Monday, March 21, 2011

Whilomville Stories by Stephen Crane

Edition: Whilomville Stories

Stephen Crane's Whilomville Stories consists of thirteen, self-contained short stories primarily about the children of a sleepy, fictional town called Whilomville. "Whilom," which means "once upon a time," may have become familiar to Crane in his childhood through a family connection to the "Whilom drum corps." (Source: See Brown and Hernlund, "Notes," American Literature 50:1).  Each of the thirteen stories was serialized in Harper's New Monthly Magazine from August 1899-August 1900.

"The Angel Child," (I and II): The first two stories are about an "angel child" (Cora) a spoiled and tyrannical young girl who is the daughter of a timid painter and his imperious wife. In the first story, the "angel child" comes to Whilomville (from New York) for a visit because the Trescott's of Whilomville are relations. It is her birthday, and so she asks her father for money--he hands over five dollars to her. This five dollars enables much havoc, including the humorous scene where Cora decides that they should all spend her birthday money on haircuts at William Neeltje's barber shop. The Whilomville parents, especially of the Margate twins with the curls, are horrified, and these overblown reactions are chronicled in the second story.

"Lynx Hunting" chronicles the adventure of young Jimmie Trescott and a group of boys who decide to go "lynx hunting." Goaded into acting brave, Jimmie accidentally shoots a cow. When the boys get in trouble with Old Fleming (the owner of the cow), the boys all cower. Fleming lets Jimmie off, because Jimmie's answer as to why he shot the cow ("I thought it was a lynx") was so funny.

"The Lover and the Telltale" tells of how Jimmie had fallen in love with Cora and how he wrote a love-letter to her in class. Another girl in the class saw Jimmie writing this letter, and taunts him. Jimmie fights back and gets in trouble with the teacher.

Showin' Off" is another story about Jimmie's love interests, this time in a girl named Abbie whom he followed home one day. Along the way, Jimmie performs his masculinity by beating up on a young companion of his. Before Abbie's house, Jimmie encounters one Horace, who like Jimmie, had a velocipede (a three wheeled bicycle). Jimmie boasts that he can go faster on his velocipede, and eventually Horace is goaded into saying that he could go down a ravine. As he looks over the edge in preparation to go, Horace accidentally goes down the ravine on his velocipede and gets into a accident.

"Making an Orator" is about how the schoolchildren must each memorize a famous speech in order to develop their oratorical skills. The narrator criticizes this requirement as "mainly to agonize many children permanently against arising to speak their thought to fellow-creatures." Jimmie has been assigned to perform Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," and at first he avoids the performance entirely by pretending to be sick. Eventually, he has to give the speech, and bungles it up entirely, chanting: "Half a leg, half a leg" and then forgetting the rest. The story shows how the children know nothing about the contexts of the works that they perform, subjecting great European texts to a kind of comical devaluation.

"Shame" opens with Jimmie asking their cook for food because he must attend a picnic. Sassy and reluctant, the cook gives in and prepares fish sandwiches for Jimmie in a pail. At the picnic, the other children make fun of Jimmie for having lunch in a pail. He hides behind a tree by himself, but regains his confidence even to the point of becoming boastful when "a beautiful lady" takes pity on him and sits with him. Back at home, he buries the sandwiches in Peter Washington's stable to avoid the wrath of the cook (Peter Washington is the African-American help on the Trescott property).

In "The Carriage Lamps," Jimmie secretly acquires a revolver through bartering. Peter Washington discovers this and tells Mr. Trescott. Jimmie throws rocks at Peter in retaliation, shattering some carriage lamps in the process. Though the Trescott's realize that Jimmie has been in the wrong, a rather ineffectual punishment is doled out.

"The Knife" is unusual because it isn't a story of the children, but of Peter Washington and Alek Williams, who both are tempted to steal a melon from one Si Bryant's property. Peter catches Alek in the act (even though he was about to do the same thing) but doesn't tell on Alek. When Si Bryant asks Alek later if he knew whose knife had been left on his property, Alek recognizes it as Peter's but decides not to sell Peter out. This story reveals some of the racial and socioeconomic tensions between the wealthy white landowners and African-American workers.

"The Stove" tells of the angel-child's return. The painter and his wife have invited themselves to the Trescott's for Christmas. This time, she brings with her a heavy toy, which is actually a stove. She forces Jimmie to play house with her, and they cook a bunch of turnips on the stove. The smell of the burning turnips interrupt Mrs. Trescott's tea party. Mr. Trescott compels the painter to punish his daughter, and he tries to spank her but his timidity is all too apparent as the angel-child screams and runs to her mother, and he is left behind feeling sheepish and sorry.

"The Trial, Execution, and Burial of Homer Phelps" is another story of the boys at play. Homer Phelps refused to make a "countersign" when the Margate twins encounter him and he is to be punished as a result. The ringleader of the boys, Willie Dalzel, commands Homer to be seized, put to trial, and executed. Homer refuses to play at this, and Jimmie instead steps in as the "victim" and plays his role romantically, to the great enjoyment of his peers. The boys then deem Homer to be "dead" and unable to participate in their next game, in which they enact a war between white men and Indians. They pretend that Homer is a dead body and bury him under some brambles, while Jimmie exhibits "deep manly grief."

