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Stephen Crane, When man falls, a crowd gathers

May 20, 2010
Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane (Presumed public domain, via Wikipedia)

This week’s Library of America offering is a sketch/article by Stephen Crane. Now, while I suppose most Americans have read what I believe to be Crane’s most famous work, The red badge of courage, I’m afraid I haven’t – and so, when this opportunity to read something by him arose, I was more than happy to take the opportunity. You can too, by reading it here. (It’s well worthwhile, and is less than 5 pages.)

According to the Library of America’s notes, the story was published in 1894 in The New York Press under the following heading:

When man falls, a crowd gathers
A Graphic Study of New York Heartlessness
Gazing with Pitiless Eyes
“What’s the Matter?” That too Familiar Query

That pretty much sums it up really. The notes also say that it was based on a real incident. It’s a simple story: a man and a boy are walking in the street one evening, when the man suddenly falls to the ground. Immediately a crowd gathers, ready to criticise (“Oh, a jag, I guess”) rather than help. The boy indicates, however, that it’s a fit but this still doesn’t result in any obvious sympathy or assistance. Instead, the crowd pushes closer and closer wanting a view. The language used to describe the crowd’s behaviour leaves us in no doubt as to the intent:

Those in the foremost rank bended down, shouldering each other, eager, anxious to see everything. Others behind them crowded savagely for a place like starving men fighting for bread.

This is writing that pulls out all stops to make its point: the rhythm (“shouldering each other, eager, anxious to…”), the word choice (“savagely”) and the imagery (likening their behaviour to that of survival) work together to create a powerful picture in just two sentences. The language continues in this vein building up a tension between the crowd, which shows more interest in the spectacle, and the helpless boy who is unsure what to do to help his companion. It’s not until halfway through the story that someone offers some help – but still the majority stands by:

There were men who nearly created a battle in the madness of their desire to see the thing.

Meanwhile others with magnificent passions for abstract statistical information were questioning the boy. “What’s his name?” “Where does he live?”

Eventually, a policeman (“a man whose life was half-pestered out of him by the inhabitants of the city”) appears, exhibiting “the rage of a placid cow”. (A wonderful oxymoron that reminded me of Tony’s recent post on the subject.) Gradually, but with continued difficulty described in similar evocative language, the man is helped.

This is delicious writing: it’s almost, but not quite, over the top in the way it piles up the imagery. What saves it from being hyperbolic is that it is, unfortunately, all too believable – for then, and for now. It’s not for nothing I think that Crane titles it “when man falls” not “when a man falls”, making it rather clear that this is not a one-off situation. What a shame Crane (1871-1900) died so young.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 21, 2010 12:11 am

    Hi Whisperinggums,
    Just visited the Library of America ‘Story of the Week’ site. It looks like they collect fascinating odds and ends of articles and stories from the literary history of the US, a site worth monitoring. And thanks for the link to my site on oxymorons!

    • May 21, 2010 12:40 am

      They do … I’ve been enjoying the variety of stories/essays/articles that I’ve read from there. And it’s a pleasure sending that link your way – I enjoyed that post.

  2. May 21, 2010 11:24 pm

    Ah, Red Badge of Courage. Had to read that in 9th grade and I hated it. Thought is was boring and had a hard time following what was going on. It ruined any desire I may have had to read anything else by Crane. Your description of the story is good though so maybe I will be tempted 🙂

    • May 22, 2010 11:41 am

      Yes, I rather expected it was the sort of thing Americans would do at high school. As you can tell I loved his writing here – and it’s very short. You could read it in 15mins or less depending on how fast you read versus how much you like to ponder as you read.

  3. May 22, 2010 7:45 pm

    I’ve never heard of him, but your description of his writing makes me want to read the story.

    • May 22, 2010 11:27 pm

      That’s interesting but not surprising I suppose. He is American after all, and did die young! I’m keen now to read The red badge of courage … to see if I agree with Stefanie!

      • May 25, 2010 12:31 am

        Heh, I suspect as an adult reader it would have more meaning. But to a kid the whole courage and honor in war thing seems dumb and is too far removed from suburban American existence to be meaningful, at least back in 1982. Things might be different for kids these days. Or the teacher might be better at relating it to their experiences. My 9th grade English teacher wasn’t very good.

  4. May 25, 2010 1:40 am

    Stefanie, I suspect it could have been the teacher as much as anything. Their job is to ensure that you do “get” the meaning. I was lucky – I had a great year 9 English teacher. She ran our school drama club as well – we had a ball that year.

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