The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky by Stephen Crane, 1898

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by Stephen Crane, 1898

"The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" is one of Stephen Crane's most popular stories, appealing both to critics and professors of American literature as well as to general readers. It is the strange tale of Jack Potter, an insecure marshal of Yellow Sky, a small Texas town on the Rio Grande. Potter has supposedly committed an extraordinary crime and failed heinously in his duty to the "innocent and unsuspecting community" by not informing the townspeople that he was going to San Antonio to court and marry "a girl he believed he loved." Returning with his plain, under-class bride, the guilt-ridden man fears a big nasty "scene of amazement, glee, reproach." There is indeed a critical showdown with the town badman, Scratchy Wilson, the marshal's longtime trigger-happy adversary. He has been on a rampage since just before the arrival of the newlyweds and in his drunken rage vents his fury on Potter. But Scratchy, on hearing Potter's announcement that he has gotten married and that he wasn't looking for another of their gun battles (law vs. disorder) when he brought home his bride, takes the news very badly. To this "simple child of the earlier plains" marriage is unfathomable. Since their customary feud is now effectively canceled, the crushed and disillusioned outlaw holsters his weapons and trudges disconsolately away.

Taking the story as a whole, critics have read it as a kind of satire of, or humorous commentary on, the passing of the Old West as that region in time gave way to Eastern influences and the force of progress. Crane actually complained after his 1895 trip westward and to Mexico about the way the West was being transformed. Clearly Crane's story, with the badman's "reversal of intention" at the end, suggests that the contemporary West is not what it used to be, but the narrative conveys much more than that. The variety of critical interpretations indicates the complexity of symbolic patterns, allusions, and perspectives it contains. Among the plethora of structural elements are the appellations (Jack Potter, Scratchy Wilson, Yellow Sky, the Weary Gentleman Saloon), the story's dualisms (old and new, East and West, old and young, static and kinetic landscapes, guilt and innocence, lawlessness and order), and linguistic analysis (phonological and morphological). Yet a very significant subtext in the narrative has been generally overlooked, despite the frequent references in the critical literature to Crane's having parodied the feud and showdown of local badman and town sheriff. Apparently only one critic, Tibbetts, noting here "a sort of visual comedy … close to slapstick" and "the comedy of the confrontation of the 'ancient antagonists' … involved in a burlesque of the Western feud," has even approached the story within the story.

Experiences from Crane's own life bear directly on this particular piece of short fiction. Crane's late father had been a Methodist minister, and his late mother had been the daughter of a Methodist minister. A year or two before he wrote "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" Crane had taken up with the madam of a house of prostitution in Jacksonville, Florida. He was well aware of how impossible it would be to bring such a woman back to his home territory, where relatives, friends, and acquaintances were still living. During the period from 1891 to 1896 the author lived mostly in New York (aside from brief trips to the West and Mexico in 1895), producing reportage and fiction for various local papers. In New York the raffish and footloose Crane took liberal advantage of what such purlieus as the Bowery had to offer. Beer, Crane's early biographer, colorfully describes this spicy, unruly district of shabby buildings, saloons, prostitutes, and what O. Henry called "waifs and strays," and then adds, "The Bowery, though, was funny. Comedians aped its dress on the stage of Koster and Bial's improper vaudeville and speakers at banquets recited Bowery jokes. There was no other slum in America so settled of speech and habit. It was supposed that the Bowery invented words." It is this latter element that actually provides a means for an understanding of the structure as well as the contents of "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky."

The text itself bespeaks not merely a dramatic performance involving rituals, as some commentators have indicated, but an actual vaudeville show. The matter of basic stage setting—scenery and music—is made clear at certain points in the narrative. Sheriff Potter recalls as he and his bride are riding toward Yellow Sky that the town has a brass band of sorts, and he imagines without pleasure what kind of uproarious parade and escort the band would provide for them from the train station to his home if the townspeople knew about their marriage and expected their arrival. Back in Yellow Sky, across from the Weary Gentleman Saloon, there were "vivid green grass-plots" so striking in appearance as to arouse "a doubt in the mind" because of their exact resemblance to "the grass mats used to represent lawns on the stage."

Then there are a number of extended and closely interrelated skits, as well as a certain amount of stage business, to provide the general outlines of a lively vaudeville production. The opening skit is set in a lavishly decorated, dazzlingly appointed parlor car. The bride is neither pretty, nor young, nor very bright, nor even of her husband's modest social background; both are ill at ease amid their fancy surroundings in the parlor car and in the dining car. Added to their essential nervousness and trepidation about Yellow Sky's reaction to their arrival is their inexperience as a domestic duo, which is so obvious that they attract the derisive attention of fellow passengers, the porter, and the waiter. Crane's creation of this mirthful scene, awkward newlyweds unintentionally playing clown roles, is in the best vaudeville tradition of the innocent as comic victim. The author's intention here is highlighted in the text: "Historically there was supposed to be something infinitely humorous in their situation."

The next vaudeville routine is set in the Weary Gentleman Saloon, across from the grass plots resembling stage-prop lawns. It involves a stand-up comic of sorts, actually a drummer (traveling salesman) telling funny stories about farcical situations to his taciturn audience of bar patrons (three Texans and two Mexican sheepherders). The drummer's tale about an old man and an old woman carrying heavy burdens and taking a tumble on the stairs is interrupted by the herald of a new comic sequence. A young man rushes in to announce that Scratchy Wilson is loose again on a drunken rampage. This is the prelude to another skit, consisting of some hustle and bustle and a bit of comic wisecracking, all as a result of this supposedly life-threatening situation. The two Mexicans quickly exit through the back door, while the frightened and confused drummer acts like the butt of an in-group joke concocted at his expense. Hardly satisfied by the answers to his questions, the unnerved drummer is forced by the bartender to get down on the floor behind the bar. Again he is made the "fall guy" in an impromptu Western-style drama.

Another skit follows: a solo performance by the drink-crazed Scratchy Wilson (recalling the drunken hall-porter scene in Macbeth). Bellowing, threatening, spoiling for a fight while brandishing his two long revolvers, the madman occupies center stage. He torments the barkeeper's dog by shooting near it, tries in vain to get through the barred door of the saloon, and fires at it. Then he remembers "his ancient antagonist" and decides to go to his house and get him to fight. Making his way there he chants "Apache scalp-music." But Potter is not at home to meet his howling challenges, and the infuriated Scratchy churns himself "into deepest rage" and reloads the revolvers.

At last comes the fitting climax to the extended burlesque of the Wild and Woolly West, which has not only been enlivened with jolly good vaudeville numbers but has also been made into a burlesque of the nuptial process. The closing act, a sham showdown with its strange pair of newlywed naifs, is the fitting final touch to Crane's Western Follies show. The Armageddon won't take place after all. In fact the sheriff has a new partner with whom to entertain the town from now on, and so the old act with Scratchy Wilson, one of the problems on his mind during the train ride home, is finished.

The result of all this for Crane's audience is a vaudeville marriage, the newly wedded state as imagined by a young writer-adventurer who himself has entered into a problematical, irregular union with a lady. He uses the story to fearfully anticipate dire consequences, which he finally dispels by burlesque logic.

—Samuel I. Bellman

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The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky by Stephen Crane, 1898

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