Unsigned review, New York Times
October 19, 1895, 3
Soon after Crane's death the New York Times, 14 July 1900, p. 467, praised its own early review of the novel, which it erroneously says was the first review:
Stephen Crane is very young not yet twenty-five, it is said and this picture he presents of war is therefore a purely imaginative work. The very best thing that can be said about it, though, is that it strikes the reader as a statement of facts by a veteran. The purpose of the book is to set forth the experiences of a volunteer soldier in his first battle. The poetical idea of the hero and the coward in war was long since abandoned by well-informed writers. A recent autobiographical account of actual experiences in our civil war bears testimony that every soldier is frightened at the moment of entering battle, and his fright increases rather than diminishes as he grows old in service and more familiar with the dangers he has to encounter. It is true, also, that once in battle all men are much alike. They fight like beasts. Cowards and skulkers are the exception, and cowardice is often the result of some sudden physical disability. The young private soldier who is the central personage in this remarkable work was a farm boy in one of the Middle States, probably Ohio, though certain peculiarities of the dialect in which Mr. Crane chooses to clothe the speech of all his persons, belong also to Western Pennsylvania and the Hoosier country. Except for those few expressions, such as 'Watch out' for 'Look out,' the talk is a very fair phonetic equivalent for the common speech in parts of this State and Connecticut. The boy does not enlist at the beginning of the war, but his duty to go to the front weighs upon him day and night. He is the only son of his mother, and she a widow and a typical American woman of the old New-England stock, who ever conceals her emotions, and seems to possess no imaginative faculty whatever. She is peeling potatoes when her boy, in his new blue clothes, says 'Goodbye,' and the exhortation she then delivers is perfectly practical and devoid of all sentiment. There is a black-eyed girl, nameless in the story, who looks after the youth as he trudges down the road, but when he looks back pretends to be gazing at the sky.
In other words, the early environment of Mr. Crane's hero is absolutely typical, differing in no particular from that of tens of thousands of young men who went to the front in the interval between the Sumter episode and the fall of Rich mond. But as to his temperament and the quality of his mind, we cannot speak so positively. He is certainly of a more emotional type than any one of his comrades. His aspirations, perhaps, are no higher than theirs, his mental capacity no larger, his will, certainly, no stronger. But there is a touch of poetry in his nature which most men lack.
Probably Mr. Crane has put some of his own mental traits into the composition of his otherwise commonplace hero. Therefore, it is not possible to accept this graphic study of his mind under the stress of new and frightful experiences as an exact picture of the mental states of every green soldier under his first fire. All its complexities are surely not typical.
Yet it is as a picture which seems to be extraordinarily true, free from any suspicion of ideality, defying every accepted tradition of martial glory, that the book commends itself to the reader. The majesty, the pomp and circumstance of glorious war, Mr. Crane rejects altogether. War, as he depicts it, is a mean, nasty, horrible thing; its seeming glories are the results of accident or that blind courage when driven to bay and fighting for life that the meanest animal would show as strongly as man. For it must be remembered that the point of view is consistently that of the humblest soldier in the ranks, who never knows where he is going or what is expected of him until the order comes, who never comprehends the whole scheme, but only his small share of it, who is frequently put forward as an intentional sacrifice, but yet is a sentient human being, who is bound to have his own opinions founded on the scanty knowledge he possesses, his own hopes and fears and doubts and prejudices.
Private Henry Fleming goes to the war a hot-headed young patriot with his mind brimful of crude ideas of glory, and a settled conviction that his capacity for heroism is quite out of the common. Weary months of drill in camp reduce him seemingly to the proper machinelike condition. He learns many things, among them that the glories of war have been greatly exaggerated in books, that the enemy is not composed chiefly of bragging cowards, that victory is rare and dear, and that the lot of a private soldier is very hard. On the eve of his first battle he has about abandoned all hope of ever getting a chance to distinguish himself. Yet when the hour comes it brings depression instead of exhilaration. He communes with himself, and fears that he is a coward.
The battle Mr. Crane describes is one of those long and bloody conflicts of our civil war that we now freely admit were badly mismanaged through lack of good generalship, which had no particular result except the destruction of human life, and were claimed as prodigious victories by both sides. The green regiment is part of a brigade which is in the centre at first, and for a long while it has nothing to do. Then it has to stand on the edge of a piece of woods and receive the enemy's fire, and return it. This is a short and sharp proceeding, and while it lasts Private Henry Fleming acquits himself creditably. When the enemy's fire stops, he feels himself a hero and feels also that he has done the greatest day's work of his life. The nervous tension has been awful, the revulsion of feeling is correspondingly great. When the enemy's fire is resumed, a few minutes later, he is entirely unprepared. Panic seizes him, he drops his musket and runs for his life.
All that day he is a skulker in the rear of a great battle. His emotions, his mental vagaries, his experiences with the dead and dying, and the terrible nervous ordeal he undergoes are depicted by Mr. Crane with a degree of vividness and original power almost unique in our fiction. The night of the first day finds him back in the camp of his own regiment, lauded by his surviving comrades as a wounded hero. His scalp was cut by a blow of a musket by a retreating soldier, whose flight he tried to stop, for no reason, and he has tied his handkerchief over the wound. He is physically exhausted, and his conscience troubles him sorely.
In the next day's conflict he remains with his regiment. His nervous excitement has increased, but he is no longer so greatly shocked by the spectacle of the dead and dying. He has lost all control of his tongue, and he jabbers oaths incessantly. When his regiment is called upon to repel an advance of the enemy, he excels all his comrades in the ferocious rapidity of his fire. He is again extolled as a hero, but scarcely comprehends the praise. His regiment, esteemed by the division officers, apparently with good reason, as nearly worthless is selected to make a charge which is intended merely to check a contemplated attack of the enemy on the left until reinforcements can be forwarded to that point. It is not expected that any member of the regiment will return alive, and some rude remarks of a staff officer to this effect reach the ears of the men and transform them into demons, but very impotent and purposeless demons. The order is only half carried out. A file of soldiers in gray, behind a rail fence, keeps the blue fellows at bay. They stand like lost sheep, and scarcely return the fire which is destroying them. Yet, on their retreat, they combat bravely enough with a small Confederate body which tries to cut them off. Returning to their own lines, they are received with derision, while their Colonel is roundly abused by his superior. The charge has been a failure, yet it has transformed Private Henry Fleming. He has saved the colors, and he has sounded his own depths. He feels that he will never run away again.
[Quotes ch. 24 'At last his eyes' to 'was a man.']
The book is written in terse and vigorous sentences, but not without some unpleasant affectations of style which the author would do well to correct. His natural talent is so strong that it is a pity its expression should be marred by petty tricks. When he begins a sentence with 'too,' for instance, he makes a sensitive reader squirm. But he is certainly a young man of remarkable promise.
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