Red Badge of Courage.

The undiscovered genius of Stephen Crane

I don’t remember having been completely charmed by a book of any size for the last 15 years or more. Until today, May 11, 2008. Just the other day from my sister-in-law Rebecca Hannah in Arizona I got by shipmail a pocketbook copy of Stephen Crane’s Barnes & Noble Classics selection The Red Badge Of Courage And Selected Short Fiction (2003, New York, 214 pages). Thank God for sisters-in-law who bother.

It’s a slow-moving train of attraction. First, I read the erudite Introduction by Richard Fusco; I make it only halfway. Then I turn to the brief timeline on the author, the endnotes and, as is my wont, to the back of the book for the blurb. They all make very serious reading. The book goes back to the table.

In a little while, I go back. The Introduction, 39 pages long, is a somber narration on the life of Crane and a solemn analysis of the impressionism of the whole story. I admire the works of impressionist painters, if it comes to that, no matter that I can’t tell you why in artful terms: Degas, Renoir, Monet. Fusco is convinced that The Red Badge of Courage ‘unleashed Crane’s deeply influential impressionistic style’ (the imagery and symbolism) and that with it ‘Crane is generally recognized as one of the major forces of American literature.’

In his Introduction, I note that Fusco says he has tried to ‘mimic (Crane’s) prose style’– and I remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That explains why the Introduction is not interesting to read?

Fusco cannot help but point out that this book is Crane’s ‘most enduring and influential work’ (page xix). What Fusco means is that The Red Badge of Courage became the model for other American authors, including Ernest Hemingway, who acknowledged his debt to Crane (page 205). As Fusco puts it, Hemingway established himself as the most important war writer since Crane’ (page 205, my italics).

I discover that there is a subtitle of the novel that made Stephen Crane a major American author and it is this: An Episode of the American Civil War (page 1), an unsmiling lead-on to the story. I don’t know that as I read on, it will catch me by surprise.

I browse the pages of Crane’s book knowing that it is a war novel and that I don’t really like to read war novels. What is there to know except tragedy, the violence that men bring upon other men under the influence of leaders who vow love of their respective countries?

I am not thinking of my own rule of thumb that if you don’t really like a book but want (or have) to read it anyway, read say the first 3 chapters, the middle 3, and then the last 3, and you will get a good grasp of what the story is from beginning to end. I just flit from here to there, dabbing a short scratch of ink at the end of a line that strikes me as a metaphor to note, or if it makes me smile, marking with a @ the end of that line. Yes, I make marginal notes on books, sometimes not my own.

After reading bits and pieces here and there, I go back to the cover photo and I notice that it is a misfit – the soldiers in the photo are in languid postures – which I think is the exact opposite of the story of The Red Badge of Courage. They are in a war and they make ridiculous poses like that?

While I am skipping and hopping, soon enough I notice that I am smiling. Doesn’t Fusco say? ‘Rarely has the marriage of literature and the subject of war been successful than in The Red Badge of Courage.’ He does, on page 205. Did I say smiling? I did. What’s in that literature?

At first, I don’t think the story is ridiculous (page 58):

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

In a little while, I am earnestly laughing! Not with that quote but something else Stephen Crane has written. I try to go back to that surprising page, but I don’t remember exactly which lines have first made me laugh. Then again, it may be this paragraph (page 69):

He started forward slowly. He stepped as if he expected to tread upon some explosive thing. Doubts and he were struggling.

In October of 1895, Stephen Crane offered to the world of literature his concoction of a mélange of pathos and humor; nobody had recognized it for what it was in the last 113 years, and I had discovered it?

I read that paragraph again where the phrase that became the title of the book is mentioned:

At times he regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He conceived persons with torn bodies to be peculiarly happy. He wished that he, too, had a wound, a red badge of courage.

This is crazy! This is weird! This is first-class irony!

In fact, the very first 2 sentences of the novel is a presage of sense to come, a warning to joy in the midst of sorrow that is a war:

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors.

‘The army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors.’ You don’t begin a proper war story like that. This is an improper war story.

The annotator himself, Richard Fusco, notes that Stephen Crane never went to war, never fought in a battle. To be able to write a proper war novel, Crane borrowed the multi-volume work Battles And Leaders Of The Civil War (1887) from the mother of a former playmate. Fusco writes (page xxix):

Here Crane found a rich vein of primary material, including essays by participating Union and Confederate officers … With these accounts, Crane began to understand the facts, tactics, and strategies of the Battle of Chancellorsville that he would integrate into his story.

What happened was that, I surmise, Stephen Crane had so memorized the scenes in his mind that he was now at that point where he gained insights into them, and in writing, he acknowledged their truths with his concocted language of humanity and humor. Fusco dismisses them as ‘an occasional note of nostalgia or bravado’ (xxix). But Crane was not a realist as Fusco says he was; it appears to me that Crane had attained a level of understanding, if not wisdom, above the reality.

