Friday, June 3, 2011

An Experiment in Misery

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

When the New York Press published Stephen Crane’s latest story toward the end of April 1894, the ladder-style headline read:
An Evening, a Night and a Morning with Those Cast Out.
But His Royalty, to the Novitiate, Has Drawbacks of Smells and Bugs.
A Wonderfully Vivid Picture of a Strange Phase of New York Life,
Written for “The Press” by the Author of “Maggie.”
Four years later Crane included the story in the collection The Open Boat, and he omitted not only this sequence of wildly sensationalist headlines but also a narrative that framed the piece, in which two men regard a tramp on the street and wonder what it would be like to live such an existence—thus the “experiment” of the title. Without the metafiction of the framing device, the later version of the story changes its perspective: instead of a man pretending to be a tramp, the lead character seems to be a man who has recently become one. The experiment becomes experience.

Crane scholar Michael Robertson has found that, just prior to the publication of the story, there had been two “real” sketches by New York Press reporters disguising themselves as homeless beggars. Newspaper stories on indigent Americans and the “Tramp Menace” were common during the late nineteenth century. The fears intensified after the Panic of 1893, when the nation entered its most serious economic depression to date and the middle class went into full panic mode about the increasing number of penniless migrants. The month before the appearance of “An Experiment in Misery” in the Press, a group of unemployed men led by populist businessman Jacob Coxey began a protest march in Ohio; by the time Crane’s story appeared, the national media had stirred up a fright when “Coxey’s Army” threatened to amass thousands of unemployed men demanding that the government create public works employment. At the end of April a mere five hundred marchers arrived in Washington, DC—where Coxey was arrested and his followers dispersed.

After he wrote his story for “An Experiment in Misery,” Stephen Crane recalled that he “tried to make plain that the root of Bowery life is a sort of cowardice. Perhaps I mean a lack of ambition or to willingly be knocked flat and accept the licking.” This ambiguous statement indirectly highlights all the items Crane never discusses in his story: “the Tramp Menace, politics, economics, morality, public safety, property rights, charity, reform, and revolution.” Instead, concludes Robertson, Crane focuses on the problems of “perception and understanding.” Unlike his fellow journalists, Crane had no interest in playing the spy, and his story “portrays a young man as a creature of his environment who assumes a completely new consciousness as his circumstances change.”

This week’s selection was recommended by Daniel Rattray from China Grove, North Carolina, who suggests that it “illuminates, better than our present political leaders have, the social issues that lie underneath” the plight of the unfortunate, and he hopes that reading it will encourage us to address “urgent social and fiscal issues responsibly, fairly, and humanely.”

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It was late at night, and a fine rain was swirling softly down, causing the pavements to glisten with hue of steel and blue and yellow in the rays of the innumerable lights. . . . If you don't see the full story 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.