Sydney Brooks, unsigned review, Saturday Review

January 11, 1896, lxxxi, 44-5


This review was most likely written by the British critic Sydney Brooks (1872-1937). Brooks frequently contributed to the Saturday Review and was in England writing reviews in late 1895 through January 1896, when he left to visit Chicago. In his letter in defence of Crane he says he was one of the first English reviewers, and this Saturday Review article is early. Furthermore, he says in his letter that he knew nothing of Crane when he wrote his review, which probably refers to an assumption made in the review that Crane was a Civil War veteran. Finally, both Brooks's letter and this review display the same intelligent, literate approach to the criticism of The Red Badge and fiction in general.

In a brief preview notice, published a week before this review was published, Brooks lauds the book as "the most realistic description ever published of modern war from the purely subjective standpoint of a private soldier. The author does not appear to be an artist; he seems to be concerned merely with giving an exact account of his most intimate personal feelings, and this account is so impartial in its frankness that it comes to have the significance of universal truth."

At a time like the present, when England, isolated by the jealousy and assailed by the threats of powerful rivals, is rising to the situation, and showing that the heart of the nation is as sound after the long Victorian peace as it was in the days fo the Armada, that the desperate if lawless enterprise of Jameson and Willoughby [leaders of a British force captured by the Boers in 1896, bringing about the Boer War, 1899-1902] is as near to the general heart of the people as were the not very dissimilar enterprises of the old Elizabethan captains, a want which has long existed, makes itself felt with increased intensity--the want of some book that shall satisfy the well-nigh universal desire to know the inmost truths of the experiences which actual battle alone bestows on the men engaged in it.

The want finds the book as the opportunity finds the man: Mr. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage really supplies the want more completely, and therefore more satisfactorily, than any other book with which we are acquainted. Tolstoi, in his War and Peace and his sketches of Sebastopol, has given, with extraordinary depth of insight and extraordinary artistic skill, the effect of battle on the ordinary man, whether cultured officer or simple and rough soldier; but he takes no one man through the long series of experiences and impressions which Mr. Crane describes in its effects on young Henry Fleming, a raw recruit who first saw service in the last American Civil War. While the impressions of fighting, and especially of wounds and death, on an individual soldier have been painted with marvellously vivid touches by Tolstoi, the impressions of battle on a body of men, a regiment, have been also realized and represented with characteristic vigour by Mr. Rudyard Kipling in such admirable work as 'The Drums of the Fore and Aft.' With less imagination, but with an accumulated mass of studied knowledge altogether too laboured, M. Zola in La Debacle has done some excellent literary work, but work not so convincingas Kipling's, and work certainly far inferior to Mr. Stephen Crane's, whose picture of the effect of actual fighting on a raw regiment is simply unapproached in intimate knowledge and sustained imaginative strength. This we say without forgetting Merimee's celebrated account of the taking of the redoubt. The writing of the French stylist is, no doubt, much superior in its uniform excellence; but Mr. Crane, in the supreme moments of the fight, is possessed by the fiery breath of battle, as a Pythian priestess by the breath of God, and finds an inspired utterance that will reach the universal heart of man. Courage in facing wounds and death is the special characteristic of man among the animals, of man who sees into the future, and has therefore much to deter him that affects him alone. Indeed, man, looking at the past, might almost be described as the fighting animal; and Mr. Crane's extraordinary book will appeal strongly to the insatiable desire, latent or developed, to know the psychology of war how the sights and sounds, the terrible details of the drama of battle, affect the senses and the soul of man. Whether Mr. Crane has had personal experience of the scenes he depicts we cannot say from external evidence; but the extremely vivid touches of detail convince us that he has. Certainly, if his book were altogether a work of the imagination, unbased on personal experience, his realism would be nothing short of a miracle. Unquestionably his knowledge, as we believe acquired in war, has been assimilated and has become a part of himself. At the heated crises of the battle he has the war fever the Berserk fury in his veins, he lives in the scenes he depicts, he drinks to the dregs the bitter cup of defeat and the bitter cup of fear and shame with his characters no less completely than he thrills with their frantic rage when repulsed by the enemy, and their frantic joy when they charge home.

