The Red Badge of Courage
The Red Badge of CourageINTRODUCTION
(Full name Stephen Townley Crane; also wrote under the pseudonym Johnston Smith) American short-story writer, novelist, poet, and journalist.
The following entry presents criticism of Crane's novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) through 2006.
Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) offers a vivid portrait of American Civil War combat through its account of a young Union soldier's first days on the battlefield. Embraced as a hallmark of American literature, the novel is a study of heroism and the complex psychology of the common foot soldier during wartime. Remarkably, Crane's knowledge of the Civil War was culled solely from historical texts and autobiographical accounts, as he had not witnessed military action prior to writing the work. The Red Badge of Courage is commonly approached from two different critical perspectives. One school views it as an essentially realist text documenting an unromanticized account of warfare and a soldier's maturation; proponents of the naturalist school, on the other hand, focus on the social, biological, and psychological forces that shape the youth's experiences. Other critics have examined the novel within the context of several major literary trends of the nineteenth century. A meditation on pride, fear, bravery, humility, and mortality, The Red Badge of Courage is widely regarded as Crane's masterpiece. Given its accessible length, relatable narrative voice, and applicable themes about identity, violence, and the amorphous definition of courage, Crane's novel remains a fixture on school reading lists, enabling Crane's literary influence to affect large segments of adolescent readers.
Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, the youngest in a family of fourteen children. His desire to write was inspired by his family—his father, a Methodist minister, and his mother, a devout woman dedicated to social concerns, were writers of religious articles, and two of his brothers were journalists. Crane began his higher education in 1888 at the Hudson River Institute and later enrolled at Claverack College, a military school that nurtured his interest in Civil War studies and military training—knowledge he later used in writing The Red Badge of Courage. During two subsequent and respective semesters at Lafayette College and Syracuse University, Crane was distinguished more for his prowess on the baseball diamond and football field than for his ability in the classroom. During his college years, however, Crane also began his writing career. He worked as a "stringer" for a news service managed by one of his brothers. In 1891, deciding that "humanity was a more interesting study" than the college curriculum, Crane quit school to work full time as a reporter with his brother and part-time for the New York Tribune. In 1893, after several publishers had rejected his manuscript of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) on the grounds that his grim descriptions of slum realities would shock readers, Crane privately published this first novel under a pseudonym. His second novel, The Red Badge of Courage, won him international fame following its publication in 1895. During the mid-1890s, Crane continued to work as a journalist, traveling throughout the American West and Mexico writing for a news syndicate. He later used his experiences as the basis for fictional works, including the stories in his early short fiction collections The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (1896) and The Open Boat and Other Tales of Adventure (1898). In 1897 Crane met Cora Taylor, proprietor of the dubiously named Hotel de Dream, a combination hotel, nightclub, and brothel. Living together as common-law husband and wife, the couple moved to England, where Crane formed literary friendships with Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, and Henry James. By 1900 Crane's health had rapidly deteriorated due to his own general disregard for his physical well-being. After several respiratory attacks, Crane died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight on June 5, 1900.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The Red Badge of Courage presents a series of episodes that trace the experiences and conflicting emotions of a new Civil War Union Army recruit, Private Henry Fleming, who is referred to as "the youth" throughout the narrative. As the novel opens, the young soldier's regiment is camped along a riverbank, where they have been awaiting orders for several weeks. The narrator describes the young soldier's reminiscences about his departure from home. Though the youth had felt daring and confident upon enlisting, he worries about remaining courageous during his first engagement. Marching orders eventually arrive, and the young soldier's regiment advances to the front line. As the Confederate Army charges toward him, Fleming readies himself and manages to fire a shot as rival troops rush by in pursuit. Yet, when the enemy reappears unexpectedly for another skirmish, Fleming is overtaken with fear and runs away. He thinks his fellow soldiers foolish for not having retreated until he overhears a Union general declare that the enemy has been repulsed. Fleming feels angry and cheated out of his opportunity for valor. He decides to flee into the woods, imagining Nature as a protective goddess. While rationalizing his continued retreat, he stumbles upon the rotting corpse of a Union soldier. Shrieking, he runs back toward the front. Fleming falls in with a group of wounded soldiers and encounters "the tattered man," a mortally wounded compatriot who questions Fleming about his nonexistent injury. Deeply ashamed of his cowardice, Fleming escapes from the tattered man and drifts into the crowd of injured men. Fleming is embarrassed and envious of their wounds and wishes for his own "red badge of courage." Among the crowd, Fleming recognizes his friend, Jim Conklin, "the tall soldier," who is near death. With the help of the tattered man, Fleming carries Conklin to a nearby field where he can rest without being trampled by the artillery. The youth and the tattered man watch as Conklin dies. Enraged by what he has witnessed and agitated by the tattered man's inquiries, Fleming leaves the dying tattered man wandering aimlessly in the field. Contemplating whether to rejoin his regiment, Fleming notices groups of Union infantry retreating in mass confusion from combat. One of the fleeing soldiers hits Fleming on the head with his rifle. Dazed and bleeding, Fleming is led back to his regiment by an anonymous soldier. The youth's injury is misidentified as a battle wound, which his companions interpret as the reason for his absence. Fleming's comrade, Wilson, who early in the novel is the belligerent "loud soldier," dresses his wound. The next day, Fleming demonstrates the skills of a fine, upstanding soldier, fighting bravely alongside Wilson and rescuing the regimental flag. Displaying camaraderie and leadership, Fleming wins the praise of officers. In the final battle charge, Fleming accompanies Wilson as he captures the enemy flag, which signals the regiment's victory. The novel concludes with Fleming's reflections on the past days' events. Though haunted by his abandonment of the tattered man, he is proud of his accomplishments in battle and celebrates his entrance into manhood.
