The critical history of Stephen Crane's story of a black man who becomes a social outcast after his face is destroyed in a laboratory fire is divided unevenly between moralists, theorists, and historians.(1) Irony and textual unity are no longer fashionable, but common sense and the bulk of informed opinion continue to find Henry Johnson less of a "monster" than the community that ostracizes him. If one scholar's recent defense of the citizens of Whilomville is meant as pragmatic historicism, this argument nonetheless reverses the traditional moral and might be grouped with the more theoretical accounts of scholars like Fried and Mitchell, who describe a writerly and less realistic Crane.(2) Without joining a rich debate about Crane's understanding of ethics or the categorical problem of his relationship to realism, we can classify most treatments of the novella as either moral and implicitly humanistic or hermeneutic and post-structuralist. That both these strands of reading have tended to bypass the problem of history is not surprising, for Crane's text invites a universalizing reading, and his treatment of race exposes the historicity of novella and critic alike. Because Henry's marginalization seems to be primarily the result of an accident, it makes sense to see his blackness as incidental to a transhistorical moral about the need for tolerance or, somewhat more subtly, interpret his unusual plight as a meditation on the defacing effects of writing. Moreover, the story presents racial stereotypes--Crane's likening, for instance, of Henry and the Farragut women to "three monkeys"(3)--that seem to imply a disconnection between Crane's sympathy for Henry and any progressive racial awareness.(4) In this light, Patrick Cooley's anachronistic indictment of Crane's "sadly limited racial consciousness" (p. 14) is persuasive, while Stanley Wertheim's rejection of readings which attempt "to modernize The Monster by reductively centering attention on Henry Johnson's blackness" (p. 98) seems a rearguard action, a generic appeal to historical difference which will not suffice in our era of highly politicized canons.
While we might understand Crane's acquiescence in racial stereotyping as a corollary of his naturalism, a strategy for negotiating the marketplace, or as part and parcel of his general contempt for humankind, we would still be left with the problem of why "The Monster" offers the interpretive temptation Wertheim urges us to resist. Henry's accidental "monstrousness" is not at a great remove from the racist constructions of the black as "burly beast" or "savage" current when Crane wrote the story. Similarly, the community's response may be Crane's way of making a general statement about intolerance, but given the context of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), it is difficult not to think that the more specific issue is segregation.
Situating "The Monster" in the context of late nineteenth-century racial ideology, I suggest that the central problem of the story--what to do with Henry after his accident--restages a debate about black extinction and white philanthropy. Less abstractly, I speculate that Henry's precarious existence recalls the death of Robert Lewis, who was lynched in Crane's home town of Port Jervis, New York, in the summer of 1892. In light of these connections, Crane does not so much act as polemicist writing a roman a clef (or an apologist offering the rationalization that racism is an accident) as he allows ideology to shadow his story and disrupt the realistic surface of his text. If Crane's passing allusion to the burning of the engraving "Signing the Declaration" in his description of the destruction of the Trescott house is a nod to one of the enduring contradictions of American political life, it is also the most obvious marker of a densely allusive ideological subtext that runs beneath--often counter to--the surface of "The Monster" and links it to contemporary debates about segregation and miscegenation. In short, although Crane has made it easy for us to rehearse his novella as a universal story about social misfits, a sufficiently historical reading of "The Monster" may serve to show that his thinking about race (and realism) was more complex than is generally acknowledged.
Both the fact of Crane's ideological involvement and the obliquity of his procedure are suggested by pursuing the hypothesis that Plessy is a shaping context for the novella. While "The Monster" does not allude to the case with the explicitness, say, of Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, several details nudge us in this direction. Jimmie's destruction of a flower in chapter 1, which almost all critics understand as foreshadowing Henry's fate, is a case in point, for he is playing train. Recalling the nineteenth-century habit of likening black suffrage to a child's driving a train, we might feel that the novella begins not with a young boy's fantasy but with the politics of segregation.(5) When Henry is removed from the burning house by "a young man who was a brakeman on the railway" (p. 26), or Reifsnyder and the engineer Bainbridge debate in chapter 14, it would be difficult not to suspect Crane of quietly establishing a meaningful pattern of detail.
The most suggestive appearance of this motif is in chapter 18, after Henry has been pursued through the streets of Whilomville and finally captured by the police. Concerned about growing unrest within the community and faced with a problem because "no charges [can] be made" (p. 48) against Henry, the chief of police visits Trescott, urging him to intervene and recalling the events of the previous evening: "He began to run, and a big crowd chased him, firing rocks. But he gave them the slip somehow down there by the foundry and in the railroad yard. We looked for him all night, but couldn't find him" (p. 48). While the chief's bafflement is credibly realistic, Henry's disappearance in the railroad yard is also a narrative correlative for his ambiguous legal status. The irony here is that the historical and allegorical (in this case ideological) senses of Crane's text contradict rather than reinforce one another. Henry Johnson the "monster" may represent a category outside the law and find refuge in the railway yard, but Henry Johnson the black man would have found that it was in the neighborhood of the railroad that his legal status was defined with the most punishing clarity.
Crane's references to the railroad are few enough that we might suppress historical and ideological irony in the name of realist common sense, but to do so would complicate rather than simplify the novella. Crane's decision to cast a physician as Henry's protector, fundamental to the story's conception, has a similar complicating irony, for the role the nineteenth-century medical community played in establishing and promulgating racist ideology is well documented. John Haller, for instance, notes that "throughout the late nineteenth century the physician remained the chief source of information for comparative race analysis"; on the basis of census numbers, crime statistics, and anthropometrical data such as cranial measurements, the members of the medical community found themselves "generally agreed on the condition of the Negro."(6) The grim consensus, to which Crane seems to allude when he locates Henry's accident in a physician's laboratory, was that the extinction of the black race was a certainty.
Trescott is not a proponent of scientific racism, and the broad irony of a doctor's acting as Henry's protector could be fortuitous; however, Crane hints that Trescott's reaction to Henry's destruction is shaped by his education as a physician. Upon learning that Henry is still within the burning building, the generally mild-mannered doctor lapses into a fit of rage: "These cries penetrated to the sleepy senses of Trescott, and he struggled with his captors, swearing, unknown to him and to them, all the deep blasphemies of his medical school days" (p. 26). The phrase "unknown to him and to them" may make the ironic point that the closest Trescott can come to "deep blasphemies" (or heroic resistance) is to mutter under his breath, but there is no doubt that Henry's fate returns Trescott to his medical school days. This academic history, which Trescott fails to recognize in the spectacle before him and Crane declines to detail, lies at the back of the doctor's determination to protect Henry and is presumably the source of the barely-suppressed emotion a "leonine" (p. 30) Trescott shows when Judge Hagenthorpe suggests that Henry should be allowed to die.
The doctor seems psychologically compelled rather than ideologically aware, but his dilemma, generally understood as an abstract problem about the competing demands of obligation and a need for acceptance in the social order, also reflects the discourse of race. One of the byproducts of …