July 17, 2013

Sleeping on Hallowed Ground: A Gettysburg Seance With Stephen Crane

book revShe was at last looking upon those curious beings who rode down from the North — those men of legend and colossal tale — they who were possessed of such marvellous hallucinations.

—Stephen Crane, from “Three Mysterious Soldiers”

During a July 4 NPR broadcast live from Gettysburg, Pa. on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War, people were talking about how the historic site should be preserved and remembered. On the street that runs between the battle lines, there are restaurants, souvenir shops, and motels. One Gettysburg historian named Jerry Bennett said it was “a great place to put a motel, right in the middle of it, because you’re sleeping on hallowed ground that night, if you’re a tourist.”

Although there has been a great deal of storm and strife over the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build faculty housing on property proximate to our own Battlefield, at least Princeton has been spared the presence of a Travelodge on hallowed ground, not to mention the paranormal buzz that has made Gettysburg a “Mecca for ghost hunters.” A story in the York Daily Record begins, “In a town where even the land beneath McDonald’s is believed by more than one ghost tour guide to be tinged with spiritual energy, Gettysburg has managed to build a booming paranormal industry.” You have to wonder when some pulp novelist or Hollywood idea guru will figure out how to bring zombies to Gettysburg. Think of the feast for the living dead as all those thousands of soldiers congregate on the battlefield for a grisly reenactment before fanning out to dine on the locals, including the faculty and student body of Gettysburg College, not to mention the folks at the Lutheran Seminary.

Southern Fried Chicken

It would take the man who gave us the post-war roadside America of Lolita to do justice to the sight my wife and I beheld on our first and only visit to Gettysburg more than three decades ago. Leering above the spot where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address was the enormous disembodied head of Charlie Weaver, the resident dirty old man on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show. Next to the outsized mug of the man known in real life as Cliff Arquette, father of movie stars Rosanna and Patricia, was the equally immense head of a Confederate soldier preparing to devour a piece of southern fried chicken as big as the Liberty Bell. Online sources confirm that what we saw that day was for real. The Charlie Weaver Museum of the Civil War was then housed in a building that had served as headquarters for General O. O. Howard, now known as the Soldiers National Museum. And today, some four decades later, a recent tour on Google Earth suggests that General Pickett’s Buffet and KFC currently occupy the site of the fried chicken restaurant, the Confederate colossus having given way to the ubiquitous Col. Sanders.

Cousin Jubal

At the time we visited Gettysburg, I was unaware of the part my ancestor, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, had played in the events of June 26-July 5, 1863. Described in Richard Wheeler’s Witness to Gettysburg as “misshapenly arthritic, religious but profane, snappish with his orders, and impatient of failure,” Early was “a commander who inspired little enthusiasm but had won a full measure of trust.” Apparently old Jube was there before anyone else, having occupied Gettysburg on June 26, on his way to seizing and occupying York, the largest town in the North to fall to the Rebels. Upon capturing Gettysburg, Early demanded a ransom of 1,200 pounds of sugar, 600 pounds of coffee, 60 barrels of flour, 1,000 pounds of salt, 7,000 pounds of bacon, 10 barrels of whiskey, 10 barrels of onions, 1,000 pairs of shoes, and 500 hats, or, “in lieu thereof,” $5,000 in cash. The town council turned him down and while no attempt was made to enforce the requisition, “a few houses were robbed.” Two days later, according to Wheeler, Early’s division reached the Susquehanna River (the farthest east any organized Confederate force would penetrate during the course of the war), collected a $28,000 ransom from York, and was recalled when Lee “concentrated his army to meet the oncoming Federals.” On July 1 Early was approaching Gettysburg from the northeast on the leftmost flank of the Confederate line. After defeating a Yankee division and driving the troops back through the streets of the town, he led the July 2 assault on East Cemetery Hill but was repelled by Union reinforcements, and ended his role at Gettysburg by covering the rear of Lee’s army during its retreat on July 4 and 5.

Reading and Writing

While my maternal ancestors fought for the South, the soldiers on my father’s side of the family, with the glaring exception of Jubal Early, fought for the North. If you grew up in the south, you probably read the novels of the war by southern authors, notably William Faulkner, who expressed in Intruder in the Dust the impact of Gettysburg on “every Southern boy 14 years old,” for whom “there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances.”

