General Alexander C. McClurg, letter to the Dial
McClurg (1832-1901), soldier, publisher, book collector, headed the publishing firm which owned the Dial. His letter, written 11 April 1896, is in response to critics who took The Red Badge seriously, including the reviewer for the Dial. McClurg's attack on the novel, English reviewers and magazines, cowards and deserters, and the lack of proper censorship of modern literature was answered immediately.
Must we come to judge of books only by what the newspapers have said of them, and must we abandon all the old standards of criticism? Can a book and an author, utterly without merit, be puffed into success by entirely undeserved praise, even if that praise come from English periodicals?
One must ask these questions after he has been seduced into reading a book recently reprinted in this country entitled The Red Badge of Courage, an Episode of the American Civil War. The chorus of praise in the English papers has been very extravagant, but it is noticeable that so far, at least, the American papers have said very little about the merits or demerits of the book itself. They simply allude to the noise made over it abroad, and therefore treat its author as a coming factor in our literature. Even The Dial's very acute and usually very discerning critic of contemporary fiction (Mr. Payne) treats the book and the author (in your issue of Feb. 1) in very much this way that is, as a book and an author to be reckoned with, not because of any good which he himself finds in them, but because they have been so much talked about.
The book has very recently been reprinted in America, and would seem to be an American book, on an American theme, and by an American author, yet originally issued in England. If it is really anAmerican production one must suppose it to have been promptly and properly rejected by any American publishers to whom it may have been submitted, and afterward more naturally taken up by an English publisher.
It is only too well known that English writers have had a very low opinion of American soldiers, and have always, as a rule, assumed to ridicule them. Blackwood's Magazine is quoted by a recent writer as saying during the War: 'We cannot even pretend to keep our countenance when the exploits of the Grand Army of the Potomac are filling all Europe with inextinguishable laughter,' and adds 'we know not whether to pity most the officers who lead such men, or the men who are led by such officers' (Vol. 90, p. 395-6). And again, in January, 1862: 'Englishmen are unable to see anything peculiarly tragical in the fact that half a million of men have been brought together in arms to hurl big words at each other across a river' (Vol. 91, p. 118). Again, in April, 1862, 'Blackwood' tells us that Americans 'do not demand our respect because of their achievements in art, or in literature, or in science, or philosophy. They can make no presence to the no less real, though less beneficent, reputation of having proved themselves a great military power' (Vol. 91, p. 534). And in October, 1861, 'Blackwood' said exultantly: 'The venerable Lincoln, the respectable Seward, the raving editors, the gibbering mob, and the swift-footed warriors of Bull's Run, are no malicious tricks of fortune, played off on an unwary nation, but are all of them the legitimate offspring of the Great Republic,' and is 'glad that the end of the Union seems more likely to be ridiculous than terrible' (Vol. 90, p. 396).
We all know with what bitterness and spitefulness the Saturday Review always treats Americans; and with what special vindictiveness it reviews any book upon our late struggle written from the Northern standpoint. And so it is with all British periodicals and all British writers. They are so puffed up with vain-glory over their own soldiers who seldom meet men of their own strength, but are used in every part of the world for attacking and butchering defenseless savages, who happen to possess some property that Englishmen covet, that they cannot believe that there can be among any peoples welldisciplined soldiers as gallant and courageous as their own.
Under such circumstances we cannot doubt that The Red Badge of Courage would be just such a book as the English would grow enthusiastic over, and we cannot wonder that the redoubtable Saturday Review greeted it with the highest encomiums, and declared it the actual experiences of a veteran of our War, when it was really the vain imaginings of a young man born long since that war, a piece of intended realism based entirely on unreality. The book is a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies. The hero of the book (if such he can be called 'the youth' the author styles him) is an ignorant and stupid country lad, who, without a spark of patriotic feeling, or even of soldierly ambition, has enlisted in the army from no definite motive that the reader can discover, unless it be because other boys are doing so; and the whole book, in which there is absolutely no story, is occupied with giving what are supposed to be his emotions and his actions in the first two days of battle. His poor weak intellect, if indeed he has any, seems to be at once and entirely overthrown by the din and movement of the field, and he acts throughout like a madman. Under the influence of mere excitement, for he does not even appear to be frightened, he first rushes madly to the rear in a crazy panic, and afterwards plunges forward to the rescue of the colors under exactly the same influences. In i either case has reason or any intelligent motive any influence on his action. He is throughout an idiot or a maniac, and betrays no trace of the reasoning being. No thrill of patriotic devotion to cause or country ever moves his breast, and not even an emotion of manly courage. Even a wound which he finally gets comes from a comrade who strikes him on the head with his musket to get rid of him; and this is the only 'Red Badge of Courage' (!) which we discover in the book. A number of other characters come in to fill out the two hundred and thirtythree pages of the book, such as 'the loud soldier,' 'the tall soldier,' 'the tattered soldier,' etc., but not one of them betrays any more sense, self-possession, or courage than does 'the youth.' On the field all is chaos and confusion. 'The young lieutenant,' 'the mounted officer,' even 'the general,' are all utterly demented beings, raving and talking alike in an unintelligible and hitherto unheard-of jargon, rushing about in a very delirium of madness. No intelligent orders are given; no intelligent movements are made. There is no evidence of drill, none of discipline. There is a constant, senseless, and profane babbling going on, such as one could hear nowhere but in a madhouse. Nowhere are seen the quiet, manly, self-respecting, and patriotic men, influenced by the highest sense of duty, who in reality fought our battles.
It can be said most confidently that no soldier who fought in our recent War ever saw any approach to the battle scenes in this book but what wonder? We are told that it is the work of a young man of twenty-three or twenty-four years of age, and so of course must be a mere work of diseased imagination. And yet it constantly strains after so-called realism. The result is a mere riot of words.
Although its burlesques and caricatures are quite enough to dismiss it from attention, it is worth while to give some samples of its diction to show that there is in it an entire lack of any literary quality. Notice the violent straining after effect in the mere unusual association of words, in the forced and distorted use of adjectives. Notice, too, the absurd similes, and even the bad grammar. Startling sentences are so frequent they might be quoted indefinitely; but here are a few:
[Quotes eighteen separate passages from The Red Badge of Courage.]
It is extraordinary that even a prejudiced animus could have led English writers to lavish extravagant praise on such a book; it is still more extraordinary that an attempt should be made to foist it upon the long-suffering American public, and to push it into popularity here. Respect for our own people should have prevented its issue in this country.
There may have been a moderate number of men in our service who felt and acted in battle like those in this book; but of such deserters were made. They did not stay when they could get away: why should they? The army was no healthy place for them, and they had no reason to stay; there was no moral motive. After they had deserted, however, they remained 'loud soldiers,' energetic and blatant, and they are possibly now enjoying good pensions. It must have been some of these fellows who got the ear of Mr. Crane and told him how they felt and acted in battle.