Monday, September 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 160: Stephen Crane, When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers (#20)

Stephen Crane, "When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers" (1894) from Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry:

When you almost write a dissertation on the figure of the crowd in American literature--as one usually does--you end up reading and rereading Crane's street scene-sketch, "When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers." And rereading. You notice the way the crowd is described in figurative language as a large body of water or water-related event--"streams of people," "sea of men"; you notice the way the crowd and the man are similarly described in psychologically/physiological issues--the man has a fit, the crowd has a spasm, the man is insensible, the crowd is mesmerized. You notice the different ways that power works--the German member of the crowd who exhibits psychological control vs. the police officer who is distinct from the crowd and relies on verbal and physical exertions to control the crowd.

This, by the way, is only a five-page piece with very little story and not much in the way of character. A man falls--we know he's Italian and he was walking with an Italian child. There are signs on the street advertising cheap dinner and a ferry stop at the end of the street, none of which actually matters to the story's plot, but helps set the tone of ordinariness here. A crowd gathers instantly; and when the man is taken away in an ambulance, some of the crowd is relieved as if they were suffering with the man, and the other half feels cheated as if they wanted to see how it all ended up. Curiously, when this ran in the newspaper as an authentic bit of street reportage, the title and subtitle promised that this was a story of the city's heartlessness--but that's clearly only a bit of the story.

Because for all that the last line is given over to the people who just want to be entertained by someone else's pain, we see lots of little moments of sympathy and care, of people trying to help, both in the crowd (people shouting advice, the German trying to give the man room) and in the city (the doctor, the cop, the ambulance driver). While this is a story of a personal trauma (what is going on with that man), it's also a story of civic care--if not cohesion. At the end, we see that what looked like an instant crowd was really just a collection of people with different feelings.

See also the "touching the third rail scene" from Henry Roth's Call It Sleep.

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