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In Green Hills of Africa, Ernest Hemingway's attempt to write "an absolutely true book" about his efforts to kill a kudu while on safari, Papa engages an Austrian expatriate named Kandisky in a conversation about literature. America has produced no great writers on the level of Thomas Mann or Paul Valéry because, according to Hemingway, "something happens to our good writers at a certain age."

When Kandisky presses him, Papa famously says: "The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they're good in. There is no order for good writers."

Of these writers, Kandisky has heard only of Twain, who he marks as a humorist. But Papa informs him that "all American literature comes from ... Huckleberry Finn" though he adds that the real end of the book comes when Jim is captured and sold back into slavery.

By Papa's lights, Twain was cheating with the ending, where Jim is freed by a provision in the recently deceased Miss Watson's will and Huck lights out for the territory. Twain was undone by his optimism.

"Henry James wanted to make money. He never did, of course."

And Crane?

"He died. That's simple. He was dying from the start."

But Hemingway says that before he died at age 28, Crane wrote two fine stories--"The Open Boat" and "The Blue Hotel."

I don't disagree, but also think Crane's best work was a 21,000-word novella he wrote while living in England in 1897. It's called The Monster, and you shouldn't feel bad if you haven't heard of it. There are certain works, such as Crane's impressionistic war novel The Red Badge of Courage, which are well-suited for anthologization and assigning to middle and high school readers, and others, such as The Monster, that are not.

While The Monster was certainly written for money--Crane and his common-law wife Cora were in dire financial straits, trying to keep up appearances as he feverishly churned out stories and fluffy society page pieces for newspapers and magazines--the story eschewed the Huckleberry Finn happily ever after ending. Crane didn't cheat.

In fact, immediately after he finished the story, Crane violently quarrelled with his friend and traveling companion, writer Harold Frederic, who urged him to destroy the manuscript. According to his biographer R.W. Stallman, Crane smashed a dessert plate with the butt of his Mexican revolver during the argument, then stalked off to a London hotel to be alone for the evening.

When he did present The Monster to The Century Magazine, which had serialized both The Red Badge of Courage and Huckleberry Finn, editor Richard Watson Gilder rejected it, saying, "We couldn't publish that thing with half the expectant mothers in America on our subscription list."

Harper's Magazine published it in its August 1898 issue. A year later, The Monster and Other Stories was the last book of Crane's books published during his lifetime.

It's a story about a black stablehand named Henry Johnson who works for white Dr. Trescott and is one of the leading lights of the black community--a dapper and polite man who commands a measure of respect among the white people of the small town of Whilomville (a fictional stand-in for Crane's boyhood hometown of Port Jervis, N.Y.). When Dr. Trescott's house catches fire, Henry runs in to save Trescott's son Jimmie, and in the process suffers horrible burns which essentially melt his face away.

Though he's expected to die, Henry survives, thanks to the diligence of grateful Dr. Trescott. But he's so horribly disfigured that a local judge argues that Trescott should have let him die, because Henry "will hereafter be a monster, a perfect monster, and probably with an affected brain." To have saved his life, the judge says, "is one of the blunders of virtue."

After Henry recovers, he finds he no longer fits in black society; his disfigured face troubles the black family with whom Trescott places him. One night, he walks away from his quarters and through the town to visit old friends, including the woman he was courting before the fire. He terrifies people, who form a mob and chase him, throwing rocks. Eventually Trescott takes him in, moving him into the carriage house in his rebuilt home. But the townsfolk shun the Trescotts for giving him refuge. Even rescued Jimmie, who was close to Henry before the fire, mocks him now.

And no one comes to Mrs. Trescott's parties.

It's a remarkable story. Ralph Ellison thought Crane was the first white American author to depict a black man performing a truly heroic act, and called The Monster "one of the parents of the modern American novel" along with Huckleberry Finn. No doubt Ellison's Invisible Man was influenced by Crane's depiction of the "faceless" black man. William Dean Howells called it "the greatest short story ever written by an American."

Crane wrote the story in a hurry, under pressure, and it's interesting to think about what he drew upon. Most of his biographers mention a Port Jervis resident named Levi Hume, with whom Crane may have been acquainted and with whose story he was certainly familiar.

Hume, a white man, suffered from a cancer that ate away his face; he hauled ashes in the community and scared children. Crane would also have been aware of the story of John Merrick, the disfigured Elephant Man who became famous in 1886 when he was presented as a man of intelligence and gentle manners by Dr. Frederick Treves.

And the basic plot of The Monster is similar to Henrik Ibsen's 1882 play An Enemy of the People, which was very popular in the U.S. in the 1890s. In that play, a doctor is ruined after he makes public his discovery that the waters of local spa, the town's chief engine of commerce, are being polluted by water from a local tannery. Just as with the Trescotts, a doctor's moral stand causes his family to be ostracized by society.

Crane thought of The Monster as a children's story, and it is--a dark American fairy tale that critic Rupert Hughes saw as "an incursion into the realms of the horrible" that never loses "sight of realism or plausibility." It's also social satire, a sharp and remarkably prescient critique of America's race problem and a bitter rebuke of the commonplace citizens of Whilomville--an archetypal American small town, and the real monster referred to in the title.


Editorial on 12/29/2019


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