– Indrajit Bose
The journey of the modern novel towards the symbolic masterpieces of Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner is rooted in and has its genesis in the experimentations of the Modernists with vision and narrative form. The desire to “make it new,” seen in the treatment of time as a non-linear flow, the probing of an individual consciousness, the adding of a mythical dimension in the rendering of experience in the fiction of the British modernists is paralleled by similar innovations in the rendering of reality by the American modernists. The flowering of Modernism in the American novel perhaps came late compared to its British counterpart, but the attempt at incorporating new ways of ‘seeing’ to render reality in a fragmented world is witnessed in the deployment of innovative narrative strategies in the fiction of Stephen Crane. This paper attempts to explore Crane’s inauguration of a new visual aesthetic and its influence in the fiction of the great British modernist, Joseph Conrad.
“The gift of seeing,” Zola once remarked, “is rarer than the gift of creating,”(Nochlin 60). This was a gift that Stephen Crane, “the chief impressionist of the age,” (Garnett N. Pag.) possessed to a remarkable degree. Crane, the war correspondent, journalist living in the slums of New York (Orwell-like recapturing the scenes in which he found himself), and later an expatriate writer living in England, was also a pioneering experimentalist in the craft of fiction and prefigured in his writings the new directions the American novel was to take. His spare style, use of “sketch-like narrative” and use of restricted point of view and a dispassionate objectivity, inviting the reader to explore the unfolding narrative, was revolutionary in the turn-of-the-century novel. The impact of visual impressionism, the use of irregular brushstrokes to capture intransigent effects, the fleeting impressions fugitif in a world of perpetual flux, was an aesthetic informing the works of several writers at the turn of the century. Crane also imbibed this influence during his formative years at the Art Students’ League and from Hamlin Garland and exhibits in his writings the tendentious patterning of sense impressions to recreate lived experience.
Crane relocated to England in 1897 and befriended Joseph Conrad, who was living at the time in Essex. A friendship developed between them that lasted for the remaining three years of Crane’s short life. Conrad had read and admired Crane’s ‘war book’, The Red Badge of Courage, while Crane’s enthusiasm for The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ led him to seek out Conrad. Both temperamentally and in terms of artistic creed the writers shared several similarities. Conrad’s scepticism is paralleled by Crane’s stance of ironic detachment; both subverted generic conventions and interrogated accepted ideas. There is also an uncanny similarity between Conradian aesthetics and Crane’s artistic creed. Conrad, the prototypal modernist, traces the interconnectedness/intertextuality between literature and the other arts—music, sculpture and painting. His valorizing of sensory impressions and his effort to conjure up a fictional universe “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel. . .before all, to make you see!”(Preface, Nigger xlii) is also an element of faith with Crane. Singling out his unsparing fidelity to the visible universe Crane wrote: “I understand that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes and he is not at all responsible for his quality of personal honesty. To keep close to my honesty is my supreme ambition.” (Hilliard 1900 n.pag). His appeal too is made through the senses; the patterning and coalescence of evocative images set up reverberations revealing underlying meanings.
The question of influence is, however, a debated one. Conrad himself tended to disclaim any indebtedness. He was, in fact, disparaging of Crane, “He is the impressionist and only an impressionist,” (Letter to Garnett, 5 December 1897, Karl and Davies, I 416) he wrote, though this is far from the truth. In Crane’s work can be seen the primacy of the individual vision of the literary artist. His technique was truly revolutionary and is the forerunner of Hemingway and Faulkner’s experiments. A comparative study of the techniques deployed by Crane in The Red Badge and Conrad in Lord Jim would show the similarities, as also the differences, between them and also the interconnectedness between British and American modernism.
Crane’s The Red Badge is a singular triumph of impressionist vision and technique. The subject is war, not struggle that offers opportunities for heroism and glorious sacrifice, but a debilitating conflict where death is the supreme reality. The quotidian realities of the battlefield and the confusion and horror of warfare are evoked not through sweeping views, but through the architectonics of disconnected images. Crane’s style has been likened to prose pointillism, the images coalescing like blobs of paint in an impressionist painting. Battlefields are blurred by smoke, there is a telling use of chiaroscuro effects—dark masses encircled by light and luminous spots circled by darkness. Crane had an inborn colour sense and uses colour contrasts unerringly to telling effect: at daybreak the soldiers glow a purple hue while, “in the eastern sky there was a yellow patch. . .and against it, black and patternlike, loomed the gigantic figure of the colonel” (15). It was as if Crane was following the ideas of the impressionists about the contrasts of colours and the effects of light on form, in “trying to convey…impressions of the most fleeting effects”, ( Mathey 114) as Monet wrote. H.G. Wells aptly noted “there is Whistler even more than there is Tolstoy in The Red Badge of Courage” (Stallman 83).
Crane’s narrative technique represents a boldly radical innovation in the rendering of the images of war wholly through the restricted point of view of Henry Fleming, the young protagonist. The experiment is the same as in “The Open Boat” where the impressions of the men on the wave-tossed dinghy recreates the narrative. Crane was writing in a post-photographic age when the daguerreotype had established itself as an authentic image of the real. The turn of the century was also the time when the effect of the moving image, the cinema, was beginning to be felt. All this, of course, enabled fluidity of movement with space and time and enabled the rendering of a narrative that was not a seamless whole, but fragmented, non-linear and replete with the confused multitudinousness of life.
