Commonly considered Stephen Crane's greatest accomplishment, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) ranks among the foremost literary achievements of the modern era. When its publication was announced in Publisher's Weekly on 5 October 1895, Crane was largely unknown. Although his volume of poetry published earlier that year, The Black Riders, had made some waves in literary circles, it struck most readers as quirky and cryptic. The gritty social realism of his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) had earned praise from literati such as Hamlin Garland and W. D. Howells, but Crane probably gave away more copies than were actually sold. (The story is told that Crane, in a desperate advertising scheme, paid men to ride the Manhattan El train and conspicuously read copies of Maggie.) When Crane signed a contract with D. Appleton and Co. to publish Red Badge, he was not well-known enough to command an advance, and agreed to a flat 10 per cent royalty on the retail price of all copies sold (Weatherford, 5). Published in the autumn of 1895, Red Badge went through two editions before the end of the year. By March of 1896 the novel was in eighth place on the international booksellers' list and had gone through fourteen printings; remarkably enough, Red Badge has never been out of print (6). Unfortunately, unremunerative contracts with publishers and a general lack of good business sense kept Crane insolvent for much of his life. But with the publication of Red Badge, Crane achieved almost overnight celebrity.
During Crane's lifetime, public interest often focused on his personal life--his bohemian lifestyle, daring journalistic exploits, and eventual expatriation to Britain-- rather than on his writings. Much of the initial press about Crane's novel was full of speculation about who he was, where he came from, and how he could write so convincingly about a war he had never seen. Nevertheless, early reviewers of Red Badge introduced many of the issues which have remained of interest in subsequent critical investigations of Crane's work. His "war novel" won him widespread international praise, from admiring newspaper notices like those in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Press to the more discerning responses of critics such as Englishman George Wyndham and the contemporary dean of American letters, William Dean Howells. For a list of several of the important early reviews of Red Badge, consult the Reviews page of this project.
British and American reviewers argued quite a bit about who should get credit for the "discovery" of Crane. While the novel was not universally praised, almost without exception Crane's critics marveled at the emotional power of his vivid, visual prose. Some critics groused about Crane's idiosyncratic grammar--he begins one sentence with "Too," for example--while some others who became involved in the Dial controversy voiced discontent about what they perceived to be Crane's lack of patriotism. English critics tended to take Red Badge more seriously than their American counterparts, pointing out its affinities with works by Tolstoy, Zola, Kipling, and the battle scenes of the Russian realist painter Verestschagin (13). The English critic Sydney Brooks, totally convinced by Crane's depictions of combat in Red Badge, assumed that Crane had fought in the Civil War. If Red Badge were "altogether a work of the imagination, unbased on personal experience," Brooks asserted, "its realism would be nothing short of a miracle." Crane's imaginative effort remains a marvel.
Perhaps the most perceptive of Crane's English critics was George Wyndham, a Member of Parliament and veteran of the British army. Wyndham was the only one of Crane's early critics to grasp the significance of narrating the novel from the point of view of Private Henry Fleming. Generals' accounts, Wyndham noted, had usually been written from the "band-box" viewpoint and emphasized large-scale concerns (troop movements, tactical maneuvers, wins and losses), neglecting the much more limited but in many ways more intense experience of the anonymous foot soldier. ("The real war," Walt Whitman had declared in his Civil War memoir Specimen Days , "will never get in the books.") What distinguished Crane in his effort to portray modern warfare was his use of what Wyndham called a "new device," that of focusing on the youth and tracing the successive impressions made by the picturesque and emotional experience of war on his "morbidly sensitive" temperament. Wyndham wrote: "[Crane] stages the drama of war, so to speak, within the mind of one man, and then admits you as to a theatre." Crane's reportage of the "procession of flashing images shot through the senses into one brain" combined the "strength and truth of a monodrama with the directness and color of the best narrative prose" (109-110). Wyndham concluded that Crane's account authentic, Henry's soul "truly drawn."