The Red Badge of Courage explores notions of bravery and cowardice through the thoughts and actions of an inexperienced soldier on the verge of maturity. The novel contemplates the definition of heroism, illustrating how Fleming's romantic conception of courage evolves into a mature, complex assessment as he transitions from adolescence to adulthood. Critics have analyzed coming-of-age themes in the novel, underscoring the symbolic function of Conklin and Wilson—both of whom exhibit self-assurance and leadership as well as vulnerability—as authentic representations of masculinity. Crane incorporated motifs of noise and silence to signal the maturity of his characters. The sounds of artillery and male bravado that permeate the early chapters turn to quiet reflection at the novel's end. The author also utilized irony to demonstrate the complicated nature of heroism, as evidenced by Fleming's so-called "red badge of courage," which he receives when a retreating Union soldier strikes him on the head with his weapon. In addition to themes concerning valor and maturation, the novel addresses the power and indifference of Nature, emphasizing the relative insignificance of man. By referring to his characters as "the youth," "the loud soldier," "the tattered man," and "the tall soldier," Crane imbued the narrative with allegorical significance reminiscent of the Everyman parable. Scholars have highlighted religious imagery in the book, such as the gathering of foliage which Fleming designates as a "chapel" during his respite in the woods. Fleming's sense of sanctuary, however, is quickly shattered by the discovery of the decomposing Union soldier, which suggests a fatalistic counterpoint to the character's inarticulate spirituality. Other significant motifs include the symbolic use of color, such as Crane's description of the sun at the time of Conklin's death as "a fierce red wafer," and the use of mechanical imagery to depict combat.
A major critical debate surrounding The Red Badge of Courage concerns the textual alterations made by Crane just prior to the book's publication. Some scholars have contended that the abrupt changes in Fleming's character at the end of the novel are the result of unwise deletions from the original manuscript, and that these cuts deprive the text of its ironic thrust. Others have viewed these modifications as integral to the streamlined nature of the narrative. The coexistence of naturalism and symbolism throughout the novel has been cited by critics as a significant development in American fiction. Moreover, the basic plot and structure of Crane's book has been frequently analyzed according to Joseph Campbell's concept of the archetypal hero-quest. Though The Red Badge of Courage has been lauded as a masterpiece in its own right, reviewers have favorably compared it to such works as Homer's Iliad and Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," noting its influence upon such renowned authors as Joseph Conrad. Furthermore, the novel has been read by some critics as an indication of prevailing attitudes towards masculinity in late nineteenth-century America. Praised for its narrative technique, artful characterization, and honest depiction of combat, The Red Badge of Courage has been consistently celebrated as a seminal work of war literature.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets—A Story of New York [as Johnston Smith] (novella) 1893
The Black Riders and Other Lines (poetry) 1895
The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (novel) 1895
George's Mother (novel) 1896
The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War (short stories) 1896
The Third Violet (novel) 1897
The Open Boat, and Other Tales of Adventure (short stories) 1898
Active Service (novel) 1897
The Monster and Other Stories (short stories) 1899
War Is Kind (poetry) 1899
Whilomville Stories (short stories) 1900
Wounds in the Rain: A Collection of Stories Relating to the Spanish-American War of 1898 (short stories) 1900
Last Words (short stories and journalism) 1902
The O'Ruddy: A Romance [with Robert Barr] (unfinished novel) 1903
The Work of Stephen Crane. 12 vols. [edited by Wilson Follett] (novellas, short stories, poetry, and journalism) 1925-1926
The Collected Poems of Stephen Crane [edited by Wilson Follett] (poetry) 1930
The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. 2 vols. [edited by Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino] (letters) 1988
Harold Frederic (review date 26 January 1896)
SOURCE: Frederic, Harold. "Stephen Crane's Triumph." In Critical Essays on Stephen's Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage," edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 35-41. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990.
[In the following review, originally published in the January 26, 1896 issue of the New York Times, Frederic hails The Red Badge of Courage as among the finest American novels of his generation.]
London, Jan. 15—Who in London knows about Stephen Crane? The question is one of genuine interest here. It happens, annoyingly enough, that the one publishing person who might throw some light on the answer is for the moment absent from town. Other sources yield only the meagre information that the name is believed to be a real, and not an assumed, one, and that its owner is understood to be a very young man, indeed. That he is an American, or, at least, learned to read and write in America, is obvious enough. The mere presence in his vocabulary of the verb "loan" would settle that, if the proof were not otherwise blazoned on every page of his extraordinary book. For this mysteriously unknown youth has really written an extraordinary book.
