- Crane's Coxcomb
Not even Conrad, who observed that Stephen Crane was "the only impressionist and only an impressionist" (Stallman, Letters 155) (later explaining that his "impressionism of phrase went really deeper than the surface" ), perceived the extent to which Crane was taken with the uncanny ways in which personal impressions determine behavior. For as Crane saw it, impressionism—that notso-beautiful necessity of perception—was all but inevitable.1 "I understand that a man is born into the world with his own pair of eyes, and he is not at all responsible for his vision," he wrote in answer to a question; "he is merely responsible for his quality of personal honesty" (Stallman, Letters 110). The difficulty with that, he found, was that in keeping close to one's personal honesty (his "supreme ambition") one incurred vexing consequences, for personal honesty to one's impressions insures neither the discovery of truth nor the continuance of personal safety. This idea permeates much of his fiction, notably so the best of his Western stories, wherein Crane turns familiar materials away from a focus on the already stereotypical Western hero to the more interestingly vulnerable, impressionistic outsider who, rather than embodying them, carries around the shining and not-so-shining codes of the West as the intrusive, insistent, [End Page 295] potentially implosive baggage of his emotional life. Perhaps Crane's richest treatment of this occurs in the early Western tale "The Blue Hotel," the chronicle of a loner moving toward self-destruction.2
The Swede's sense of reality in "The Blue Hotel" derives, in the words of the "little silent man from the East" (143), from impressions culled from Western "dime-novels" (152). Indeed, the Swede—possessed—thinks that in Fort Romper "he's right out in the middle" of his dime-novel West, with "shootin' and stabbin' and all" (152). "He thinks," concludes the Easterner, "he's right in the middle of hell" (152). The Swede "knows" that Fort Romper equals West and that West is synonymous with violence, that he is a "Stranger" (as Scully, the hotelkeeper, will later type him), and that as a "Stranger" he is marked to suffer violent pain. When the sources of the Swede's fears become known, the hotelkeeper tries to rout them by denying that Fort Romper is the wild West. "Why, man, we're goin' to have a line of ilictric street-cars in this town next spring," he boasts; "there's a new railroad goin' to be built down from Broken Arm to here. Not to mintion the four churches and the smashin' big brick school-house. Then there's the big factory, too. Why, in two years Romper'll be a met-tro-pol-is" (149-150). These are the signs of civilization.
Scully's own Palace Hotel offers evidence that even before the arrival of electric cars and factories, Fort Romper is already a civilized place. It is a refuge for visitors and strangers in which, as Scully maintains, every guest is safe. Collaring potential customers at the railroad station, Scully offers to every one of them, including the "shaky and quick-eyed Swede" (143), the sacred privileges to be enjoyed under his roof. The classical virtue of hospitality having surfaced in Fort Romper, Scully would set up as an avatar of the model hotelkeeper, circa 1895: "The proprietor [of a hotel] has 'all sorts and conditions of men' to deal with; he must know human nature in its varied phases; and he must solve race and class problems with delicate tact. He must have a fair knowledge and conception of trade, and of everything that meets and supplements the wants and desires of mankind" (Hitchcock 155). Scully, who thinks he knows human nature, has an entrepreneurial eye for color:
The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron, causing the bird to declare its position against any background. The Palace Hotel, then, was always screaming and howling in a way that made the dazzling winter landscape of Nebraska seem only a gray swampish hush. It stood alone on...