Monday, March 22, 2021

The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure by Stephen Crane

One masterpiece in an otherwise mediocre collection
The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure, a collection of short stories by Stephen Crane, was published in 1898. The title selection, “The Open Boat,” is one of Crane’s most highly regarded writings and is considered a landmark work in the history of American literary naturalism. The story is based on an actual shipwreck that Crane lived through. Four survivors of a sunken ship are cast about in a small dinghy on stormy seas. The entire story takes place in the small boat as the castaways struggle to reach the beach without being killed by the crashing surf. This is not a glamorous tale of adventure but rather a harrowing disaster story told in deadpan realism with keen psychological authenticity. This excellent work of short fiction combines the bleak, fatalistic action of a Jack London adventure, the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, and the linguistic mastery of a Joseph Conrad novel. Almost long enough to qualify as a novella, “The Open Boat” is the lengthiest piece in this collection and clearly the selection with the highest literary merit. It is a must-read for anyone who appreciates modern realist literature.

The seven remaining selections are a mixed bag. Crane, one of the most innovative and influential writers of American realism, took the literary world by storm in the late nineteenth century with his groundbreaking novels Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage. His fame and critical acclaim can be partly attributed to his status as the bad boy of American literature. He trampled formulaic conventions and genteel propriety in ways that previous American writers feared to tread. When reading the stories in The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure, one gets the feeling that Crane felt the need to continually scorn convention and defy expectations in order to maintain his status as an iconoclast. The latter half of the title seems intended to be ironic, since Crane mocks the adventure genre more than he embraces it. Though these tales take place in exotic locales (often in Mexico) and the protagonists are ostensibly manly heroes, Crane never allows himself to succumb to the conventions of the genre or gratify his audience with romance and heroic action. He relates these stories from cynical angles that reveal his heroes’ feet of clay and the absurdity and cowardice that often lingers beneath the deceptive illusion of romance. In a way, it’s kind of a shame. Another groundbreaking American realist, Frank Norris, could embrace the adventure genre without compromising his naturalistic principles, as evidenced by his books Moran of the Lady Letty and The Third Circle. In Crane’s collection, however, one feels the author was unwilling to fully commit to the adventure genre.

This is perfectly exemplified by two dismal stories, “The Wise Men” and “Five White Mice.” Both stories take place in Mexico City, though the reader learns nothing about the setting other than the names of a few streets. All of the characters in these stories are white, except for three Mexicans depicted as thugs in “Five White Mice.” Both stories star a pair of young American men known only as “the Kids” whose sole purpose in life is to drink, carouse, and gamble. In “The Wise Men,” the two ne’er-do-wells bet on a foot race between two of their favorite bartenders. The reader thinks the story might lead to a surprise ending, but no, the race ends as expected and the bets pay off as expected, resulting in a complete waste of time. “Five White Mice” leads up to a tense showdown that promises action but simply fizzles to nothing.

There are better selections in this collection, most notably “One Dash - Horses,” which features a thrilling chase scene. “Death and the Child” is a variation on The Red Badge of Courage set in modern Greece. For the most part, however, the Other Tales in The Open Boat and Other Tales are disappointing fare that doesn’t live up to this author’s stellar potential.

Stories in this collection

The Open Boat
A Man and Some Others
One Dash - Horses
Flanagan and His Short Filibustering Adventures
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
The Wise Men: A Detail of American Life in Mexico
Death and the Child
The Five White Mice

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