Gentleman, not all of us may return alive today. Assuming there are survivors, let us make a pact to personally call upon the loved ones of the fallen.
Davis: Yourself, Teddy?
Roosevelt: Alice [his wife] has been gone now for 14 years. Please leave a wreath with my love at her grave. Dick?
Although it turns a little mushy at the end, this is generally such a superior example of romantic fiction as to make virtually all modern Hollywood rom-coms seem ridiculous. Norris (1870-1902) describes the growing companionship between newspaperman and would-be novelist Condy Rivers, and doctor-to-be Travis Bessemer (aka “Blix”), in turn-of the-century San Francisco. They go beyond the social conventions of their day to simply have fun together. They treat each other as equals, and the educational and professional aspirations of the young woman are accepted without fuss. You can easily tell that this novel must have felt thoroughly fresh and contemporary when it was published, and it hasn’t become musty in the years that have passed since then. Frank Norris’s excellent prose style makes it a pleasure to read on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The Bay Area atmosphere is delightful, and a sub-plot about finding romance in the personal ads is neatly handled, introducing members of a different socio-economic class into the story-line.
Davis: Go to Rebecca, my mother. My inspiration. [Rebecca Harding Davis was also a novelist, author of Life in Iron Mills (1861)] Frank?
Norris: Go to Blix. The girl who inspired Blix. Au revoir, Blixlix! Stevie? Let me guess, Maggie.
Crane: Maggie is a made up woman. Go to my wife Cora, of course.
Davis: Not Margharita Quesadas? [Scene 7
and Scene 8:]
Crane: (pausing) No. Go to Cora. Cora, forever.
Roosevelt: Very well then. But I’ll bet all these spectacles and more (taking off his hat and showing it the others) that we make it back in one piece. Unless Crane proves to be a damn fool! [Roosevelt had embedded his hat with about a dozen spare eyeglasses.]
It might get a little hot out there. The Spaniards are using smokeless Mauser rifles. We won’t be able to see from where they are firing. But it will get pretty smoky on our side. But we have the Gattlings.
Crane: And the reconnaissance balloon. A perfect view from up there. Scene 10
Roosevelt: Crane, you damn fool! There go the Gattlings. We’re off. Good luck, gentlemen.
(During the battle, Crane and his vitagraph crew zigzag across the field, recklessly and with abandon, filming all they can see. Sometimes Crane is filming, sometimes giving direction to the men. The field is filled with smoke and noise: the bellowing of orders from the officers, the cries of men hit. A continuous cycle of chaos, then a stretch of order, then disorder.)
Vitograph man #1: Good god, I’m shaking like an Irishman on the wagon for two days. Scene 2:
Man # 2: I’m so scared shitless I crapped in my pants. Its terrible that we can’t see the damn Spaniards. All I hear is pzzzzzzt, pzzzzzzt, pzzzzzzzt
Mr. Crane, aren’t you afraid?
Crane: Its odd, the fact that the Spaniards are invisible to us is exhilarating. Strange, I should feel terror, but don’t. I feel desire. A visceral, physical thing. Like lust. Compelled. Drawn in. Just want to be in the action. Inside. Inside the action. Like an attraction to . . . a woman.
(Suddenly a nearby trooper is hit and falls. Near the trooper lies a dead comrade.)
from Frank Freidel’s The Splendid Little War
Man # 1: Oh, he’s gone down!
Crane: (mumbling to himself) The men dropped here and there like bundles. The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.
Man # 2: What are saying, Mr. Crane?
Crane: Nothing, nothing. Just some lines from my novel. (To himself) I think I did get it right. Scene 5:
(The crew continue continues to weave in and out of the battle. The trio encounter a wounded man).
[During the battle, reporter Edward Marshall of the New York Journal was hit by a Spanish bullet in the spine and nearly paralyzed, was nonetheless able to dictate a stirring account of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Taken to the rear and his condition deemed hopeless, Marshall somehow survived his agony and after a long convalescence was restored to health. Marshall would later capitalize on his now national fame by penning such testimonials as “What It Feels Like To Be Shot.”]
Crane: Marshall, old boy, get to the rear!
Marshall: Not till my dispatch is finished and wired to New York. Death won’t make Edward Marshall miss a deadline. But, Crane, my hand is busted. I can’t write.
Crane: (thinking) But you can still speak. Men, film Marshall talking. When we get home, we’ll have a deaf person read his lips. (The men film Marshall).
(to himself) By God, I’m making history. The first battlefield interview. Hmm, even better if Marshall dies . . .
Charles Johnson Post
(The three return to the fray. Slowly, the U.S. troops are inching up San Juan Hill. Crane continues to film.)
Crane: (to himself) There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand.
The officers, at their intervals, rearward, neglected to stand in picturesque attitudes. They were bobbing to and fro roaring directions and encouragements. The dimensions of their howls were extraordinary. They expended their lungs with prodigal wills. And often they nearly stood upon their heads in their anxiety to observe the enemy on the other side of the tumbling smoke.
Crane (to himself): Good god, Red Badge did get it right. And its all right here in this movie camera.
