Monday, April 8, 2019

“To Get at the Real Thing”: Stephen Crane’s “War Memories”

When Stephen Crane went to Cuba in 1898 as a journalist covering the Spanish–American War, he was hoping to finally experience war firsthand; although he was the famous author of a war novel, he had never actually participated in or even witnessed a battle up close. The nearest he had come was the distant observation of some skirmishes in the Greco–Turkish War of 1897. In Cuba, he had his chance at last. He was present at all the major battles of the brief war, from Guantanamo to San Juan Hill. As a reporter embedded with the troops, Crane experienced firefights, witnessed death, and even participated in the American war effort by carrying messages to officers. From the frontlines, he wrote articles for Pulitzer’s World and took notes for a novel that he intended to write (but never did). After the war, he wrote short stories and essays based on his experiences in Cuba. These pieces appeared in the collection Wounds in the Rain.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual piece in the collection—and much the longest—is a (mostly) nonfiction narrative entitled “War Memories.” Today, this difficult-to-categorize piece would likely be called creative nonfiction or literary journalism, although it is not quite either. Crane’s text plays with genre (and facts) in a way reminiscent of postmodern war narratives such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (labeled fiction) and Michael Herr’s Dispatches (labeled nonfiction). Writing nearly a century before Herr and O’Brien ventured into the same territory, Crane used “War Memories” to explore the underlying ambiguity of “true stories” and the ultimate indeterminacy of Truth. From the narrative’s opening line—“But to get at the real thing . . . it seems impossible”—to its last (“You can depend on it that I have told you nothing at all”), Crane contemplates the inability of language to fully articulate experience: “An expression of life can always evade us,” he writes. “We can never tell life, one to another, although sometimes we think we can.”

Ultimately, “War Memories” tells a purportedly true story even as it questions whether “facts” can fully convey the truth.

* * *

In between its opening and closing comments on indeterminacy and the inadequacy of language, “War Memories” recounts a series of episodes or vignettes that detail the narrator’s experience of the Spanish–American War. But the focus of these vignettes is “off center.” The reading public, as Crane well knows, wants to hear about the war’s major events (such as the charge up San Juan Hill) and the presumed major players (such as Teddy Roosevelt), but the narration deflects this desire. Instead, Crane suggests that the big picture is too fuzzy to reveal the truth. Only by turning our attention to small, seemingly insignificant things—such as a bunch of bananas or a toothbrush—can we begin to approach “the real thing.” In “War Memories,” Crane is telling the truth about the war, but he is, to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, telling it slant.

Throughout the text, Crane plays with notions of veracity, starting with the question of who exactly is narrating the text. The opening lines of “War Memories,” refer in third person to someone named Vernall. This Vernall delivers what amounts to the thesis statement of the essay: “‘But to get at the real thing!’ cried Vernall the war correspondent. ‘It seems impossible! It is because war is neither magnificent nor squalid; it is simply life, and an expression of life can always evade us. We can never tell life, one to another, though sometimes we think we can.’”

Subsequently, the narrative shifts to the first person for the remainder of the text. Initially, it appears that Vernall is someone other than the narrator, someone who is simply quoted in the first paragraph before the first-person narration begins. We are apt to think that Vernall is not the narrator, but one of the other correspondents on the dispatch boat with the presumed narrator. Only later, when an officer addresses the narrator as Mr. Vernall do we realize that way back in the first paragraph the narrator has referred to himself in the third person and quoted himself. So while Crane the author is using his own actual experiences for the material of “War Memories,” the narration of those details has been displaced onto an invented or fabricated narrator. The narrative confusion is deliberate and telling: the reader cannot be certain who is speaking, and this uncertainty necessarily raises questions about the reliability of what is being said. It also foregrounds the evident (but usually unacknowledged) ambiguity at the core of war reportage.

Immediately following this opening comment on indeterminacy, the (now first-person) narrator relates a minor incident that occurs on board a dispatch boat carrying several correspondents out to sea where they intend to monitor the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the Cuban coast. But the narrator is not interested in discussing the political or military dimensions of the blockade; in fact, these “big picture” concerns are hardly mentioned, if at all. Instead, the narrator turns his attention to a “huge bunch of bananas” that one of the correspondents has “hung like a chandelier in the centre of the tiny cabin.” As the boat rolls with the waves, this bunch of bananas swings wildly around the cabin, knocking the correspondents down and forcing them helplessly to the corners of the cabin. It is presented as an amusing anecdote right up to the “punch line”: “You see? War! A bunch of bananas rampant because the ship rolled.”

