If you’ve read the previous installments of this series, you’re probably thinking that “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane has no place here. It might be a stretch, seeing as there’s no outright war in this short novella, I’ll give you that. However, there are two reasons why I’m including it: Crane’s intimate connection to a life threatening situation and how he put it on paper, and because it’s one of my favorite pieces of writing of all time.
You may know Stephen Crane from his more famous novel (and one I should also probably write about), “The Red Badge of Courage,” but “The Open Boat” speaks to me on another level because of that intimate connection I mentioned. As a former foot soldier who’s gotten my hands dirty on occasion, it always irks me to hear stories written by people who clearly don’t know what they’re talking about; conversely, it always excites me when experts talk about what they know best.
When I first read “The Open Boat,” I was struck by the book’s stark realism–it was just a little too visceral, personal and most of all, specific and detailed, to be purely from this man’s imagination. The book is about four men stranded on a dinghy after a major shipwreck, and their fight against the elements to survive. I would come to find out that Crane wrote this book just after surviving the exact same thing, in that exact same way. It’s essentially a fictionalized telling of what really happened to him.
And that’s my loose connection to war–war is about fighting. It’s about the brutal edge between life and death, and very little pushes men further to that edge than nature herself. Crane was out there fighting the elements and “The Open Boat” is a simple, relatively short but emotional telling of that journey.
He describes the unforgiving nature of the sea:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.”
I know I’ve felt this way about war. You train and train and train, you have the entire brute force of the U.S. military at your back and you fight–you realize you could just take a stray bullet and there’s nothing you could do about it. That helplessness is somewhat daunting. It’s sobering to realize that you might take a bullet to the face and the world will just continue to spin along like nothing happened. As WWI veteran C.S. Lewis once said, “We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes; not just ordinary privates in the huge army of the bereaved, slogging along and making the best of a bad job.” Of course, being the romantic that C.S. Lewis was, he had more to say about it–but you get my point.
It’s an indifferent beast, nature. The emotional side of that helplessness is reflected in another scene, where a childhood song randomly floats into one of the men’s mind. The man is called “the correspondent” and he can’t quite shake the lyrics–it’s simple and short, and it goes like this:
A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers;
There was lack of woman’s nursing, there was dearth of woman’s tears;
But a comrade stood beside him, and he took that comrade’s hand
And he said: ‘I shall never see my own, my native land.'”
What was once a childhood jingle breaks the man’s heart as he faces his own death lost at sea. As he rows against the endless waves, the correspondent can’t get his mind off of that soldier in Algiers. He was just some faceless dead guy in some odd country before, but now?
The correspondent plainly saw the soldier. He lay on the sand with his feet out straight and still. While his pale left hand was upon his chest in an attempt to thwart the going of his life, the blood came between his fingers. In the far Algerian distance, a city of low square forms was set against a sky that was faint with the last sunset hues. The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.”
For a brief moment, this civilian man lost at sea understood the visceral nature of combat. Just like the characters in this book, Crane skirted the line between life and death and saw behind that great and terrible curtain.
In real life, not all of the occupants of Crane’s dinghy made it out alive. He got home breathing and immediately wrote this book. You can feel how fresh it is, and that has made it one of my favorite pieces of writing.
Personally, I wish more veterans would write fiction like this: fictionalized accounts of their own experiences. Hemingway did the same thing–they take away the self-glorification you see so often now, it allows them to skew little facts for the sake of the narrative, but it retains the reality and visceral nature of their experiences.
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Featured image compiled by Luke Ryan.