“It is no Desert.” White Pages, Black Ink, and Green Poems in Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines

by Philipp Leonhardt

Even a cursory look at titles like The Red Badge of Courage, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” or “The Blue Hotel” reveals that the works of Stephen Crane keep on changing colors. Ever since he entered the literary scene in the 1890s, readers have been puzzled by Crane’s literary brush strokes and their proximity to visual techniques of defamiliarization in painting and photography. Some critics have referred to him as a “literary chameleon” (Nagel 1982: 163), and his contemporary writer Frank Norris even wrote a parody about Crane’s shapeshifting entitled “The Green Stone of Unrest” (1897). Others have argued that his choice of individual colors functions as a systematic “color code”: for example, golden, purple, and green stand for illusional world-views and untenable truth claims (Simoneaux 1974; Basye 1980). Consequently, when Crane writes about green surface-appearances, similar to the metaphor of the golden veneer covering the façade of the Gilded Age, he is employing the color green as “[a metaphor] for faults in man’s perception” (Basye 1980: 126). In the following, I intend to show how Crane’s page maps the contradictions of two opposing myths in American cultural history, the garden myth and the desert myth (Paul 2014), onto his first book of poetry, The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895). From an ecocritical perspective, this is meant to illustrate how Crane’s “new poetic idiom” responds with irony to the collision of both myths, thereby “answering specifically to American scenes” and “configurations of the American culture surrounding him” (Wolosky 2004: 299).

Recent debates in ecocritical scholarship have stressed that “the importance of ecology lies not so much in a ‘green’ reaffirmation of nature’s value” but in investigating how relationships between the human and the non-human transcend the binary “nature vs. culture” opposition by exploring “new, open and interrelational modes of thinking and being” (Frenzel & Neumann 2017: 13). In The Black Riders, Crane similarly seems to interrogate greenwashed affirmations of the myth of “America-as-fresh-green-breast” (Gersdorf 2009: 14).[i] Strikingly, Crane employs another historically ambiguous topography, the desert, as his antithesis to idealized greenery. Of course, the desert-garden-paradox has been on the agenda of American Studies scholarship since the Myth and Symbol School, most famously in Henry Nash Smith’s seminal Virgin Land. The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950). Even though the desert-garden-dichotomy has been challenged and revised by subsequent scholars (Slotkin 1973; Kolodny 1975), it continues to play an important role as a conceptual framework not only in genres like the Western or science-fiction but also in contemporary debates about the Anthropocene, environmental catastrophe, and resource scarcity (see, for example, the photographic series “Desolation Desert” by David Maisel).

Between “America-as-Fresh-Green-Breast” and the Great American Desert

Drawing on recent developments in the environmental humanities, Catrin Gersdorf’s The Poetics and Politics of the Desert provides a historical survey of the desert-garden-dichotomy in US-American culture (2009). In her account, American literature became an important platform for writers to discuss the contradictions of the two competing myths. To the expectations of European eyes and imaginaries, the presence of deserts in America must have appeared both surprising and strange. But once encounters with them undeniably confirmed that their geographical reality constitutes significant parts of the continent, deserts had to be incorporated into the national imagination:

When Americans discovered that large portions of the land their leaders had purchased from France in 1803 did not display the same fertile abundance of the original thirteen states, that much of it was a desert unimaginable as farm land, a political controversy about what to do with these landscapes of scarcity resulted. […] How could these landscapes be rhetorically integrated into the national master narrative? […] how could the American nation, facing the desert, maintain its eco-mental identity as […] an agrarian society of farmers and gardeners? (Gersdorf 2009: 48-49)

With the closing of the frontier towards the end of the 19th century (Turner 1893), the desert increasingly provided artists with an antithesis to “America-as-fresh-green-breast,” questioning the dominance of an agrarian ideal that lies at the heart of US-American national identity formation: for example, Thomas Jefferson’s conception of the US as an agrarian Republic, Emersonian notions of Nature as a resource for individual transcendence, or the unique experience of America as the “middle landscape” between wilderness and civilization, as Leo Marx observed in The Machine in the Garden (1964: 31). Unsurprisingly, the desert’s provocative symbolism also offered an appealing conceptual resource for Stephen Crane’s ironic sensibilities. For example, in Crane’s famous third poem of The Black Riders, the creature “squatting upon the ground” of the desert devouring his own heart responds to the question “is it good, friend?” by saying “it is bitter […] but I like it, because it is bitter, and because it is my heart” (McGann 2009: 9). Crane’s desert-poems are perhaps as well-known as his Civil War novel, because they are enigmatic and unconventional, while addressing the bitter reality of ‘nature’s nation’ encountering the exact opposite of cornucopian abundance.

