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The uncanny Stephen Crane

By Fiona Robertson and Anthony Mellors


Stephen Crane’s birthday, 1 November 1871, falls on All Saints Day, the morning after the ghouls of the night before. Much of Crane’s writing, from the social critique of his first novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) to his last-published, Active Service (1899), deals with the hard realities of urban-class American life in the last decade of the nineteenth century, a reaction against what he called the ‘velveteen romanticism’ of Robert Louis Stevenson and the cultural prestige of historical, high-society, and international fictions (claimed by writers such as Henry James and Edith Wharton). Closely associated with a group of writers dedicated to refashioning American fictional style, and with his roots in journalism and popular entertainment, Crane produced in his Civil-War tale The Red Badge of Courage (published in serial form in 1894 and, revised, as a single volume in 1895) an uncompromisingly spare modern account of the first-hand experience of battle. Early reviewers of The Red Badge tend to praise its realism as a successor to, and an improvement on, the accounts of battle given in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) and Zola’s La Debacle (1892). According to George Wyndham, writing in 1896, Zola’s novel ‘is his own catalogue of facts made in cold blood, and not the procession of flashing images shot through the senses into one brain and fluctuating there with its rhythm of exaltation and fatigue.’ Crane’s impressionism is recognized, too, if sometimes negatively; for Nancy Huston Banks, the novella is

a study in morbid emotions and distorted external impressions…The few scattered bits of description are like stereopticon views, insecurely put on the canvas. And yet there is on the reader’s part a distinct recognition of power  -  misspent perhaps  -  but still power of an unusual kind. As if to further confuse this intense work, Mr. Crane has given it a double meaning  -  always a dangerous and usually a fatal method in literature. (Bookman, November 1895)

Stephen Crane in military uniform in 1888, aged 17
Yet there is little sense that this doubling is the effect of irony, which later readers and critics come to see as essential to Crane’s art. Doubling is a constituent of the uncanny, which Tzvetan Todorov defines as textual undecidability, so that readers cannot say whether meaning is located in the supernatural or the psychological. If The Red Badge of Courage is phantasmatic, its hallucinatory aspects are closer to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) than to James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). While its undecidability seems fundamentally to do with questions of context and interpretation – are we dealing with a veiled account of a real Civil War battle or being invited to see martial strivings as mythology? Are we being offered a bildungsroman leading to an epiphany of individuation or a caustic narrative of ironies based on the self-deception of the protagonist? – there are strong uncanny elements, for example in the uncertain moments between life and death, where the beard of a corpse moves in the wind ‘as if a hand were stroking it’, and in the ‘green chapel’ episode the ‘liquid-looking’ eyes of a dead soldier exchange a ‘long look’ with Henry Fleming, the living observer. And, from the very beginning, Crane blurs the distinctions between human agency and animism, the natural and the monstrous, subjecting the martial spin on ‘manliness’ to intense irony.

The most compelling moments in Crane’s fictions come from experiences of an uncanny facelessness. In the disturbing novella The Monster (1897), Henry Johnson, his face burned away, meets — or seems to meet — the eye of Judge Hagenthorpe from behind his bandages, so that the judge falls silent, kept from further speech ‘by the scrutiny of the unwinking eye, at which he furtively glanced from time to time’. These are multiply-haunted passages, moments in which a host of literary and cultural memories, from the boat-stealing episode of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude to the open eye of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, creep across readers’ encounters with Crane’s text. The Monster as a whole powerfully evokes, and scrutinises, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, giving readers on the cusp of literary modernism an even ‘newer’ Prometheus, and a pressingly updated scene of racial injustice and exclusion. Crane himself occupied worlds in which dead eyes and blanked-out faces both haunted and goaded him. He died, aged 28, in the middle of the first year of the new century, 1900, his body brought back from Badenweiler in the Black Forest for burial in Hillside Cemetery, New Jersey. His last settled home was the Elizabethan manor-house of Brede Place in East Sussex, a house reportedly among Britain’s ‘most-haunted’, and where he and his friends performed a play about one house-spectre, Sir Goddard Oxenbridge, at Christmas 1899. Crane’s uncanniness, a restless ‘unhomeliness’, sees him always between traditions, literary and national; part of the experimental line in nineteenth-century American writing, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville to Emily Dickinson and Henry James, while also shaping the expression of European experience, an ironic spectre in the war-poetry of 1914-18 and in the post-war fictions of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Fiona Robertson, Horace Walpole Professor of English Literature at St Mary’s University College, and Anthony Mellors, Reader in Poetry and Poetics at Birmingham City University, co-edited the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories.

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Image credit: Stephen Crane in military uniform [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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