Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Black Dog

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

Moonlight, c. 1885–95. Oil on wood panel by American artist Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919). Courtesy The Philips Collection.
When he was eight years old, Stephen Crane wrote the earliest poem that has survived among his papers, a four-stanza work that begins:
I’d Rather Have—
Last Christmas they gave me a sweater,
      And a nice warm suit of wool
But I’d rather be cold and have a dog,
      To watch when I come from school. . . .
One of Crane’s earliest stories—and the first he submitted to a national magazine—was also about a dog. Although it has survived only in fragments, it appears to have been about a boy who is attacked by a bear and rescued by his dog. The story, “Jack,” was submitted to the children’s magazine, St. Nicholas, while Crane was a student at Syracuse University. The editor rejected it, because he had a surplus of dog stories already in hand, but he praised the story highly enough that Crane bragged about the rejection letter to at least one fellow student, Frank Moxon, who also recalled Crane’s belief that “the instinctive attitude of a dog toward a new human acquaintance was an infallible test of character and that no man who felt repugnance or even indifference toward canines” could be trusted to be kind to humans.

Stephen and Cora Crane were famous (bordering on notorious) for their love of dogs; during their four years together they had as many as five at one time. When the couple rented a manor house in Brede Place, England, the dogs were known to terrorize the sheep in the village and Stephen ended up in court once for neglecting to get licenses. Stephen befriended the novelist Joseph Conrad and told him that his son “must have a dog, a boy ought to have a dog.” The only thing Jessie Conrad remembered about Crane’s first of many visits with her husband was that he “discoursed gravely on the merits of his three dogs, Sponge, Flannel, and Ruby.”

The story of one of the Cranes’ dogs in particular captured the hearts of Stephen and Cora and their friends. The Cranes went to the Continent in the spring of 1897 to cover the Greco-Turkish War for the New York Journal. Cora initially began reporting on the refugee situation in Athens but eventually joined her husband at the front, and both were on the scene for the Battle of Velestino. John Bass, who was the chief of the Journal’s news bureau in Europe, sent home a dispatch, “How Novelist Crane Acts on the Battlefield,” knowing that Journal readers would be interested in how the now-famous author of The Red Badge of Courage would behave while witnessing his first real battle. Bass reported that he saw Crane sitting atop a box of ammunition and lighting a cigarette, a casual act also witnessed by a fellow journalist from a Chicago paper who described him as aspiring “to the championship of inspired idiocy.” Bass’s piece also recorded that “amid the singing bullets and smashing shells the novelist stopped, picked up a fat, waddling puppy and immediately christened it Velestino, the Journal Dog.”

It seems unlikely that Bass witnessed the incident himself, and Cora later claimed that she was the one who scooped up the dog. Regardless, the Cranes found themselves with a new puppy and resolved to take Velestino back to England. In Athens Crane sent to his employers “The Dogs of War,” an article describing the rescue and its aftermath. At one point the Cranes nearly lost Velestino when Stephen was separated from it when he and his party were under attack from shellfire, but after a series of convoluted adventures the puppy was rescued a second time. “Before he reached Athens,” Crane boasted, “he was easily the most famous dog in Greece.” The Cranes eventually reached Paris and stayed in a relatively well-appointed hotel, where Velestino set about destroying the carpet and drapes in their room, resulting in damages that cost the couple almost a hundred pounds—an expense they could hardly afford. Barely two months later, alas, the dog fell sick with distemper. Stephen wrote to a journalist who had stayed with them in Athens on the return trip and had purchased a collar and leash to keep the puppy from getting lost again:
Velestino has just died—not two hours ago. He died in Cora’s bedroom with all the pillows under him which our poverty could supply. For eleven days we fought death for him, thinking of nothing of anything but his life. He made a fine manly fight, with only little grateful laps of his tongue on Cora’s hands, for he knew that she was trying to help him. . . . We are burying him tomorrow in the rhododendron bed in the garden. He will wear your collar in his grave.
Dogs are scattered throughout Crane’s oeuvre, including such stories as “Yellow Under-Sized Dog,” about a dog who “works” at a construction site, and “A Dark Brown Dog,” a devastating tale that many critics read as a political allegory. In his novel The Third Violet, the dog Stanley (modeled after his brother’s setter) steals nearly every scene. The reviewer for the London Spectator praised Stanley as “one of the most delightful animals we have encountered in recent fiction,” while even a negative review in The New York Times noted that the dog’s “geniality and constancy almost reconciles one to Mr. Crane’s manner of telling a story.”

Last week’s Story of the Week selection was Edith Wharton’s “Kerfol,” a ghost story featuring spectral dogs; here we present Crane’s canine ghost story written more than twenty years earlier. Like Wharton, the young Stephen Crane was fond of dogs and of ghost stories—at Brede Place he and Cora would inflict both on their guests—but the difference in this case is that “The Black Dog” is a parody of ghost stories, and more specifically (in the view of some readers) a spoof of Ambrose Bierce’s tales of horror. It is one of Crane’s first five short stories, all of them comic tales set in the Catskill Mountains of New York’s Sullivan County. Each story features four unnamed campers, identified simply as pudgy, little, tall, and quiet, who traipse aimlessly through the countryside, encountering various adventures in which the men are frightened by people or incidents that are much less than they seem. (The first of these tales, “Four Men in a Cave,” is a previous Story of the Week selection, and its introduction contains more information about the Sullivan Country sketches.)

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There was a ceaseless rumble in the air as the heavy raindrops battered upon the laurel-thickets and the matted moss and haggard rocks beneath. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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