The Red Badge of Courage appeared a couple of months ago, unheralded and unnoticed, in a series which, under the distinctive label of "Pioneer," is popularly supposed to present fiction more or less after the order of The Green Carnation,1 which was also of that lot. The first one who mentioned in my hearing that this Red Badge was well worth reading happened to be a person whose literary admirations serve me generally as warnings what to avoid, and I remembered the title languidly from that standpoint of self-protection. A little later others began to speak of it. All at once, every bookish person had it at his tongue's end. It was clearly a book to read, and I read it. Even as I did so, reviews burst forth in a dozen different quarters, hailing it as extraordinary. Some were naturally more excited and voluble than others, but all the critics showed, and continue to show, their sense of being in the presence of something not like other things. George Wyndham, M. P., has already written of it in The New Review as "a remarkable book." Other magazine editors have articles about it in preparation, and it is evident that for the next few months it is to be more talked about than anything else in current literature. It seems almost equally certain that it will be kept alive, as one of the deathless books which must be read by everybody who desires to be, or to seem, a connoisseur of modern fiction.
If there were in existence any books of a similar character, one could start confidently by saying that it was the best of its kind. But it has no fellows. It is a book outside of all classification. So unlike anything else is it, that the temptation rises to deny that it is a book at all. When one searches for comparisons, they can only be found by culling out selected portions from the trunks of masterpieces, and considering these detached fragments, one by one, with reference to the Red Badge, which is itself a fragment, and yet is complete. Thus one lifts the best battle pictures from Tolstoï's great War and Peace, from Balzac's Chouans, from Hugo's Les Misérables, and the forest fight in '93, from Prosper Mérimée's assault of the redoubt, from Zola's La Débâcle and Attack on the Mill, (it is strange enough that equivalents in the literature of our own language do not suggest themselves,) and studies them side by side with this tremendously effective battle painting by the unknown youngster. Positively they are cold and ineffectual beside it. The praise may sound exaggerated, but really it is inadequate. These renowned battle descriptions of the big men are made to seem all wrong. The Red Badge impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before.
In construction the book is as original as in its unique grasp of a new grouping of old materials. All the historic and prescribed machinery of the romance is thrust aside. One barely knows the name of the hero; it is only dimly sketched in that he was a farm boy and had a mother when he enlisted. These facts recur to him once or twice; they play no larger part in the reader's mind. Only two other characters are mentioned by name—Jim Conklin and Wilson; more often even they are spoken of as the tall soldier and the loud soldier. Not a word is expended on telling where they come from, or who they are. They pass across the picture, or shift from one posture to another in its moving composition, with the impersonality of one's chance fellow-passengers in a railroad car. There is a lieutenant who swears new oaths all the while, another officer with a red beard, and two or three still vaguer figures, revealed here and there through the smoke. We do not know, or seek to know, their names, or anything about them except what, staring through the eyes of Henry Fleming, we are permitted to see. The regiment itself, the refugees from other regiments in the crowded flight, and the enemy on the other side of the fence, are differentiated only as they wear blue or gray. We never get their color out of our mind's eye. This exhausts the dramatis personae of the book, and yet it is more vehemently alive and heaving with dramatic human action than any other book of our time. The people are all strangers to us, but the sight of them stirs the profoundest emotions of interest in our breasts. What they do appeals as vividly to our consciousness as if we had known them all our life.
The central idea of the book is of less importance than the magnificent graft of externals upon it. We begin with the young raw recruit, hearing that at last his regiment is going to see some fighting, and brooding over the problem of his own behavior under fire. We follow his perturbed meditations through thirty pages, which cover a week or so of this menace of action. Then suddenly, with one gray morning, the ordeal breaks abruptly over the youngster's head. We go with him, so close that he is never out of sight, for two terribly crowded days, and then the book is at an end. This cross-section of his experience is made a part of our own. We see with his eyes, think with his mind, quail or thrill with his nerves. He strives to argue himself into the conventional soldier's bravery; he runs ingloriously away; he excuses, defends, and abhors himself in turn; he tremblingly yields to the sinister fascination of creeping near the battle; he basely allows his comrades to ascribe to heroism the wound he received in the frenzied "sauve qui peut" of the fight, he gets at last the fire of combat in his veins, and blindly rushing in, deports himself with such hardy and temerarious valor that even the Colonel notes him, and admits that he is a "jimhickey." These sequent processes, observed with relentless minutiae, are so powerfully and speakingly portrayed that they seem the veritable actions of our own minds. To produce this effect is a notable triumph, but it is commonplace by comparison with the other triumph of making us realize what Henry saw and heard as well as what he felt. The value of the former feat has the limitations of the individual. No two people are absolutely alike; any other young farm boy would have passed through the trial with something different somewhere. Where Henry fluttered, he might have been obtuse; neither the early panic nor the later irrational ferocity would necessarily have been just the same. But the picture of the trial itself seems to me never to have been painted as well before.
