This is part of our Review of The Open Boat & Other Stories.
One of two stories based on the ill-fated steamship SS Commodore, that sank off the coast of Florida with Crane on board on January 2, 1897. The story begins with Flanagan interviewing for a job captaining a filibustering mission (running guns and ammo to the Cuban rebels). Why does he want the job? For the fun mostly. Ship’s boilers have some trouble early on. Flanagan lays into the engineer on duty. Later he breaks a stoker’s jaw for not answering satisfactorily; there’d been some rumor of discontent in the stoker room. They pick up guns and men from Florida. Cubans bring corn whisky but get too seasick to drink it. The stokers drink it and get into a fight. The captain wants to tear them apart, but the Cuban leader says he has to treat them gentle like little children, otherwise they’ll blab about the filibustering when they get to port. They near the coast of Cuba and unload their weapons and men and take on some injured men. They leave before all the rowboats have returned because a Cuban gunboat is attacking. A Cuban officer says there’s no point surrendering because they’ll shoot them all as traitors. Flanagan dashes up to the helm, takes the wheel, and spins the ship around, barrelling down on the gunboat, and side-swiping it. The Cuban rebels fire down on the Cuban’s in the gunboat. The captain has a moment of satisfaction before the storm hits. Before too long the ship’s going down, they load into lifeboats and row towards a beach where a hotel’s giving a party. The guests eventually realize what’s going on and go out to the landing boats. Billie the stoker from The Open Boat washes up dead. “The expedition of the ‘Foundling’ will never be historic.”
My guess is that this story smashes together a couple different experiences of the real-life captain of the USS Commodore. In this story, they make it to Cuba and get attacked by a gunboat after unloading men and supplies. But from what I can gather, the Commodore never made it to Cuba. I don’t know. I’m confused.
Flanigan had pursued this job mostly for fun. It is harrowing and ends with at least one stoker dead, another with a broken jaw, a cook with burned legs, and a first mate with a broken arm. Also, everyone on board almost drowns. Also, who knows whether or not anyone in the the Cuban gunboat survives being reamed by the freighter and shot at by the rebels?
Why didn’t the correspondent (Crane) get on the boats that were heading to Cuba? And why include a journalist on a filibuster? The Cuban general was afraid of the uneducated stokers telling people on shore about their adventure. Surely in such a situation, the last person you want involved is a journalist! There’s no mention of Crane in this story, but it is clearly the prequel to The Open Boat, so he must’ve been there. [Maybe this story is not strictly historical. It doesn’t seem like the Commodore made it to Cuba.]
Chopping effect of the narration: Some general pronouncement about life followed by hard-crashing action that often either overthrows or colors with a great deal of that bold statement of human wisdom. You feel the crash of waves rolling indifferently over human destiny. Even the idiocy of the fighting soldiers feels like part of the mindless natural order.
The story is confusing and hard to follow. It is jarring.
It is obviously not as good as TOB. You can’t quite feel the men. And the connection between the narrator’s musings and the action does not flow as well. To some degree that is perhaps on purpose: Crane seems to employ a technique of jarringly pairing heavy-handed pronouncements with fast-tumbling, pronouncement-overthrowing action. Perhaps the difference is that the Open Boat is bobbing lazily with the waves and the sailors are all melding peacefully into one another, and so the narrator’s reflections are naturally softer, gentler, deeper, wider.
What about the captain? Don’t we get a sense of him? Yes: add this story to The Open Boat and the sketch of the captain becomes close to complete. He’s shy in port; fearless and in charge at the helm. He’s not above extreme beratings, or even breaking a lazy sailor’s jaw with his own fist. In charge of a ship in danger, he is fully in his element, courageous, resourceful, eminently capable. The daring maneuver of spinning around and barrelling down on the gunboat takes everyone — including his own shipmates — by surprise: who would’ve thought of it in time? And then had yet time to dare it? And yet, he’s not all bravado and action, even before laying injured and exhausted in a lifeboat’s shallow and wet hull. He’s embarrassed to be reminded that he’s broken one of the stoker’s jaws. He sobs when the ship goes down. He’s a man fully invested in this job he’s accepted; he’s spent himself completely upon it. And then comes the gentle, calm, caring, careful captain of The Open Boat. Looking out for everyone’s safety; giving calm but insightful directives all along. We see the same basic will for a success for all, but shorn of the standard machismo that the captain rightly or wrongly thinks is required to control an 1890s steamer (probably rightly), we see just the flame itself: the will to push this whole crew (now down to the four in the open boat) on to a safe landing.