With these words, Crane—or his stand-in Vernall—signals his narrative strategy: namely, to relate an anecdote focused on something seemingly insignificant and then allude to the incident’s possible—yet unrealized—emblematic significance. In this initial anecdote, the bunch of bananas becomes a metaphor for the war—or more exactly a metaphor for the attempt to report the war, to do the work of a war correspondent—which, on the surface anyway, is the work of determining the facts and explaining the events of a given war. But right away, as the four correspondents on the dispatch boat set off to do their duty, they are distracted, put off their guard, and even knocked down by something absurd and uncontrollable, something that literally cannot be grasped. A paragraph later the narrator repeats the trope: “the war . . . was a bunch of bananas swung in the middle of the cabin.”

Subsequently, the narrator relates another incident, this time involving action more typically associated with war: the bombardment of a coastline. In this scene, the narrator is doing the requisite work of a war correspondent: he is on board the flagship in the company of junior officers. He is “getting the story” for his newspaper. A call comes to “man the port battery.” The correspondent joins the officers in observing the bombardment, but before long they all return to the officers’ mess to drink coffee and listen to piano music. The narrator concludes the anecdote by noting an odd—even absurd—juxtaposition: “The piano’s clattering of the popular air was often interrupted by the boom of a four-inch gun.” This discordant image, and indeed the whole incongruous scene, recalls the trope established earlier. It is all “a bunch of bananas,” the narrator says.

But how so? To paraphrase Lewis Carroll: how is a war like a bunch of bananas? Seemingly there’s no obvious answer, and therein lies the rub: Crane is—I think—suggesting that there is a deep and unrecognized significance in what would otherwise seem insignificant. Any given event or moment of the war may (as the bunch of bananas in the cabin) absorb your attention, demand your attention, while simultaneously evading your ability to grasp it, to manage it, let alone to master it. You are supposed to “cover the war,” but how is it possible to “cover” something so elusive, so “rampant”?

* * *

I first read “War Memories” in preparation for a trip to Cuba. My purpose was to visit San Juan Hill and write a magazine article for the one hundredth anniversary of the Rough Riders’ famous charge in the Spanish–American War. What I wanted from Crane was a few choice quotes about the Rough Riders that I could work into the article. The words of a famous novelist—eyewitness to the battle—would obviously enhance the article, so I searched Crane’s lengthy essay looking for what is now sometimes called “the money quote.” To my surprise, I found nothing I could use—no detailed description of San Juan Hill or the battle, no account of the Rough Riders’ actions. Somewhat puzzled, I set Crane aside and turned to the accounts written by other famous journalists on the scene that day in 1898: Richard Harding Davis, Frank Norris, William Randolph Hearst. For the time being, I forgot about Crane and “War Memories.”

I forgot about it, that is, until I was actually in Cuba, standing at the base of San Juan Hill, staring up its (surprisingly) gentle slope to where a defunct Ferris wheel stood on the hilltop. At that moment, confronted with the odd, unexpected image of the Ferris wheel, along with the underwhelming puniness of the famous hill, I recalled the recurrent motif of “War Memories”: “a bunch of bananas”—the image that in Crane’s mind stood for all that he found strange, absurd, and inexplicable about the war and war correspondence. Throughout the essay, I remembered, Crane had repeatedly turned his attention to odd and seemingly insignificant things; in these images, he found the true representation—if not the precise meaning—of the war he was attempting to cover. Standing at the base of San Juan Hill, I realized that in my eagerness to find a money quote, I had too readily dismissed “War Memories.” I would need to revisit the essay.

