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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
    Jim Conklin in some of them scrimmages, and if a whole lot of boys started and run, why, I s'pose
    I'd start and run. And if I once started to run, I'd run like the devil, and no mistake. But if
    everybody was a-standing and a-fighting, why, I'd stand and fight. Be jiminey, I would. I'll bet on

    The youth of this tale felt gratitude for these words of his comrade. He had feared that all of the
    untried men possessed great and correct confidence. He now was in a measure reassured.

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
    but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part--a regiment, an army, a cause, or a
    country--was in crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single
    desire. For some moments he could not flee no more than a little finger can commit a revolution
    from a hand.

    If he had thought the regiment was about to be annihilated perhaps he could have amputated himself
    from it. But its noise gave him assurance.  The regiment was like a firework that, once ignited,
    proceeds superior to circumstances until its blazing vitality fades. It wheezed and banged with a
    mighty power. He pictured the ground before it as strewn with the discomfited.

    There was a consciousness always of the presence of his comrades about him. He felt the subtle
    battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting. It was a
    mysterious fraternity born of the smoke and danger of death.

    He was at a task. He was like a carpenter who has made many boxes, making still another box, only
    there was furious haste in his movements. He, in his thoughts, was careering off in other places,
    even as the carpenter who as he works whistles and thinks of his friend or his enemy, his home or
    a saloon. And these jolted dreams were never perfect to him afterward, but remained a mass of
    blurred shapes.

    Presently he began to feel the effects of the war atmosphere--a blistering sweat, a sensation that his
    eyeballs were about to crack like hot stones.  A burning roar filled his ears.

    Following this came a red rage. He developed the acute exasperation of a pestered animal, a
    well-meaning cow worried by dogs. He had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be
    used against one life at a time. He wished to rush forward and strangle with his fingers. He craved a
    power that would enable him to make a world-sweeping gesture and brush all back. His impotency
    appeared to him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast.

    Buried in the smoke of many rifles his anger was directed not so much against the men whom he
    knew were rushing toward him as against the swirling battle phantoms which were choking him,
    stuffing their smoke robes down his parched throat. He fought frantically for respite for his senses,
    for air, as a babe being smothered attacks the deadly blankets.

    There was a blare of heated rage mingled with a certain expression of intentness on all faces. Many
    of the men were making low-toned noises with their mouths, and these subdued cheers, snarls,
    imprecations, prayers, made a wild, barbaric these subdued cheers, snarls, imprecations, prayers,
    made a wild, barbaric these subdued cheers, snarls, imprecations, prayers, made a wild, barbaric
    these subdued cheers, snarls, imprecations, prayers, made a wild, barbaric song that went as an
    undercurrent of sound, strange and chantlike with the resounding chords of the war march.

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
    had remained and become victors. He could hear cheering.

    He lifted himself upon his toes and looked in the direction of the fight. A yellow fog lay wallowing
    on the treetops. From beneath it came the clatter of musketry. Hoarse cries told of an advance.

    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
    himself, who was a little piece of the army.  He had considered the time, he said, to be one in which
    is was the duty of every little piece to rescue itself if possible. Later the officers could fit the little
    pieces together again, and make a battle front. If none of the little pieces were wise enough to save
    themselves from the flurry of death at such a time, why, then, where would be the army? It was all
    plain that he had proceeded according to very correct and commendable rules. His actions had been
    sagacious things. They had been full of strategy. They were the work of a master's legs.

    Thoughts of his comrades came to him. The brittle blue line had withstood the blows and won. He
    grew bitter over it. It seemed that the blind ignorance and stupidity of those little pieces had
    betrayed him. He had been overturned and crushed by their lack of sense in holding the position,
    when intelligent deliberation would have convinced them that it was impossible. He, the enlightened
    man who looks afar in the dark, had fled because of his superior perceptions and knowledge. He
    felt a great anger against his comrades. He knew it could be proved that they had been fools.

    He wondered what they would remark when later he appeared in camp. His mind heard howls of
    derision. Their density would not enable them to understand his sharper point of view.

    He began to pity himself acutely. He was ill used. He was trodden beneath the feet of an iron
    injustice. He had proceeded with wisdom and from the most righteous motives under heaven's blue
    only to be frustrated by hateful circumstances.

    A dull, animal-like rebellion against his fellows, war in the abstract, and fate grew within him. He
    shambled along with bowed head, his brain in a tumult of agony and despair. When he looked
    loweringly up, quivering at each sound, his eyes had the expression of those of a great criminal
    who thinks his guilt and his punishment great, and knows that he can find no words.

