The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
Let's assume that the American public schools haven't completely gone to the dogs and that everyone had to read this book at some point. So you're all familiar with the basic story: young Northern man boldly sallies forth to war despite Mom's entreaties, but then realizes that he has no idea why he's there and fears that he may prove to be a coward. Indeed, given his first taste of battle, he does bolt and then wanders the battlefield too ashamed to return to his unit. But when he finally rejoins them a blow from the rifle butt of another soldier is mistaken for a battle wound and his cowardice is not discovered. Given a second chance, the youth redeems himself gloriously and in the process becomes a man.
The novel's excellent reputation is well deserved; it is brief but brutally powerful. Its descriptions of battle certainly seem realistic and the moral dilemma of the young man is one of the central problems of manhood. There's nothing not to like. So did I miss something? Why does my copy, and why do so many references to the book, refer to it as an antiwar statement? I actually read it as a pro war novel.
Let's go through the steps:
First, we've got the young man doubting his own courage and fearing that this feeling is unique to him. But the words of another soldier demonstrate that his fears are normal:
The tall private waved his hand. "Well", said he
profoundly, "I've thought it might get too hot for
The youth of this tale felt gratitude for these words
of his comrade. He had feared that all of the
I've argued elsewhere that every male has a little demon within him asking if, when push comes to shove, he will have the physical and/or moral courage to be a man in the face of death. This is one of the reasons that war has always been with us, the desire to find the answer to the demon's question. This is the element of Red Badge of Courage that makes it a universal tale.
At first, the young man is able, like millions of men before and after, to put aside his doubts by subsuming himself within the fighting unit:
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot
to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man
If he had thought the regiment was about to be annihilated
perhaps he could have amputated himself
There was a consciousness always of the presence
of his comrades about him. He felt the subtle
He was at a task. He was like a carpenter who has
made many boxes, making still another box, only
Presently he began to feel the effects of the war
atmosphere--a blistering sweat, a sensation that his
Following this came a red rage. He developed the
acute exasperation of a pestered animal, a
Buried in the smoke of many rifles his anger was
directed not so much against the men whom he
There was a blare of heated rage mingled with a certain
expression of intentness on all faces. Many
I have often heard it said that when a battle starts, soldiers aren't fighting for themselves or for their countries or for ideas and ideals, fundamentally they are fighting to protect their buddies and fellow soldiers. As long as the young man keeps the battle in this perspective he is okay.
But then, he comes to doubt his fellows and seeks to save himself. And it is this selfish decision to flee which will haunt him and self loathing causes him to hate his victorious comrades:
The youth cringed as if discovered in a crime. By
heavens, they had won after all! The imbecile line
He lifted himself upon his toes and looked in the
direction of the fight. A yellow fog lay wallowing
He turned away amazed and angry. He felt that he had been wronged.
He had fled, he told himself, because annihilation
approached. He had done a good part in saving
Thoughts of his comrades came to him. The brittle
blue line had withstood the blows and won. He
He wondered what they would remark when later he
appeared in camp. His mind heard howls of
He began to pity himself acutely. He was ill used.
He was trodden beneath the feet of an iron
A dull, animal-like rebellion against his fellows,
war in the abstract, and fate grew within him. He
His self centered actions and cowardice have reduced him to an animal state.
His chance for redemption comes when he is unwittingly accepted back into the unit without anyone knowing that he fled. His very survival in the face of what he was sure was certain death actually becomes a source of strength to him:
He did not give a great deal of thought to these
battles that lay directly before him. It was not
And, furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of gods and doomed to greatness?
He remembered how some of the men had run from the
battle. As he recalled their terror-struck
Steeled by this new confidence, he acquits himself magnificently in the coming battle:
As they halted thus the lieutenant again began to
bellow profanely. Regardless of the vindictive
Once he grabbed the youth by the arm. "Come on, yeh
lunkhead!" he roared. "Come one! We'll all
The youth stretched forth his arm. "Cross there?" His mouth was puckered in doubt and awe.
"Certainly. Jest 'cross th' lot! We can't stay here,"
screamed the lieutenant. He poked his face close
The private felt a sudden unspeakable indignation
against his officer. He wrenched fiercely and
"Come on yerself, then," he yelled. There was a bitter challenge in his voice.
