Joseph Conrad on Crane's war book, Last Essays

1926


Conrad (1857-1924) and Crane met in 1897 shortly after the publication of Conrad's short novel The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and they quickly developed a great affinity for each other's work. Later Crane wrote in the Bookman, in March 1898, that The Nigger was 'unquestionably the best story of the sea written by a man now alive'. Soon after the publication of The Nigger, critics recognised the similarity between it and The Red Badge of Courage. The London Speaker for 15 January 1898 made the comparison explicit:

The Red Badge of Courage has much to answer for. That remarkable feat of the imagination has inspired a whole school of descriptive writers of a new class, who aspire to make visible to us the inside of great scenes battlefields, shipwrecks, moving incidents of every kind. Mr. Conrad, who has given us more than one remarkable study of Eastern life, has now followed in the footsteps of Mr. Stephen Crane, and in The Nigger of The Narcissus has painted for us a picture of sea-life as it is lived in storm and sunshine on a merchant-ship, which in its vividness, its emphasis, and its extraordinary fillness of detail, is a worthy pendant to the battle-picture presented to us in The Red Badge of Courage.


One of the most enduring memories of my literary life is the sensation produced by the appearance in 1895 of Crane's Red Badge of Courage in a small volume belonging to Mr. Heinemann's Pioneer Series of Modern Fiction very modern fiction of that time, and upon the whole not devoid of merit. I have an idea the series was meant to give us shocks, as far as my recollection goes there were, to use a term made familiar to all by another war, no 'duds' in that small and lively bombardment. But Crane's work detonated on the mild din of that attack on our literary sensibilities with the impact and force of a twelve-inch shell charged with a very high explosive. Unexpected it fell amongst us; and its fall was followed by a great outcry.

Not of consternation, however. The energy of that projectile hurt nothing and no one (such was its good fortune), and delighted a good many. It delighted soldiers, men of letters, men in the street; it was welcomed by all lovers of personal expression as a genuine revelation, satisfying the curiosity of a world in which war and love have been subjects of song and story ever since the beginning of articulate speech.

Here we had an artist, a man not of experience but a man inspired, a seer with a gift for rendering the significant on the surface of things and with an incomparable insight into primitive emotions, who, in order to give us the image of war, had looked profoundly into his own breast. We welcomed him. As if the whole vocabulary of praise had been blown up sky-high by this missile from across the Atlantic, a rain of words descended on our heads, words well or ill chosen, chunks of pedantic praise and warm appreciation, clever words, and words of real understanding, platitudes, and felicities of criticism, but all as sincere in their response as the striking piece of work which set so many critical pens scurrying over the paper.

One of the most interesting, if not the most valuable, of printed criticisms was perhaps that of Mr. George Wyndham, soldier, man of the world, and in a sense a man of letters. He went into the whole question of war literature, at any rate during the nineteenth century, evoking comparisons with the Mémoires of General Marbot and the famous Diary of a Cavalry Officer as records of a personal experience. He renders justice to the interest of what soldiers themselves could tell us, but confessed that to gratify the curiosity of the potential combatant who lurks in most men as to the picturesque aspects and emotional reactions of a battle we must go to the artist with his Heaven-given faculty of words at the service of his divination as to what the truth of things is and must be. He comes to the conclusion that:

'Mr. Crane has contrived a masterpiece.'

'Contrived' that word of disparaging sound is the last word I would have used in connection with any piece of work by Stephen Crane, who in his art (as indeed in his private life) was the least 'contriving' of men. But as to 'masterpiece,' there is no doubt that The Red Badge of Courage is that, if only because of the marvellous accord of the vivid impressionistic description of action on that woodland battlefield, and the imaged style of the analysis of the emotions in the inward moral struggle going on in the breast of one individual the Young Soldier of the book, the protagonist of the mono-drama presented to us in an effortless succession of graphic and coloured phrases.

Stephen Crane places his Young Soldier in an untried regiment. And this is well contrived if any contrivance there be in a spontaneous piece of work which seems to spurt and flow like a tapped stream from the depths of the writer's being. In order that the revelation should be complete, the Young Soldier has to be deprived of the moral support which he would have found in a tried body of men matured in achieve- ment to the consciousness of its worth. His regiment had been tried by nothing but days of waiting for the order to move; so many days that it and the Youth within it have come to think of themselves as merely 'a part of a vast blue demonstration.' The army had been Iying camped near a river, idle and fretting, till the moment when Stephen Crane lays hold of it at dawn with masterly simplicity: 'The cold passed reluctantly from the earth....' These are the first wards of the war book which was to give him his crumb of fame.

