Sydney Brooks, letter defending Crane, Dial

May 16, 1896, xx, 297-98


In this letter Brooks defends his earlier opinion of The Red Badge of Courage.

It really requires some courage to confess it, but I was one of the first English reviewers to whose lot fell the reviewing of Mr. Stephen Crane's book, The Red Badge of Courage. Worse still a quite damning fact, I fear I even ventured to praise it. Mr. Crane I had never heard of when his book came to me in the ordinary course of business, but I read the volume with the greatest interest; I thought it in many ways a remarkable performance, and I did my best to give reasons for the faith that was in me. But apparently it is a subtle insult for an Englishman to praise an American book. I used to think that a good book was a good book the whole world over. It is only since landing in this country and picking up The Dial of April 16 that I have learned better. Your correspondent, 'A. C. McC.,' is my authority. Now, I am truly sorry that any criticisms of mine or of my brother reviewers in London should have so annoyed your correspondent, for he evidently was very much annoyed. He came out on the warpath, arrested Mr. Crane as a literary spy, court-martialled him, and shot the poor fellow off-hand.

This book, says 'A. C. McC.' in effect, cannot be a good one for Americans to read because the English have praised it. He puts the whole thing in a nutshell, you see. This English praise, he is convinced, is a Grecian gift. I personally thought I was merely pointing out the merits of what seemed to me a book that deserved some notice. But he saw the ambush we English reviewers were laying. Deep under our affected enthusiasm for this young writer was an intense desire to insult America. It sounds oddly, doesn't it? But he has chapter and verse to prove it. He comes across some cruel, senseless gibes at the Union soldiers in Blackwood's Magazine. They are over thirty yearsold, and to-day, from one end of England to the other, you could not find a man to express anything but the bitterest shame of them. But what of that? 'There,' exclaims 'A. C. McC.' exultantly, 'that is why these English are praising Stephen Crane. The hero of his book is a coward. Thirty years ago an ignorant British magazine talked of "the swift-footed warriors of Bull's Run." Don't you see the connection? It is all a deep-laid plot to throw mud at American soldiers.' To be sure! And so when I sat, pipe in mouth, a peaceable, jaded reviewer, happy to have come across a book above the dull dead level, my mind was really full of schemes for avenging Bunker's Hill!

Your correspondent's letter is a compound of misjudged patriotism and bad criticism. Take only these two sentences. 'The book,' he says, 'is a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies.' 'Respect for our own people should have prevented its issue in this country.' A curious attitude to take up towards a book, unworthy of an American, as it seems to me, and peculiarly unworthy of an American who, as I hear, fought through the war with distinction. I will say at once that no such idea ever presented itself to a single Englishman into whose hands the book fell. The most insignificant thing about the book, the one point which every sensible reviewer would at once dismiss from his mind as quite immaterial, is the fact that the hero fought for the North. If he had been an Englishman in the ditches before Sebastopol, or a Frenchman at Sedan, the book would have been just as remarkable, and the praise of the English journals no less warm. But to 'A. C. McC.' Mr. Crane's one unforgivable crime lies in portraying a Northerner who fled from the field.

Scarcely less wrong-headed is your correspondent's criticism of the book as a piece of literature. He has missed the whole point of the tale. Part of Mr. Crane's plan, I take it, was to give an idea of the impressions made on a raw recruit by the movements of a regiment in battle. Who can doubt that to a man who but yesterday was working at the plough the whole thing appears one intolerable confusion? As for the style in which the book is written, 'A. C. McC.' finds in it 'an entire lack of any literary quality.' Mr. Crane, once more, is an author 'utterly without merit.' No half-measures with 'A. C. McC.' Again quotations are at hand. Detached sentences are given, and anything disapproved of is italicised. The odd part about it is that most of the expressions thus crucified seem to me admirable and picturesque. That there is a youthful and occasionally reckless daringabout some, is true enough. But on the whole I am prepared to back Mr. Crane's sense of language against 'A. C. McC.'s.'

However, I am concerned little here with the merits of Mr. Crane's work. The book can take care of itself quite well. I was surprised at 'A. C. McC.'s' singular criticisms, and thought that a few words from 'the other side' might be fairly called for.

Back to Reviews Essay List of Reviews