The Red Badge of Courage - 1895
Stephen Crane is a monumental figure in modern literature, credited as one of the first novelists to introduce realism into American literature. The Victorian sensibility that marked so much of the nineteenth century is hardly even hinted at in the work of Crane, who instead helped create the modernist novel and inspired those that read his work to follow suit. His seminal work, The Red Badge of Courage, sought to examine the nature of war and heroism in the modern world of killer technology, disappearing chivalry, and growing disillusionment. Echoing the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest, Crane’s portrayal of America’s deadliest war suggested the undeniable truth that sometimes survival is not often heroic and heroism sometimes hinders ones ability to survive.
The modernism themes inherent in the late-nineteenth century writing of Stephen Crane came fast and furiously to the young writer. Crane was born to a Methodist Minister in Newark, New Jersey on November 1, 1871, the last of fourteen children. Crane attended Claverack College also the Hudson River Institute, and the University of Syracuse, before moving to New York in 1890 where he lived in poverty as a freelance writer. After writing his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a realistic story about life in the slums, Crane achieved his first and greatest success with what many consider his magnum opus, The Red Badge of Courage. The success of the novel about a Civil War soldier that struggles with fear and panic in the face of battle garnered the twenty-four-year-old international acclaim. Before he died five years later in Europe from tuberculosis, Crane would go on to publish unmistakably modernist stories known for innovative use of imagery and symbolism like, The Open Boat and Other Tales, The Monster and Other Stories, as well as books of free verse, The Black Rider and War is Kind (“Stephen Crane”). However, he failed to achieve the level of success as with his tome on the terror, both moral and physical, of war.
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Crane’s most famous work, The Red Badge of Courage, exhibits many of the themes that would recur in his later work, like the examination of human psychology and war. His examination of heroism in modern war came through no actual firsthand experience, but his insistence upon avoiding superfluity in his work made it seem as if a learned veteran wrote the story. Though Crane had no experience in war when he wrote the novel, from its realistic portrayal he later earned the position of foreign correspondent for New York newspapers in the Spanish-American War and the Greco-Turkish War (“Stephen Crane”). Crane developed of uniquely modernist form of literary naturalism, which depicted characters in the face of overwhelming natural and social forces, facing their mortality without the romanticism that dominated most of the nineteenth century. Crane would revisit the theme of war in much of his fiction, inspired in no small way by his experiences in Cuba and Greece. However, his imaginative fiction provided The Red Badge of Courage with a level of realism that had many readers at the time believing it to be the firsthand account of an actual Civil War veteran.
Written thirty years after the end of the Civil War and just as the world was exploding into modernity, The Red Badge of Courage tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young Union soldier struggling with the specter of battle. Through the eyes of Henry, the reader watches a young boy transform from a selfish, insecure, and immature youth to a wiser, confident, and honorable man. Crane is sure to refer to Henry as “the young soldier” and “the youth,” emphasizing his boyish inexperience, as it is contrasted with the often jaded or unemotional veterans he encounters. The question of heroism is central to the character’s plight, as Henry’s initial romantic notions of battlefield glory are replaced with shame and illusory rationalizations after he flees a battle. He justifies his actions as superior to those that stayed and were not “wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death” (Crane 51). In modernistic terms, this is pure Darwin, as Henry is given the human capacity for abstract thought and self-preservation, which in his mind supercedes the orders coming down the chain of command. Henry ultimately redeems himself by finally giving into the battle and abandoning all his childish notions of glory: “it was difficult to think of reputation when others were thinking of skins” (127). For Henry, there is nothing heroic about death, and he spends the majority of the novel trying to rationalize his own desire to survive with the romantic notions perpetuated by his fellow soldiers, as well as the culture of his time. By the end of the novel, Henry achieves a realistic and thoroughly earned individuality, and no longer concerned himself with the value judgments of others. Henry’s struggles whether to fight or run are a question each soldier must ask himself when facing death for a cause not his own, though few authors before Crane covered such controversial and realistic themes. Henry’s evolution from childhood to manhood in the under the indifferent chaos of war is continuously depicted by Crane in a naturalistic and realistic manner, which certainly aided significantly in the coming of modernist literature, and which did not go unnoticed by his contemporaries.
Literary visionary, H.G. Wells, who befriended Crane while he lived in Europe, spoke highly of The Red Badge of Courage and its author. Wells praised the originality and vigorous imaginative style of the book, crediting it with being a new force and a new school of thought, both uniquely American. Wells stated of the novel and its author: “It was the new man as a typical young American, free at last, as no generation of Americans have been free before, of any regard for English criticism, comment or tradition, and applying to literary work the conception and theories of the cosmopolitan studio with a quite American directness and vigor” (Wells 234). Much like his character, Crane’s success from the novel seemed to echo a similar choice by authors of the time who could either continue to hold the standard line of writing, or venture to create a style uniquely their own, free and individualistic. Crane’s style and influence would also be seen in such seminal American authors such as Ernest Hemingway who called The Red Badge of Courage, “one of the finest books of our literature” (Foote vii). Hemingway would later use many of the themes of war and questionable heroism when the moral ambiguity inherent in Crane’s war story became reality in the fields of Europe during World War I, when heroism and survival both became difficult to preserve.
The naturalist style that Crane employed in the novel helped create a blurring between fiction and journalism, which would become one of the most modernist attributes of the coming years. Literary critic, Louis A. Renza comments on the effect created by Crane’s brand of realism, which combines the stark visual reality of photographs and elements of Impressionistic painting: “But, instead of combining them to achieve a more comprehensive realistic effect, Crane’s literary Impressionism calls attention to the representational medium, smudging images of reality with subjective associations indigenous to language” (Renza 82). Crane’s stylistic shift from the previous literature of the era precipitated the literature that would come to dominate the early twentieth century. While some Victorian authors like Henry James saw journalism as the enemy of the novel, Crane embraced both forms like Theodore Dreiser and Hemingway would later. According to critic Michael Robertson, “The careers and work of Crane, Dreiser, Hemingway, and their successors in fiction and nonfiction, the critical practice of writers in and out of the academy, and this study all attest to journalism’s powerful role in the making of modern American literature (Robertson 210). Crane’s influence on the journalistic style of modern American fiction cannot be overstated, and may be one of the most significant contributions to modernist literature made.
Stephen Crane provided American literature with its first truly modern author. If The Red Badge of Courage had been the only work Crane produced, it would still have cemented his legacy in the canon. The novel’s naturalistic realism, along with his emphasis on psychological and social struggles, has provided inspiration to scores of subsequent authors and entertainment to millions of readers. He made readers question not only the pointlessness of war, but also the intelligence of offering up one’s life to needless slaughter. Though the life of Stephen Crane was short and tumultuous, the work he left behind will continue to live in the hearts and minds of all those that desire literature depicting the human condition with a keen eye and an artistic beauty that transcends the ages.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage: Complete and Unabridged. New York: Tom
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Foote, Shelby. “Introduction.” The Red Badge of Courage. New York: The Modern Library,
Renza, Louis A. “Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.” The Explicator. Vol. 56, Iss. 2,
Washington: Winter 1998.
Robertson, Michael. Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American
Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
“Stephen Crane.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press,
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Wells, H. G. “Stephen Crane, from an English Standpoint.” North American Monthly Review
171, Aug. 1900. 17 Sep 2008. <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=WelCran.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1>.