This is part of our Review of The Open Boat & Other Stories.
“The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”: A bumpkin sheriff brings his new bride back from the big city of San Antonio. They take the train and are awed by the finery and are only subconsciously aware of being mocked by the waitstaff. Both sheriff and bride are uneasy about the sheriff’s failure ot notify his fellow townsmen of the nuptials. Back home in Yellow Sky, trouble’s brewing when Old Scratchy, the last of the old gang, gets drunk and starts rampaging around the town screaming and occasionally shooting (no one dies, since all citizens stay sensibly behind barred doors). And then they newlyweds walk up to his (now their) home just as Scratchy Wilson’s out front, bellowing to his old rival Jack (the sheriff), begging for a fight. Scratchy sees them and draws a gun on the Missus. But Jack’s not armed, and Scratchy wants a fight, not a murder. And then he learns that this woman is Jack’s new bride, and Scratchy Wilson is “like a creature allowed to glimpse another world”. And all’s well.
Notes / Unquoted Quotes
Bumpkins. Innocents. He sun-red and wind-chafed. The redness offset by the fancy black suit that he’s clearly not used to wearing. The bride is not pretty or very young, uncomfortable in her blue cashmere stiff-sleeved dress. He sitting up straight with both knees on thigh like a man waiting his turn at the barber shop. He pointing out the fineries of the train with the pride of an owner. She thinks it is part of her wifely amiability to evince surprise at all statements he makes. The negro porter thinks their elation ridiculous. He oppresses them with unconquerable snobbery, so they don’t know they are being oppressed — at least not consciously. In the dining car the negro waiters in dazzling white suits watch them with the interest and equanimity of men who’d been forewarned, and the two country fools can’t detect the patronage intertwined with the ordinary dining-car deference. But a sense of relief is on their face as they escape their glorious, once in a lifetime, $1 dining-car meal.
He’s not told Yellow Sky about this marriage. Hence their mutual guilt, his nervous laughter, the flush on her face.
Who’s in the bar back in Yellow Sky? A fast-talking drummer (what is that exactly? Is it related to barrel making? No! It was a peddler: they went from farmhouse to homestead, selling items both useful and inessential but fun), three Texans not then in the mood to talk (Yellow Sky is in Texas), and two Mexican sheepherders who never talked at the Weary Gentleman saloon. And a dog used to being kicked.
A young man pokes his head in the bar: “Scratchy Wilson’s drunk!” Mexicans fade out. Drummer gets nervous and jabbers at the barkeep. Will he kill anybody? What are you going to do? Does this happen often? Well, he can’t break the door but he’ll shoot holes in it maybe.
Jack Potter would sail in and pull the kinks out of this thing! But he’s out of town.
Why does the shot remove a bond from the men?
Wilson bullies the terrified dog. He bangs gun butt on saloon door, demanding a drink. He puts a piece of paper on the door, walks a ways back, shoots, and misses it by half an inch.
The couple show up. Wilson aims at the bride.
Married! No! He was like a creature allowed a glimpse of another world. Revolver at this side, he takes off, leaving funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand.
What makes “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” beautiful?
The bumpkin sheriff and his wife are sweet innocents. They have a grand time on the train, although it is a little marred by the underhanded mockery from the African American staff, who consider them doofuses and good sport. But they have only a subconscious inkling of this sneaky cruelty, and so, if asked, could not rightly tell an observer why the relief of escape twinkled in their eye as they left their once in a lifetime $1 dining car meal. It hurts the reader that their special never-to-be-repeated splurge should be tarnished. And it hurts the reader more to be reminded of the classism and especially the racism within our shared story. But this was written in the 1890s, and one does not get the sense that Crane is dwelling on either of those issues; he’s just sketching a scene, filling in the background psychologies with a wide declarative brush (rather than taking us directly into the minds of the several participants).
The train ride is painful to watch, but then we see Jack’s town, first in their concern at not having told anyone in town about their marriage, which will offend his friends, which seems to be the whole town. And so we feel: “OK! He’s a fish out of water, and he’s escaping with his happy bride back to water. Yes, in three hours time, this will all be an incomprehensible but neat and proud anecdote for them.” We’re relieved. And then Scratchy Wilson shows up, and we learn this bumpkin is the one person in town who can handle Scratchy Wilson. And so we’re happy for him to have a place and be respected for what he is and what he does. But then again we’re worried that one or both of the newlyweds are about to be gunned down by this drunken imbecile Scratchy Wilson.
