During this week’s Western 106 High Noon Radio Show, I was talking about my interest in the western films and stories that are situated in and beyond the end of the era, Not that there is a firm line, but films like The Shootist, Lonely Are The Brave the cowboy figure is a bit of an anachronism, and old ways clash with technology and the end of frontiers.
Jim Groom suggested to me a short story by Stephen Crane, The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky (available to ready freely and openly at East of the Web).
It’s an extremely short story- I clocked it at 4400 words; that’s like 2 and half days of Nanowrimo, I read it over a dinner.
There’s so much to it that goes against the stereotypical western grain, and on a first pass through, I thought– woah hardly anything happened. And in the end? Nothing. But then on like the 3rd, 4th, 5th reviews, I am finding so much to it– to me that is some of the best reading experiences, where it’s not blunt force obvious what its about on one pass through. It’s something you have to work through.
And I’m not done yet.
In a nutshell or two, Jack Potter, Marshall of a western town in Texas along the Rio Grand, is returning there on the train with his new bride from San Antonio. They hardly seem romantic, and are more fools that do not know they are fools (but all passengers and crew on the train see it), he’s caught up in what the town folks will think, and plans to sneak his bride in without fanfare. Except he has a run in with the local old outlaw, Scratchy Wilson, who at the time Potter is returning, is going on a drunken spree of shooting up the town.
Scratchy is then, the symbol of the classic old west ways, but he has become already a bit of something that does not fit in with the way the west is changing- the description of Scratchy’s clothing suggests the way West is no longer so far from east:
A man in a maroon-colored flannel shirt, which had been purchased for purposes of decoration and made, principally, by some Jewish women on the east side of New York, rounded a corner and walked into the middle of the main street of Yellow Sky. In either hand the man held a long, heavy, blue-black revolver. Often he yelled, and these cries rang through a semblance of a deserted village, shrilly flying over the roofs in a volume that seemed to have no relation to the ordinary vocal strength of a man. It was as if the surrounding stillness formed the arch of a tomb over him. These cries of ferocious challenge rang against walls of silence. And his boots had red tops with gilded imprints, of the kind beloved in winter by little sledding boys on the hillsides of New England.
Potter too is seemingly a man out of time. He seems to be respected as the Marshall, but he’s hardly a Marshall Will Cane— he is so caught up in what his town people will think of him with this non-trophy bride. He notices and admires the rich details of the train, the dining car- yet the fact he is riding this modern convenience (and not a stagecoach) puts him out of place.
And then there are the “Negro” porters and staff of the train, who are in ways Potter does not know, intellectually and worldly superior to the person who ought to be the hero character.
[Potter’s] face in particular beamed with an elation that made him appear ridiculous to the negro porter. This individual at times surveyed them from afar with an amused and superior grin. On other occasions he bullied them with skill in ways that did not make it exactly plain to them that they were being bullied. He subtly used all the manners of the most unconquerable kind of snobbery. He oppressed them, but of this oppression they had small knowledge, and they speedily forgot that infrequently a number of travelers covered them with stares of derisive enjoyment.
The marshall and his bride are not even equipped to handle a showdown at high noon, they do not even read what the people on the train read in them.
The train really is (I think) showing how the old ways are being moved away from. In the very first sentence, Crane sets it up so beautifully:
The great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward. Vast flats of green grass, dull-hued spaces of mesquite and cactus, little groups of frame houses, woods of light and tender trees, all were sweeping into the east, sweeping over the horizon, a precipice.
Do you get that? See it? The train is moving to the west, as advancement, and as it does so, to those on the train, the familiar West literally flows back to the East- the west is disappearing.
The bride is a bit of an engima. She’s not described with much flattery:
The bride was not pretty, nor was she very young. She wore a dress of blue cashmere, with small reservations of velvet here and there and with steel buttons abounding. She continually twisted her head to regard her puff sleeves, very stiff, straight, and high. They embarrassed her. It was quite apparent that she had cooked, and that she expected to cook, dutifully.
We are not sure what she saw in this Marshall Potter, what even was the means that that met and got married, but then again she is not just some inert personality, in fact =, Crane hints at her awareness during their banal train conversation, that she knows the part she is playing.
To evince surprise at her husband’s statement was part of her wifely amiability.
I’ll skip over the bits in the bar that happen right before the train arrives, its really the device to bring Scratchy into the streets, to set up the classic gun battle.
It plays out in front of the Marshall’s house… as no confrontation. The wild wild west (Scratchy) meets the new west (a bit out of time Marshall Potter, who knows his situation is cooked). And nothing happens. Scratchy is actually disarmed by the presence of the bride (the power of the female presence??), and thats where it ends.
[Scratchy] was not a student of chivalry; it was merely that in the presence of this foreign condition he was a simple child of the earlier plains.
No justice carried out.
Just ordinary business.
Not the old west.
And the last line, to me, wraps back to the opening as a means of playing with time.
He picked up his starboard revolver, and placing both weapons in their holsters, he went away. His feet made funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand.
Heavy sand feel symbolic of the old dry west, and even “funnel-shaped” tracks to me suggests canyons; almost again like the old subverting to the new.
One amazing thing about Crane’s short story about the end of the Old West is its timing; according to Wikipedia it was published in 1898. And Crane is quite the figure in literature (gulp was I sleeping the year we were supposed to read him?); highly praised by Hemingway “He is recognized by modern critics as one of the most innovative writers of his generation”.
Despite having no military experience, Crane wrote the acclaimed Civil War novel in 1895 The Red Badge of Courage. He wrote The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky while he was living in England. In 1897 he was on a ship bound for Cuba, when the SS Commodore was shiprwecked off of Florida. This because Crane’s short story The Open Boat.
Get that productivity- Red Badge of Courage published in 1895, The Open Boat and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky in 1898. And many more in and around those stories.
The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky is still sitting with me. it was also made into a movie in 1952 as an anthology with a Joseph Conrad story- I’ve not watched it beyond the opening, but it’s in my queue:
Woah, that was a lot that came from one reference of a story. Into the rabbit hole of wonders that is the Open Internet.
Top / Featured Image Credits: An almost western landscape, actually in Scottland! flickr photo by Giuseppe Milo (www.pixael.com) http://flickr.com/photos/giuseppemilo/19773519806 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license