For a writer who grew up in the North, the Civil War is an excuse to read the poems in Melville’s Battle Pieces and the war entries in Whitman’s Specimen Days, where he writes from Washington on July 4 1863 of the weather (“warm … after last night’s smart rain … and no dust, which is a great relief for this city”) and of a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue that included three regiments of infantry, “two or three societies of Oddfellows, a lot of children in barouches, and a squad of policemen.” Then: “As I went down the Avenue, saw a big flaring placard on the billboard of a newspaper office, announcing ‘Glorious Victory for the Union Army!’” Walt is on his way to visit wounded soldiers in the Armory hospital with several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup, “good and strong, but innocent.” Going through several wards, he brings the news from Gettysburg and gives them all “a good drink of the syrups with ice-water, quite refreshing — prepar’d it myself, and serv’d it around.” Meanwhile the city is ringing its bells, “sundown peals for Fourth of July, and the usual fusilades of boys’ pistols, crackers, and guns.”

Stephen Hero

For me, one of the great saving graces of the Civil War is the work of Stephen Crane (1871-1900), who at the age of 24 simply picked up that piece of American history, put it in his pocket, and walked away with it. So nonchalant, so New Jersey somehow, the way the Newark-born 20-something son of a preacher took possession of the subject and wrote stories, novels, poems, and essays about the War, the West and the World in the four years of life left to him.

I’ve been reading The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War, which came out in 1896 on the heels of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane’s literary supremacy in this field profits from his very absence from the experience of the events that began 10 years before he was born. If he’d actually been a soldier or a war correspondent, as he was in the Spanish-American and Greco-Turkish wars, he might have produced fine work but it wouldn’t have glowed with the quality of exalted visitation that makes his fiction so haunting and suggestive. He conjured the war and it appeared before him like a phantom in blue and gray. Hemingway, whose debt to Crane is enormous, called The Red Badge “a boy’s long dream of war.”

There’s a dreamlike quality to “Three Miraculous Soldiers,” which is told from the point of view of a girl who happens to live in the South. Crane makes us know and care about her as if she were our sister, or as if we’d grown up and gone to school with her. She’s no flamboyant storybook spitfire of a Scarlett O’Hara, though in her own shy, sweet, quiet, dazed way she becomes involved in the rescue of three Rebel soldiers hiding in the barn behind her family’s house. A Yankee regiment is camped in a nearby orchard and a captured Rebel is sitting in front of the barn under the watchful eye of a Union sentry with whom he’s been making small talk. At the girl’s urging, and with her help, the three soldiers had been concealed inside a huge feed box at the back of the barn — an object that Crane endows with supernatural splendor, especially when Union soldiers enter the barn and open the box. Afraid for the three men for whom by now she feels responsible, the girl watches as a Union officer reaches in; when he brings forth only a handful of feed, she is “astonished out of her senses at this spectacle of three large men metamorphosed into a handful of feed.” Now the interior of the barn is “uncanny. It contained that extraordinary feed box,” which has become “a mystic and terrible machine, like some dark magician’s trap.”

Crane doesn’t simply believe in literary magic, he practices it, and however much he may commune with his lofty, moody muse, he always keeps human truth at the core of his work, as he does so memorably at the end of “Three Mysterious Soldiers” when the girl who has been vicariously living and dying with the three embattled Rebels kneels in tears over the Union soldier who was wounded when they make their escape. After being assured that he’s all right, “She turned her face with its curving lips and shining eyes once more toward the unconscious soldier upon the floor.” The Union soldiers marvel at how a girl who seems to be “the worst kind of rebel … falls to weeping over one of her enemies.” The Union lieutenant has the last word: “War changes many things; but it doesn’t change everything, thank God!”

Crane’s Vision

I keep coming back to the idea of sleeping on hallowed ground voiced by the man on NPR. I also keep remembering those two grotesque effigies at Gettysburg looming over land that was littered with the bodies of American soldiers 150 years ago. Then I imagine souvenir shops and motels lining the Princeton Pike alongside our own serene battlefield where when we have picnics or walks, we don’t think of scenes of unthinkable carnage but the relatively picturesque death of General Mercer under the late and much lamented Mercer Oak. The wonder of Stephen Crane, who died at 28 in the first spring of the 20th century, is that he had the style and courage and vision and sense of irony and capacity for outrage to have comprehended and encompassed all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly.