Book Lust: War is Kind by Stephen Crane

Welcome to my new series, Book Lust, where I’ll be highlighting rare books for which my affection reaches undignified levels. Today:

War is Kind, Stephen Crane, 1899

Image courtesy Honey & Wax Books.
Image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers.

War is Kind was Crane’s second, and final, book of poetry. He died of tuberculosis less than a year later, at the age of 28.

Image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers.
Image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers.

The book contains a series of poems, beginning with the title poem “War is Kind,” which uses irony to strip the rosy filter from the aftermath of war. My personal favorite from the collection is “A man said the universe,” an example of that characteristic proto-existentialism found throughout his writings which makes me love him so much. Which is a totally normal reaction, right?

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

You may not have guessed at the bleakness of the material from all those Art Nouveau flourishes, but the cue’s in that unusual grey paper and the fields of black. These days, Art Nouveau gives us the vibe of decadent Belle Epoque Paris. But in 1899, it was new, unusual, even avant-garde in American circles. This book design would have screamed MODERN…just like the text.

IMG_2623

At the time, these verses were considered “wholly unconventional” (thus said by a contemporary reviewer). They required their own idiosyncratic clothing to match, rather like turning Oscar Wilde the man into an actual book. Will Bradley, the “dean of American designers,” decided to make it a masterpiece.

War is Kind detail

There’s a focus on negative space throughout, emphasized all the more by the materials used to produce the book. That paper demands your attention. Which I love.

War is Kind detail candle

Now here’s a contemporary review that tells me how wrong I am:

Mr. Will H. Bradley has made the book according to the extremity of his fantastic taste, and the result, we think, is lamentable. The paper is so dark a grey that it is difficult to read the not very small type, and the decorative drawings are for the admiration of the few. Mr. Crane’s poetry is hard enough reading—some of it—when printed most clearly; it is certainly not fair to throw mechanical difficulties in the way of deciphering it.

(Robert Hughes, Criterion, 3 June 1899).

War is Kind flower shadow

Apparently I have terrible taste. To me, the choice of a heavier, almost gritty, paper sets the tone for reading the book. It creates a certain weight in your reading, anchored firmly by the Beardsley-esque fields of black. This is a book you have to feel.

War is Kind detail lyre

I am also utterly charmed by the ornaments scattered randomly across the pages, like a vase of flowers has been knocked over. The onyx ink and thick, soft paper form an asymmetrical balance with these more delicate elements. It’s all meant to provoke an experience of pensive beauty.

Image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers.
Image courtesy Honey & Wax Booksellers.

Bibliographic Details
Author: Stephen Crane
Title: War Is Kind
Place of Publication: New York
Publisher: Frederick A. Stokes Company
Date of Publication: 1899
Illustrator/Designer: Will Bradley
Format: Octavo (about 8 ½ x 5 inches)
Binding: bluish-grey paper boards
Text block: printed on bluish-grey laid paper, with six full-page illustrations, and 16 Art Nouveau ornaments
Page count: 96pp.
Original purchase price: $2.50

Where to find it

This book regularly makes appearances at ABAA book fairs, although it is rather infamous for certain condition issues (notably that lovely grey paper toning to brown from the sunlight). Contact me via my About page if you are looking for a copy.

Further Reading

More on Will Bradley.

Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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18 Comments Add yours

  1. Steve Carter says:

    Sounds an amazing book, will definitely check it out, thanks

  2. Rennie says:

    Rebecca, Are you opening your own business, if so I want to sign up. Renald Parcesepe

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Sean Kerns says:

    That’s really cool. The whole book is kind of a work of art unto itself. Nothing like that any more. A real period piece. A book that’s as cool for it’s package as its content.

    1. Mark Frumento says:

      There is whole world of fine press and artists book around still. So you do see this still. Even in the general publishing world beautiful book are still made. Will Bradley was a very special designer illustrators but the tradition is carried on by a lot of talented illustrators, especially with the advent of digital illustration.

  4. Fantastic example of why I love print and printed books and why ebooks will never satisfy some of us. Thank you for bringing this gem to our attention.

  5. Being an artist myself, I have so much respect for the illustrators (artist) of long ago. What style they had …it speaks to the period !

  6. Rudolf Zaras says:

    What Robert Hughs failed to realize in his review of the format of the book itself (paper stock, grey color, scattered ink drawings, etc.) was (for the times) avant garde poetry of printing itself.

  7. Mike Gothard says:

    Love this book, Rebecca! Reminds me of some of Don Blanding’s work, both the poetry and the illustrations, from the 20s-40s. Enjoyed the photos, too!

  8. david fannin says:

    The paper makes me think of grainy, grey, tombstones. The ink is like the etchings, carved in the stones. The poems seem morose, like what you see at a burial site you will visit only once…read the poems only once…and never return to them…but you will remember the imagery… for the rest of your life.

  9. solscorp says:

    I must have this book! For some reason it speaks to my PTSD military mind. Thank you for highlighting this piece.

    I must have this book…

    1. If you don’t mind the fact that 1/4 of the spine was replaced you can get a copy for about $250 from Michael Good books in Woodacre CA. Other wise you would need to go $450 on up to $1800. How nice of a copy are you interested in?

  10. “Beardsley-esque” is right… I would have guessed (and been wrong). Did Bradley ever do any Arthurian illustration as Beardsley did?

    1. Mark Frumento says:

      Michael – I don’t remember Bradley doing anything specifically Arthurian, though I guess you could look and find related type images. He spent a lot of time as a commercial artist so you see a lot of advertising work, posters etc. There is definitely some Beardsley cross-over in Bradley’s work but as you explore you’ll see the hugely talented and diverse commercial artist in Bradley – which I do think sets him aside a bit.

      I tried my best to collect Bradley’s work but some of it is so ephemeral that my patience got tested. If you like design and illustration I highly recommend checking him out. There is at least one fairly easy to find book available, perhaps even a couple of books.

      I’m getting the itch again just talking about it… 🙂

    2. Launcelot and the Ladies, 1927, Harper and Brothers. Illustrated by Will Bradley.

      1. Thanks for that information, Jeff!

  11. John says:

    When You see things like this,, HOW can people read a kindle ? This is how books are meant to be…..

  12. Mark Hall-Patton says:

    Great piece. Now I have to go out and read this. Thanks for the post.

  13. So many books are works of art waiting to be found out. You did a great job articulating the way text, illustration and materials work together to turn a book into art. On another note: I’ll read Crane again just to see him as “proto- existentialist”!

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