Stephen Crane and Walt Whitman: The Natural and the Language of Social Protest
Though in his short life Stephen Crane was never a soldier, his novel The Red Badge of Courage was commended by Civil War veterans as well as veterans from more recent wars not only for its historical accuracy but its ability to capture the psychological evolution of those on the field of battle (Heizberg xvi). Walt Whitman, on the other hand, served as a field medic during the Civil War. He was exposed perhaps to the most gruesome aspect of the war on a daily basis: the primitive medical techniques, the wounded, the diseased, the dying and the dead. Out of his experiences grew a collection of poems, "Drum Taps" , describing the horrors he had witnessed and that America suffered. As literary artists, a wide chasm of structure and style separates Crane and Whitman. The common cultural experience, the heritage of the Civil War connects them, throwing a bridge across the darkness, allowing them, unilaterally, to dispel notions of glorious battles and heroic honorable deaths. By examining Crane's Henry Fleming and the wound dresser from 'Whitman's poem of the same name, both fundamental literary differences and essential thematic consistencies emerge.
In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming was drawn to enlist by his boyhood dreams. His highly romanticized notion of war was eclectic, borrowing from various classical and medieval sources. Nevertheless, his exalted, almost deified, conception of the life of a soldier at rest and in combat began to deflate before the even the ink had dried on his enlistment signature. Soon the army ceased to possess any personal characteristics Henry had once envisioned, becoming an unthinking, dispassionate machine in which he was trapped.
"There were iron laws of tradition and law on four
sides. He was in a moving box. As he perceived this
fact it occurred to him that he had never wished to
come to the war. He had not enlisted of his free
will. He had been dragged by the merciless
government. And now they were taking him out to be
slaughtered" (Crane 21).
Throughout the novel Fleming experiences moments of remarkable insight, but they are neither consistent nor lasting. His flight from the battlefield was not motivated by self discovery, but rather sheer panic and the animal instinct of self preservation. Henry runs like a rabbit from the front line, looking to nature to rationalize his "cowardly" act. He throws a pine cone at a squirrel and it
flees. He feels as if "Nature had given him a sign" (Crane 53). He submits himself to nature, but "nature will not be placated: the battle rages on elsewhere... Nature has no aversion to blood or tragedy" (Schroeder 244). Henry fights many internal battles, swinging from hope to despair. He
resists permanent and profound change. He is malleable; Crane directs and redirects his vision from group to group, fromplace to place (Walcutt 277). Even in the end Henry is allowed only fleeting glimpses of self discovery.
The wound dresser, however, has gained a more complete sense of self knowledge, presumably from his experiences during the war. He realizes the broader scope of the senseless destruction and the seeming futility of his own minute role tending to the sick and dying. His memories are
vivid and grotesque, but they are told in retrospect. In the first stanza, children beg the wound dresser, now grown old, to tell them war stories. Significantly, he cannot remember any tales of glory or heroics; he is left with images of broken bodies burnt in to his brain.
"The crush'd head I dress, (poor crazed hand
tear not the bandage away,)...
Hard breathing rattles, quite glazed already,
the eye but life struggle hard” (Whitman 250).
This is hardly the expression of a passive spectator. The words are sincere and his pain is genuine. The wound dresser suffered, and he suffers still, but he remains active and alive. Whitman's poetry reveals an immediate, intense sensitivity to life, to the world around him.
Crane is also sensitive to the natural world, but Mankind does not occupy a privileged place in nature. Nature, according to Crane was neutral, independent, and merciless (Hartwick 222). Human moral codes, good and evil, were replaced by a Darwinian survivalist instinct: only the strong survive (Hartwick 220). Essentially,
'man was "a helpless animal driven by instinct and
imprisoned in a web of forces entirely deaf to the
hopes and purposes of humanity" (Hartwick 221).
Crane wrote his fiction with the bleak ideals, the basic tenets of naturalism in mind. "Crane is the Christopher Marlowe of American naturalism and we have had no Shakespeare" (Walcutt 273).
