Friday, May 14, 2010

When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers

Stephen Crane (1871–1900)
From Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry

Stephen Crane’s sketches and articles for New York newspapers often describe people seen or things experienced on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The following narrative, originally published in The New York Press in 1894, is characteristic in its description of life on the streets; based on a real incident, it was published under the multi-level headline:

WHEN MAN FALLS, A CROWD GATHERS
A Graphic Study of New York Heartlessness
GAZING WITH PITILESS EYES
“What’s the Matter?” That Too Familiar Query
Describing the “heartlessness” of a voyeuristic crowd pushing each other to get a view of a man having a seizure, the article also depicts a few strangers trying to help and the terror of the boy who had been accompanying the man. Michael Robertson notes in Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature that, while “Crane’s general indifference to race is remarkable,” this sketch is one of his few New York pieces that specifically mentions ethnicity: “the two central characters’ Italian speech is used to emphasize the threatening nature of the crowd.” The story prompted at least one subsequent letter to the editor (which Crane dutifully clipped and inserted into his scrapbook) arguing that the characterization was unfair—that New Yorkers often rushed to help at accidents.

A man and a boy were trudging slowly along an East-Side street. It was nearly six o’clock in the evening and this street, which led to one of the East River ferries, was crowded with laborers, shop men and shop women, hurrying to their dinners. The store windows were a-glare.

The man and the boy conversed in Italian, mumbling the soft syllables and making little quick egotistical gestures. They walked with the lumbering peasant’s gait, slowly, and blinking their black eyes at the passing show of the street.

Suddenly the man wavered on his limbs and glared bewildered and helpless as if some blinding light had flashed before his vision; then he swayed like a drunken man and fell. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

5 comments:

Roberta SchulbergGoro said...

I think the people surrounding the sick man were the opposite of heartless. They may have gotten underfoot, but it was because they were so much concerned and wanted to assist and yet were not able except for calling professional help.

sateen said...

Not heartless, folks rushing home after work a century ago. See the same now a dozen times a month. There is an aura of sympathy and concern.
DanInTheApple

Anonymous said...

Mr. Crane cannot be taken literally. For example, he says there are shadows yet that the forms do not let any light through, and at the end, attributes thoughts he cannot possibly know. This is authorial, all designed for effect. How we interpret the ambiguity, whether concerned or indifferent, has to do with our own feelings in a similar situation.

Anonymous said...

If Crane does paint the crowd as heartless, one might consider, then, what he means to say about his society. I think the crowd imagines itself to be in many ways as helpless as the man prone on the sidewalk or the boy unable to waken him. And why does the crowd linger to watch the ambulance disappear with the man? Each person is thinking of them self. None takes any concern or responsibility for the man. Remember no one goes for help. The Police man is the only one and it is his duty to get the ambulance. In a smaller community people might take more care for their peers even if they are not well acquainted. In this heartless sea people feel less connected to each other. They no longer see helping another, at least not a stranger, as a benefit to themselves and their community as they might in a smaller more connected community.

Janet said...

In a contrast of human reactions to the misfortune of someone else, some bystanders made helpful suggestions, some rudely trod on the feet of others just to get a gawk. Someone summoned the doctor, but we are given no indication that it was the policeman. It is interesting that the distressed state of the man's young companion is detailed early on, and then no further mention is made of the boy. When the story finished I found myself most empathetic toward that fairly neglected character.