Henry begins as a naive ingénue, a simple farm lad who has enlisted in the hope of joining a glorious struggle—“his busy mind had drawn from him large pictures extravagant in colour”(7) His mind is the ever-present camera obscura recording a “mechanical but firm impression”(87) of the images of the battlefield. There are fade-ins as in the opening sequence, where the landscape metamorphoses from brown to green and the retreating fogs reveal an army buzzing with rumours. He is already a little disillusioned—“Greek-like struggles would be no more”(7) he believes—and fearful that he may flee once they go into battle. As they go into battle he is bewildered by the roaring din of battle obscured by a “grey wall of smoke” (26) and images of tranquil nature strangely at odds with war. Flashbacks from the past—his life on the farm and the circus parade on a spring day—intervene. His retreat from battle and the ensuing psychodrama is dramatized through successive encounters with death mediated through a sequence of powerful close-ups—the horror of the decomposed body of the dead soldier in the forest and the redemptive death of Jim Conklin. He is able to atone by taking over the flag from the dying colour bearer, when his badge of shame is replaced by the red badge of courage. Henry’s coming of age, his realization—“he had been to touch the great death, and found that after all, it was but the great death. He was a man”(104)—is all the more powerful for being unmediated by authorial reflection. In the hands of later writers like Faulkner Crane’s probing of individual psychology would burgeon into the consciousness technique.
“You have the terseness, the clear eye the easy imagination,” Conrad wrote to Crane, “my ideas fade—Yours come out sharp cut as cameos” (Letter, 12 January 1898, Karl and Davies II 14). The influence of visual impressionism is clearly marked in Conrad’s early writing with its impressive marshalling of tropes whose appeal is made primarily through the senses. But Conrad, the prototypal modernist, is more importantly a symbolist whose symbols betoken a moral universe of unexpurgated incertitude.
This working out is seen clearly in the case of Lord Jim, whose youthful protagonist is always seen “under a cloud” (339) or as enveloped in a thick mist. In fact, the unnamed narrator’s attempts to ‘see’ Jim clearly results in a technique of indirection and obliquity. From the unnamed narrator we pass on to Marlow retelling of Jim’s story after his fall to his temporary rehabilitation in Patusan. The ending is mediated through the narrative of Marlow’s privileged auditor, whose narrative frames Marlow’s letter and the oral narratives of Jewel and Gentleman Brown. There are time-shifts and cross-chronological juxtapositions—the story is narrated to a circle of auditors in the future, long after Jim is dead, and his exploits are all in the past. The Chinese-box structure of the narrative conveys vividly that time is not a linear flow but the Bergsonian duree, and that events assume significance in the light of the penumbra of associations other events cast on them. There are multiple voices and multiple perspectives—Marlow’s insightful sympathy, the French Lieutenant’s realistic assessment, Stein’s wisdom and Gentleman Brown’s virulent hatred of his alter ego. There are rational appeals to judgment and calculated appeals to sympathy, and all attempts to ‘read’ Jim finally fail. He remains a “figure at the heart of a vast enigma” (336) who is recognizably and tantalizingly ‘one of us’ and yet not one of us, but a being another essence. There are ‘moments of vision’, of inward illumination, but the attempt to unlock Jim’s mystery is a failure, for Jim’s enigma is the enigma of life itself.
Another Conradian innovation in terms of narration is that of represented speech or thought or Free Indirect Discourse. There are several instances in the early part of Lord Jim, as when Jim feels “He could affront greater perils” (8). They are reduced, however, when Marlow enters, for Marlow cannot represent the inward thoughts of people.
The recurrent pattern of symbolism underscores the themes of fidelity and betrayal. Jim’s fall is mediated through the image of the abyss, while the symbol of fog and mist underscores his essential ambiguity. Nature symbolism is used to mirror the human drama, especially at critical junctures in the narrative, like the bloody sunset in Patusan, “blood red, streaming, immense” (413) foreshadows Jim’s tragic end. The power of Crane’s symbolism, when he uses it, is all the greater for its minimal spareness—“The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer” (Red Badge 50). There is no Marlovian rhetoric and philosophizing upon the tragedy and pathos of lost causes.
A tendency to experiment with forms and genres, the intertextuality of literature and other arts, taking recourse to myths and symbols to render inner truths—all these are characteristic as much of British high modernism as of American modernism. In later years, American modernists would turn away more from European influences and turn inwards, focussing more on rendering the truths of the American experience. The occasional meeting points in the often intertwined histories, however, bring out the commonality of interests and shared understanding and appreciation with techniques of artistic creation. The Crane-Conrad artistic rendezvous was one such transcontinental encounter. In many ways, Crane was a light-bringer, an inspired genius whose radicalism would have a more deep-rooted impact on later American writers in the twentieth century.
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–. Lord Jim. Ed. John Batchelor. 1983. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
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Garnett, Edward. “Mr Stephen Crane: An Appreciation.” Friday Nights. New York: Knopf, 1922. Web. 2/6/13
Hilliard, John N. “Stephen Crane”. New York Times. July 14 1900. N. Pag. Web. 2/6/2013.
Karl, Frederick R. And Laurence Davies. Eds. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad. Vol I 1861-1897. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. Print.
—. The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad Vol II 1898-1902. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986. Print.
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Stallman, R. W. The Houses that James Built and Other Literary Studies. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1961. Print.