The whole operation seems foolish. Running guns to the Cuban rebels. Using an old junker. Twenty year old kids running riot in the engine room. Flanagan breaking some kid’s jaw, which surely goes too far, whatever the kid’s crime. And then this same Flanigan convinced by the Cuban General to not even yell too awful much at the drunken fighting stokers. And Billy washes up dead. For what?
Staccato approach of the prose: empty or perhaps not so empty sermonizing on politics, people, character, and then the crash of the wave: “Life is like this” Action crashes down, overthrowing platitude. Repeat.
I still don’t understand what all was going on with Crane’s early speech about filibustering, by which he meant a government running guns to help foreign rebels overthrow their government. When did our current use of “filibuster” become the only one anyone’s familiar with?
Confusing discussion of filibusters as Flannigan interviews for the captain’s job with an attorney in Boston. Discussion less confusing when one looks up “filibuster” and learns it was once used to describe aiding a foreign nation’s rebels attempt to overthrow that foreign nation’s government. “Oh! He’s a coup-runner!”
At some point early on their trip from Boston to Cuba, the engines fail. The second engineer had been on duty and not said anything. Captain Flanigan lays into him.
I don’t quite understand why the captain broke the stoker’s jaw. He’d call this kid on deck, because “one needs the sky for bravery”. There’d been rumors of dark sayings in the stoker room. Maybe about the nature of the voyage?? The kid’s explanation was insufficient. It’s funny to think that just a hundred years before I was in high school, boats still required sweaty young men with coal shovels for their power.
The story has a choppy feeling, like the narrator hacks in with each little segment, chopping down from above. Not unlike stormy waves.
And the first mate is a fine officer, so a wave throws him across the ship and breaks his arm. This technique is often employed: some human valuation set triumphantly and energetically at the start of a paragraph/thought, and then the action of the natural world comes crashing down, often contradicting and undermining the human certainty. Indifferent power of natural events.
There’s a fight amongst the stokers, drunk off the corn wine the sea-sick Cuban soldiers had brought and could not consume. The captain wants to tear into the fighters, but the Cuban general says you must treat them delicately, you must baby them, or else they’ll spill the beans when we get to shore. And the captain reflects on the complexities of fillibusting. This being his first such assignment.
They get close to Cuba, unload their wares and soldiers, and accept a few coming back to rest. There’s a boat approaching, so the captain doesn’t wait for all the boats to return. “10 minutes too late” he muses to himself as they make way.
[Well, that’s how it seems in the story; but in real life, it sounds like the Commodore never unloaded the men and supplies for Cuba — it hit a sandbar a couple miles of the coast of Florida, got towed from there, and then beached again and then a leak started in the boiler room, and then it sank.]
Will the gunboat get them? But then the captain has a flash of insight. The prose whirls around with him. The action is cinematic mixed still with these heavy-handed general pronouncements. The captain’s at the helm, he’s spun the big freight boat around and he’s going to run down the little gun boat. You can’t blame him; first, the boat’s shooting at them; second the Cuban general says, “no use surrendering, they’ll hang us all for traitors.” The freighter clips the gun boat, the freighter’s Cuban soldiers fire on the gunboat’s Cuaban soldiers.
The captain swells up a moment. And then comes the storm that swamps the ship. And the story ends with the dance held at the beach resort. At first they can’t believe the reports of a boats coming to the beach. But then they do, and an Irish-looking boy (Billy, from the Open Boat) washes up dead. Bill was probably also the young stoker who repeated the Captain’s “keep her
Author: Committee of Concerned Would-Be Authors
Editorial Oversight: AW & BW
Copyright: AMW going as long as you can”.
This is part of our Review of The Open Boat & Other Stories.