Stephen Crane’s “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” is a story about the conquest of America’s Western frontier by the refinery and civilization of the East. The story’s only two named characters, the domesticated Marshall Jack Potter and the untamed outlaw, Scratchy Wilson, embody the dichotomies of the East and West, the new and the old, civilization and the frontier. First published in McClure’s Magazine in 1898, Crane’s tale came five years after the historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his influential “Frontier Thesis,” in which he argued that the Western frontier fueled the dynamic growth of American democracy. Westward expansion into the untamed frontier forged the essential American character traits of rugged individualism, entrepreneurship, and colonial conquest over the frontier’s “savage” native tribes. Thus, when the 1890 census declared that white Americans had effectively settled the frontier out of existence, Turner argued that the first great phase of U.S. history had come to an end. “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” encapsulates the closing of the frontier through the allegorical account of the newly married Jack Potter, traveling west across the Texas plains in the lap of industrial luxury back to the dusty town of Yellow Sky, which still retains trappings of the Old West. There, Potter vanquishes his old nemesis, Scratchy Wilson not with violence, but with evidence that Scratchy is a walking anachronism — that is, a relic of the West’s wild frontier past.
Throughout the story, Potter’s refinement contrasts with Wilson’s Wild West abandon. Everything, from the clothes Potter and the bride wear, to the furnished Pullman car surroundings, suggests the luxury that civilized capitalism provides. Potter wears “new black clothes” while the bride wears “a dress of blue cashmere.” Their coach contains “dazzling fittings” of “sea-greened figured velvet” and “shining brass, silver, and glass.” Potter and his bride are the new American bourgeois. In contrast to Potter, whose calm manners match his dapper appearance, Scratchy Wilson appears as an untamed rowdy drunk, whose belligerence poses a mortal threat to patrons at the Weary Gentleman saloon. The barkeeper describes Scratchy as a living Wild-West anachronism — a violent, impulsive figure from another time. Scratchy is “a wonder with a gun [...] on the war trail” and “the last one of the old gang,” a status about which he is entirely unaware.
Crane further emphasizes the dichotomy of civilization and the frontier by contrasting Scratchy Wilson’s relative isolation with Jack Potter’s role as a pillar of Yellow Sky society. Scratchy drunkenly stalks Yellow Sky’s street at night, but his cries are met only with “walls of silence.” Potter, however, is intimately connected to the residents of Yellow Sky—so much so that he worries that getting married without the town’s consent might damage his status as “a prominent person.” Scratchy’s status as a forgotten relic of the conquered frontier leaves him whooping and hollering alone in the night, while Potter’s role as the civilized keeper of law and order makes his return to Yellow Sky an anticipated event.
Scratchy Wilson’s near total ignorance of his irrelevance in a newly tamed Wild West leads to a harsh awakening that the civilized East has conquered his rough-and-tumble world. In the story’s anticlimactic ending, Potter faces Scratchy is what seems like a classic Wild-West showdown, but rather than draw arms, Potter defeats Scratchy by revealing how the new America has passed him by. The sight of his old adversary in chivalrous, married bliss leaves Scratchy “a simple child of the earlier plains” who cannot appreciate the scope of his defeat. Potter does not need a gun because the fight is already over. Potter’s refined masculinity triumphs over Scratchy’s outdated frontiersman, and civilization has tamed the last wild frontier.
Frederick Jackson Turner characterized the conquest of the West as the East’s attempt to “check and guide” the frontier. Fittingly, Potter manages to “check and guide” Scratchy rather than merely kill him, and Scratchy’s defeat is notably devoid of violence even as bloodshed forged the old frontier world he embodies. Crane, however, imbues his ending with a fatalism that suggests a level of ambiguity over the triumph of civilization. The enduring, romanticized popularity of Wilson’s “Wild West” frontier in the decades following Crane’s story indicates that Jack Potter’s civilization left something to be desired in the American cultural framework.
Frontier vs. Civilization ThemeTracker
Frontier vs. Civilization Quotes in The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky
The Great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward. Vast flats of green grass, dull-hued spaces of mesquite and cactus, little groups of frame houses, woods of light and tender trees, all were sweeping into the east, sweeping over the horizon, a precipice.
Across the sandy street were some vivid green-grass plots, so wonderful in appearance, amid the sands that burned near them in a blazing sun, that they caused a doubt in the mid. They exactly resembled the grass mats used to represent lawns on the stage. At the cooler end of the railway station, a man without a coat sat in a tilted chair and smoked his pipe. The fresh-cut-bank of the Rio Grande circled near the town, and there could be seen beyond it a great plum-colored plain of mesquite.
The drummer's tale was interrupted by a young man who suddenly appeared in the open door. He cried: "Scratchy Wilson is drunk, and has turned loose with both hands." The two Mexicans at once set down their glasses and faded out of the rear entrance of the saloon. The drummer, innocent and jocular, answered: “All right, old man. S'pose he has? Come in and have a drink, anyhow."
"You see," he whispered, "this here Scratchy Wilson is a wonder with a gun a perfect wonder—and when he goes on the war trail, we hunt our holes—naturally. He’s about the last one of the old gang that used to hang out along the river here. He's a terror when he’s drunk. When he’s sober he's all right—kind of simple—wouldn't hurt a fly—nicest fellow in town. But when he's drunk—whoo!"
A man in a maroon-colored flannel shirt, which had been purchased for purposes of decoration, and made principally by some Jewish women on the East Side of New York, rounded a corner and walked into the middle of the main street of Yellow Sky. In either hand the man held a long, heavy, blue-black revolver. Often he yelled, and these cries rang through a semblance of a deserted village, shrilly flying over the roofs in a volume that seemed to have no relation to the ordinary vocal strength of a man. It was as if the surrounding stillness formed the arch of a tomb over him. These cries of ferocious challenge rang against walls of silence. And his boots had-red tops with gilded imprints, of the kind beloved in winter by little sledding boys on the hillsides of New England.
There was a silence. Potter's mouth seemed to be merely a grave for his tongue. He exhibited an instinct to at once loosen his arm from the woman’s grip, and he dropped the bag to the sand. As for the bride, her face had gone as yellow as old cloth. She was a slave to hideous rites, gazing at the apparitional snake.
He was stiffening and steadying, but yet somewhere at the back of his mind a vision of the Pullman-floated, the seagreen figured velvet, the shining brass, silver, and glass, the wood that gleamed as darkly brilliant as the surface of a pool of oil—all the glory of the marriage, the environment of the new estate.
He was like a creature allowed a glimpse of another world. He moved a pace backward, and his arm, with the revolver, dropped to his side.
He was not a student of chivalry; it was merely that in the presence of this foreign condition he was a simple child of the earlier plains. He picked up his starboard revolver, and, placing both weapons in their holsters, he went away. His feet made funnel-shaped tracks in the heavy sand.