An Experiment In Misery by Stephen Crane, 1894
The magic trick:
Doing the research to tell other people’s stories
I remember watching the movie The Florida Project and thinking, ‘How in the world did Sean Baker get this story?’ It’s an odd film, telling the story of families – mainly from a child’s point of view – who live in a weekly-rate motel across the street from Disney World. Did Baker grow up like this? Did he have a close friend who did? You just don’t get that kind of intimate understanding of such a low-rent world represented in the mainstream. Well, the answer to the how-did-he question? It’s simple. He did the research. The production team went to Florida and embedded themselves in the motel culture until they felt they could accurately depict it in movie form. Amazing what a little hard work can do.
Similarly, our man Stephen Crane often took a research approach to his fiction. Whether it was interviewing Civil War veterans for The Red Badge Of Courage or homeless people for “An Experiment In Misery,” Crane was interested in telling other people’s stories; not merely his own. This is not John Updike pouring over every detail of his every day. This is journalism. This is a curiosity about the infinite variety of life. And that’s quite a trick on Crane’s part.
Through the mists of the cold and storming night, the cable cars went in silent procession, great affairs shining with red and brass, moving with formidable power, calm and irresistible, dangerful and gloomy, breaking silence only by the loud fierce cry of the gong. Two rivers of people swarmed along the sidewalks, spattered with black mud which made each shoe leave a scar-like impression. Overhead, elevated trains with a shrill grinding of the wheels stopped at the station, which upon its leg-like pillars seemed to resemble some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street. The quick fat puffings of the engines could be heard. Down an alley there were sombre curtains of purple and black, on which street lamps dully glittered like embroidered flowers.
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