Second Crane Lecture

My favorite line in SC's fiction is in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), his first novel, where he describes a young boy running away from his drunken mother and "shrieking like a monk in an earthquake." I said that's where SC keeps locating his characters: a violent, heaving, chaotic world, where not only your life, but whatever faiths you want to cling to are threatened. In Red Badge Henry has to keep "fighting" not so much for survival as for an interpretation of his experience that would flatter his human egotism. The way we looked at this project first was through what both Red Badge & "Open Boat" are saying about "Nature" -- not the Romantic "correspondences" between human spirit & natural phenomena, but, as "Correspondent" learns on boat, an absolute indifference to a individual existence. This is what Henry learns in the woods, when he sees the corpse covered with ants (Crane's unambiguous version of the issue Dickinson explores when she writes about hearing that fly buzz when she died -- despite our spiritual longings, life may be merely and brutely materialist).

Having seen that, though, Henry runs back to war -- i.e. retreats from the real meaning (i.e. meaninglessness as human condition) of the experience. To me, that's the circle he keeps going around in. So I discussed the ending as a set of ironies. Vs. the way Henry (& many others) read the story as about how "a boy becomes a man," AND how a "soul [is] changed" and earns "soft and eternal peace," I said he's still projecting a mis-reading onto what happens ("eternal peace" unlikely for a private in Union army leaving Chancellorsville, because Gettysburg is next "stop"), and in the process showing how people need stories to create a significant and reassuring shape to their lives. (That's the way the novel begins, with the "tall soldier" getting a "story" that makes him important -- and even though it's a false story, he fights to defend it.)

We also looked at the trouble SC himself had writing an ending to the novel -- you can see his manuscript of the ending for yourself off the Crane page in our site. And there certainly are other ways to read ending, including seeing Henry as creating a kind of existentialist meaning for himself from within -- imbuing his "red badge" with his own courage. That would align him with someone like Hemingway's Jake Barnes, constructing an existential "manhood" out of failures & losses of history, but to me SC too ironic throughout novel.

So Red Badge not a Bildungsroman, but a kind of ironic or anti-Bildungsroman -- about how Henry doesn't dare "grow," has to keep retreating back from experience into illusion. As a story it's about how profoundly humans need stories, how desperately they create and cling to fictions, to sustain their need for meaningful life.

So where does his vision of human condition leave us? In "Open Boat," out of realization of nature's indifference comes Correspondent's assertion of human sympathy -- brotherhood of men at sea, sorrow for the soldier of the legion who is dying at Algiers -- and with that human sympathy, a partial transcendence of conditions or circumstances (he's imaginatively in desert, not lost amidst waves). But I don't see same value emerging in Red Badge, which seems instead (as I was hurriedly trying to suggest at the end of class) to balance the failure of life (all Henry can't find or say) with the possibilities of art (the narrator's ability to make the horrific brutality & chaos of battle beautiful & meaningful & eloquent) in his text. I.e. protagonist as anti-hero, artist as hero -- the same kind of thing we noted in late James, and that we'll look at a lot when we get to the Modernists. But first, Dreiser's Sister Carrie -- I asked everyone to get through Chapter 30 for Wednesday.


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