Armour’s Food Source Map (1922). Map via Wikimedia Commons
Average precipitation in the lower 48 states of the United States of America. Map via Wikimedia Commons

Crane’s “Grand Tour” to the West

We in the east are overcome a good deal by a detestable superficial culture which I think is real barbarism. […] Damn the east! I fell in love with the straight out-and-out, sometimes, hideous, often-braggart westeners because I thought them to be the truer men.

“Crane to W.B. Hawkins, 1895,” qt. Wertheim & Sorrentino 1988: 136

Early in 1895, Crane’s work as a journalist finally brings him from the East’s “detestable superficial culture” (as he put it to a friend) to the “truer men” of the West (136): to Nebraska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico (Pizer & Link 2008: 369). Experiencing the reality of these places for the first time, after dreaming about them for so long, marks a turning point in Crane’s life: before “he started his tour, Crane was fundamentally an Easterner” (Katz 1970: ix). During his first westward journey, however, he is confronted with a very different West from the one he had imagined, which is often portrayed by commentators and critics as a disenchanting experience:

Disappointed at seeing suffering homesteaders starving on worked-out land instead of cowboys enjoying their freedom, […] Crane’s 1895 trip was a continual disillusionment. Western stories told of a wide open desert. […] But no cowboys played on this range […] What is remarkable is that Stephen Crane, sophisticated ironist and social demystifier that he was, believed any part of the western myth from the first. He should have seen it through. But he didn’t. (Teague 1993: 83)

As much as Crane’s role as a journalist and war correspondent later in his career has been criticized for his complicity with US-American imperialism (Kaplan 2009), The Black Riders – written before Crane’s grand tour to the West – does not seem to present a naïve idealization of the desert as a ‘playground’ for cowboys and frontiersman blinded by Crane’s faith in the mythical West.

Crane’s Page – A Desert







A VOICE SAID: “IT IS NO DESERT.”                                                        (McGann 2009: 51)   

Crane’s desert signifies a geographical reality that carries uncomfortable connotations in the American cultural imagination at the end of the 19th century (Gersdorf 2009: 48-49). Several poems in The Black Riders specifically address this uncertainty and zoom in on individuals who are stuck in a confusing state of disorientation. But Crane’s discussion of this dilemma does not only take place in the poem itself; the page becomes a map on whose surface these scenes are on display.

The pages of The Black Riders consist of two conceptual spaces: the textual confines of often relatively short poems in black ink contrasting with a largely white page underneath. Given their brevity, Crane’s desert-poems occupy the top of the page (the allegorical East, or garden), which draws as much attention to the poem itself as it does to the open space outside of the lines (the allegorical West, or desert). This opposition effectively showcases the connection between the poem’s content and the book’s materiality: “The ‘I’ walks in the white desert of the page, whose vacancy it populates by its walking, by the ‘lines’ of Crane’s title as they move out in a heroic but unfulfillable quest for completion. In Crane’s book the page appears under various forms – as snows, as desert, as psychic vacancy, and – most often – as itself, or part of itself.” (McGann 1993: 93)

Crane’s page does not simply function as a convenient illustration for poems that happen to take place in the desert – or, as in poem XXIII, conjure up “soft gardens near the sun” (McGann 2009: 30), which similarly engages with the desert-garden-paradox in complex ways. Instead, Crane’s poems ironically stage how deserts trouble and destabilize the myth of “America-as-fresh-green-breast.”

Image of the original cover

“The Green Ones”

As the surviving correspondence with his publishing house Copeland and Day indicates, Crane was pleased that he had managed to confuse the reviewers with his Black Riders: “I see they have been pounding the wide margins, the capitals and all that but I think it great” (Wertheim & Sorrentino 1988: 111). Almost in passing, the same letter reveals another important aspect about the book’s publication history: “If you could send me a few copies at the Lantern Club, I would like them. I am particularly anxious to the see the green ones” (ibid.). Astonishingly, fifty copies of The Black Riders – “the green ones” – were printed not in black, but in green ink on Japan paper[ii] (see Peter Harrington, a rare book dealer, for one of the editions).

