- Cruel and Unusual Light:Electricity and Effacement in Stephen Crane’s The Monster
Stephen Crane's 1898 novella, The Monster, is among the most cryptic and the most ruthless of his works. In brief, it tells the story of a small town thrown into chaos when Henry Johnson, a black coachman employed by a white doctor, Dr. Trescott, literally loses his face. In the first half of the novella, Henry Johnson's actions range from fatherly to romantic to heroic; but after his face is burned off during his daring rescue of the doctor's son from a chemical fire, Johnson is branded a "monster" and ostracized from the town.1 In a crucial confrontation soon after the fire, Judge Hagenthorpe, an influential town elder, urges Dr. Trescott to simply let Johnson die. When Trescott refuses, the judge and the doctor set out the terms within which Henry Johnson will be described for the remainder of the novella:
"He will be your creation, you understand. He is purely your creation. Nature has very evidently given him up. He is dead. You are restoring him to life. You are making him, and he will be a monster, and with no mind."
"He will be what you like, judge," cried Trescott, in sudden, polite fury.(The Monster 32)
As this passage suggests, Crane's novella is just as interested in the residents of the fictional town of Whilomville as it is in the character at the center of the uproar: they are the ones who label the living Henry Johnson an undead "thing" and thus represent the true creators of the [End Page 35] so-called monster. Even as it touches upon relatively abstract questions such as the relationship between being and non-being, Crane's novella makes it impossible to ignore the fact that the person at the center of the controversy is an African American man in a largely white small town. This issue has deservedly been at the center of recent scholarly interest in The Monster.2
Soon after its publication, critics began to speculate about what could have possibly inspired The Monster's narrative of alienation in small town America and the vivid and disquieting imagery used to describe Henry Johnson. Early critics often begun and ended their discussion of Whilomville by making mention of Port Jervis, New York, where Crane spent much of his youth. In one of the first attempts to identify Henry Johnson with an actual person, Thomas Beer asserted that Henry Johnson was inspired by Levi Hume, a "disfigured teamster" from Port Jervis, though Beer seems to have been thwarted in his attempts to verify his theory through Crane's relatives (Levenson xiii). John Berryman's biography of Stephen Crane includes a brief statement about the origins of the story that has been cited by many subsequent critics: 'The town is based on Port Jervis, as the "monster" was suggested one niece says by a Port Jervis refuse-collector whose face was eaten with cancer; but it is any New York town' (193).3 However, fixating on this individual as the source for Henry Johnson has at least one serious limitation: it does nothing to explain Crane's decision to center so much of The Monster upon racial difference: like Crane, the Port Jervis refuse-collector was white (Stallman 333).
Bill Brown's 1996 study, The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play, greatly expanded the historical and cultural context for Crane's novella. Even as he accepts the refuse-collector as the immediate inspiration for Henry Johnson, Brown also locates Johnson in relation to a number of embodiments of fin de siècle monstrosity: "'the last slave set free by the Supreme Court,'" an "idiot savant" known as "Blind Tom"; the black dandy of the minstrel stage, "Zip Coon"; and, most suggestively, a man who was actually named "Henry Johnson": a microcephalic African American born in New Jersey (despite his supposed African origins), who was easily the most famous of several sideshow freaks known as both "What is It?" and "Zip" (208, 214–17). He thus reads Crane's Henry Johnson as undergoing a "metamorphosis...