The opening section, "Critical Reception: Early Reviews," surveys what in my analysis are the most significant early responses to The Red Badge of Courage. George Wyndham likens the experience of reading the novel to "being admitted to a theatre," while Harold Frederic compares the "photographic revelations" of Crane's prose to the convention-shattering effects of Eadweard Muybridge's instantaneous camera. Also important to the "Reviews" section are the contributions to the Dial controversy regarding Crane's patriotism. I argue that historical context is crucial to an understanding Red Badge, as Crane's attitude toward the Civil War--and toward the American nation--is illuminated by his use of Chancellorsville as the setting for the novel.
The second section, "The Battle: Chancellorsville," supports the claim that Crane used the factual framework of the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville for the setting of Red Badge. Analysis of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War reveals that the chronology and geography of Red Badge adhere closely to the developments and terrain of Chancellorsville. Crane's selection of this battlefield has important thematic resonance. Chancellorsville is 1) the site of Henry's and the regiment's initiation into war; 2) a pyrrhic victory for the South which only prolonged a losing cause; 3) and for the North an embarrassing loss to a numerically inferior army, a loss that represents the low point for those fighting to conserve national union.
I argue that Crane's account of war draws heavily on previous visual representations of the battlefield. The final section of the project, "Imaging the Civil War: Crane and the Camera," deals with the effect of photographs by Brady, Gardner, O' Sullivan, and Russell and paintings by Homer on Crane's self-described "battle pictures," his convention-shattering battlefield prose. Crane neglects narrative conventions in favor of photographic ones in his portrayal of Henry Fleming's search for authentic experience: Red Badge tells the story of how he abandons storybook ideas of heroic action--chivalry, knighthood, etc.--in favor of descriptive "camera eye" spectatorship. The novel's "imaging" of the war offers discontinuous, vivid impressions rather than an overarching story about individual and national growth. As Henry's skill in observation increases, he becomes less able to extract from the spectacle of war a clear moral for his own experience or for that of the nation. After Henry and a fellow soldier wrestle the flag from the arms of the dead color-bearer, they struggle with each other for the right to bear it aloft. Their "antagonistic co-operation"--the frictional process by which democratic sociey works out its differences--renders them safe from the grasp of the dead man. In the charge after rescuing the flag, Henry loses his self-consciousness and becomes a "war devil," the object of his comrades' observation. This action in support of a cause larger than himself to some extent redeems the exhilaration and moral deficiency of his earlier spectatorship.