On June 2nd, 1892 a black man was murdered in the New York town of Port Jervis. He was lynched, or hanged, by a mob of people who accused him of assaulting a local girl. Four days later, on June 6th, there was a "Coroners investigation into the death of Robert Lewis by lynching" (New York Times) which implicated several townsfolk, who quickly left the area. This incident is regularly thought of as the basis for Stephen Crane's novella The Monster. He based his fictional town of Whilomville, NY on the real town of Port Jervis, where he had lived as a boy. While taking place almost five years prior to the publication of The Monster, the lynching of Robert Lewis was not the only source of inspiration for Crane. The Supreme Court of the United States, in 1896, ruled in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that state laws requiring racial segregation in private businesses was constitutional under the doctrine of "separate but equal." (Zimmerman, 1997) In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled that laws requiring racial separation were constitutional and condemned American to decades of racial discrimination and prejudice.
These two incidents set the stage for Stephen Crane, writer of the famous book Red Badge of Courage, to tackle the problem of racial discrimination. He did so in his novella The Monster, which was first published in 1897. In this story, a black man named Henry Johnson, described as "a very handsome negro," was severely disfigured in a fire. (Crane, 6) He had tried to rescue a boy named Jimmie who had been trapped in the fire, but in doing so became badly injured himself. The boy's father, Dr. Trescott, the town's most prominent doctor, takes it upon himself to care for the horribly burned Henry. But in doing so, Dr. Trescott brings down the wrath of the other townsfolk, who outright ridicule and shun the good doctor. Even the boy who Henry saved, Jimmie, turns on Henry and begins to mock him like the others. Through an act of kindness, loyalty, and charity, Dr. Trescott becomes the town's pariah, shunned by everyone.
While the novella is entitled The Monster, perhaps it would have been better to call the book "The Monsters" instead, as the book is really a story about how the seeming polite and good natured people of the town of Whilomville are themselves monsters. It is a story of the racism of "non-racists," it is the people of the town that reveal the monstrous evil in their hearts, an evil which was hidden under a facade of polite society. Nothing exemplifies this more than when Henry Johnson is taking a stroll in the beginning of the story, before he is injured. As Henry strolls down the street, everyone he passes says "hello," and presents what the author calls "quiet admonitions and compliments." (Crane, 12) And when he calls upon his sweetheart, Bella Farragut, her family welcomes him graciously and politely. Bella even tells her mother "Oh, ma, isn't he divine?" (Crane, 16) When Henry Johnson is untainted by his injuries, everyone seems to like him.
The town of Whilomville is a progressive northern town, and like most northern towns it was proud of it's abolitionist past. The folks of this town were not racially insensitive, like towns in the south, they did not practice segregation, or have "Jim Crow" laws in New York. In fact, Crane demonstrates this tolerant view of the people of Whilomville when he described the young men of the town gathering at the corners "in distinctive groups, which expressed various shades and lines of chumship, and had little to do with any social gradations." (Crane, 11-12) However, this facade of polite society was about to be shattered.
Almost immediately after the fire, before the crowd of people even knew what had actually happened or if anyone had actually been killed or injured, a rumor went up from the crowd that the fire had been caused by Henry Johnson. Of course the good people of Whilomville, non-racists that they were, didn't blame Henry per se, it was an accident caused by Henry. He had been faithfully attending his friend the boy, who was ill, and accidentally knocked over the lamp when he "got sleepy, or somethin'" (Crane, 38) Even though the townsfolk all like Henry Johnson, and thought well of him, they still only thought of him as a "black man." And when tragedy occurred, the first thing the townsfolk do is blame the "black man;" without even considering the possibility that Henry had nothing to do with the fire and that he may be the hero who tried to save a boy from a burning building.
The people of Whilomville next demonstrated the racism of "non-racists" by immediately dismissing him as being unable to recover. Not only had Henry been burned extremely badly over most of his body, "he now had no face. His face had simply been burned away." (Crane, 41) The morning newspaper even went so far as to announce Henry Johnson's death in their pages. And in death, Henry Johnson "became suddenly the title of a saint to the little boys." (Crane, 41) Song were sung about him and the entire area memorialized him. But Henry's sainthood would not last.
Perhaps it was the fact that Henry just refused to die, refused to play along with the white progressive view of the sainted black man who gave his life for a little white boy, which made the townsfolk turn on him. When he was dead, they could revere him, say great things about him, all the while patting themselves on the back for being so tolerant. But when he did not die, when he lived, but in a state that would require real tolerance and kindness on the part of the white community, they could not actual perform the deed. Crane clearly demonstrates the intolerance of supposedly "tolerant" people. The reaction of the townsfolk was hostility toward the disfigured hero and the doctor that cared for him.
It is one thing to speak of tolerance and kindness, it is quite another to perform it in real life. The people of Whilomville were faced with "putting their money where their mouth was" and truly demonstrate their benevolence. The failed miserably to live up their own standards. The first indication came when Judge Hagenthorpe visited Dr. Trescott and told him "No one wants to advance such ideas, but somehow I think that that poor fellow ought to die." (Crane, 44) Judge Hagenthorpe asserted that Henry would physically become a monster, and that he would probably suffer brain damage also. He also blamed the doctor for giving him back a life that nature had given up on. The Judge pointed out in no uncertain terms that in saving Henry from death, Dr. Trescott had turned Henry into a monster, and what ever happened from that time forward, it was Dr. Trescott's fault.
One must ask whether the good people of Whilomville would have been so eager to dismiss the life of a white man who had been in a similar fire? If it had been Jimmie, or Dr. Trescott who had been horribly burned, would the Judge, or anyone else in the town been so eager to let him die? It is very unlikely that the people of Whilomville would have stated that "Nature has very evidently given him up. He is dead." (Crane, 45) It is more likely that they would have been able to gather the courage to face this devastating accident and move forward. But in the case of a black man, his life did not seem to be as valuable as a white man. People just dismissed him as already dead, that it was part of nature, nature had killed given up on the man, and so there was no shame in letting him die rather than treating him with the same concern as a white man.
However, once Henry Johnson had recovered enough to move, Dr. Trescott took him to stay with some other black folks, hoping that they would have more sympathy than the white neighbors. While they were somewhat sympathetic, Henry's disfigurement was too much for even them. His flight from the Williams' place, and his subsequent wandering around town, is very reminiscent of the monster in the book Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. (Marsh, 2009) So too is the reaction of the townsfolk, as when the children's party was disrupted by the appearance of Henry. The children scream in horror at the sight of the disfigured Henry. And when Henry appeared on the doorstep of his girlfriend, Bella, she recoiled in horror as well. He acted as though nothing had happened to him and asked her to a dance, but she only "threw herself face downward on the floor," and crawled away in utter fear. (Crane, 74) It seems that even the other black residents of Whilomville were equally repelled…