- What the Veriscope Saw: Stephen Crane, the Prizefight Film, and Unreliable Spectatorship
In a personal reminiscence of Stephen Crane published on the brink of the author’s critical rediscovery, Joseph Conrad describes his late colleague as anticipating, almost clairvoyantly, the thrust of cinematic narration, concluding that Crane “must have been unconsciously penetrated by a prophetic sense of the technique and of the very spirit of film-plays of which even the name was unknown then to the world.”1 Making this claim about Crane as well as himself, Conrad writes from the vantage point of a thriving moviegoing culture dominated by fictional “film-plays,” his remark projecting forward to what the medium will become but eliding what it had already been. For while Crane’s death in 1900 preceded cinema’s institutionalization as a narrative form, the ties between his work and motion pictures need not be restricted to the level of the prescient or the predictive, as Crane’s literary career was contemporaneous with film’s rise as a mass entertainment.
Provocative as it is, in its emphasis on future developments over technological origins, Conrad’s assertion mirrors the once marginal position of early cinema within the scholarship on modernism and film, which has traditionally viewed the 1890s as a liminal moment across media: literature that is not yet modernist in relation to film that is not yet film. However, Crane’s work allows us to recognize how the motion picture engendered the newly filmic vocabularies of literary texts before montage, before Hollywood, before film narrative—indeed, before cinema’s belated acceptance as the seventh art.2 Just as soon as the reproducible image began to move, and well ahead of its consolidation [End Page 161] as a system of narration, the motion picture would present intriguing possibilities for the literary imagination. David Trotter has shown how modernism’s turn to cinema was in fact a response to the “original neutrality of film as a medium,” reflective of the film camera’s status as an impartial recording instrument with an immediate and automatic view of the world (Cinema and Modernism, 5).3 Yet at the dawn of cinema, it was realized that the mechanical vision of the motion picture could also be thwarted by the hardly unambiguous act of film spectatorship. Cinema’s veracity was called into question through the discourse on what might be termed unreliable spectatorship, or the confounding interaction between the inhuman lens of the film camera and the subjective perception of the human eye. As this article will argue, Stephen Crane’s writing suggests that the literary practice of the period had been deeply influenced by the same skepticism toward the moving image as an authoritative mode of visual representation that marked early accounts of cinematic media.
Whereas scholars tend to see a debt to photography and impressionist painting in Crane’s visual aesthetic, my reading is more closely aligned with an overlooked thread of contemporary criticism of his work that defined his style by citing new optical media, with Crane’s imagery said to “have something of the spasmodic jerkiness of the kinetoscope,” Thomas Edison’s early moving picture device.4 Crane himself reportedly set forth his philosophy of literary form by way of an analogy to media spectacle, calling his ideal novel a series of “clear, strong, sharply-outlined pictures, which pass before the reader like a panorama, leaving each its definite impression.”5 But if many of his recurring preoccupations—subjectivity and impressionism, realism and illusion, visuality and perspective—lend themselves to metaphorical correlations with cinema, direct reference to film in Crane’s fiction is limited to a single instance: the violent brawl in the middle of his celebrated story “The Blue Hotel” (1898), where the character named Mr. Blanc, or “the Easterner,” observes the fierce adversaries of this battle “like a film.”6 As one of the first nods to cinematic technology in Anglo-American literature, Crane’s allusion and its conflation of screen media, physical combat, and subjective observation tells us much about (to use Conrad’s phrasing) the “very spirit” of cinema as seen at the point of its emergence.
This article introduces a media archaeology...