Oddly enough, The Saturday Review and some other of the commentators take it for granted that the writer of the Red Badge must have seen real warfare. "The extremely vivid touches of detail convince us," says The Review, "that he has had personal experience of the scenes he depicts. Certainly, if his book were altogether a work of imagination, unbased on personal experience, his realism would be nothing short of a miracle." This may strike the reader who has not thought much about it as reasonable, but I believe it to be wholly fallacious. Some years ago I had before me the task of writing some battle chapters in a book I was at work upon. The novel naturally led up to the climax of a battle, and I was excusably anxious that when I finally got to this battle, I should be as fit to handle it as it was possible to make myself. A very considerable literature existed about the actual struggle, which was the Revolutionary battle of Oriskany, fought only a few miles from where I was born.2 This literature was in part the narratives of survivors of the fight, in part imaginative accounts based on these by later writers. I found to my surprise that the people who were really in the fight gave one much less of an idea of a desperate forest combat than did those who pictured it in fancy. Of course, here it might be that the veterans were inferior in powers of narration to the professional writer. Then I extended the test to writers themselves. I compared the best accounts of Franco-German battles, written for the London newspapers by trained correspondents of distinction who were on the spot, with the choicest imaginative work of novelists, some of them mentioned above, who had never seen a gun fired in anger. There was literally no comparison between the two. The line between journalism and literature obtruded itself steadily. Nor were cases lacking in which some of these war correspondents had in other departments of work showed themselves capable of true literature. I have the instance of David Christie Murray in mind. He saw some of the stiffest fighting that was done in his time, and that, too, at an early stage of his career, but he never tried to put a great battle chapter into one of his subsequent novels, and if he had I don't believe it would have been great.3
Our own writers of the elder generation illustrate this same truth. Gen. Lew Wallace, Judge Tourgée, Dr. Weir Mitchell, and numbers of others saw tremendous struggles on the battlefield, but to put the reality into type baffles them. The four huge volumes of The Century's Battles and Leaders of the Civil War are written almost exclusively by men who took an active part in the war, and many of them were in addition men of high education and considerable literary talent, but there is not a really moving story of a fight in the whole work. When Warren Lee Goss began his Personal Recollections of a Private, his study of the enlistment, the early marching and drilling, and the new experiences of camp life was so piquant and fresh that I grew quite excited in anticipation. But when he came to the fighting, he fell flat. The same may be said, with more reservations, about the first parts of Judge Tourgée's more recent Story of a Thousand. It seems as if the actual sight of a battle has some dynamic quality in it which overwhelms and crushes the literary faculty in the observer. At best, he gives us a conventional account of what happened; but on analysis you find that this is not what he really saw, but what all his reading has taught him that he must have seen. In the same way battle painters depict horses in motion, not as they actually move, but as it has been agreed by numberless generations of draughtsmen to say that they move. At last, along comes a Muybridge, with his instantaneous camera, and shows that the real motion is entirely different.4
It is this effect of a photographic revelation which startles and fascinates one in The Red Badge of Courage. The product is breathlessly interesting, but still more so is the suggestion behind it that a novel force has been disclosed, which may do all sorts of other remarkable things. Prophecy is known of old as a tricky and thankless hag, but all the same I cannot close my ears to her hint that a young man who can write such a first book as that will make us all sit up in good time.
1. Robert Hichens's The Green Carnation (1894), a popular novel of fashionable London life.
2. Frederic, the London correspondent of the New York Times, was himself a major novelist, with a number of his works set in the upstate New York area where he was born and raised. He refers here to his Revolutionary War novel In the Valley (1890).
3. Murray was a popular British novelist and travel writer. Early in his career he had reported on the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-78.
4. Earweard Muybridge, a photographer and naturalist, had in the 1870s demonstrated through photography that all four of a running horse's hooves are at times simultaneously off the ground.
Donald B. Gibson (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Gibson, Donald B. "Heroism." In The Red Badge of Courage: Redefining the Hero, pp. 45-59. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
[In the following essay, Gibson examines how The Red Badge of Courage offers nontraditional reflections on the nature of heroism and how the protagonist's sense of bravery towards the novel's conclusion are not necessarily reflective of Crane's own opinions.]
One of the implications of the traditional view of heroism is that its chief motivation is internal, that it springs from resources within the psyche. It is generally believed that the relationship between courage and character is such that the two are not separable. Cowardice, most feel, stems from bad or weak character, and courage from strength of character. These are the assumptions with which we are likely to start reading The Red Badge of Courage, and they underlie the meaning of courage in the culture. Certainly the heroism as defined by implication in Western mythology and fairy tale is of this kind, and Henry Fleming's reference to fairy tale and mythology suggests that his view of the issue is not a different one. It would seem, however, that Crane in his novel calls these assumptions into question. The advocate of the nontraditional reading of the novel would argue that readers who see Henry as the traditional hero are not distinguishing between Henry's perspective and Crane's. Henry is the unknowing, unaware traditionalist, not Crane.
The implication of the foregoing is that Henry's sense of heroism is a false sense because, having its roots in myth and fairy tale, it does not derive from experience, but from knowledge transmitted through tradition. He need merely have the model of the courageous actor in order to emulate it. Little does he know that he absolutely cannot act in any way contrary to or unrelated to his personality and his own peculiar history. Heroism does not exist in a vacuum, apart from other aspects of personality. Hence Henry's conviction that heroism is defined by fairy tale and mythology is false, for it does not consider the social nor specifically psychological elements of heroism. Henry does not wish to be a hero for heroism's sake but because he does not want his fellows to regard him scornfully. On the contrary, he sorely desires their respect and high regard. Therefore his character is no better nor worse at the beginning of the novel than at the end because courage, at least the kind of courage brought under scrutiny by Crane's novel, has nothing to do with character. One need not be good in order not to flee from the line of battle. For that reason Henry's moral lapses—as when he conceals the origin of his wound and allows his comrades to infer its source—have no relation to his behavior in battle. His having run from battle can be concealed, for it is, though relevant in Henry's eyes, irrelevant in Crane's eyes and in the eyes of the careful reader.