They galloped together down the regimental front.
The friend scrambled after them. In front of the
The flag, obedient to these appeals, bended its glittering
form and swept toward them. The men
Over the field went the scurrying mass. It was a
handful of men splattered into the faces of the
The youth ran like a madman to reach the woods before
a bullet could discover him. He ducked his
Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born
a love, a despairing fondness for this flag
In the mad scramble he was aware that the color sergeant
flinched suddenly, as if struck by a
It was past in an instant of time. They wrenched the flag furiously from the dead man...
This hardly seems like it could be the same young man, as he rescues and carries forward the battle flag. And indeed he is no longer the same person. His courage has redeemed his cowardice and made him a man:
He saw his vivid error, and he was afraid that it
would stand before him all his life. He took no
Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at
a distance. And at last his eyes seemed to open to
With this conviction came a store of assurance. He
felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy
So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place
of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came
It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became
a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering,
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
Now I guess that language is sufficiently ambiguous that you could argue that he's realized that war is stupid and now he won't fight any more. But the more straightforward reading is that, thanks to his show of courage in battle he has faced down the demon within and proven himself a man. Is it possible to read that as any other but a good thing? Doesn't it imply that War is a necessary test in the process of becoming a man, a crucible in which manhood is forged and dross cast aside? I sure as hell read it that way.
CHARLIE HERZOG'S REVIEW:
-WIKIPEDIA: Stephen Crane
-PODCAST: Linda H. Davis on the Literary Fame and Notorious Exploits of Stephen Crane: This Week on The History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, April 18, 2022)
-VIDEO LECTURE: Burning Boy: Paul Auster on the Extraordinary Life and Work of Stephen Crane (LOA Live, 10/28/21)
-ESSAY: Paul Auster on One of the Most Astonishing War Stories in American Literature Considering the Dark Horrors of Stephen Crane’s “An Episode of War” (Paul Auster, November 1, 2021, LitHub)
-REVIEW: of Burning Boy by Paul Auster (Paul Perry, Independent ie)
Book-related and General Links:
-The Stephen Crane Society
-STEPHEN CRANE: MAN, MYTH, & LEGEND
-DMS Stephen Crane Page (U of Akron)
-LINKS: Stephen Crane (1871-1900) (American Literature on the Web)
-Red Badge Homepage (includes etext, contemporary reviews, info on Chancellorsville, etc.)
-ETEXT: The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War
-Sparknotes: Online Study Guide
-Celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Publication of Stephen Crane's Novel (English at the Air Force Academy)
-CONTEMPORARY REVIEW: George Wyndham on Crane's remarkable book, New Review January 1896, xiv, 30-40
-ARTICLE: 'RED BADGE' IS DUE OUT AS CRANE WROTE IT (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of The Double Life of Stephen Crane By Christopher Benfey (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of GROUP PORTRAIT Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James and H.G. Wells. By Nicholas Delbanco (Howard Moss, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of BADGE OF COURAGE The Life of Stephen Crane. By Linda H. Davis (Kenneth Silverman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of BADGE OF COURAGE: The Life of Stephen Crane. By Linda H. Davis Stephen Crane bio is a story of life on the edge (SHARAN GIBSON, Houston Chronicle)
-REVIEW: Jane Mayhall: Stephen Crane to the Rescue
-REVIEW: of The Unwritten War: American Writers and the Civil War by Daniel Aaron (C. Vann Woodward, NY Review of Books)
-REVIEW:The Courage of Stephen Crane (Christopher Benfey, NY REVIEW of Books)
-REVIEW: of Stephen Crane: A Biography by R.W. Stallman (Alfred Kazin, NY Review of Books)
You're spot-on that the book is not an anti-war novel. But I've never heard it described as such. Maybe your kid just had the wrong teacher. Or maybe you just made that up. You know, the brave Brother Judd laying low the liberal, existentialist scum who attempt to hijack the Great American Novel. Thank you, oh thank you! You saved Western Civilization---again!
- Ernest DeSchoening
- Oct-31-2008, 23:51
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd