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Stephen Cranes The Open Boat is generally acknowledged to be among the masterpieces of the modern short story The question of the storys excellence has never been debated the only questions have been the proper means of defining the storys modernity and of accounting for what appear to be certain awkwardnesses of style tone and point of view The Open Boat has been hailed as an example of naturalistic fiction at its best until recent years when the automatic and somewhat naive tendency to equate naturalism and modernity has been called into question in all the arts Thus Peter Buitenhuis asserts in a recent study The Essentials of Life The Open Boat as Existentialist Fiction Modern Fiction Studies 3 1959 243-250The Open Boat is not a naturalistic story and he confronts the story as existentialist fiction concentrating on Cranes ironic presentation and the storys demonstration of the absurdity of the human condition While Mr Buitenhuis does not address himself to the question of The Open Boat as a modern short story the implicit assumption is that use of the term existential automatically confers the status of modernity as well it may Yet such a reading leaves its author troubled by the same kinds of questions that troubled those who saw the story as naturalistic fiction--questions about Cranes style and about the storys protagonist The answers to such questions come into focus when The Open Boat is viewed as a story with an emphasis on the epistemological aspect of the existential crisis The epistemological question about the problems of knowing and the limitations of mans ability to see and to know has become both subject and style in modern art from Conrad to Joyce Picasso to Faulkner Pirandello to Beckett So persistent and pervasive has been the preoccupation with epistemological questions in modern art that it might almost be said to constitute a way of defining one aspect of modernity Conversely it might be
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