Academic journal article
By McMurray, Price
Studies in American Fiction , Vol. 26, No. 1
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. …