Much of the impact of Red Badge arose, then, from its powerful pictures of war, the images that leapt off the page into the mind of the reader. But equally important in Wyndham's review was his illumination of the intersection between the picturesque and ethical aspects of the novel. Given that Henry had enlisted in "hasty pursuit of a vanishing ambition," Wyndham suggested that Crane's "battle pictures" were used to dramatize the replacement of Henry's early "tinsel bravado" with his later discovery of "courage in the bedrock of primeval antagonism" (113). Henry's tragic resignation to duty--his commitment to a cause larger than himself--is his final acknowledgment that the "justification of any one life lies in its perfect adjustment to others." Crane's account prophesies the regeneration of America at the same time it suggests the insignificance of heroes. Readers of Red Badge, Wyndham concluded, should infer from Henry's experience that "the virtues so instinctual in moments of distress may be useful also in everyday life" (114).
Early American reviewers of Red Badge were generally not as incisive as Wyndham. Perhaps most surprisingly, one American critic writes suggests that in the novel "a serio-comic effect seems to be intended throughout" (Weatherford, 15). William Dean Howells, writing in Harper's Weekly, praises Crane's "divinations of motive and experience" but expresses doubt about whether Crane can be considered a realist' writer, preferring to call his prose style "impressionistic" (critics still debate about which, if either, of these labels to use). Novelist Harold Frederic, London editor of the New York Times, recognized Red Badge as a masterpiece. He wrote that it would likely be "one of the deathless books which must be read by everybody who desires to be, or to seem, a connoisseur of modern fiction" (116). From our current perspective we can see that Frederic was right: Crane's journalistic description and ironic understatement comprise a stylistic legacy which has descended through Hemingway and early Mailer and done a great deal in shaping American literature as we know it (Delbanco, 57).
Like many early reviewers, Frederic expressed admiration for the emotional power of Crane's work, but he was one of the very few who recognized the boldness and originality of Crane's technique. "The Red Badge," Frederic claimed, "impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before" (Weatherford, 116). Like Wyndham before him, who had compared the novel to a monodrama presented in the "theatre" of war, Frederic emphasized the novel's visual aspects and its radical reduction in point of view and narrative scope. "We do not know, or seek to know...anything...except what, staring through the eyes of Henry Fleming, we are permitted to see" (117). Red Badge was a "tremendously effective battle painting;" the trial of a soldier in war, he maintained, "seems never to have been painted as well before" (118). Henry's actions seemed the actions of the readers' own minds.
But later in his review Frederic made a more suggestive assessment. Acknowledging that battle painters have always depicted horses in motion "not as they actually move, but as it has been agreed by numberless generations of draughtsmen to say that they move," Frederic held that Crane's novel shatters such conventions. "At last, along comes a Muybridge [American photographer who specialised in pictures of animals in motion], with his instantaneous camera, and shows that the real motion is entirely different." Red Badge is remarkable for its abandonment of painterly conventions and conveyance of a "photographic revelation." Frederic concludes that the authenticity of Crane's vision is a "novel force" which may do other "remarkable things" (119). This intelligently enthusiastic review of the novel did much to focus international attention on the relatively unknown Crane. The two men became friends but remained literary rivals: Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware outsold Red Badge in 1896.
THE DIAL CONTROVERSY
One of the most notable features of Red Badge's reception in America is the controversy about Crane's patriotism that raged in the pages of the Dial, a magazine owned by the conservative General Alexander C. McClurg. The outspoken McClurg, who had risen to the rank of Brigadier-General in the Northern Army, attacked Red Badge for portraying a Union soldier as a coward. Although Dial editor William Morton Payne had already made evident the magazine's disapproval of Red Badge, McClurg maintained that Payne's assessment had not been unfavorable enough. Criticizing those English and American reviewers who had praised Red Badge, McClurg fumed at what he saw as another installment in the habitual English ridicule of American soldiers. Mistakenly assuming that Crane's novel had been first published in England, McClurg denounced it as a "vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies," as part of a plot to undermine confidence in the nation's armed forces (15). Such books, McClurg finished, should never be allowed to be published in America.
