Cultures of United States Imperialism, Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, Editors, Duke University Press, 1993
Four years ago, I sent the University of Pennsylvania’s Professor Amy Kaplan my screenplay, Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story, about the Spanish-American War (1898), Stephen Crane who reported on the war for New York newspapers, and an imagined making of America’s first feature film.
In my note, I explained that her groundbreaking 1993 essay “Black and Blue on San Juan Hill” in the collection she co-edited, Cultures of United States Imperialism, sparked my fascination with the Spanish-American War and its literary productions — culminating in a thesis, several articles and — in an unlikely twist — the screenplay in which the movie within the movie is titled Black and Blue on San Juan Hill.In 1993, the paradigm shifting Imperialism became an instant classic, landing on the shelves of academic libraries and English and American Studies graduate reading lists. Kaplan’s vivid story takes us to the battlefields of Cuba where the Old World Spanish soldiers are routed by brown Cuban insurgents, black American troopers and Theodore Roosevelt’s white Rough Riders. We also meet the novelists/war correspondents Crane and Richard Harding Davis who have starring and secondary roles in Mr. Crane’s Vivid Story.
In his introductory essay, “New Perspectives on U.S. Culture,” Donald Pease outlines Kaplan’s thesis:In layman’s terms, the Cuban Campaign became a stage to display national re-unification 33 years after the Civil War and 21 years after the end of reconstruction. In 1898, southern boys and northern boys marched and fought together, even a few aging Union and Confederate officers were hauled out for the occasion. At the same time, as Pease notes, this symbolic reunification between the white North and the white South also worked to further marginalize black Americans.
(For extended discussions of the upsurge of violence against blacks following the war, see “Imperium in Imperio: Sutton Griggs’s Imagined War of 1898” (David Kramer, War, Literature and the Arts (2013) and Twentieth Century Literature Criticism (2016) and 121 years ago when the Rochester press condemned the Wilmington, North Carolina race riots. And the Douglass Monument)
In my note to Professor Kaplan asking if she might read the screenplay, I mentioned that, unlike readers who might lack a solid historical understanding of the war, she would feel entirely at home. I didn’t elaborate on the story line, but hoped she would find the plot device clever.
Historically, Crane’s time in Cuba exacerbated his tuberculosis that took his life at only 28. Kaplan would know that literary scholars often wonder, what would Crane have written had he lived? Could he have matched or eclipsed The Red Badge of Courage? Kaplan would know that the Cuban Campaign was the first war filmed. In my version, Crane is the the vitagrapher following Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, where I imagine Crane filming the black troopers saving the Rough Riders from destruction. In “Black and Blue,” Kaplan discusses at length the belittling of black heroism in the climactic battle.In my re-imagining, Crane returns to New York with his footage, and instead of writing the next great American novel, Crane creates the first great American movie.
Professor Kaplan wrote back that she looked forward to reading the screen play, though I don’t know if she did. A couple of years later, I edited and produced a far more readable version.
On Sunday, I decided to send her the revamped version.
I was surprised to receive a Mail Delivery Subsystem message. Had Kaplan moved to a new institution? I googled her name and found this sad note on the Duke University Press website:
On July 30th, Professor Kaplan died, at only 66. The field of American Studies lost a pioneer and a giant. Her students no doubt lost an inspiration.
I never met Professor Kaplan and only had that one email communication. But I felt like I lost a fellow traveller. We had both sojourned to the dusty shelves of the E700’s and gathered our information before the internet existed. We were both captivated by this quasi-war that produced more novels, short stories, memoirs and monuments than the number of American soldiers killed in action: 368 and at least one screenplay.