Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Higher Journalism*


 

It is quite possible that one might have been taken by the novelty of Mr. Stephen Crane's Black Riders and yet failed to be impressed with most of his subsequent volumes. To the hasty glance there was little to distinguish it from the average work of the restless observer, who goes up and down the earth keeping his eyes open and his adjectives fresh. We have so many writers who can do the second-rate thing with first-rate ability; so many excellent journeymen in the delightful art of story-telling; so many eager and faithful delineators of fact and color, that one might have been excused for saying of Mr. Crane; "Ah, yes; he is undoubtedly clever, but he hardly has genius. Do you think so?" Even in the face of his successful hit with the London critics, it was perhaps pardonable to be a sceptic still; and, in spite of his refreshing vividness, to doubt whether he were entitled to a place with the youthful immortals. He was one of the Higher Journalists, recruited from the great school of reportorial drill-one of those diligent masters of their craft, who pursue their avocation to the ends of the world with such boundless energy, all for our idle pleasure as we loll in our summer hammocks, awaiting the news of wars and plagues and revolutions and kingly pomps.

It is a modern thing, this Higher Journalism, a province of artistic activity, in which the American genius is well fitted to shine. It is familiar with every corner of civilization; it is honest and gay and entertaining, or it is honest and dull and heart-rending, as the truth may require; it may or may not have opinions of its own; it may or may not be touched with genius; its prime business is to get at the facts and display them effectively; and for this end no toil is too great for it, no daring too impossible.

The Higher Journalism has many brilliant devotees, and from its ranks not a few original story tellers have sprung. Of these Mr. Kipling may not be the greatest, and Mr. Crane is certainly not the least. It was in the interests of this Higher Journalism that he was wrecked off the coast of Florida not so long ago, and barely escaped with his life. Everyone was soberly thankful for his safety, and everyone must have been eager to read the account of that perilous experience, which appeared in a magazine a few months later. It is under the fine tempering pressure of just such danger and hardship that the best copy is made for the Higher Journalism.

Still, I doubt if anyone was prepared to find The Open Boat so thoroughly impersonal, restrained and artistic as it is. I confess it seemed to me a surprising masterpiece in its way; faithful, picturesque, realistic to a degree, and yet at the same time something more than all this. To that censorious strain in us, which thinks it is always looking for something new to praise, and is really only looking for something new to blame, it must have been a startling event. I cannot imagine even the most self-confident criticism not being carried off its feet by a surge of enthusiasm over that wonderful sea-tale. It fills nearly all the requirements of the Higher Journalism, with something omitted and something of its own added. The omissions are as important as the details.

But there was one peculiarity about the story that struck me-a sort of transcendent realism, realism used so insistently and selectively as to become no longer incidental and particular, but typical and universal. It is realism no longer, but symbolism pure and simple. I quote a piece of the dialogue:

"Look! There's a man on the shore!"
"Where?"
"There! See 'im? See 'im?"
"Yes, sure! He's walking along."
"Now he's stopped. Look! He's facing us!"
"He's waving at us!"
"So he is! By thunder!"
"Ah, now we're all right! Now we're all right! There'll be a boat out here for us in half an hour."
"He's going on. He's running. He's going up to that house there."

.      .      .

"What's he doing now?"
"He's standing still again. He's looking, I think. There he goes again toward the house. Now he's stopped again."
"Is he waving at us?"
"No, not now; he was, though."
"Look! There comes another man!"
"He's running!"
"Look at him go, would you!"
"Why, he's on a bicycle. Now he's met the other man. They're both waving at us. Look!"
"There comes something up the beach."
"What the devil is that thing?"
"Why, it looks like a boat."
"Why, certainly, it's a boat."
"No; it's on wheels."
"Yes, so it is. Well, that must be the lifeboat. They drag them along shore on a wagon."
"That's the lifeboat, sure!"
"No, by --, it's-it's an omnibus."
"I tell you it's a lifeboat."
"It is not!" It's an omnibus. I can see it plain. See? One of these big hotel omnibus."
"Look at the fellow with the flag. Maybe he ain't waving it!"
"That ain't a flag, is it? That's his coat. Why, certainly, that's his coat."
"So it is; it's his coat. He's taken it off and is waving it around his head. But would you look at him swing it!"
"Oh, say, there isn't any life-saving station there. That's just a winter resort hotel omnibus that has brought over some of the boarders to see us drown."
"What's that idiot with the coat mean? What's he signalling, anyhow?"
"It looks as if he were trying to tell us to go north. There must be a life-saving station up there."
"No; he thinks we're fishing. Just giving us a merry hand. See? Ah, there, Willie!"
"Well, I wish I could make something out of those signals. What do you suppose he means?"
"He don't mean anything; he's just playing."

