Friday, April 28, 2017

Four Men in a Cave

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

The Camp Fire, c. 1880, oil on canvas by American artist Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In the spring and early summer of 1892 The New York Tribune published fourteen short works by a twenty-year-old author named Stephen Crane. Set in the Catskill Mountains of New York’s Sullivan County, these comic tales and slice-of-life pieces form the core of what have become known as the Sullivan County Sketches. The more journalistic articles are about hunting, backwoods living, and Native American lore. The five selections most often identified as fiction feature four unnamed men, identified simply as pudgy, little, tall, and quiet and corresponding loosely to Crane’s group of friends, with Crane himself claiming the role of the little man—or perhaps, other readers contend, the quiet one. Two additional stories about these four men appeared later that year in other periodicals, and three remained unpublished until after his death eight years later.

Crane began writing these tales and sketches while camping with his friends in the Catskills, and he hesitantly showed a couple to Tribune editor Willis Fletcher Johnson, a family friend who heard about them at some point from Stephen’s brother Townley. Stephen had been working for several years as a stringer for Townley’s Asbury Park news bureau and he had already filed a number of unsigned pieces on local events for the Tribune—but he had not yet met his brother’s editor at the newspaper. Johnson was impressed by what he read, and Crane's sketches began appearing in the Tribune’s Sunday feature section. The first “fictional” tale was “Four Men in a Cave,” to which the editors added the subhead “LIKEWISE FOUR QUEENS, AND A SULLIVAN COUNTY HERMIT.” And so “Four Men in a Cave” can rightfully claim the place of being Stephen Crane’s first published short story. It was not reprinted during Crane’s lifetime, although Cora Crane (his “common-law” widow) selected it as the only Tribune piece in the posthumous collection Last Words.

As it happens, none of the Sullivan County selections would be reprinted during Crane’s lifetime. In 1895, when Crane was looking for material to collect in a book, he wrote to one small press, “I have considerable work that is not in the hands of publishers. My favorites are eight little grotesque tales of the woods which I wrote when I was clever. . . . If you think you can make one of your swell little volumes of 10000 [words], the tales would gain considerable lengthy abuse no doubt.” We have no way of knowing which eight Crane considered “tales” worthy of such a collection, but after requesting to see the material the firm ended up not publishing the volume and he abandoned the idea. Only a year later his feelings about these early writings had become decidedly mixed: “I am heartily ashamed of them now, but every little while someone rakes them up and tells me how much pleasure he had from reading them.”

Most of the Sullivan Country stories “have the form of jokes,” writes the poet John Berryman, and “nearly all of them have a dark, grotesque air” in which the “little man is chief or sole victim or hero.” Crane’s biographer R. W. Stallman adds, “The nameless little man of his Sullivan County tales becomes the blustering man of his later fiction.” As literary scholar Edwin H. Cady acknowledges, “The enigma rests not in the fact that his earliest work was crude but in the fact that some of it became surprisingly good—and, of course, we know in retrospect that it served as preparation for the brilliance to come.” Of the rest of the Sullivan County tales and sketches, “Killing the Bear” is often cited by critics for the maturity of its prose style, the posthumously published fable “The Mesmeric Mountain” presages themes found in The Red Badge of Courage, and the eerie ghost tale “The Black Dog” continues to be anthologized (most recently by Peter Straub in American Fantastic Tales). Otherwise, these early writings have been largely forgotten, but Cady maintains that to revisit the best of them is “an opportunity to watch young Crane in his workshop.”

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