The Red Badge of Courage a name which means, we may perhaps explain, a wound received in open fight with the enemy is the narrative of two processes: the process by which a raw youth develops into a tried and trustworthy soldier, and the process by which a regiment that has never been under fire develops into a finished and formidable fighting machine. Henry Fleming, the youth who is the protagonist of this thrillingly realistic drama of war, has for deuteragonist Wilson, the loud young boaster. Wilson, however, comes only occasionally into the series of pictures of fighting, and of the impressions that fighting produces on the hyper-sensitive nerves of the chief character. Fleming, a neurotic lad, constitutionally weak andintensely egotistic, fanciful and easily excited, enlists in the Northern Army, and finds himself a raw recruit in a new regiment, derisively greeted by veteran regiments as 'fresh fish.' Nights of morbid introspection afflict the youth with the intolerable question, Will he funk when the fighting comes? Thus he continues to question and torture himself till his feelings are raised to the nth power of sensitiveness. At last, after many false alarms and fruitless preparations, the real battle approaches, and whatever confidence in himself remained oozes away from the lonely lad. 'He lay down in the grass. The blades pressed tenderly against his cheek. The liquid stillness of the night enveloping him made him feel vast pity for himself. . . . He wished without reserve that he was at home again.' He talked with his comrades, but found no sign of similar weakness. He felt himself inferior to them: an outcast. Then, in the grey dawn, after such a night of fear, they start hastily for the front.

[Quotes ch. 3 'He felt carried along' to 'seemed very thin'.]

He looked round him, but there was no escape from the regiment. 'He was in a moving box.' The experiences of the battle are led up to with masterly skill. First he is fascinated by the skirmishers, whom he sees running hither and thither, 'firing at the landscape.' Then comes one of Mr. Crane's vivid poetical conceptions: the advancing line encounters a dead soldier.

[Quotes ch. 3 'He lay upon his back' to 'hand were stroking it'.]

An unreasoning dread swept over the young recruit; the forest everywhere seemed to hide the enemy, and might any moment bristle with rifle-barrels. He lagged at last, with tragic glances at the sky; only to bring down on himself the young lieutenant of his company with loud reproaches for skulking. The new regiment took its ground in a fringe of wood. Shells came screaming over. 'Bullets began to whistle among the branches and hiss at the trees. Twigs and leaves came sailing down. It was as if a thousand axes, wee and invisible, were being wielded.' Then the tide of battle moved toward them, and out of the grey smoke came the yells of the combatants, and then a mob of beaten men rushed past, careless of the grim jokes hurled at them. 'The battle reflection that shone for an instant on their faces on the mad current made the youth feel' that he would have gladly escaped if he could. 'The sight of this stampede exercised a flood-like force that seemed able to drag sticks and stones and men from the ground.' At last, 'Here they come!Here they come! Gunlocks clicked. Across the smoke-infested fields came a brown swarm of running men who were giving shrill yells. A flag tilted forward sped near the front.'

The man at the youth's elbow was mumbling, as if to himself, 'Oh! we're in for it now; oh! we're in for it now.' The youth fired a wild first shot, and immediately began to work at his weapon automatically. He lost concern for himself, and felt that something of which he was a part was in a crisis.

[Quotes ch. 5 'He felt the subtle' to 'they were fighting' and 'Following this' to 'one life at a time'.]

The description goes on, full of vivid realistic touches, of which we can only give a fragment or two.

[Summarizes the rest of the book, interspersing brief quotes.]

The book is crowded with vivid passages and striking descriptions, often expressed in original and picturesque diction. 'A mass of wet grass marched upon rustled like silk'; 'A dense wall of smoke settled slowly down. It was furiously slit and slashed by the knife-like fire from the rifles'; Bullets 'spanged'; 'Bullets buffed into men'; 'His dead body lying torn and gluttering upon the field.' One is not inclined to criticize the giver of such a book; but it will be observed that when the Berserk inspiration is not upon him, Mr. Crane writes as badly as, when his imagination is heated, he writes well e.g. 'Too, the clothes seemed new.'

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