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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 411-413
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Both George Monteiro and Bill Brown have written books that project Stephen Crane against backgrounds of popular culture and claim that images [End Page 411] from these milieus seeped into Crane's unconscious and provided the energy that produced his works. Monteiro's cultural backdrop is the literature of the temperance movement; Brown's is the realm of popular entertainment. Both books are insightful, thoroughly researched, and meticulously documented.
George Monteiro is familiar to all scholars in Crane studies. Patrick Dooley's Stephen Crane: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Scholarship (1992) lists thirty-two items by Monteiro spanning a period of almost forty years. A traditionalist, Monteiro wryly describes his book as "intentionally unfashionable." Eschewing theory and other trendy approaches, Monteiro centers his discussion on Crane and his writing, proposing to clarify an important source of his imagination.
Aside from isolated instances in Melville and Mark Twain, canonical American authors in the nineteenth century avoided depictions of drunkenness. In Crane, it is a dominant theme. Often comic, sometimes pathetic, but persistently gruesome, the drunk is everywhere in Crane's writing. In fact, Crane validated booze and boozers as subjects in American literature, paving the way for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others. There was, however, another tireless throng of nineteenth-century authors who vividly depicted the drunk and the effects of alcohol: the temperance-tract writers. Their enormous body of writing, previously ignored by literary scholars, has now been thoroughly researched by Monteiro, who claims it provides a key to Crane's imagination. His Methodist parents, the Reverend Jonathan T. Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane, played central roles in the war against alcohol, waged relentlessly during Crane's childhood. The images of alcohol abuse to which the boy was exposed sank into his unconscious, only to surface in vivid detail throughout his works: "A Dark Brown Dog," Maggie, George's Mother, "The Blue Hotel," "Five White Mice," "The Wise Men," "Twelve O'Clock," "Dan Emmonds," "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky." By matching text to text, Monteiro shows that Crane's images of drunks originated in temperance tracts. Even when we least expect it and even when Crane possibly did not consciously intend it, the temperance movement elucidates Crane's texts. The color blue, for example—as in "The Blue Hotel" and "the blue battalions," and in Monteiro's title—is the color of the temperance movement, which promoted blue inns, blue ribbon clubs, blue badges, and blue brigades. Crane's images of an upturned face also suggest the drunk. One of these, the dead soldier that Henry Fleming finds in a green chapel in The Red Badge of Courage, parallels the temperance descriptions of men lying, dead-drunk, in the dirt and covered with bugs. Also, Jim Conklin's ravings in his death scene in The Red Badge of Courage suggest temperance accounts of alcoholic delirium tremens.
So what are we to make of this? Was Stephen Crane a latter-day temperance fanatic in the tradition of his Methodist parents? Hardly. Crane broke all the rules: he drank, smoked, and gambled; consorted with prostitutes; cultivated friendships with bohemian artists, their nude models, and the theatre crowd; read novels, and even wrote them. Wisely, Monteiro does not attempt to unravel [End Page 412] this paradox. He leaves us with Crane, the supreme ironist, whose grand apocalyptic style retained strange but powerful traces of a rejected parental heritage.
Unlike George Monteiro, Bill Brown is not a committed Crane scholar. Though certainly familiar with all of Crane's work, Brown is primarily a cultural historian who uses Crane to prove his points. Thus, while Monteiro keeps his subject in the foreground...