Wednesday, February 22, 2017

In a Manner of Speaking

A number of contemporary writers have  produced memorable novels about wars in which they participated as service men. Norman Mailer, who would go on to stab his wife, comes to mind with The Naked and the Dead. James Jones  plucked the background and story arc for From Here to Eternity off his own Army experiences. 

So, too, did Tim O'Brien find focus for The Things They Carried in his time as an enlisted man. Denis Johnson, the superb minimalist writer whose Viet Nam war novel, The Tree of Smoke, won The National Book Award, had ready access to available information. All three writers were alive at the time of the wars they used as background for their fiction.

Stephen Crane was born six years after the military aspects of what has variously been called The Civil War, The War between the States, and, in two of the schools you attended in Florida, The War of Northern Aggression. Nevertheless, Crane's novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is often spoken of with the same critical esteem used for the works of Mailer, Jones, and O'Brien. 

Of all these writers named, O'Brien is probably the one to have lived a life closer to contemporary concepts of conventional, but this is in no way speaking toward the ordinary or even usual. Rather, let us say O'Brien, through his own efforts and agendas, has taken a closer step toward the accommodation of such forces that drove writers such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and the three men named earlier--Mailer, Jones, and Johnson, each in an idiosyncratic way, farther away from conventional responses.

Johnson, for instance, had a combative relationship with alcohol and drugs; Mailer seemed to have a combative relationship with everything, and Crane, dead before he'd reached age thirty, spent much of his life in combat with tuberculosis. Had he managed to stay on as long as, say, Tim O'Brien, who, at this writing is seventy-one, your have some basis for arguing he might have approximated the literary breadth and complexity of D.H. Lawrence (dead himself at age forty-five years: 1885-1930).

At any rate, and aside from your speculative admiration, Crane accomplished an excellent short novel, every bit as much a product of the war that preceded him as the twenty-thousand leagues under the sea so artfully evoked in Jules Verne's eponymous novel.

You admire all the writers you've mentioned in these paragraphs, certain of their works plangent with association in that part of your imagination where envy, creative explosions, and affirmative visions reside. When you think of any of them, you begin to appreciate why envy and awe emerge as ruling responses. When you think of Crane, you're especially directed back by your own respect to your narrative abilities and visions when you were his age when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage.

"Write naked," Denis Johnson said. "Write what you would never say." He also said, "You get in your teacup and take your oar and set off for Australia, and if you wind up in Japan, you're ecstatic."

Stephen Crane, it seems to you, also wrote naked; doing so, he created at once a war and its resident ironies, wherein a man, fearful of his ability to confront battle and not run from it, does in fact run. In the process, he's shot in the rump and awarded the hero's medal, the Purple Heart."

Reading that novel, teaching it to others, you're reminded of your greater goal, which is being able to evoke through your writing rather than report or describe; create a place where readers are able to eavesdrop on fictional entities who seem real with the pulsing humanity of individuals afflicted with the choices, boundaries, and challenges of being.

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