Crane’s voice in the story is versatile: at times
tender or thoughtful, at times choleric, frank, and unapologetic—always
personal. He describes empathically the injured captain who lies
in the dinghy’s bow as:
buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes,
temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy
nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down. The mind of
the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her . . . and this
captain had on him the stern impression of a scene in the grays of dawn
of seven turned faces, and later a stump of a top-mast with a white ball
on it that slashed to and fro at the waves, went lower and lower, and down.
Thereafter there was something strange in his voice. Although steady,
it was deep with mourning, and of a quality beyond oration or tears.
Interesting too, from the standpoint of craft, that Crane describes the
captain’s voice, then follows it with the short line of dialogue.
Even though the man’s voice is characterized in abstract terms—rather than
something concrete, like murmur or sigh—the captain’s line of dialogue
forces the reader to imagine the voice, to concretize it, and thus the
captain and his grief.
“Keep ‘er a little more south, Billie,” said he.
“‘A little more south,’ sir,” said the oiler in
the stern. (657)
Later, when the correspondent (Crane) vents his “rage,” he does not
cheapen nature with romantic or deferential terms, but speaks bluntly:
if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven
mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate
sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged
away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous.
If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be
deprived of the management of men’s fortunes. She is an old hen who
knows not her intention. If she has decided to drown me, why did
she not do it in the beginning and save me all this trouble. The
whole affair is absurd. . . . But, no, she cannot mean to drown me. She
dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work.
Crane emphasizes the futility of this slur against nature, capping it with
irony: “‘Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!’”
Like Shakespeare when he puts the drunken porter in Macbeth, Crane
deftly juxtaposes pathos and humor.
There is an immediacy to this narration—something palpable, tangible—that
brings the reader vicariously into the story. All je-ne-sais-quoi
aside, Crane’s imaginative treatment is more compelling than conventional
journalism’s just-the-facts style.
A particularly good example of the personal essay
is E.B. White’s 1956 piece, “Bedfellows.” I like his use of imagery
as a less-stridently-rhetorical device that gentles the essay’s point.
In this piece White de-barbs his political commentary with imagery, and
more especially, with humor, the writer’s most disarming weapon.
He opens with:
I am lying here in my private sick bay on the east side
of town . . . watching starlings from the vantage point of bed. Three
Democrats are in bed with me: Harry Truman (in a stale copy of the Times)
[etc.]. . . . I take Democrats to bed with me for lack of a dachshund,
although as a matter of fact on occasions like this I am almost certain
to be visited by the ghost of Fred . . . dead these many years. . . . In
life, Fred always attended the sick, climbing right into bed with the patient
like some lecherous old physician, and making a bad situation worse.
All this dark morning I have reluctantly entertained him . . . felt his
oppressive weight, and heard his fraudulent report. He was an uncomfortable
bedmate when alive; death has worked little improvement—I still . . . wonder
why I put up with his natural rudeness and his pretensions. (White
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