Making an Orator
Stephen Crane

MAKING AN ORATOR by Stephen Crane

Crane's fame rests on his Civil War novel, "The Red Badge of Courage," and a few well known short stories, but he also wrote a series of boyhood tales. This story follows the plight of a boy who is traumatized when he has to recite a memorized poem in front of the class.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Whilomville
  • Story Date: The 1880's
  • Publication Date: 1899
  • Stephen Crane: 1871-1900

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • Friday afternoon elocution
  • Jimmie Trescott plays sick
  • Jimmie's father takes him to school
  • The student orations begin
  • Jimmie begins his oration, haltingly
  • Jimmie takes his seat

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • Students at Work: 1, 2, 3
  • Punishment: 1

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • The Stephen Crane Society

  • Stephen Crane: Man, Myth, and Legend

  • Selected Poetry of Stephen Crane

  • Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       Stephen Crane is best known for his Civil War novel, "The Red Badge of Courage," and some short stories that are ranked among the best in U.S. fiction. During the last few years of his short life (Crane died at 29), he wrote a group of semi-autobiographical boyhood tales set in the fictious town of Whilomville and centering around a boy named Jimmie Trescott. These stories were collected in a volume titled "Whilomville Stories," and "Making an Orator" is a part of the collection.

       Unlike many 19th century school-based tales, "Making an Orator" is set in a small town rather than a rural locale; Whilomville is probably modeled after the New York and New Jersey towns where Crane spent his childhood. This means that the school is significantly different from the one room district schoolhouses run by itinerate schoolmasters portrayed in so many stories in this collection. Another of Crane's stories set in Whilomville -- "The Fight" -- describes the school as having a number of teachers, most or all of whom are female, separate classrooms that are probably divided by age, and a fenced playground. The classrooms must have been crowded, because one teacher finds herself in the position of having to accept "an additional [student] to a class of sixty-three."

       Crane's stories make it clear that he was not overly fond of his early schooling. The moments we spend with the children inside the classroom are tedious or painful, and the teachers themselves never take on much importance in the stories. Only in "Making an Orator" does a teacher play any significant part in the story, and it is a negative one.

       The story focuses on Jimmie Trescott's painful experience reciting a memorized poem in front of the class. Memorization and public recitation were virtually universal components of 19th century schools and figure in a number of stories, the most famous of which is Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer." (You can find the recitation scene in "Tom Sawyer" on this site.) Tom, like Jimmie, developed a bad case of stage fright during his performance, but Tom suffered no permanent damage from the experience, while the last line of Crane's story reveals how devastating the experience was to Jimmie. Apparently, a similar situation occurred in Crane's life, with equally lasting consequences.

       One of Crane's most famous short stories, "The Open Boat," written three years before "Making an Orator," has a brief reference to classroom recitations. In the story, four men are in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with slim chance of survival. One of the men, a journalist, suddenly remembers a passage from a poem about a dying soldier that had been recited on numerous occasions in class. He recalls:

    "Myriads of his schoolfellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point."

    However, the journalist's thoughts of death in the lifeboat lead him to grasp the poignancy of the oft-recited passage. Since "The Open Boat" is a predominantly factual accounting of Crane's own harrowing experience in a lifeboat when he was on a journalistic assignment, it isn't much of a stretch to infer that Crane's own memory flashed back to his classroom recitations in much the same way as did the story's journalist.