Thursday, 20 September 2012

Stephen Crane

I’ve just finished a couple of Stephen Crane novels:

I’m new to Crane (1871–1900), but I’ll read more of his work if I can get hold of it. He was a fine writer who died from tuberculosis at the age 28 – a great loss.

Maggie is quite short – more a novella than a novel and Crane’s first book published at his own expense when he was only 21 years old. It’s an extraordinarily powerful story of squalor and poverty in the Bowery district of New York. Maggie herself grows up in the middle of it, the pretty daughter of drunken, fighting parents and sister to Jimmie who grows up to become a stupid, cynical product of the slums.

The girl seemed to awaken. "Jimmie--" He drew hastily back from her. "Well, now, yer a hell of a t'ing, ain' yeh?" he said, his lips curling in scorn. Radiant virtue sat upon his brow and his repelling hands expressed horror of contamination. Maggie turned and went. The crowd at the door fell back precipitately. A baby falling down in front of the door, wrenched a scream like a wounded animal from its mother. Another woman sprang forward and picked it up, with a chivalrous air, as if rescuing a human being from an oncoming express train.

But there is to be no fairy tale ending for Maggie, who hardly figures in the book really. It just revolves around here like an all-enveloping miasma of mean and hopeless squalor written in such a way that you know there is no way out. Maggie is to be no Cinderella and eventually resorts to prostitution before she dies an obscure and soon forgotten death.

The Red Badge of Courage is quite short too - a powerful descriptive novel of the American Civil War. It follows the experiences of Henry Fleming, a young and naive volunteer.

His emaciated regiment bustled forth with undiminished fierceness when its time came. When assaulted again by bullets, the men burst out in a barbaric cry of rage and pain. They bent their heads in aims of intent hatred behind the projected hammers of their guns. Their ramrods clanged loud with fury as their eager arms pounded the cartridges into the rifle barrels. The front of the regiment was a smoke-wall penetrated by the flashing points of yellow and red...

The regiment bled extravagantly. Grunting bundles of blue began to drop. The orderly sergeant of the youth's company was shot through the cheeks. Its supports being injured, his jaw hung afar down, disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And with it all he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavour there was a dreadful earnestness, as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well...

Later he began to study his deeds, his failures, and his achievements. Thus, fresh from scenes where many of his usual machines of reflection had been idle, from where he had proceeded sheeplike, he struggled to marshal all his acts.

The books avoids names to create a strange, inhuman effect. Even Henry is almost always referred to as the youth. It works well in conveying the dehumanizing aspect of real war. The ugly, confused stupidity of it. The accidental heroes, of which Henry becomes one and the accidental victims soon forgotten. Just like poor, pretty Maggie.


Anonymous said...

Just for a second I thought that was Gregory Peck!

James Higham said...

But there is to be no fairy tale ending for Maggie, who hardly figures in the book really.

You've missed your calling, AKH. Book reviews for you, like a literary Roger Ebert.

A K Haart said...

David - he reminds me a Wyatt Earp.

James - as long as I don't have to look like him (:

Sam Vega said...

He reminds me of a rather more robust Robert Louis Stevenson.

I read the "Red Badge..." many years ago. I can remember very little - it is now filed under "good, but forgotten".

A K Haart said...

Sam - it is good, but a little depressing too.