Sunday, May 25, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 228: Stephen Crane, The Price of the Harness (#228)

Stephen Crane, "The Price of the Harness" (1898) from Stephen Crane: Prose & Poetry:

Here's the short version: Stephen Crane reported on the Cuban theater in the Spanish-American War. This story came out of it; and Crane helpfully glossed the title/wrote your paper for you with his last war dispatch--
The public doesn’t seem to care very much for the regular soldier. The public wants to learn of the gallantry of Reginald Marmaduke Maurice Montmorenci Sturtevant [...]. Just plain Private Nolan, blast him—he is of no consequence. He will get his name in the paper—oh, yes, when he is “killed.” Or when he is “wounded.” Or when he is “missing.”
--and in a letter complaining about an editor who changed the title of the story--
The name of the story is ‘The Price of the Harness’ because it is the price of the harness, the price men paid for wearing the military harness, Uncle Sam’s military harness; and they paid blood, hunger and fever.
And that's what this story is, for 17 pages: a bunch of regular soldiers doing regular soldier activities and getting shot at (or shot) (or catching fever) (and maybe dying). We hear how all the digging is necessary but doesn't earn any medals; and how, even when they are digging like gardeners (p1), they have this air of doing things like soldiers (also p1); there's the trouble that people during war have of whether knowing this particular battle is of great national importance or will be totally forgotten.

There's other stuff here that I know will interest some people--there's the machine-like nature of the army; and the presence of horses (and their death) as necessary parts of war; and the crowd-like connection of the army.

But I'll end today's post--after a long drive through some bad rain from Austin--with some questions about war reporting and fiction. I listened to this episode of the Dissolve podcast where they asked about how pro- or anti-war war films are, and it got me thinking about war literature. Crane doesn't ever tell us anything about the politics of this war. Is it a good war, a just war of defense? Or is it a war that the regular people were tricked into fighting? Crane isn't at all interested in that; but in its own way, divorced from politics, I find this sort of story to be pretty anti-war in its own way: for the regular people, down on the ground, whatever friendships they might find, the experience of war is boredom and terror and violence and death. It's not exactly anti-war, but it makes it clear that war should be for a good reason since this is the price that's paid.

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