* * *

“War Memories” consistently dwells on incidents that—in the narrator’s telling—are essentially indeterminate, moments when the truth cannot be fully or even adequately determined, moments when truth is in dispute. An example comes from the narrator’s account of an incident that occurs just after the skirmish at Las Guasimas, one of the first fights of the war and the debut action for the Rough Riders. In the midst of the intense firefight, the narrator happens upon another correspondent, his friend Edward Marshall. (Here, Crane uses Marshall’s real name, not a pseudonym as he does for other correspondents.) Marshall has been severely wounded and, according to the account in “War Memories,” asks the narrator to go to the coast a few miles away to “round up some assistance.” In his newspaper account for The World, written in situ a year before “War Memories” was written, Crane provided the usual journalistic details about the episode, details that do not appear in “War Memories.” In the later account, the encounter with Marshall is curtailed; instead, the narrator relates a subsequent conversation with another correspondent (nameless) to whom the narrator reports Marshall’s injury. The other correspondent responds: “Marshall? Marshall? Why, Marshall isn’t in Cuba at all. He left for New York just before the expedition sailed from Tampa.” An absurd back-and-forth dispute then ensues with the narrator insisting that Marshall has been shot and needs assistance while the nameless correspondent maintains that Marshall is back in New York. Exasperated, the narrator flees: “I couldn’t go on with him. He excelled me at all points. I have faced death by bullets, fire, water, and disease, but to die thus—to willfully batter myself against the ironclad opinion of this mummy—no, no, not that.” This encounter does not appear in any of Crane’s reportage. He added it to “War Memories” as yet another example of how easily truth can be disputed and distorted, yet another instance of an absurd minor incident supplanting the “main” action in the narration.

As with the banana incident and several other encounters that the narrator relates in “War Memories,” there are farcical overtones to this passage; but beneath the farce, key themes of the narrative are present: miscommunication and misunderstanding, disputed truth, entrenched opinions. Much of the narrative, indeed, involves refuting the “ironclad opinion” of those who have spoken and written with such certainty about the war.

To this end, Crane introduces a rhetorical device that heightens the narrative’s concerns with truth and indeterminacy. This is the device of an off-stage interlocutor. This person does not appear directly in the text; rather, the presence of this interlocutor is inferred from the narrator’s occasional pauses—breaks in the flow of the narrative when the narrator appears to be considering a question or a comment that has come from the unnamed, unseen, and unvoiced interlocutor. Initially, these interruptions are innocuous and hardly noticeable, as when the narrator, while describing a skirmish, pauses to consider a question of terminology: “In this valley there was a thicket—a big thicket—and this thicket seemed to be crowded with a mysterious class of persons who were evidently trying to kill us. Our enemies? Yes—perhaps—I suppose so.”

Here, the interlocutor has apparently interrupted to say—with certainty—that the “mysterious class of persons” was “the enemy.” The narrator, however, is less certain, and refrains from using such a definitive term. Typically, these interruptions are brief, and the narrator dismisses them with a curt comment before continuing with his account.

In some places, however, the interlocutor becomes more obtrusive and obstinate. For example, as the narrator relates an incident involving a misunderstanding that he had with two soldiers, he is forced to respond to repeated interruptions from his listener who apparently wants him to skip the incident with the soldiers and speak instead about major events and participants, especially Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. With each interruption, the narrator puts off the interlocutor, basically dismissing the undue fascination with celebrated events and celebrity participants. The narrator insists that the proper focus is not on the big picture, but on the small, seemingly insignificant moments of the war and especially on moments of miscommunication, confusion, and misunderstanding. These are the moments that demand consideration, he argues. Therein lies whatever meaning or significance is to be found in the war. To underscore his point, he ignores the request for stories about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and instead discusses at length the importance of toothbrushes to the soldiers and embedded correspondents who are deployed in the field.

The interlocutor can be seen as a stand-in for the general public, especially consumers of yellow journalism who clamored for accounts of media-fabricated heroes like Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. During the war, as a paid correspondent, Crane, ever desperate for money, was forced to write such accounts. He made no secret of his disgust at having to do the drudgework of journalism. A year later, in the more reflective piece that is “War Memories” (for which he was not paid), Crane seized the opportunity to speak his mind and decry the public’s misguided desire for the usual hackneyed accounts of courage, honor, and glory. It is also worth noting that the only mention of Roosevelt in “War Memories” comes in this dispute with the interlocutor—and the narrator mentions Roosevelt by name only in response to the interlocutor’s apparent request for a story about the man who emerged from the war as a celebrity, and subsequently rode his newfound fame to the presidency. The war’s presumed luminary is hardly present in Crane’s account.

Eventually, though, the narrator relents and promises to tell the interlocutor about the events of July 1, 1898—the single day of heavy fighting during the brief war, the day American troops charged up San Juan Hill. It was certainly the most documented and detailed day of the war, and remains so to this day.