Charles Johnson Post
(At this point in the battle the black 10th Cavalry and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders begin to intermingle. In the tumult of battle, the two units find themselves partially fighting side by side. Crane and his crew are in the middle of the action.)
Alongside the Rough Riders is Richard Harding Davis. Davis comes across a wounded black trooper. In The Cuban and Porto Rican Campaign (1898), Davis would write of his encounter:
I came across Lieutenant Roberts, of the Tenth Cavalry, lying under the roots of a tree beside the stream with three of his colored troopers stretched around him. He was shot through the intestines, and each of the three men with him was shot in the arm or leg. They had been overlooked or forgotten, and we stumbled upon them only by the accident of losing our way. They had no knowledge as to how the battle was going or where their comrades were or where the enemy was. At any moment, for all they knew, the Spaniards might break through the bushes about them. It was a most lonely picture, the young lieutenant, half naked, and wet with his own blood, sitting upright beside the empty stream, and his three followers crouching at his feet like three faithful watch-dogs, each wearing his red badge of courage, with his black skin tanned to a haggard gray, and with his eyes fixed patiently on the white lips of his officer. When the white soldiers with me offered to carry him back to the dressing-station, the negroes resented it stiffly. “If the Lieutenant had been able to move, we would have carried him away long ago,” said the sergeant, quite overlooking the fact that his arm was shattered.
“Oh, don’t bother the surgeons about me,” Roberts added, cheerfully. “They must be very busy. I can wait.”
from Frank Freidel’s The Splendid Little War, 1958
(The white and black soldiers are fighting side by side as the crew films.)
Man # 1: (peering into the camera): Mr. Crane, look at this. It’s Roosevelt on horseback. Oh, my, he’s down!
Man #: His horse has been shot from under him. And he’s hit in the head . . . his hat is off . . . No, he’s only dazed . . . His glasses broken . . . Wait . . . a colored trooper is helping him get up . . . he’s pointing to his hat . . . the trooper is finding another set of spectacles . . . he’s all right! . . . They are bringing him another horse!
Crane: Teddy, old boy. God bless. So I don’t have to bring that wreath to Alice after all.
[In The Rough Riders, published in May 1899 and an immediate best seller, Roosevelt would write of his encounter with the black troopers:
None of the white regulars or Rough Riders showed the slightest sign of weakening; but under the strain the colored infantrymen (who had none of their officers) began to get a little uneasy and to drift to the rear, either helping wounded men, or saying that they wished to find their own regiments. This I could not allow, as it was depleting my line, so I jumped up, and walking a few yards to the rear, drew my revolver, halted the retreating soldiers, and called out to them that I appreciated the gallantry with which they had fought and would be sorry to hurt them, but that I should shoot the first man who, on any pretence whatever, went to the rear. My own men had all sat up and were watching my movements with utmost interest; so was Captain Howze. I ended my statement to the colored soldiers by saying: “Now, I shall be very sorry to hurt you, and you don’t know whether or not I will keep my word, but my men can tell you that I always do;” whereupon my cow-punchers, hunters, and miners solemnly nodded their heads and commented in chorus, exactly as if in a comic opera, “He always does; he always does!”
This was the end of the trouble, for the “smoked Yankees”–as the Spaniards called the colored soldiers–flashed their white teeth at one another, as they broke into broad grins, and I had no more trouble with them, they seeming to accept me as one of their own officers.
(The U.S. soldiers continue to push their way up the hill. Crane drifts off from the crew. Roosevelt and Davis are surveying the action.)
Roosevelt: The Spaniards are fighting like hell. Dammit, if we don’t take the hill now they’ll bring in reinforcements.
by Charles Johnson Post
Davis: (looking through binoculars) Sir, there’s a man way up the hill. He’s waving at us. Sending us a signal. By God, its Crane!
(On the slopes of the hill, Crane is wig-wagging and muttering to himself) The youth kept the bright colors to the front. He was waving his free arm in furious circles, the while shrieking mad calls and appeals, urging on those that did not need to be urged, for it seemed that the mob of blue men hurling themselves on the dangerous group of rifles were again grown suddenly wild with an enthusiasm of unselfishness.
Roosevelt: Crane! What is he signaling?
Roosevelt: Damned fool!
Davis: Wait, there’s more. He’s waving, now’s the time, bring up the Gattlings!
Department of the Army poster, 1953
Roosevelt: The Gattlings it is! All forward!
(The Americans surge and capture San Juan Hill. At the top, after the Spanish have surrendered or retreated, Roosevelt finds Crane:
Roosevelt: Crane, you wig-wagging madman! Well, hell, here we are!
Crane: (panting) Colonel, I’ve never felt so exhilarated in my life. Never so alive. So . . . vivid.
Roosevelt: Listen up, Stevie. From here on out, I won’t be seeing you. Wheeler and Shafter are having me join their command headquarters. And you’ll be going back to New York. I’ve placed more than adequate funds in a bank account at your disposable. I want you to get right to work. See what’s in that camera.
Crane: I hope you pay as well as Hearst. Will do. Film . . . the medium of the 20th century.
American troops atop San Juan Hill [Painting by Charles Johnson Post]
Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College.
I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, and the CITY. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism.
Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones. So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are are invited to join.
I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.”
Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.