The idea of printing these additional editions came from Herbert Copeland and Fred Holland Day, who were trying to “introduce fine printing in the manner of William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement to Boston” (Colvert 1996: 24). For example, it was also Day, not Crane, who suggested to use small capitals in The Black Riders (ibid. 23). Crane did not design the perfect blueprint of The Black Riders himself. Instead, the connection between the content of the poems, their arrangement on the page and the many “poetic special effects” (McGann 2009: 98) appears to be the rather coincidental product of a collaborative process between Crane and his publishing house.

Gardens in the Desert. (Green) Poems on the Page

Nonetheless, if we read “the green ones” from an ecocritical perspective and take Crane’s color theory into account, we can take the idea even one step further: green lines situated in the desert of Crane’s page colorfully display the practice of installing irrigation projects in order to cultivate green gardens in the middle of the desert. In an ecologically questionable way, moving westward meant greenwashing the desert and those parts of “America-as-fresh-green-breast” that contradicted the garden myth – even the reality of the desert.

Crane’s short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”(1897) is often portrayed as his ironic appropriation of the Western genre. Here, second and third generation frontiersmen have transformed into urbanized bourgeois merchants – mirroring the East’s “detestable superficial culture,” in Crane’s own words (Wertheim & Sorrentino 1988: 136). David Teague, moreover, has read “Yellow Sky” as Crane’s ironic statement on the efforts of bioengineering deserts into gardens: those “in Laredo who could afford to buy service from the municipal water system indulged the peculiar American enthusiasms for the dimly-remembered thick green turf of England and maintained well-watered front lawns in the desert” (1993: 86). Having seen how Americans were creating a “lie” on the theatrical “surface of the Earth” (86), “Yellow Sky” exposes replicated manifestations of the garden myth as fake greenery:

Across the sandy street were some vivid green grass-plots, so wonderful in appearance, amid the sands that burned near them in a blazing sun, that they caused a doubt in the mind. They exactly resembled the grass mats used to represent lawns on the stage. (Crane 1897: 156)

Thus, Crane is poking fun at the urge to conceal the sandscape of the desert by covering it up with the props of artificial gardens.

After his grand tour of 1895, Crane had first-sight proof that the “truer men” of the West also preferred the comforts of unfolding lawns onto the surface of the desert (Wertheim & Sorrentino 1988: 136). In The Black Riders and Other Lines,he similarly unrolls the lines of his poems in (green) ink onto the surface of his book’s pages. This ‘doubt of the mind’ he expresses in “Yellow Sky” regarding the reality of gardens in the desert seems to resemble his skepticism towards the garden myth exhibited in and ‘on’ his first book of poetry: ‘it is no desert,’ or is it (a kind of ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ avant la lettre and before Rene Magritte)? Mirroring the theatrical awareness that Crane employed in “Yellow Sky,” The Black Riders draw attention to the irony underlying the paradox of deserts and gardens appearing simultaneously in the same place, both in America and on the surface of Crane’s book – and most visibly on the pages of ‘the green ones.’

[i] By reference to a famous line from the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925).

[ii] “Copeland and Day published The Black Riders in a ‘trade’ edition of 500 copies bound in light-gray laid paper over boards. Fifty copies printed in green ink on Japan paper and bound in cream laid paper over boards without design or lettering (except for a label on the spine identifying the title, author, and year of publication) were issued simultaneously. Of these green-ink copies, three examples have been found […]” (Wertheim and Sorrentino 1988: 111).

About the Author

Philipp Leonhardt is a PhD candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. He received both his BA in English and German philology and his MA in English Studies from the University of Heidelberg. He is particularly interested in the interferences between writing, sound recording, reading, and listening. He can be reached via pleonhardt@hca.uni-heidelberg.de.


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Cite this blog post
The Editors (2023, May 31). “It is no Desert.” White Pages, Black Ink, and Green Poems in Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders and Other Lines. HCA Graduate Blog. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pg65

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  1. very information article

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