When we think of Stephen Crane’s story of the wreck of the Commodore, what most often comes to readers’ minds is his short story, “The Open Boat.” The existence of a newspaper story written by Crane just after the event itself is significantly less well-known. When it is studied, it is almost always alongside “The Open Boat” as contextually illuminating rather than as a story in its own right. And indeed, readers familiar with “The Open Boat” may find details in the newspaper articles that were left vague in the short story, or indeed were never mentioned at all. We there find answers to questions never asked in the short story: Where was the Commodore going, and why? How did the ship sink? What people were left behind?
A reader working their way through the newspaper articles found here might notice that the answers to these questions create a story that is far more politically charged than the short story that would come to follow. The SS Commodore was en route from Florida to Cuba for the purpose of filibustering: a term that, in Crane’s usage, referred to the supplying of arms to Cubans rebelling against their imperial Spanish government. Such disputes between the United States and Spain over issues like Cuba’s independence would erupt in 1898, the year after the Commodore’s wreck, as the Spanish-American War. Crane was on the boat as a war correspondent, and was one of the few who survived the wreck, along with the captain, a chef, and an oiler who would not survive the trip to shore. Those familiar with “The Open Boat” may notice a difference in the way the captain was characterized in the newspaper editions; while in the short story he was something of a heroic leader, in the articles we instead find a captain who abandoned his ship even as others went down with it. Even before this, too, we may question the captain’s competence as the SS Commodore was run aground multiple times and required assistance from another ship.
There are also sizable differences in the way that we, as editors, must consider articles written in a newspaper as opposed to stories published in a literary magazine or book. The circulation and spread of a newspaper story takes place far faster than other stories. All of the various editions gathered in this class were published on the same day, in fact; this speed increases the likelihood of changes. As these stories were passed along via telegraph during this time, changes in paragraph breaks are to be expected; such issues of formatting did not transfer over the telegraph. In addition, newspaper editors are far more likely to take it upon themselves to change the text when compared with the editor of a “literary” short story. Because of this, we find some interesting changes amongst editions. The Chicago Tribune edition, for example, makes extensive cuts, so much so that we may begin to question whether or not this is truly Stephen Crane’s story at all. Such changes come as a result of the unique limitations of the newspaper format, and thus present us with questions never raised by “The Open Boat” itself.
The newspaper editions allow us to consider other details unique to the medium, as well. For example, we might consider the context that surrounds each article: what images do we find attached to the story? Where was the article placed in the newspaper–on the front page, in the back, or divided between the two? What do the surrounding articles and images say about the story in question? We can examine these issues of context in relation to the editions that we located. While each of the editions we found placed the story on their front page, only the New Orleans Times-Democrat ran the full, uncut story entirely on this front page; the Chicago Tribune presented a severely truncated form of the story, while both the New York Press and the Chicago Record both ran onto their second pages. While we are unable to see the surrounding articles in the Chicago Record clipping, within the other three witnesses we can also see the context which surrounded Crane’s story. Both the New York Press and Chicago Record stories contain local weather and news stories (such as weddings and crime reports), as well as political cartoons of long-forgotten figures, incomprehensible to the modern viewer at first glance. The New Orleans Times-Democrat also contains news from Washington, as well as an ad for wine that uses presidential prestige as its primary selling point. Most interesting, I found, was the commonality found between the New Orleans and New York papers; both mention Cuban affairs in articles surrounding Crane’s story, specifically in relation to a “Mr. Springer,” the US Vice Consul of Affairs in Havana, Cuba’s capital. While the New York Press article is cut off, preventing us from seeing more than the fact that Mr. Springer had returned to New York City for a time, the New Orleans paper offers us more detail. There, we see quotes from Springer generally relaying issues of both economic importance and the movement of Spanish troops in the area. Considering the war to come, which pit American economic interests in the area against Spanish involvement, as well as the political content of Crane’s own article, these discussions were especially interesting.
While the examination of the newspaper articles opens for us new avenues of questioning and investigation, it also presents us with its own difficulties. The witnesses for the original news story are far more numerous–with ten separate editions of the article published within the first month of its existence alone–and far more scattered and ephemeral, making them more challenging to locate. Of these ten, we as a class were only able to locate four complete versions of the article. Locating even these was difficult, as we searched across scholarly databases, genealogical archives, and libraries across the country. Some we did locate, but were unable to access, as in the case of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which only existed in physical form in a heritage site halfway across the continent. Others seemed to never exist at all; even professional editors like those who made the well-known Virginia edition of Stephen Crane’s works were unable to locate the article found in the New Bedford Mercury; the newspaper itself denied that it ever existed. We found other difficulties when these newspapers no longer existed; the Chicago Tribune, for example, has merged with a number of other papers since the time of Stephen Crane, which makes the process of going through records more complicated. In locating the articles, we were forced to contend with our limitations in terms of time, location, and capital. We had to make decisions about which articles were important enough to pursue; in the end, we chose to focus on those articles which were published first. This might seem natural, as the story tended to get altered or reduced to summary across its transmission, but what about the value to be found in these changes? We can only speculate as to what they might have revealed to us.
Examining the articles found in the newspapers also forces us to make editorial decisions from the start, even in the way we refer to the story as a whole. Elsewhere, it is most commonly referred to as “Stephen Crane’s Own Story”; however, examining the various newspapers we find that this title was only used once, in the New York Press edition. Seven of the ten total witnesses use Crane’s name explicitly in the title, perhaps in an effort to employ some of his fame as an author, but even these are too varied to allow us to arrive at one definitive title. The rest take their own track–referring to the story with such varied titles as “Out of the Sea” or “S.S. Commodore, Filibuster.” One lacks its title entirely. How, then, are we meant to refer to the story? Do we call it “Stephen Crane’s Old Story” in an attempt to stay true to tradition, or attempt an eclectic combination of nine entirely different titles, make an arbitrary choice of one over the rest, or refer to each story only individually by its own title? In the end, we decided to deal with these articles in that final matter: thus, rather than existing as one singular “story,” we treat these articles as something of a collective.