The whole of that opening paragraph is wonderful in the homely dignity of the indicated lines of the landscape, and the shivering awakening of the army at the break of the day before the battle. In the next, with a most effective change to racy colloquialism of narrative, the action which motivates, sustains and feeds the inner drama forming the subject of the book, begins with the Tall Soldier going down to the river to wash his shirt. He returns waving his garment above his head. He had heard at fifth-hand from somebody that the army is going to move tomorrow. The only immediate effect of this piece of news is that a Negro teamster, who had been dancing a jig on a wooden box in a ring of laughing soldiers, finds himself suddenly deserted. He sits down mournfully. For the rest, the Tall Soldier's excitement is met by blank disbelief, profane grumbling, an invincible incredulity. But the regiment is somehow sobered. One feels it, though no symptoms can be noticed. It does not know what a battle is, neither does the Young Soldier. He retires from the babbling throng into what seems a rather comfortable dugout and lies down with his hands over his eyes to think. Thus the drama begins.

He perceives suddenly that he had looked upon wars as historical phenomenons of the past. He had never believed in war in his own country. It had been a sort of play affair. He had been drilled, inspected, marched for months, till he has despaired 'of ever seeing a Greek-like struggle. Such were no more. Men were better or more timid. Secular nd religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions.'

Very modern this touch. We can remember thoughts like these round about the year 1914. That Young Soldier is representative of mankind in more ways than one, and first of all in his ignorance. His regiment had listened to the tales of veterans, 'tales of grey bev.Thiskered hordes chewing tobacco with unspeakable velour and sweeping along like the Huns.' Still, he cannot put his faith in veterans' tales. Recruits were their prey. They talked of blood, fire, and sudden death, but much of it might have been lies. They were in no wise to be trusted. And the question arises before him whether he will or will not 'run from a battle'? He does not know. He cannot know. A little panic fear enters his mind. He jumps up and asks himself aloud, 'Good Lord, what's the matter with me?' This is the first time his words are quoted, on this day before the battle. He dreads not danger, but fear itself. He stands before the unknown. He would like to prove to himselfby some reasoning process that he will not 'run from the battle.' And in his unblooded regiment he can find no help. He is alone with the problem of courage.

In this he stands for the symbol of all untried men.

Some critics have estimated him a morbid case. I cannot agree to that. The abnormal cases are of the extremes; of those who crumple up at the first sight of danger, and of those of whom their fellows say, 'He doesn't know what fear is.' Neither will I forget the rare favourites of the gods whose fiery spirit is only soothed by the fury and clamour of a battle. Of such was General Picton of Peninsular fame. But the lot of the mass of mankind is to know fear, the decent fear of disgrace. Of such is the Young Soldier of The Red Badge of Courage. He only seems exceptional because he has got inside of him Stephen Crane's imagination, and is presented to us with the insight and the power of expression of an artist whom a just and severe critic, on a review of all his work, has called the foremost impressionist of his time; as Sterne was the greatest impressionist, but in a different way, of his age.

This is a generalised, fundamental judgment. More superficially both Zola's La Debacle and Tolstoi's War and Peace were mentioned by critics in connection with Crane's war book. But Zola's main concern was with the downfall of the imperial regime he fancied he was portraying; and in Tolstoi's book the subtle presentation of Rostov's squadron under fire for the first time is a mere episode lost in a mass of other matter, like a handful of pebbles in a heap of sand. I could not see the relevancy. Crane was concerned with elemental truth only; and in any case I think that as an artist he is non-comparable. He dealt with what is enduring, and was the most detached of men.

That is why his book is short. Not quite two hundred pages. Gems are small. This monodrama, which happy inspiration or unerring instinct had led him to put before us in narrative form, is contained between the opening words I have already quoted and a phrase on page 194 of the English edition, which runs: 'He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.'

On these words the action ends. We are only given one glimpse of the victorious army at dusk, under the falling rain, 'a 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 . . .', while the last ray of the sun falls on the river through a break in the leaden clouds.

This war book, so virile and so full of gentle sympathy, in which not a single declamatory sentiment defaces the genuine verbal felicity, welding analysis and description in a continuous fascination of individual style, had been hailed by the critics as the herald of a brilliant career. Crane himself very seldom alluded to it, and always with a wistful smile. Perhaps he was conscious that, like the mortally wounded Tall Soldier of his book, who, snatching at the air, staggers out into a field to meet his appointed death on the first day of battle while the terrified Youth and the kind Tattered Soldier stand by silent, watching with awe 'these ceremonies at the place of meeting' it was his fate, too, to fall early in the fray.

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