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Stephen Crane Post by :ntibbs Category :Essays Author :Willa Cather Date :November 2010 Read :2259

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Stephen Crane

"WAR IS KIND." Stephen Crane. $2.50. New York: F. A. Stokes
& Co. Pittsburg: J. R. Weldin & Co.

This truly remarkable book is printed on dirty gray blotting paper, on each page of which is a mere dot of print over a large I of vacancy. There are seldom more than ten lines on a page, and it would be better if most of those lines were not there at all. Either Mr. Crane is insulting the public or insulting himself, or he has developed a case of atavism and is chattering the primeval nonsense of the apes. His "Black Riders," uneven as it was, was a casket of polished masterpieces when compared with "War Is Kind." And it is not kind at all, Mr. Crane; when it provokes such verses as these, it is all that Sherman said it was.

The only production in the volume that is at all coherent is the following, from which the book gets its title:

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind,
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky,
And the affrighted steed ran on alone.
Do not weep,
War is kind.

Hoarse booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them.
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom--
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind,
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at the breast, gulped and died.
Do not weep,
War is kind.

Swift-blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing,
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright, splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep,
War is kind.


Of course, one may have objections to hearts hanging like humble buttons, or to buttons being humble at all, but one should not stop to quarrel about such trifles with a poet who can perpetrate the following:

Thou art my love,
And thou art the beard
On another man's face--
Woe is me.

Thou art my love,
And thou art a temple,
And in this temple is an altar,
And on this temple is my heart--
Woe is me.

Thou art my love,
And thou art a wretch.
Let these sacred love-lies choke thee.
For I am come to where I know your lies as truth
And your truth as lies--
Woe is me.

Now, if you please, is the object of these verses animal, mineral or vegetable? Is the expression, "Thou art the beard on another man's face," intended as a figure, or was it written by a barber? Certainly, after reading this, "Simple Simon" is a ballade of perfect form, and "Jack and Jill" or "Hickity, Pickity, My Black Hen," are exquisite lyrics. But of the following what shall be said:

Now let me crunch you
With full weight of affrighted love.
I doubted you
--I doubted you--
And in this short doubting
My love grew like a genie
For my further undoing.

Beware of my friends,
Be not in speech too civil,
For in all courtesy
My weak heart sees specters,
Mists of desire
Arising from the lips of my chosen;
Be not civil.

This is somewhat more lucid as evincing the bard's exquisite sensitiveness:

Ah, God, the way your little finger moved
As you thrust a bare arm backward.
And made play with your hair
And a comb, a silly gilt comb
--Ah, God, that I should suffer
Because of the way a little finger moved.


Mr. Crane's verselets are illustrated by some Bradley pictures, which are badly drawn, in bad taste, and come with bad grace. On page 33 of the book there are just two lines which seem to completely sum up the efforts of both poet and artist:

"My good friend," said a learned bystander,
"Your operations are mad."

Yet this fellow Crane has written short stories equal to some of Maupassant's.

_Pittsburg Leader_, June 3, 1899

After reading such a delightful newspaper story as Mr. Frank Norris' "Blix," it is with assorted sensations of pain and discomfort that one closes the covers of another newspaper novel, "Active Service," by Stephen Crane. If one happens to have some trifling regard for pure English, he does not come forth from the reading of this novel unscathed. The hero of this lurid tale is a newspaper man, and he edits the Sunday edition of the New York "Eclipse," and delights in publishing "stories" about deformed and sightless infants. "The office of the 'Eclipse' was at the top of an immense building on Broadway. It was a sheer mountain to the heights of which the interminable thunder of the streets rose faintly. The Hudson was a broad path of silver in the distance." This leaves little doubt as to the fortunate journal which had secured Rufus Coleman as its Sunday editor. Mr. Coleman's days were spent in collecting yellow sensations for his paper, and we are told that he "planned for each edition as for a campaign." The following elevating passage is one of the realistic paragraphs by which Mr. Crane makes the routine of Coleman's life known to us:

Suddenly there was a flash of light and a cage of bronze,
gilt and steel dropped magically from above. Coleman yelled
"Down!" * * * A door flew open. Coleman stepped upon the
elevator. "Well, Johnnie," he said cheerfully to the lad who
operated the machine, "is business good?" "Yes, sir, pretty
good," answered the boy, grinning. The little cage sank
swiftly. Floor after floor seemed to be rising with
marvelous speed; the whole building was winging straight
into the sky. There was soaring lights, figures and the
opalescent glow of ground glass doors marked with black
inscriptions. Other lights were springing heavenward. All
the lofty corridors rang with cries. "Up!" "Down!" "Down!"
"Up!!" The boy's hand grasped a lever and his machine obeyed
his lightest movement with sometimes an unbalancing
swiftness.

