The Man in "The Open Boat": Stephen Crane, War Correspondent

I’m happy to report that he is back.  Not that I had time to report the incidence.  This afternoon, Montague, our Jack Russell terrier, snuck through the seasonally thinned hedge and, driven by the promises of chicken and cows in the cool air, dashed off into the field—for which offense, any farmer has the right to shoot him. It seems that my responsibility toward the imp “has not created in [him] a sense of obligation.” I don’t mean to break his spirit; but I am trying hard to counter his instincts, especially those laws of nature that run counter to the ones we make for (or against) ourselves and others.

Instincts, spirit, laws of nature. That takes me to the anniversary I meant to celebrate: the birth of Stephen Crane, journalist, short-story writer and novelist who emerged from his mother’s busy womb (he was one of fourteen) on this day, 1 November, in 1871. Crane died before he reached his thirtieth year; but along the way he turned in his reports, turning out stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. One of which, “The Open Boat” was, in turn, adapted for radio. Dramatized by E. Jack Newman for the adventure-thriller series Escape, “The Open Boat” was tossed into the airwaves on 19 July 1953.

Somber, stark and unsentimental, it is a story of survival, a realist’s story of a small community of men exposed to the elements and realizing just how little they seem to matter beyond the confines of the dinghy in which they find themselves. Far from naturalist or objective, these observations are served with—and are in the service of—irony, conveying a lesson brought home with somewhat greater economy by Crane’s equally famous poem:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

Escape artist Newman clearly had a sense of obligation toward Crane’s universe; the changes to the original are numerous, but do little harm to the “Boat.” Adaptations are often less than subtle in their hacking and rehashing; as such, they are questionable, indeed objectionable, to someone who, like me, studied, taught and respects such works, someone eager to attack those chomping at them like a dog would a herd of cows indifferent to what he assumes to be his domain. It should be gratifying, then, to come across a dramatization that preserves Crane’s prose, at times word for word, aside from a few mild curses the radio censors would not allow even in the name of fidelity. Yet perhaps one can be rather too faithful and thus overly timid in one’s approach to adapting literature.

Had Newman been less duteous, for instance, he might have turned “The Open Boat” back into the report as which it first reached the American public on 7 January 1897. After all, it was Crane himself who, along with three others, was aboard that dinghy. “Based on a true story.” I guess I owe it to the folks running the Lifetime channel that I have grown suspicious of any drama thrust at me with such a preface. Why should such a label do so much (if not all of) the creative work, readily applied to render even an artistically negligible production significant? To blame for this practice is the old and rather tired pitting of fact against fiction, in which the latter is too often looked upon as the inferior or spurious offspring of the former.

Crane prefixed his story with a similar label, reapplied by Newman; but its authenticity, a sense of witnessing and partaking, can be impressed on its audience otherwise, in a reportorial style as only radio can bring it to storytelling. To achieve this, the narrator might recall the incident in the first person of Crane himself, the correspondent aboard the arms-carrying Commodore, sunk on 2 January, in 1897, on its way to Cuba. It would have accounted for the narrating voice (of William Conrad, in Newman’s dramatization) and added urgency to the account. It would return the story to its author in the very act of taking it from him and taking liberties with it.

Were I to rework Crane’s narrative, I might even refresh its irony by alluding to the current debate on global ecology, on the boat we’re all in, facing nature that is neither “cruel, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise,” but “indifferent, flatly indifferent” to our insistence on governing it, a seemingly tamed, domesticated environment turning on us like a cur. Translators, as they say, are traitors; but those who simply repeat words without making them worth your while, without making them work for you by making your mind work with them, are traders in spoiled goods. Indeed, by not investing anew in a seemingly old boat, they betray the very nature of literature as a vessel of shared ideas.

2 Replies to “The Man in "The Open Boat": Stephen Crane, War Correspondent”

  1. The Crane quote reminds me of Carl Sagan\’s line that the universe is not obliged to be in sync with man\’s ambitions. Great post. That\’s some dog!

    Like

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