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