Later, when Coleman reached the street, Mr. Crane describes the cable cars as marching like panoplied elephants, which is rather far, to say the least. The gentleman's nights were spent something as follows:

"In the restaurant he first ordered a large bottle of
champagne. The last of the wine he finished in somber mood
like an unbroken and defiant man who chews the straw that
litters his prison house. During his dinner he was
continually sending out messenger boys. He was arranging a
poker party. Through a window he watched the beautiful
moving life of upper Broadway at night, with its crowds and
clanging cable cars and its electric signs, mammoth and
glittering like the jewels of a giantess.

"Word was brought to him that poker players were arriving.
He arose joyfully, leaving his cheese. In the broad hall,
occupied mainly by miscellaneous people and actors, all deep
in leather chairs, he found some of his friends waiting.
They trooped upstairs to Coleman's rooms, where, as a
preliminary, Coleman began to hurl books and papers from the
table to the floor. A boy came with drinks. Most of the men,
in order to prepare for the game, removed their coats and
cuffs and drew up the sleeves of their shirts. The electric
globes shed a blinding light upon the table. The sound of
clinking chips arose; the elected banker spun the cards,
careless and dextrous."

The atmosphere of the entire novel is just that close and enervating. Every page is like the next morning taste of a champagne supper, and is heavy with the smell of stale cigarettes. There is no fresh air in the book and no sunlight, only the "blinding light shed by the electric globes." If the life of New York newspaper men is as unwholesome and sordid as this, Mr. Crane, who has experienced it, ought to be sadly ashamed to tell it. Next morning when Coleman went for breakfast in the grill room of his hotel he ordered eggs on toast and a pint of champagne for breakfast and discoursed affably to the waiter.

"May be you had a pretty lively time last night,
Mr. Coleman?"

"Yes, Pat," answered Coleman. "I did. It was all because of
an unrequitted affection, Patrick." The man stood near, a
napkin over his arm. Coleman went on impressively. "The ways
of the modern lover are strange. Now, I, Patrick, am a
modern lover, and when, yesterday, the dagger of
disappointment was driven deep into my heart, I immediately
played poker as hard as I could, and incidentally got
loaded. This is the modern point of view. I understand on
good authority that in old times lovers used to languish.
That is probably a lie, but at any rate we do not, in these
times, languish to any great extent. We get drunk. Do you
understand Patrick?"

The waiter was used to a harangue at Coleman's breakfast
time. He placed his hand over his mouth and giggled.
"Yessir."

"Of course," continued Coleman, thoughtfully. "It might be
pointed out by uneducated persons that it is difficult to
maintain a high standard of drunkenness for the adequate
length of time, but in the series of experiments which I am
about to make, I am sure I can easily prove them to be in
the wrong."

"I am sure, sir," said the waiter, "the young ladies would
not like to be hearing you talk this way."

"Yes; no doubt, no doubt. The young ladies have still quite
medieval ideas. They don't understand. They still prefer
lovers to languish."

"At any rate, sir, I don't see that your heart is sure
enough broken. You seem to take it very easy."

"Broken!" cried Coleman. "Easy? Man, my heart is in
fragments. Bring me another small bottle."

After this Coleman went to Greece to write up the war for the "Eclipse," and incidentally to rescue his sweetheart from the hands of the Turks and make "copy" of it. Very valid arguments might be advanced that the lady would have fared better with the Turks. On the voyage Coleman spent all his days and nights in the card room and avoided the deck, since fresh air was naturally disagreeable to him. For all that he saw of Greece or that Mr. Crane's readers see of Greece Coleman might as well have stayed in the card room of the steamer, or in the card room of his New York hotel for that matter. Wherever he goes he carries the atmosphere of the card room with him and the "blinding glare of the electrics." In Greece he makes love when he has leisure, but he makes "copy" much more ardently, and on the whole is quite as lurid and sordid and showy as his worst Sunday editions. Some good bits of battle descriptions there are, of the "Red Badge of Courage" order, but one cannot make a novel of clever descriptions of earthworks and poker games. The book concerns itself not with large, universal interests or principles, but with a yellow journalist grinding out yellow copy in such a wooden fashion that the Sunday "Eclipse" must have been even worse than most. In spite of the fact that Mr. Crane has written some of the most artistic short stories in the English language, I begin to wonder whether, blinded by his youth and audacity, two qualities which the American people love, we have not taken him too seriously. It is a grave matter for a man in good health and with a bank account to have written a book so coarse and dull and charmless as "Active Service." Compared with this "War was kind," indeed.

_Pittsburg Leader_, November 11, 1899


(The end)
Willa Cather's essay: Stephen Crane

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