Because he believes that there is a relation between courage and character, Henry's perception of himself is modified. He believes that a conflict exists between his heroism and his flight during the first encounter, for if the exhibition of courage is a manifestation of good character, then exhibition of cowardice manifests bad or weak character. By the same token he believes that his desertion of the tattered man may diminish the significance of his heroism if that act should become known. The text establishes clearly these associations. Immediately after the passage quoted above where Henry refers to his "public deeds" as "performances which … marched now in wide purple and gold," the narrator observes: "He saw that he was good. He recalled with a thrill of joy the respectful comments of his fellows upon his conduct" (131). Undoubtedly Henry feels he is good because he feels himself a hero and that feeling is confirmed by the responses of his comrades. By implication, the lines mean that Henry saw that he was good and they too saw that he was good. Immediately following the passage last quoted, Henry thinks of his flight: "Nevertheless, the ghost of his flight from the first engagement appeared to him and danced…. For a moment he blushed, and the light of his soul flickered with shame" (131-132). The very next line reads: "A specter of reproach came to him. There loomed the dogging memory of the tattered soldier." Clearly the association of these thoughts reveals a connection of some kind among them.
But how do we know how to read these lines? How do we know that Henry does not deserve credit for true guilt and remorse for past actions that are less than creditable? There is, first of all, the juxtaposition of ideas that shows that Henry is looking at the question of heroism from a rather unsophisticated perspective, that he thinks it some kind of fairy-tale affair. Beyond that Crane makes clear that the source of any sense of guilt or remorse is Henry's fear that his less-worthwhile deeds will be discovered by his comrades. Henry will go to any length not to be laughed at. There is also the clear irony of the final paragraphs pointed out above.
In addition, there is one line appearing in the novel's final chapter, quoted above for other purposes, whose ironic intent cannot be mistaken. The line is: "He saw that he was good." Recall in the account in the Old Testament of Genesis the line that recurs as one of a series of patterned refrains as the creation, step by step, is described: "And God saw that it was good." The rhythm and syntactical structure of the two sentences are nearly identical. Crane, the son of a deeply religious Methodist minister (who was raised as a strict Presbyterian), could not possibly have missed the parallel or created it by chance, especially since the creation myth was probably drilled into his head in Sunday school if not at home as well. Note that Henry Fleming does not speak the sentence. Rather, the narrator attributes the sentiment to Henry. The implication is, then, that the line becomes a comment on Henry, a critical comment suggesting that Henry's pride at this point is so overweening that he would compare himself with God. If so, then we certainly may see him as deluded and his whole assessment of himself and his situation at this crucial juncture in the novel, a few paragraphs from the end, is called into question. This ironic thrust supports the view that though Henry is in a different place, he is not in a better place at the conclusion of the novel than he was at the beginning.
An enormous amount of further evidence suggests that Crane is not in sympathy with Henry during the final pages of the novel and that Henry is not seeing things as they are, but since this evidence is external evidence, i.e., excluded from the final version of the text as Crane presented it for publication, it does not have the same standing as evidence drawn from the text as he presented it to his publisher. The material referred to here comes from two manuscript versions of the novel, a shorter version, the first version of the novel as it was serialized in December 1894 for use by the Bacheller syndicate of newspapers, and the expanded version of that manuscript that became after further alteration the novel we know. Crane changed the manuscript version when it was in galley proof and produced the final text. Whether he changed his intentions between the preparation of the final manuscript and the version as printed in 1895 or whether changes in the text were made for some other reason, the expunged passages will give us some sense of how Crane was looking at his materials and will perhaps offer a clue as to how to read the text as it finally emerged.
The textual changes were in general made for different reasons. Some were made to sharpen the focus of the narrative, especially in cases where Crane's impressionistic style produced extended vagueness or misdirection of the reader's attention. Most of the names were deleted and the characters identified by attributes, for example, the "tall" soldier, the "loud" soldier, the "youth." A great deal of the change has to do with economy of style. The most significant changes, however, are extremely important changes that are intended to effect the very basic meaning of the novel; these are the ones with which we are primarily concerned. Interestingly enough, they appear in the final chapter where Crane attempts by careful manipulation of his words to handle his closure in such a way as to make the novel mean exactly what he intends it to mean. The modulations of style and meaning occurring there are most carefully wielded.
In the paragraph referred to above, where Henry thinks of himself as good, the final sentence, apparently expunged by Crane reads: "It was a little coronation" (131). The reference is to Henry's memory of the lieutenant's compliment to him after his performance during the third encounter: "By heavens, if I had ten thousand wild cats like you, I could tear the stomach outa this war in less'n a week!" (100). The "coronation" reference echoes an earlier passage in the text, also expunged by Crane, that clearly in its context indicates that Henry is not seeing things as they truly are. This passage occurs in chapter 15 after Henry has returned to his regiment and before the third engagement: "He returned to his old belief in the ultimate, astounding success of his life…. It was ordained because he was a fine creation. He saw plainly that he was the chosen of some gods. By fearful and wonderful roads he was to be led to a crown" (90-91). Clearly and severely ironic, this passage suggests that Henry is deluding himself. So does the "coronation" line in the final paragraphs of the text also suggest that Crane wants us to see Henry as deluded, especially as it stood before deletion, juxtaposed against "He saw that he was good."
