In January 1897, Stephen Crane was on the steamship Commodore, headed from Jacksonville, Florida to Cuba, when it foundered and sank. Crane made it ashore and wrote “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” a newspaper account of the ordeal, but he also wrote “The Open Boat,” a really great short story.*
Four men in a boat: captain, with only one good hand; cook, likewise unable to row; oiler, an experienced and long-suffering seaman; and correspondent, viz. Crane. A tiny boat, the gunwale just inches above the water, and the seas high—“It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.”
It’s hard to enjoy the splendid view though when you’re still unsure of making it to shore. They end up very near to the beach but unable to land the boat because of the surf. There are even people on shore watching, not realizing they’re in distress. Crane’s description of the idiot waving his coat above his head is perfect. The rough surf leads to the refrain—repeated after they try going back out to sea, and coming back in again:
“If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—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?”
We spend the story identifying with the correspondent, who develops a close relationship with the oiler, just by sharing the rowing duties. Every time one asks the other to “spell” him, it’s more like a love note than a call to duty. The end of the story is almost unspeakably heartbreaking, but the very last sentence is one that, especially toward the end of this sea-reading project, was a wonderful summation.
When it came night, the white waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound of the great sea’s voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could then be interpreters.
*Is there something about writing about the sea that makes people lyrical who usually aren’t, or is my memory much worse than I think? I remember The Red Badge of Courage as a really unattractive piece of prose, nothing at all like this.