The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
A strange book, this. It is undoubtedly powerful and was ground-breaking in its time but for all its classic status, it has been a staple in the syllabus of American literature courses and has never been out of print, I found it a tad dull.
Crane died tragically young at the age of 28. He was not a victim of the carnage of the American Civil War which is the canvas for this book but in a German sanatorium from tuberculosis in 1900. As he was born in 1871 Crane had no direct experience of the horrors of that particular war, although it is fairly certain that he interviewed and obtained eye-witness accounts from some who had fought.
It is not unusual these days for an author writing about war to have no specific personal experience, relying on primary sources from the time they are writing about and, if possible, accounts from surviving combatants. But at the time The Red Badge of Courage, in 1894, initially serialised in the Philadelphia Press, Crane’s lack of first-hand knowledge of warfare was something critics seized on. And the furore rumbled on, Hemingway sniffily remarked, “Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brandy photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house”.
This was Crane’s second book and, despite his critics, it was well received, making his name. Although he doesn’t specify the battle, it is thought that the action in the book centres around the Battle of Chancellorsville fought out in the northern part of Virginia between April 30 and May 6th. 1863. It was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war with some 24,000 casualties and was notable not only for victory for the Confederate army but also the death of Stonewall Jackson, hit by friendly fire and then succumbing to pneumonia eight days later.
The protagonist in Crane’s book is Henry Fleming, a young farmhand from New York State, who, against his mother’s wishes, and fired by a naïve form of patriotism, enlists for the Union forces. As one of what the gnarled veterans called “Fresh Fish” Fleming wonders how he will react when liberated from the grinding monotony of camp life he faces the enemy’s guns for the first time.
Indeed, whilst the battle serves as the backdrop to the book, much of the narrative concerns itself with Fleming’s mental turmoil; will he be brave and earn his red badge of courage (a battle wound) or will he turn tail and run? The book explores the fine line between cowardice and heroism and the fears and hopes of a novice soldier entering the fray for the first time. The battle scenes are written in an impressionistic style, there is little sense of the broad sweep of the battle but rather the narrative concentrates on those pockets of action that Fleming experiences.
Inevitably, as you would expect if you have ploughed through the first hundred pages or so, Fleming does turn tail and flee but his escape route takes him to the back of the Union line where he encounters the wounded who ask him uncomfortable questions about where he was hit. In a tragi-comic moment, Fleming watches one of his comrades and friends, Jim Conklin, struggling to keep marching whilst visibly dying from the wounds he has sustained. It dawns on Fleming that war is a particular form of hell, but his experiences persuade him to return to the frontline. Ironically, he does sustain his red badge of courage, but it is when one of his own side hits him on the head to get him out of the way.
In subsequent skirmishes Fleming plays a prominent role in the action, being the flag bearer and being instrumental in the capture of the enemy’s flag. Within his regiment Fleming attains hero status.
It is a thought-provoking book and is interesting in that it shines a light on the horrors of war a couple of decades before the brutal slaughter of the First World War began. Rather like military life there are long stretches of tedium in the narrative before a burst of action. I can see why it became a classic but I’m on Hemingway’s side.