B & I have this weekend off, and have spent a lovely Shabbat afternoon, shmogging. We spent the past week in St. Augustine, there learning about the history of “America’s Oldest City,” with its Spanish explorations going back to 1565; in particular, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, from which we quaffed two drafts of Historical, Youth-Restoring Water in paper cups—the bouquet and taste were of sulfur mixt with mineral water, heavy on the minerals. It was almost crunchy-tasting, with the added tincture of rotten eggs, and so undoubtedly very healthful. One quaff was plenty, thank you, Poncey.
Oddly, the Park Ranger in charge of the exhibit (no, Oddly was not his name), which also featured the requisite hanging banners giving Banner Days in the Spain-Timucuan Indian Encounter, as well as historically-accurate mannequins wearing Spanish morion helmets and steel back-and-breast armor, was himself no youngster; indeed, he resembled an Aging Hippie, though he was very informative. He told us how unusual it was to find a source of fresh water so close to salt (i.e., the Atlantic Ocean), and, while the water was easily accessible in Ponce’s day, needing only to dig down 11 feet, it was necessary to burrow down a good 220 feet in ours. B pointed out to me, later, that Aging Hippie might well have been 100+ years old when he began his Fountain Tour of Duty, but might now be, Benjamin-Button-like, gradually growing younger; being in his 70s might be considered youthful, at least, for him.
I will write at greater length about our time in St. Augustine on another occasion; here, I would like to share the Gentle Art of Shmogging. Shmogging is a term which B and I invented; it consists of Doing Nothing One is Required to Do; rather, One Does Whatever One Wishes: reading, computering, feeding matzah to the fish and birds down by the pond, watching Kirby Do His Business, Scratching Kirby’s Tummy, and so on.
I am currently reading several books, as is my customary habit; while packing paperbacks for the trip, I discovered a canvas bag in the back of B’s SUV, and was happy to discover both Jack London and Stephen Crane among them. I will begin teaching American Literature this week—at Keiser University, where the approach is somewhat more intensive—and decided to broaden my study of Crane, a minor writer of the Realism-Naturalism Era, which also includes Mark Twain, the Gigantic Presence of the time.
In England and America, Victorianism held sway—the laws of morality dictated that women’s bodies be covered up, to the extent that women sewed little dresses to cover up even piano legs(!), lest randy men become sexually inflamed. Crane’s first work, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), about a young Irish-American girl forced into prostitution for lack of any other sort of job, was banned from publication, until he paid for it out of his own pocket. Ironically, the story takes place in my old neighborhood, the Lower East Side and the Bowery of NYC.
As a Naturalist, Crane agreed with Darwinian Theory of Survival of the Fittest, what Jack London termed “red tooth and bloody claw”—that the wealthy oligarchs held sway over the millions of poor and downtrodden. Some things don’t change very much, even 121 years later. My particular interest is not in Maggie’s struggles, but in another, shorter work of Crane’s, “The Monster,” a novella, which is unique in American Literature.
It is the late-nineteenth-century tale of a young, handsome African-American ostler and coachman, Henry Johnson, who works for a country doctor, Dr. Ned Trescott, and is good friends with the doctor’s very young son, Jimmie. The story takes place in a town which Crane invented, Whilomville, made up from his own imagination, but based on Port Jervis, NY, a place where he had lived briefly with his mother, but visited frequently in later life—his older brother , William Howe Crane, lived there.
In “The Monster,” the doctor’s house catches fire, and little Jimmie is trapped in the flames. His father is returning by horse and buggy from a home visit. The several fire companies, all horse-drawn hook-and-ladder wagons, are on their way, but the fire is raging. Meanwhile, Henry heroically breaks into the house, fights through the flames to wrap the six-year-old Jimmie in a blanket, and carries him to safety. Overcome by the smoke, Henry collapses, unfortunately next to a table on which the doctor has left several deadly experimental chemicals, which the fire’s heat causes to boil and bubble over, searing Henry’s face and body, and burning both in a most horrific fashion.
Eternally grateful to Henry for saving his son’s life, Dr. Trescott performs a series of operations to save Henry’s life, but, in the course of doing so, is forced to render him a scarred, enormously ugly “monster,” whose looks and appearance frighten the townspeople. Worse, they begin to shun the doctor and his family for protecting and preserving Henry.
The story’s setting is all the more significant: Port Jervis is the only place in the history of New York State where a lynching has ever occurred. On June 2, 1892, an African-American man named Robert Lewis was arrested for allegedly assaulting a local white woman. While being taken to the Port Jervis jail, a mob of several hundred men dragged him through the town, beat him, and hanged him from a tree.
Stephen Crane’s own brother, William, as well as the town chief of police, was one of the few men who dared to intervene and try to save Lewis from the mob, in vain. Although Stephen himself was not present, both the Port Jervis Gazette and the New York Tribune gave extensive coverage to the atrocity, and noted African-American civil rights activist Ida B. Wells launched a campaign to investigate the lynching.
While the style of the story is controversial—Henry Johnson is hardly well-developed as a character, and exhibits too many aspects of the “stage Negro,” being both simple-minded and good-hearted—the story itself points to a maturing of Crane’s style, beyond that of both his Maggie and The Red Badge of Courage. Many critics believe that Crane was displaying the direction his career might have followed had he not died of tuberculosis at the age of 29.
The novella deals with morality, race, and the question of the “Other”—issues we continue to grapple with in American Society today (and, perhaps, in Israel?) and I look forward to completing it, and adding more richness to how I deal with Crane in my teaching.
Another book I am re-reading is Robert Harris’s Fatherland (NY: Random House, 1992, 2006), whose morbid theme is a German triumph in World War II. The “hero” is one Xavier March, a detective called in to examine the finding of a corpse in a lake near the district where the Nazi highest-ups live. It is twenty years following the victory: 1964. On the Eastern Front, the Russian Communists continue a dogged guerrilla warfare against the Germans, not-so-secretly funded by the Americans. And a young President Kennedy is due to visit Berlin. I am not so far into the book, but there ought to be a Yiddish expression for the sort of morose, pessimistic literature Jews indulge in when things are going relatively well in the Real World.
And soon, tomorrow, I will be revamping my time-honored American Literature Survey Syllabus for a twice-weekly, six-hour-session time frame. (It will include a forty-minute lunch break.) What I most enjoy about this course, aside from the material itself, is how each class of students, most of them new to the American Experience—and what is the American Experience, anyway?—interpret each work. It is difficult to really work up any sort of excitement for the material amid the self-aggrandizing letters of Columbus or the God-loves-us-‘cause-we’re-His-People-and-that’s-why-we-can-steal-from-the-Indians-style of Gov. William Bradford of the Pilgrims, until one encounters Jonathan Edwards, that Puritan paragon.
Edwards stands on the boundary between the Age of Religion and Superstition, with its witch trials, prejudices, drawing-and-quartering, beheadings, hangings, and dunkings-in-the-lakes of gossipy goodwives, and the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, when such a luminary as Alexander Pope reduces all wisdom and rationalism to easily-memorizeable couplets. Finally, we are eternally grateful to a group of bewigged, white, largely Episcopalian, educated, property-owning merchants, clerics, craftsmen, tradesmen, and country nobility, who got together in a hot meeting hall over a stable in Philadelphia, and Invented America. We are still continuing their work, today.
One never stops inventing America.