And so? The Red Badge of Courage is the story of war as theater. And so, don’t read The Red Badge of Courage: Watch it! This is paragraph #2 (page 3):

Once a certain tall soldier developed virtues and went resolutely to wash a shirt. He came flying back from a brook waving his garment bannerlike. He was swelled with a tale he had heard from a reliable friend, who had heard it from a truthful cavalryman, who had heard it from his trustworthy brother, one of the orderlies at division headquarters. He adopted the important air of a herald in red and gold.

Finished laughing? Now, the man was telling the rest of the soldiers that they were going to move for sure out of where they were. The fact was that they had been told 8 times in 2 weeks they were moving but they didn’t.

Could the news be true nevertheless this time? This is paragraph # 7 (page 4):

A corporal began to swear before the assemblage. He had just put a costly board floor in his house, he said. During the early spring he had refrained from adding extensively to the comfort of his environment because he had felt that the army might start on the march at any moment. Of late, however, he had been impressed that they were in a sort of eternal camp.

The tall soldier is funny. The corporal is funny. The tall soldier continues to be funny (page 4):

There was much food for thought in the manner in which he replied. He came near to convincing them by disdaining to produce proof. They grew much excited over it.

How did Henry Fleming get into this ridiculous war anyway?

Stephen Crane had studied the story of the Spartans at war and peace and was not amused. So he made it amusing. He knew that when a son left for battle, the Spartan mother would address him with his shield and say, ‘Return with it, or upon it’ (Riccardo Castle, inet07sp.lccc.wy.edu). So, when the youth, Henry Fleming, had volunteered for the Civil War and said goodbye to her mother, he had wanted to be part of a Spartan farewell scene. His mother cried, but (page 6):

Still, she had disappointed him by saying nothing whatever about returning with his shield or on it. He had privately primed himself for a beautiful scene. He had prepared certain sentences which he thought could be used with touching effect.

What did Henry’s mother do? She had a long speech (almost all of page 7) – nothing Spartan. What did Henry do? ‘He departed feeling vague relief’ (page 7).

Henry Fleming, the youth, was used to talking to himself, amusing himself, even repeating himself to himself at least about Greek-like struggles, about wars.

He had long despaired of witnessing a Greek-like struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions. (page 5)

He was brought then gradually back to his old ideas. Greek-like struggles would be no more. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions. (page 8)

The men wore blue uniforms. In battle as in reporting for battle, Henry Fleming amused himself with his own wit (page 9):

He had grown to regard himself merely as a part of a vast blue demonstration. His province was to look out, as far as he could, for his personal comfort. For recreation he could twiddle his thumbs and speculate on the thoughts which must agitate the minds of the generals. Also, he was drilled and drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilled and reviewed.

Did I say this is theater? I take it back; this is not theater. This is theater of the absurd! And Henry Fleming’s tale is a tale of the absorbed (page 9):

Various veterans had told him tales. Some talked of gray, bewhiskered hordes who were advancing with relentless curses and chewing tobacco with unspeakable valor; tremendous bodies of fierce soldiery who were sweeping along like the Huns. Others spoke of tattered and eternally hungry men who fired despondent powders.

I haven’t gotten very far, haven’t I, still on page 9 of a story of 142 pages, and I can’t go on if I keep interrupting my typing with my laughing.

So, what kind of volunteer soldier was the young Henry Fleming? An Unknown Soldier, I might say (page 10):

However, he perceived that it did not greatly matter what kind of soldiers he was going to fight, so long as they fought, which fact no one disputed. There was a more serious problem. He lay in his bunk pondering upon it. He tried to mathematically prove to himself that he would not run from a battle.

Previously, he had never felt obliged to wrestle too seriously with this question. In his life he had taken certain things for granted, never challenging his belief in ultimate success, and bothering little about means and roads. But here he was confronted with a thing of moment. It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in a battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.

In The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming did not know Henry Fleming. Out of The Red Badge of Courage, the world did not discover the genius of Stephen Crane in Henry Fleming?

They hailed The Red Badge of Courage as ‘one of the most influential war stories ever written’ (americanliterature.com) and ‘America’s greatest novel of the Civil War’ (learnoutloud.com). Ernest Hemingway was influenced by it but couldn’t improve on it. Crane’s story could not have been America’s greatest novel of the Civil War because it made fun of it from beginning to end. Stephen Crane’s story is brilliant satire, and nobody wants to say that. It is not the story of Henry Fleming and the other ridiculous cowards in his regiment who become heroes - it is the story of the absurdity of war in terms of the individual as well as the group. It is in fact a plea for peace.

Indeed, I don’t have to read through the entire book to listen to Stephen Crane’s story. Here are the last 3 paragraphs (pages 141-142:

So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquilly, and it was as if hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.

It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks – an existence of soft and eternal peace.

Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.

Stephen Crane wanted an existence of soft and eternal peace. War was a ridiculous interruption of peace.

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