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
    essential that he should plan his ways in regard to them. He had been taught that many obligations
    of a life were easily avoided. The lessons of yesterday had been that retribution was a laggard and
    blind. With these facts before him he did not deem it necessary that he should become feverish over
    the possibilities of the ensuing twenty-four hours. He could leave much to chance.  Besides, a faith
    in himself had secretly blossomed. There was a little flower of confidence growing within him. He
    was now a man of experience. He had been out among the dragons, he said, and he assured himself
    that they were not so hideous as he had imagined them. Also, they were inaccurate; they did not
    sting with precision. A stout heart often defied, and defying, escaped.

    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
    faces he felt a scorn for them. They had surely been more fleet and more wild than was absolutely
    necessary. They were weak mortals. As for himself, he had fled with discretion and dignity.

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
    threats of the bullets, he went about coaxing, berating, and bedamning.  His lips, that were
    habitually in a soft and childlike curve, were now writhed into unholy contortions. He swore by all
    possible deities.

    Once he grabbed the youth by the arm. "Come on, yeh lunkhead!" he roared. "Come one! We'll all
    git killed if we stay here. We've on'y got t' go across that lot. An' then"--the remainder of his idea
    disappeared in a blue haze of curses.

    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
    to the youth and waved his bandaged hand.  "Come on!" Presently he grappled with him as if for a
    wrestling bout. It was as if he planned to drag the youth by the ear on to the assault.

    The private felt a sudden unspeakable indignation against his officer. He wrenched fiercely and
    shook him off.

    "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
    colors the three men began to bawl: "Come on! come on!" They danced and gyrated like tortured

    The flag, obedient to these appeals, bended its glittering form and swept toward them. The men
    wavered in indecision for a moment, and then with a long, wailful cry the dilapidated regiment
    surged forward and began its new journey.

    Over the field went the scurrying mass. It was a handful of men splattered into the faces of the
    enemy. Toward it instantly sprang the yellow tongues. A vast quantity of blue smoke hung before
    them. A mighty banging made ears valueless.

    The youth ran like a madman to reach the woods before a bullet could discover him. He ducked his
    head low, like a football player. In his haste his eyes almost closed, and the scene was a wild blur.
    Pulsating saliva stood at the corners of his mouth.

    Within him, as he hurled himself forward, was born a love, a despairing fondness for this flag
    which was near him. It was a creation of beauty and invulnerability. It was a goddess, radiant, that
    bended its form with an imperious gesture to him. It was a woman, red and white, hating and
    loving, that called him with the voice of his hopes.  Because no harm could come to it he endowed
    it with power. He kept near, as if it could be a saver of lives, and an imploring cry went from his

    In the mad scramble he was aware that the color sergeant flinched suddenly, as if struck by a
    bludgeon. He faltered, and then became motionless, save for his quivering knees. He made a spring
    and a clutch at the pole. At the same instant his friend grabbed it from the other side. They jerked at
    it, stout and furious, but the color sergeant was dead, and the corpse would not relinquish its trust.
    For a moment there was a grim encounter. The dead man, swinging with bended back, seemed to
    be obstinately tugging, in ludicrous and awful ways, for the possession of the flag.

    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
    share in the chatter of his comrades, nor did he look at them or know them, save when he felt
    sudden suspicion that they were seeing his thoughts and scrutinizing each detail of the scene with
    the tattered soldier.

    Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance. And at last his eyes seemed to open to
    some new ways. He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier
    gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them.

    With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy
    and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should
    point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He
    was a man.

    So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came
    from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquilly, and it was as if hot plowshares were not.
    Scars faded as flowers.

    It rained. The 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. Yet the
    youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be
    made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry
    nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of
    war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool
    brooks--an existence of soft and eternal peace.

    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.


Call me shallow (and forgetful of what might have been taught when I first
read this in high school), but I wasn't aware of Crane's The Red Badge of
Courage being a powerful antiwar statement until I read your review.
Reading it fresh, I thought the book had some clear benefits-- powerfully
written, soldier's point of view, trials and tribulations of the
battlefield, boy overcomes initial shock of war (and attendant guilt for
running away) to serve with honor-- and was somewhat dated in a culture
where the war is hell theme has been done to death ever since the Vietnam
war. For example, I thought Red Badge was very similar to Saving Private
Ryan in that the message was about individual acts of bravery in the face of
mass destruction and was to be read as the making of a hero, not an
indictment of the events that surround the individual.


Grade: (B+)


Stephen Crane Links:

    -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
    -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
    -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)

    -ESSAY: C. Vann Woodward: The Inner Civil War
    -Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War