- A "Reg'lar Jim Dandy":Archiving Ecstatic Performance in Stephen Crane
Roughly mid-way through Stephen Crane's 1895 novel The Red Badge of Courage, we witness the unfolding of an intensely peculiar post-mortem:
The tattered man stood musing.
"Well, he was reg'lar jim-dandy fer nerve, wa'n't he," said he finally in a little awestruck voice. "A reg'lar jim-dandy." He thoughtfully poked one of the docile hands with his foot. "I wonner where he got 'is stren'th from? I never seen a man do like that before. It was a funny thing. Well, he was a reg'lar jim-dandy."(59)
The anonymous tattered man stands poking at the corpse of Jim Conklin, whose death he has just witnessed alongside the novel's protagonist, Henry Fleming. The scene is peculiar, but also not particularly unique in the novel; as critics have long noted, Red Badge is seeped in the thematic and formal visibility of death, in the stakes of death's imaginative visualizations and in its halting, repetitive appearances in the narrative. Fleeting examinations of corpses—casual touches and long looks—punctuate the novel, itself an 1895 post-mortem of the American Civil War that it obliquely reproduces. So like death more generally, and like the particular deaths in Red Badge, this scene archives what we know to be a "regular," repetitive event as much as it calls attention to the singular strangeness of death's arrival at any particular moment, its status as a "funny thing." Repeatedly translating "Jim" as character into a "reg'lar [End Page 55] jim-dandy,"—collapsing "regular" as an army ranking with the degraded ontological status it signifies—these lines enact the transition from the ostensibly singular to the essentially repetitive, from man to sign, that the novel's title (the badge of courage) announces in advance. The work of memorializing Jim Conklin drives home what the novel's episodic, non-linear unfolding demonstrates on a larger scale: that signification is a repetitive, and often violent affair.
In the decades since Michael Fried's seminal reading of Crane's reflexive realism in Realism, Writing, Disfiguration (1987)—where the obsessive attention paid to corpses in Red Badge and other texts makes visible the process of writing itself—scholars have engaged a variety of approaches that work to account for the novel's spectacular proliferation of bodies. Bill Brown, for example, has argued that the novel's photographic casualties register the "reproduction and circulation of the body as image, site of mass identification and mass affection" (138), while Jacqueline Goldsby (in a reading of the 1898 novella The Monster, an important complement to Red Badge) has demonstrated the representational economy of lynching central to Crane's realism.1 Though they reach quite different conclusions, together these readings indicate the authorial, political, and material "unconscious" that surfaces in Crane's deathly tableaus; they collectively poke, that is, at the funny things that Crane's dead bodies so frequently seem to be, recovering the traces of extra-diegetical violence and hilarity that permeate their depictions.
This essay participates in that long-standing project of recovery, performing its own post-mortem of sorts on the body of Jim Conklin, and on the "jim-dandy" that haunts his fall into signification. Devoting extended attention to this ostensibly minor character—at the risk of reproducing the novel's own disproportionate musing over the corpse—yields tremendous gains, and not the least because it complicates the reification of violence that critics have often read in Crane's realism. While Jim's descent into a "reg'lar jim-dandy" might seem to typify that process—casually translating the once-suffering subject into an object of curiosity—I argue that within Jim's rhythmic transition lurks a much more complex approach to the narrative's imbrication with historical memory. As we shall see, that approach is itself rhythmic, lodged in a vernacular of performance that repeatedly disrupts the apparent stillness of Crane's bodies and the ordering function of the realist gaze.2 [End Page 56]
Turning the critical gaze towards Jim Conklin allows us to excavate two related varieties of performance...