The first response to General McClurg's broadside came in a letter from J. L. Onderdonk, who, expressing his agreement with McClurg's position, ridiculed Red Badge as a "literary absurdity." In the same issue of the Dial, Ripley Hitchcock writes to the editors on behalf of the publishers of the novel, D. Appleton & Co. In an understated tone which contrasts pointedly with McClurg's heated prose, Hitchcock points out and corrects some of the General's mistakes while reminding readers of the numerous favorable notices garnered by the novel. English critic Sydney Brooks, who had earlier praised Red Badge in the Saturday Review, wrote to the Dial in defense of Crane's novel. Dismissing McClurg's incendiary speculations about English opinion of the novel as "misjudged patriotism and bad criticism," Brooks rightly points out that McClurg's notion of literary standards constituted a form of censorship which would allow only the most celebratory accounts of American life to be published (16). The good-natured good sense of Brooks' letter ended the Dial controversy.
JOSEPH CONRAD REMEMBERS
A quarter-century after Crane's death, Joseph Conrad remembered in Last Essays (1926) that the appearance of Red Badge had been "one of the most enduring memories of my literary life." Calling Crane "non-comparable" as an artist, Conrad notes sorrowfully that Crane's life bore a marked parallel with that of Red Badge's "tattered soldier": "it was his fate, too, to fall early in the fray." Today, Crane's critical reputation remains strong, and a resurgence of attention to literary realism--New Essays on the Red Badge of Courage (1986), Amy Kaplan's The Social Construction of American Realism (1988), Giorgio Mariani's Spectacular Narratives: Representations of Class and War in the American 1890s (1992)--demonstrates the continued centrality of many of the questions expressed by the early reviewers of Red Badge. Much of this recent criticism grapples with issues first raised in Wyndham and Frederic--the photographic and theatrical aspects of Crane's prose; his abandonment of narrative conventions in pursuit of a more "authentic" reality. Mariani, for example, reads Red Badge as a novel of specatular descriptions--vivid scenes which would satisfy the embryonic consumer society of the 1890s' desire for thrilling spectacle (Mariani, 4). For Amy Kaplan, realism is a "representation of reality struggling against other forms of representation" (Kaplan, 1986, 13). This definition restores to realism its "dynamic literary qualities" by integrating it with the social context out of which it developed: Red Badge struggles with other representations of late 19th century reality--popular war novels, chivalric romances, jingoistic journalism. Thus although much of the early critical scrutiny of Red Badge boiled down to biographical speculation and nationalistic cheerleading, we can be grateful to those few reviewers who realized Red Badge was doing important cultural work. Their analyses suggest some of the reasons why Red Badge became the standard against which all of Crane's subsequent work was measured.
Early reviews of Red Badge raised three issues that will remain of central interest to the remainder of this project. First, there is Crane's concern with authenticity. Written in a post-photographic age, Red Badge discards contemporaneous conventions of battlefield prose for a discontinuous succession of "flashing images" that yield "photographic revelations." Crane limits the novel's point of view and fragments its narrative in order to focus the impact of each of his "battle pictures" and make us see the truth of his descriptions. Second, although much of General McClurg's commentary about Red Badge's lack of patriotism, for example, is overheated and irrelevant, he was not entirely wrong to suggest that Crane's novel raised potentially disquieting questions about the state of turn-of-the-century American society. The next two sections of this project confront some of those questions. And finally, while Crane's early critics did not realize that Red Badge is set at the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville, subsequent scholarly inquiry has revealed this to be the case. The next section of this project, "The Battle: Chancellorsville," suggests that Crane drew on literary and pictorial sources in order to establish the factual framework of Chancellorsville as the setting for Red Badge.
Imaging the Civil War: Authenticity in Painting, Photography, and The Red Badge of Courage | Bibliography