In creating an accurate artistic depiction of humanity's struggle against itself as well as with nature, Crane makes it clear that mankind does not control its own destiny. Like Henry Fleming, our survival relies heavily on instinct, strength, and luck.; will has little or nothing to do with survival (Walcutt 274). Crane employs irony to make the reader aware of destruction inherent in all wars. Although he does not fully realize this, based upon the actions and events in the novel, Henry’s fate is no more or less secure. By establishing a distance between the reader and Henry, Crane seems to suggest that many fail to realize that in and of itself, the struggle for survival in the natural world is an enormously difficult task without the added horrors of war. Crane's irony is obvious but most effective in the conclusion of the novel. Though Henry remains blinded, "a golden ray of sun", a natural image, breaks through the clouds (Crane 110). The world and its natural cycles will continue with or without our senseless killings.
On the other hand, Whitman expresses his connection to natural surroundings in a drastically different manner. Nature is benevolent and is fundamentally associated with the nurturing role of a mother. It is touched by the eternal. It is this sense of eternity which Whitman aspires to achieve in his poetry. This Cosmic Sense, as Richard M. Bucke calls it, provides a grand unifying theory pervading and binding all of Whitman's poetry (Bucke 112). Whitman uses an almost structural method developed with paradox and antithesis. The dialectics in "The Wound Dresser", youth and age, innocence and wisdom, noise and silence, image and truth, begin to hint at a universal sense gained by the old man in the poem. The poem is a series of bloody and painful memories, yet the old man concludes by saying,
"I recall the experience both sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier's arms about this neck have
cross'd and rested,
Many a soldier's kiss dwell on these bearded
lips.)" (Whitman 251).
While Stephen Crane found his most meaningful artistic expression in naturalism, he would not immediately reject other literary styles. Personal honesty was the most crucial element in his art. Expressed through naturalism, personal honesty could become rigid, for only the natural world contained truth. Crane wrote in a letter:
"To keep close to my honesty is my supreme ambition.
There is a subtle egotism in talking of honesty. I,
however, do not say that I am honest. I merely say
that I am as nearly honest as a weak machinery will
allow. This aim in life struck me as being the only
thing worthwhile. A man is sure to fail at it, but
there is something in the failure" (Letters 151 ).
Broadening the parameters of Crane's personal honesty slightly, it would be fair to characterize Whitman 's poetry as honest as well. His poetry is the supreme statement of the self; it is the essence of Whitman's ego. His truth, his honesty, resulted from an inner search or
journey. Personal honesty, to Whitman, is subjective but connected to the world of ideas. Ideas and images both abstract and concrete affect and shape the consciousness of the poet. Therefore, in order for Whitman to attain a Cosmic Sense, the ideas that propel him into such a state must be at the very least equal to if not superior to the ego of anyone poet.
In "The Wound Dresser," a simple but very potent idea is the driving force behind the poem: the sanctity of life and the struggle to preserve it. The idea causes the old man to choose his occupation as a medic (rather than a soldier like Henry Fleming) and even enjoy it in some form. Without this idea to motivate and mould Whitman's conscience, he would never have written,
"I never knew you
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment
to die for you, if that would save you" (250).
As the poem so aptly states, Whitman's poetry exists "in dreams' projections", the very realm of ideas and abstractions. Thus concepts and consciousness become equal partners in the creation of something larger than the sum of both parts: art.
Whitman's poetry is an amalgamation of coarse reality, paradox, and free floating ideas. Crane's fiction tries to capture the very essence of the natural world, to reveal its effect, its ultimate power over humanity. Beyond the never ending debate between art and ideology, however, Crane and Whitman unite. They both express outrage and horror at the fundamental reality and growing scope of violent conflict in the world. They seem to ask in a single voice "Is it necessary? Why should so many suffer so much?" As artists they may differ ideologically but as men of .I
conscience they stand together with their scathing attacks on the insanity of war.
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Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.