"The Fight" is about the arrival of a new boy, Johnnie Hedge, from Jersey City. The other boys, of course, give him a hard time. Johnnie seems to just want to avoid any and all confrontation, but the boys goad him into a fight. It turns out that he plays by different rules than the boys of Whilomville (whose fights the narrator humorously describes as "more...a collision of boys in a fog than...the manly art of hammering another human being into speechless inability), and "licks" both Jimmie and Willie. The boys witness Willie's embarrassing flight from the scene.

The City Urchin and the Chaste Villagers" tells of the aftermath of the fight, in which "anarchy" ruled amongst the boys because their tribal leader had been shamed. One day, Willie and the remnants of his gang are role-playing a story from a half-dime pamphlet about a cabin boy who was bullied on a pirate ship but who eventually rose up successfully against the pirates. Willie pulls Johnnie Hedge's little brother in as the cabin boy, and though he doesn't mean to, hurts the little boy. Johnnie comes out enraged, and at first it seems that Willie gets the better of him. When Willie brags that he has "licked" Johnnie, Johnnie comes back to punish Willie. Before he can do anything though, his mother (a rather strict widow), comes out and stops him: "Yes, the war for supremacy was over, and the question was never again disputed. The supreme power was Mrs. Hedge."

"A Little Pilgrim," the final story in the collection, tells of Jimmie's decision to switch Sunday schools because his own, the Presbyterian school, was forgoing a Christmas tree that year in order to allocate funds the Charleson earthquake (in 1886, Charleston was indeed hit with a serious earthquake). Much to his dismay, the new Sunday school that he convinces his parents to let him go to also eventually decides to go without a Christmas tree.

The Whilomville Stories were part of a new subgenre of short stories, generally featured in "quality" magazines like Harper's or the Atlantic Monthly which were linked by a common set of characters and setting. These stories weren't entirely different from serialized novels (critical accounts have stressed the ways in which this new genre affected the novel and vice versa--Michael Lund points out, interestingly that the use of "to be continued" began in this period, in order to signal to audiences that the work was a serialized novel and not serial short stories). Lund's account of American serial fiction also points to the short story genre more broadly as increasingly associated America and America's specific national ideals at the end of the nineteenth century. Here are some details I have summarized from Lund's book: At the time on both sides of the Atlantic, there was much debate on literature's changing role in society, and out of this scuffle, Americans came to increasingly claim the short story as particularly a national genre of their own. In 1897, Harper's suggested that Americans had perfected the short story more than anyone else, concentrating on American traits of "national hurry and impatience" to suggest that the genre was somehow naturally suited to Americanness. A sense of novelty, imagination, and freshness was also associated with the American short story: in 1892, an Atlantic piece called "The Short Story" praised American short stories because they were "so rich, so varied, so fresh," and that they were the "national mode of utterance in the things of the imagination." In part, these rather upbeat characterizations of the short story were responding to the bleakness of naturalism, a competing genre of late realism which had taken hold of the American literary scene.

Crane's Whilomville Stories certainly embodies much of what Lund describes. The stories are upbeat, light, and quick reads* and they also engage readily in a tradition of distinctly American idioms, situations, images, and history. Much of Whilomville's comic and upbeat tones are generated by the exaggeration of trivial situations, especially child's play, to the height of epic registers. The examples are too numerous to list, but here are a couple of memorable ones: when Jimmie bungles his speech of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," the cruelty of his peers was "no better than a Roman populace in Nero's time"; when Cora's father ineffectually punishes her, she "raised to heaven a loud, clear soprano howl that expressed the last word in even mediaeval anguish." Though these exaggerations create a comic and slightly satirical effect, they also ventriloquize a child's imaginative sensibility--to the children, their playground confrontations and make-believe worlds are indeed epic, and deeply emotional. This ventriloquism doubly suggests a taking up or even embrace of the imaginative world of childish perception while also making fun of it.

There is, I think, something supposed to be distinctly American about Crane's reveling in these comic, yet fresh imaginative worlds of children (this kind of "imagination" is universal in that it applies to both boys and girls, as well as children from different regions--New York and New Jersey children exhibit generally similar behavior in these collections; though, the children's role playing is prescribed by gender, a girl like Cora plays at house with a stove, the boys play at wars between Indians and white men). Beyond the sense of America as more "imaginative" than Europe, Crane's stories are everywhere littered with American idioms and tropes. The American boys are fond of the wilderness, and often their social actions are described naturalistically. At play, they enact important scenes of American history, like the confrontation between the Indians and the white men (the civil was probably too recent to be a historical myth for expressing national solidarity). The narrator too describes the confrontation between Johnnie and the boys from Whilomville in terms of this historical myth: it was like "savages observing hte first white man, or white men observing the first savage." The children of Whilomville also show their alienation from great European works in their humorous, bungled accounts in the story on "Making an Orator." The children simply don't get the history nor the emotion behind the speeches which they give. The story suggests, perhaps, that such "Great Works" have no cultural bearing on American children, and so they ought not to be forced down their throats.

*Though the stories are upbeat and light, they are not without the edge of critique, particularly of race relations, indulgent parenting, pointless education systems, and more broadly, the dark side of human nature as apparent from the social "play" that children engage in.

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