Henry thinks back to his flight during the second encounter and in a heavily ironic passage he attempts to justify his past actions in obviously unintelligent and self-serving ways. For a moment after he recalls his flight, "his soul flickered with shame." The next line reads: "However, he presently procured an explanation and an apology" (132). This makes no literal sense, for there is no agency allowed for in the world of the novel to proffer such explanation or apology. The implication is that the universe explains his flight and apologizes to him for its necessity. Henry is being stringently ridiculed. The expunged passage continues: "He said those tempestuous movements [his flight] were of the wild mistakes and ravings of a novice who did not comprehend. He had been a mere man railing at a condition, but now he was out of it and could see that it had been very proper and just." The suffering occasioned by his fear of death and his fear of discovery are neither proper nor improper, neither just nor unjust; they simply are.
But Henry attempts at the novel's end, as he had earlier with fairy tale and mythology, to place his experience within a larger framework in order better to comprehend it. In this case he tries to see things in terms of a partially conceived conception of the relation of his experience to universal process. Thus: "It had been necessary for him to swallow swords that he might have a better throat for grapes" (132). There is nothing in the universe of the novel to account for such a necessity, and Henry is being foolish to account for his experience in such fashion. He simply seems more foolish, as the novel concludes, in his understanding: "Fate had in truth been kind to him; she had stabbed him with benign purpose and diligently cudgelled him for his own sake" (132)—again clearly ironic. When has anyone ever been "benignly" stabbed or "diligently cudgelled" out of kindness? The passage continues: "It was suddenly clear to him that he had been wrong not to kiss the knife and bow to the cudgel."
Crane seems here to intimate several things about Henry in this deleted passage. We see Henry structuring the universe as though the process is an exercise in the composition of fiction. He knows nothing about Fate yet in his egotism he is able to imagine that there is such a thing as Fate and that she (note the personalization) takes particular interest in his life. His thinking here probably derives from classical mythology just as his earlier thinking about war and heroism did. On another level, Crane is saying that even if the universe is structured as Henry implies, then he is still foolish to respond as he does. If there is an agency responsible for his fate, he is foolish indeed to see that agency as in any sense whatsoever benevolent. The irony is biting, and Henry seems the butt of sardonic humor. Is it possible to take the person seriously who so understands his experience when he sums it up as Henry does?
He is not through philosophizing, and the quality of the thought does not improve: "He was emerged from his struggles with a large sympathy for the machinery of the universe. With his new eyes he could see that the secret and open blows which were being dealt about the world with such heavenly lavishness were in truth blessings. It was a deity laying about him with the bludgeon of correction" (134). The implication here is that whatever misery, pain, and suffering are in the world exist for a purpose, for the purpose of correcting human error. They are blessings in disguise and should be welcomed. He feels in total sympathy with the processes of nature and the universe, and as such, "He could no more stand upon places high and false, and denounce the distant planets" (134). There is nothing obvious in his experience that would justify his conclusions. In fact, his experience should have shown him a quite different universe from that he creates. His belief seems also to express a religious fundamentalism, though we do not know its source. The notion that mankind are sinners and adversity is a sign of God's displeasure and intent to correct behavior and therefore a blessing is hardly enlightened theology. The deleted passage goes on: "He beheld that he was tiny but not inconsequent to the sun. In the spacewide whirl of events no grain like him would be lost" (134). What he learns is that "His [God's] eye is on the sparrow"; what he should have learned is that he is alone in an alien universe, entirely on his own.
Crane wrote a poem, which appeared in his volume of poetry, The Black Riders, whose meaning expresses the exact opposite of Henry's thinking. The poem's epigraph, the occasion of the poem, is a biblical quotation:
"And the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the heads of the children, even unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."
Well, then, I hate Thee, unrighteous picture;
Wicked image, I hate thee;
So, strike with Thy vengeance
The heads of those little men
Who come blindly.
It will be a brave thing.
If we assume, without entering the labyrinth of critical theory that might legislate against it, that the poem (published the same year as The Red Badge, 1895) expresses ideas that Crane held when he wrote it, then that would suggest he uses the ideas professed by Henry to express his own thinking in an obverse way. In other words, we need merely turn Henry's thinking upside down in order to know what Crane thinks. Is, then, Henry "tiny but not inconsequent to the sun?" No. He is tiny but inconsequent to the sun. "In the spacewide whirl of events" would a "grain like him … be lost?" Yes, a grain like him (and like all of us) would be lost.
The irony is on the verge of bitterness, and the final excised phrase is no less severe in its tone than the passages so far discussed. Let me put the expunged passage in its context, even though I have quoted the following passage before without the deleted passage, which is placed in brackets below: "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 [and was for others]. He was a man" (134). The phrase, "and was for others," is a mighty phrase, for it indicates that Henry's vision is so entirely warped that he has come to the point of believing that he cannot die. What is the effect of the irony of the bracketed phrase on the sentence that follows? "He was a man" becomes itself ironic and reflective of a deluded man. Without doubt, Henry is perceiving faultily; his psychological orientation dictates entirely what he sees. He is incapable of the least objectivity because his sense of actuality is governed by an idealism whose force is so great as to prevent him from understanding his experience even on the most basic level.