Scratchy Wilson carries on and he’s crazed and seems capable of anything! And sure enough, when the happy couple approach their home (the bride for the first time), Wilson aims his gun right at the bride’s chest! And Jack has no gun! But, actually, wait: that’s a good thing. Because Scratchy Wilson wants a fight, not a murder. And then Jack tells Scratchy he’s just been married, and Scratchy becomes an abashed child, congratulates them, and makes funnel-shaped tracks in the sand as he retreats. Why funnel-shapped? Is he dragging his boot-tips? Is that the pattern drawn by drunken cowboy boots in the heavy sand?
At any rate, we readers are very happy. Everyone is safe. Jack is the man. Scratchy’s glimpsed a tad beyond himself and his empty self-obsessed ragings, he’s caught a whiff of a happy safe stable earthly love, and instead of reacting jealously and violently, he’s humbled and retreats peaceably.
The hamlet’s Evil is let out like air from a blow-up bed. And we’re left with a safe place where Jack’s the hero and his bride’s the wife of the hero. The knight will now lead the princess up to the bedchamber. All is well. No, he didn’t kill the dragon. But he’d taught the dragon enough violent lessons that the bravery of this peaceful one cannot be denied. And the dragon sees that rampaging is not the way after all.
The two are safe and have friends and matter and are loved. We feel good about their trajectory: from his journey into the fancy and otherworldly San Antonio, he’s brought back his bosom mate and faithful bride. The iron horse had unforeseen, confusing and ultimately largely-unobserved dangers; but they survived with no conscious wound and subconsciousnesses not so much wounded as slightly enlarged; and then, at the last minute, when the old villain raised his head and seemed ready to destroy everything, he was conquered by Jack’s character, which did not flinch, and which, combined with what it had managed with weapons, exerted an even more powerful influence without weapons. All is well, everyone is safe. After lovemaking, Jack and his love will snuggle in each other’s arms. Let it be. Let them be happy. Life’s hard enough without that you can’t let a couple foolish innocents have a happy ending.
What about the names?
The Nameless wife
A potter’s field is a graveyard for the unnamed and unclaimed poor. Old “Scratch” is a name for the devil. A woman referred to only by her relationship to her husband seems existentially dependent upon him. But Jack and his wife seem actually quite happy and delighted with each other and their new estate, and Jack seems to be both claimed and loved by his town. And Scratchy Wilson is an imbecile, but his murderous intents are easily holstered when he hears that his rival in gunfighting has found a peace-time happiness. The names then, seem to overstate the drama. Jack’s not so forlorn, his wife’s not so disenfranchised, Scratchy Wilson’s not so bad. The deflation of archetypes and expectations, the replacement of grand denouements for the more common nontraumatic deescalation — all this is part of the story’s charm: sometimes things aren’t so dire, sometimes people basically get along, the hero calms down rather than killing the villain, who turns out to not be so bad after all; sometimes it’s OK to get a happy ending without ratcheting the conflict or the irony up to the nth degree.
What about the African American (called “negro” by Crane, a word that while not pointedly derogatory, we now avoid) waitstaff? The silent Mexicans? The jabbering drummer and the barkeep? The nervous young man at the door? They’re there, but less so. The story is about Jack, and then about Jack and his bride, and then about Jack and Scratchy Wilson, and then about Scratchy Wilson. What does Crane think about the story’s minor characters? I can’t tell from the story. They’re more than just the scenery. They interact with the heros and bring out nuances in the heros, and they also help create and populate the world the heroes live in, and from which they take their textures.
The story does not feel like a social commentary. A white writer in 2020 could not write this story. The modern writer would feel some need to account for and respond to the plight of the racial minorities. Or, better yet, to draw them more carefully, bring their perspectives to the fore. But it was the 1890s, and Crane used his newspaper-trained eye to sketch a few scenes. Perhaps there’s some subtle commentaries about race in America within this story, but mostly the story is about Jack, his wife, and Scratchy Wilson.
I myself try to avoid mentioning race in my fictional writing. I don’t want to focus on it, and if I’m seen as treating it superficially, it will turn readers off. So it seems best to leave it out. For the NYC Journal, of course, it’s different. There I want to write down how real people looked, what they said, what they did. So that’s how I deal with it: when possible, be ambiguous on race (read, for example, Superhero Novella, and I think you’ll find that most if not all the characters could conceivably be any race); but where it’s not possible, then bite the bullet and say, for example, “a light-skinned young black man with a thin angular face, tight buzz cut, and and a tight navy polo and skinny jeans …” etc — a writer always has to make decisions about including enough details to bring the reader sufficiently into the moment, while also not overburdening readers with words; so it is not a reasonable option to always trace out every line and hue of every character in one’s works; if it were, and if one had enough skill, then I guess one could avoid all racial designations, even in reporting pieces.
Author: Committee of Concerned Would-Be Authors
Editorial Oversight: AW & BW
This is part of our Review of The Open Boat & Other Stories.