And so on, and so on. Mr. Crane has omitted to tell us specifically how the wreck happened, how many hours they were on the water, how many miles they were from land, how many were lost on the sunk steamer; and yet he is at the trouble to record at length this trivial chatter of his men. Surely, you say, this is realism gone mad-a mere detached, phonographic reproduction of actual speech. It is more like Maeterlinck than anything else. It recalls the dialogue between Princess Maicine and the nurse, in the tower:

"Let me look!"
"Wait! I am beginning to see."
"Do you see the city?"
"No."
"And the castle?"
"No."
"It must be on the other side."
"And yet.There is the sea."
"There is the sea?"
"Yes, yes; the sea. It is green."
"But then you ought to see the city. Let me look."
"I see the lighthouse."
"You see the lighthouse?"
"Yes; I think it is the lighthouse."
"But, then, you ought to see the city."
"I do not see the city."
"You do not see the city?"
"I do not see the city!"

What is this farrago of nonsense? says the reader. It is true that M. Maeterlinck has had to stand not a little ridicule of his style. And yet taken apart from its context it is not much more vapid than Mr. Crane's dialogue in the open boat. It is a curious coincidence of method-absolute realism-as we call it, appearing identical with absolute romanticism. Unless I mistake, the truth is that Mr. Crane and M. Maeterlinck both wished to secure the same results, and they employed the same means. In each case the writer's object is to create an atmosphere, to make a powerful spiritual impression; and he has resorted to the weird haunting effect which repetition imposes on the mind. M. Maeterlinck wished to give us the full emotional experience of a wholly fanciful incident, and he plays on our nerves with a maddening persistent iteration. As a matter of fact he borrowed this trick from the peasants, whose life he studies. Listen to any conversation in the street, and count how many times the same word is repeated. In The Open Boat Mr. Crane wished to convey the full emotional experience of an actual occurrence, and he uses precisely the same means. In both cases the dialogue, so simple, so meaningless apart from its context, acquires a mysterious and very palpable force when the circumstances are recalled.

Taken by itself, such a piece of dialogue is cheap and trivial enough; but when reproduced upon a background so thrillingly impressive, its very simplicity lends it an added sharpness. In Mr. Crane as in M. Maeterlinck the incident is related not so much for its own sake, as for its poetic value. All that happened in that little boat from the time it left the sinking steamer until its living freight was flung up on the shore, is matter for a plain, straightforward tale; but the spiritual experience of those hours side by side with death-to give one any adequate idea of that, is a task for a genius. And it seems to me that Mr. Crane's genius is proved not by the vivid phrase or the original adjective in which he depicts the outward event, but by the power with which he moves us to a comprehension of all the subtler mysterious play of feeling which must have invested those momentous hours. It was a fine Maeterlinckian situation, if you will let me say so. Four men tossed on the open sea in a tiny boat. What would they say, seated there face to face with destiny? All the details which Mr. Crane has omitted are absolutely insignificant in comparison to the real tragedy there involved. And his treatment of the story is at once a revelation of his own delicate artistic sense and a confirmation of M. Maeterlinck's theory of art.

In that mystic volume, The Treasure of the Humble, there is an essay on "The Tragical in Daily Life." M. Maeterlinck has said: "There is a tragic element in the life of every day that is far more real, far more penetrating, far more akin to the true self that is in us than the tragedy that lies in great adventure. But, readily as we all may feel this, to prove it is by no means easy, inasmuch as this essential tragic element comprises more than that which is merely material or merely psychological. It goes beyond the determined struggle of man against man, and desire against desire; it goes beyond the eternal conflict of duty and passion. Its province is rather to reveal to us how truly wonderful is the mere act of living, and to throw light upon the existence of the soul, self-contained in the midst of ever-restless immensities; to hush the discourse of reason and sentiment, so that above the tumult may be heard the solemn, uninterrupted whisperings of man and his destiny. It is its province to point out to us the uncertain, dolorous footsteps of the being, as he approaches, or wanders from his truth, his beauty, or his God."

That word of a mystical symbolistic writer might stand for the aim of the realist at his best. It is a curious overlapping of purposes, a curious meeting of extremes. But it is very much a matter of selection and arrangement-this ideal literary method over which so much ink has been spilt. The minute reproduction of trifles may be either very tedious or very telling; it all depends on their significance and their relation to larger events. Realism, I fancy its ablest champions will concede, merges inevitably into symbolism; and symbolism, we have seen, makes free use of realistic methods. Each of them, at its best, is but endeavoring to grasp and portray something of that element in daily life which, as M. Maeterlinck say, is more real, more penetrating, more akin to the true self than the tragedy of old romance. Mr. Crane has called his book The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure. He need have no fear. He has been a faithful contributor to the Higher Journalism, but he has also made a brilliant mark in the more exacting pages of literature.


"The Higher Journalism," Commercial Advertiser, July 23, 1898 [back]