Given the context we have just examined, the final line of the novel cannot but be ironic: "Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds," especially in view of the lines preceding it in the penultimate paragraph: "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." And of course, if the final line is ironic, then that means the novel has a completely different meaning than it has if the line is not.
Most of the material deleted by Crane from the novel has to do with controlling how we are seeing Henry Fleming. It would seem that Crane expunges for the most part material that is heavily ironic and makes Henry appear to be a fool or deluded. He did not attempt to remove all such signals, but he wanted to alter the effect of the ironic substance on the reader's judgment of Henry. Had Crane left in the text all those deleted passages, the novel would be a different novel indeed. It would have been a confused text; as it is, however, Crane's sense of reality and actuality has left us a far more meaningful piece of work. The deleted material had to be removed in order to prevent our dismissing Henry out of hand. As it is, there are two major perspectives in the novel, the narrator's (Crane's—since there is no evidence that any disparity exists between the narrator's perspective and the author's) and Henry Fleming's. There is no question about which is the more authoritative. The narrator constantly judges Henry, from the moment we meet him until the close of the narration. Henry has no access to the narrator. He does not even know that the narrator exists. The narrator has a far more embracing consciousness than Henry, a far broader capacity to judge. A great deal of the difficulty surrounding the question of how to interpret the novel arises because the narrator's judgment of Henry is variable (not inconsistent), and that is one of the most realistic elements of the novel. Henry can be sympathetic, heroic, and sensitive; he nonetheless is quite capable of being selfish, stupid, and immeasurably cloddish.
In other words, we see Henry throughout the novel at his best and at his worst. We have discussed Henry at his best, at those times when the narrator is most sympathetic toward him and less censorious, and we have discussed him when he was not entirely good. We have yet to discuss him at his worst, when he is at his most dreadful, insensitive, and prideful moment. We can forgive Henry for running in the face of what he sees as imminent destruction, for the response is not conscious and intentional, but, rather, as he says, instinctive. It is less easy to forgive him for his handling of the letters of his friend, the loud soldier, Wilson (all one and the same person though the fact is obscured because he is referred to alternately by these appellations). Wilson gives the letters to Henry at the end of the third chapter in anticipation of his death during the forthcoming battle. It is an act of trust and faith. There is about the act an aura of self-pity and there exists something of a desire to have Henry commiserate with him in his fear and trembling. "‘It's my first and last battle, old boy,’ said the latter, with intense gloom. He was quite pale, and his girlish lip was trembling" (35). When Henry returns to his regiment after his flight during the second encounter, the first person he meets is Wilson who is most solicitous toward him. Wilson gives him coffee, binds up his wound, acting toward him as a nurse. "Well, come, now … come on. I must put yeh to bed an' see that yeh git a good night's rest" (83). Finally he covers Henry with his own blankets, leaving himself no covers to sleep on or under. Henry objects. "The loud soldier snarled: ‘Shet up an' go on t' sleep. Don't be makin' a fool 'a yerself,’ he said severely." (83).
Crane delivers a strong judgment against Henry in having him decide to use the letters as a potential weapon against Wilson should he raise questions about Henry's whereabouts on the previous day after his running from battle. "He now rejoiced in the possession of a small weapon with which he could prostrate his comrade at the first signs of a cross-examination" (89). The same stringent irony leveled at Henry earlier is directed toward him again. Unlike the loud soldier, "He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man. Indeed, when he remembered his fortunes of yesterday, and looked at them from a distance, he began to see something fine there. He had license to be pompous and veteranlike" (89). Henry uses the occasion of the letters and Wilson's shame at having to ask for them back as a means to make him feel superior to Wilson and to justify his atrocious conduct: "As he contemplated him, the youth felt his heart grow more strong and stout. He had never been compelled to blush in such manner for his acts; he was an individual of extraordinary virtues" (92). Chapter 15 concludes with Henry imagining that he is relating heroic tales of war to his mother and the young lady at the seminary who he believes (perhaps ironically because we cannot tell whether his perception of her reaction to him is true) has some romantic interest in him.
Between this chapter and the concluding paragraphs of the novel the irony slows somewhat and what there is is comparatively mild. This is an interesting phenomenon, for the question arises, what is happening here? Why does Crane no longer subject Henry to the same degree of ironic treatment, and why does he subject him any longer to ironic treatment at all? Let us first of all identify the irony occurring between the fifteenth chapter and the final paragraphs of the final chapter, the twenty-fourth, and then try to answer the other questions.
Henry, after he has found his way back to his regiment, begins to imagine that he has not run from battle and that he may judge his superiors as one might who had been an active participant in the preceding day's battle events. The "sarcastic man," unknown to himself, reminds him of his true role in the events of late: "Mebbe yeh think yeh fit th' hull battle yestirday, Fleming" (95). The effect of the words is chastening: "The significance of the sarcastic man's words took from him all loud moods that would make him appear prominent. He became suddenly a modest person" (95). Thereafter Henry is not treated ironically until the conclusion of the next (the third) encounter with opposing troops.