But in talking about the “glorious day,” the narrator deliberately turns this well-documented and seemingly overly determined event into a scene of indeterminacy. He says almost nothing about the famous charge, only alluding to it in passing. Instead he dwells, as he has all along, on moments of ambiguous significance, moments that illustrate the thesis with which he began: the difficulty of getting at the real thing and truly communicating experience. For example, the narrator manages to only briefly and obliquely mention the charge up San Juan Hill and does so without mentioning Roosevelt or the Rough Riders at all. Instead his attention turns to the wounded returning from the front. His description emphasizes the difficulty of grasping such a scene:
The trail was already crowded with stretcher-bearers and with wounded men who could walk. One had to stem a tide of mute agony. But I don’t know that it was mute agony. I only know that it was mute. It was something in which the silence or, more likely, the reticence was an appalling and inexplicable fact. . . . When thinking of it now it seems strange beyond words. But at the time—I don’t know—it did not attract one’s wonder.
“Inexplicable.” “Beyond words.” These are the tropes that predominate Crane’s discourse about the war. What did not attract wonder initially seems in retrospect highly significant, albeit beyond articulation. The narrator continues to discuss the war in this vein through a series of incidents, episodes, and ambiguous scenes—too many to review in a brief overview. So I will fast forward to the end of the narrative, where the narrator, after nearly 20,000 words of “telling” coyly informs us that “you can depend on it that I have told you nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all.” And with this thrice-repeated phrase, he brings the narration to a close. After so much “telling,” Crane brings us back to the original thesis—that getting to “the real thing” seems impossible. Indeterminacy is upheld. The narrative is undercut by its own telling. Have we heard a true story? Ah, the narrator seems to say, does it matter?

* * *

After my return from Cuba, I revisited “War Memories” and immediately realized that it is a much more intriguing text than I had noticed when I had first perused it for a “money quote.” While there hadn’t been much in “War Memories” that would suit the exact purposes of my magazine article, there was a great deal that I—and any writer of narrative nonfiction—could learn from Crane. After rereading “War Memories,” I went on to read widely in Crane’s journalism and nonfiction. Like most people, I had known him only from high school readings of The Red Badge of Courage and “The Open Boat.” Now I found many hidden gems in his oeuvre—innovative and even experimental pieces that place Crane among the noteworthy precursors of what we today call literary journalism or narrative nonfiction.

In the early to mid-1890s, Stephen Crane—then an unknown cub reporter—was writing intriguing accounts of life on the streets of New York. His instinct was to focus on insignificant and offbeat moments and to probe those moments for the seemingly inconsequential details that would reveal something unexpected—the big truths hidden in ordinary scenes. So, for example, Crane found his stories in such unseemly places as Bowery flophouses and breadlines. He turned his attention to mundane incidents, such as a broken-down van blocking a street or a crowd gathered around an epileptic who has collapsed. One of Crane’s favorite techniques was to focus attention on anonymous people in crowds rather than on whatever spectacle had attracted the crowd; decades later the renowned street photographer Weegee would take the same approach, turning his camera on the crowds gawking at crime scenes.

So what is there to learn from Crane? Here’s a list of some key takeaways:
• Go to the margins to find your story.
• The story you originally intended to write is probably not the story you ought to write.
• Look hard at your subject, then look away: the story that needs telling is likely located on the periphery of your original subject.
• Look for the detail that doesn’t make sense and study it.
• The crux of a story is not found in action; the real story is found in the human psychology associated with the action.
• If you think you’ve discovered the truth, a wildly swinging bunch of bananas will soon knock you to the ground.
* * *

To get an inkling of just how radical Crane’s text was and still is, consider the 1964 volume of Crane’s war dispatches published by New York University Press. The volume was edited by R. W. Stallman, who was the first academic biographer of Crane and the preeminent Crane scholar of the time. Yet in Stallman’s estimation many passages of “War Memories” did not warrant inclusion in the volume. Curiously, Stallman edited out pretty much all the passages I have reviewed here: the bunch of bananas, the obtrusive interlocutor, the toothbrush reflections—these are all elided.

Today, it’s hard to understand this editorial decision, especially since the removed passages are those now most likely to interest us. They interest us because they seem so postmodern, because they correspond to our latter-day uncertainty about truth, and because these passages anticipate the work of contemporary writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien, whose accounts of Vietnam use similar devices in calling attention to the indeterminacy of war. But in 1964, before Vietnam literature, before Herr, and before O’Brien, Crane’s innovations must have simply seemed odd and impertinent, and so they were excised. I think Crane might have found this a particularly pointed irony—as if the obtrusive and bothersome interlocutor of “War Memories” had ended up his editor.


Along with two books of travel essays--Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)--Stephen Benz has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, New England Review, and other journals. Two of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003, 2015). Topographies, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Etruscan Press. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, Benz now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico. For more info, see

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