs so utterly from our relation to it in a storm-tossed boat: the one is recreational or hygienic, the other antagonistic. Also, of course, bathtubs are meant to keep water in, boats to keep it out. So, it’s not just the size of the boat that is the point here, not just the absurd proposition of fitting four men into a bathtub of such commodious size as most men “ought to have” in the late 1890s. The play is more complex.
The waves are described as “most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall.” This language belongs to the parlor, or at least to polite society, where we sometimes meet with forces we call “barbarously abrupt” (rude taxi-cab drivers or shop-clerks, for example, or tourists abroad under some absurd flag of entitlement). It is as if the waves had committed an unpardonable sin against good breeding—as if the waves were exhibiting genuinely uncivilized behavior, damn them. One can well imagine this belief forming a part of the men’s relation to the water. They feel not merely threatened. They feel insulted, indignant.
But Crane turns us about yet again in the last sentence quoted above: “Each froth-top,” he says, “was a problem in small-boat navigation.” This understates the matter in a special way. Problems in Small-Boat Navigation might well be the title of a text-book, something assigned for study at the Coast Guard Academy, say. And, lo, a number of books more or less by that title have been published, as the illustrations here attest. To use the language Crane here uses—problems in small boat navigation—puts the relation of men to water in a slightly clinical or “academic” light. With this idea, we are no longer in the game. We are watching a film of it after the fact. We are being debriefed.
And what of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Crane’s first novel, published at his own expense and under a pseudonym. No commercial publisher was willing to attach its imprint to this sensational tale of a young girl’s descent into prostitution in the Bowery. The 1880s and 1890s produced a good deal of literature about the slum, much of it intended to stir the reader’s compassion for the suffering of the poverty-stricken immigrants who lived in such neighborhoods as the Bowery. Crane’s novel owes a good deal to this body of writing, but he hardly writes as a reformer. His stake in the matter is equivocally compassionate at best. Maggie isn’t meant to move anyone to indignation.
Early in the novel we encounter the following description of the tenement in which Maggie and her family live:
Eventually they [Maggie's brother and father] entered a dark region where, from a careening building, a dozen gruesome doorways gave up loads of babies to the street and the gutter. A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against a hundred windows. Long streamers of garments fluttered from fire-escapes. In all unhandy places there were buckets, brooms, rags, and bottles. In the street infants played or fought with other infants or sat stupidly in the way of vehicles. Formidable women, with uncombed hair and disordered dress, gossiped while leaning on railings, or screamed in frantic quarrels. Withered persons, in curious postures of submission to something, sat smoking pipes in obscure corners. A thousand odors of cooking food came forth to the street. The building quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.
This sort of literarily squalid scene anticipates the urban environments of T.S. Eliot‘s “Preludes,” as well as certain urban images in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (the latter especially as we now know it from Christopher Ricks’ edition of Eliot’s poetry notebooks in Inventions of the March Hare), and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” The passage is an exercise in what we now call “slumming,” as are also Eliot’s poems. But the mood evoked by Crane’s writing differs notably from that evoked by Eliot’s. A suggestion of the forbidden, and therefore of the alluring, usually hangs about Eliot’s eroticized urban wildernesses. He has a Puritan’s feeling for corruption, which always retained, for him, a glamour from which he needed to protect himself. Crane is hardly vulnerable in this sense. As I say, nothing much is at stake for him here other than the writing. His evocation of the slums approaches amused contempt, at least as to tone. There are few intimations of pity. And as for the erotic implications of socially forbidden precincts: the striking metaphor that most generally controls the passage combines the ideas of parturition (“gruesome doorways” “giving up” “loads” of babies to the street) and defecation (tenants inhabiting the “bowels” of a building). Well, as William Butler Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” says to the Bishop: “Love has pitched its mansion in the place of excrement.” Crane writes in the language of disgust. There is nothing at all titillating in this tale of a woman’s lost “honor.” Crane’s Bowery is a sink of crime and dissolution. His procreative metaphor, in the passage just examined, is seriously enough meant. In the slum, he finds a shocking fertility. It teems with life. But for Crane it teems almost as does a sewer (or a “gutter”) with bacteria. It is sometimes difficult to tell, in reading Maggie, whether Crane asks us to conclude that the environment infects the people or that the people infect the environment.
And then this sentence: “A wind of early autumn raised yellow dust from cobbles and swirled it against a hundred windows.” Crane avails himself of the association of autumn winds with autumn colors (yellows, oranges, what have you), only to emphasize that this particular yellow is rather more infernal and urban than rural and charming. Somewhere in here the “health” of the countryside is brought to bear on the squalor of the city, with its “stupid infants,” “formidable women” who “scream,” and “withered” men—all of them so “curiously” in “submission to something.” “Submission” might seem to bring in politics, and in fact the political economy of New York (and of America) abused these folk abominably. But Crane’s politics are not those of a slum reformer, as I’ve said. The “something” these men and women submit to—as our author sees it anyway—is more internal than external to them, odd though that may sound. Theirs is a failure of character. Crane lays out his views quite clearly in an 1896 letter to a Miss Catherine Harris, who’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].” And then he continues: “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.” Crane scorns reformers who’d bring their “missions” to adults. They’re beyond recovery so long as they confuses themselves with Lillian Russell and “willingly” take a “licking,” cowards that they are. And so far as I can tell the same flippant scorn applies to “missions for children.” If anyone actually did propose that the children of the Bowery be rusticated away from their families, the proposal may well have merited scorn. But Crane’s tone leaves little doubt that he’s a cynic with regard to “missions” of whatever kind. True enough, out there in Crane’s rustic cartoon of a farm, the autumn winds doubtless bring yellows of a different kind than they do in New York City. The homesteads do not “careen” like the drunkards Crane supposes to inhabit the Bowery. But this is a “pink” world, where cows lick the noses of children. It is a picture postcard world. It is a laughingstock.
I should acknowledge one alternative reading of the letter before concluding. Crane may well simply be showing off to Miss Catherine Harris, as who should say, “See what I tough guy I am? Don’t get sentimental with anything I put pen to.” I recognize him in that. And after all, when he wrote the letter he was only 25.