His response after that encounter, during which he fights and is commended by the lieutenant ("If I had ten thousand wildcats like you …"), is markedly similar to his response after the very first encounter where he holds his ground. The manner of his fighting is the same too. In both instances he seems in a trancelike state ("The youth in his battle sleep heard this [the comments of another soldier] as one who dozes hears" (42) and he is enraged. During the first encounter "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" (42). His response during the third encounter is quite the same. "He began to fume with rage and exasperation…. He had a wild hate for the relentless foe…. He was not going to be badgered of his life, like a kitten chased by boys, he said" (98). Many verbal parallels exist between the two scenes, e.g., "His impotency appeared to him, and made his rage into that of a driven beast" (42). This parallels a sentence describing the third encounter: "His knowledge of his inability to take vengeance for it [his feeling that he is taunted] made his rage into a dark and stormy specter" (98).
As the first encounter ends, Henry returns to consciousness as one waking from a deep sleep. "The youth awakened slowly. He came gradually back to a position from which he could regard himself. For moments he had been scrutinizing his person in a dazed way as if he had never before seen himself" (45). As he regards the meaning of his experience, he concludes: "So it was all over at last! The supreme trial had been passed. The red, formidable difficulties of war had been vanquished. He went into an ecstasy of self-satisfaction" (45). Henry's conclusion is retrospectively ironic because we know that during the next encounter, shortly after this moment, he flees.
At the end of the third encounter, again Henry considers the meaning of his battle experience and his conclusions are essentially the same as after the first. "These incidents made the youth ponder. It was revealed to him that he had been a barbarian, a beast. He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion…. He had been a tremendous figure no doubt…. He had overcome obstacles…. They had fallen like paper peaks and he was now what he called a hero. He had slept, and, awakening, found himself a knight. He lay and basked in the occasional stares of his comrades" (100).
The irony of the parallels between the earlier encounter and the later one is multifaceted. First of all, there is irony in the fact that Henry does not recognize that his responses in the two cases have been nearly identical, for if he did, he would not on the second occasion announce to himself that his problem is solved. He would have remembered that, after his first encounter when he believed "the difficulties of war have been vanquished," he fled. He therefore should recognize that the real test is in the next encounter, when he will see how he acts; whether he will run as in the encounter following the first occasion when he felt he was no longer afraid.
There is also irony in Henry's casting his inferences in the particular terms he chooses. That "he had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight" finds him using those terms of fairy tale and mythology that he had used when he first began thinking about himself in war. Those terms reflected his innocence and naïveté, and his use of them brings up the possibility that he is deceiving himself once again, not seeing things in a mature and reasonably objective way. We might also wonder whether he is seeing things as they are when he thinks, "He had been a tremendous figure, no doubt." We have seen him time and time again express a warped sense of self, and we may well wonder whether he is doing the same thing again.
It seems difficult to tell whether some passages after the fourth encounter and before the fifth should be read as ironic. How, for example, should the following passage be interpreted: "He [Henry] had had very little time previously in which to appreciate himself, so that there was now much satisfaction in quietly thinking of his own actions" (117). Again, before the fifth encounter, when a soldier reports to Henry and his friend that he has overheard the colonel and the lieutenant complimenting them on their courageousness in battle we are told: "They speedily forgot many things. The past held no pictures of error or disappointment. They were happy and their hearts swelled with grateful affection for the colonel and the youthful lieutenant" (120). Is it simply human nature that makes Henry forget that shortly before he was extremely irritated with both officers, or is it that his interpretation and judgment of the world alters with the wind?
Whether Crane intends these particular passages to be read ironically, the point remains the same. By his deletions (we have yet to consider his deletion of the whole of an original manuscript chapter 12) and his varying the existence or the intensity of the irony throughout, Crane intends to maintain control of the reader's response to the character of Henry Fleming. Irony serves well in Crane's attempt to modulate the reader's response, for he may withdraw the irony entirely, apply it heavily, or modulate its application through infinitely variable degrees between the two extremes. And this is what Crane, to the consternation of the reader who would have things one way or another, does. Throughout the text Henry appears more or less sympathetic, more or less deserving of blame or censure. This modulation of the reader's response is carefully and intentionally managed, largely through irony—and, as well, through editing of the irony when the negative or positive response elicited toward Henry seems too great or too little. The answer to the questions raised earlier, (why does Crane no longer subject Henry to the same degree of ironic treatment between the chapter in which he proposes to use Wilson's letters as emotional blackmail against him, and why does he subject him any longer to ironic treatment at all) is implicitly answered here. After Henry is at his most despicable moment, during the "letters" episode, he threatens to take over the text, to control the meaning and values expressed therein. It is not Henry alone who threatens to take over the text but a whole complex of values, the values contained within Henry's metaphors describing his own situation and condition. Tradition, the tradition that surrounds Henry on all sides, the iron laws of tradition, of which Henry thinks in chapter 3, also threatens Crane. Crane's counteraction is primarily through irony. That is why Henry is subjected to irony at the same time that he appears most sympathetic, when he seems most heroic and when his activity and behavior seem most acceptable. The irony is intended to counteract other textual movement. During the period when Henry is most positively presented, Crane must make sure that we do not misunderstand his intention. His irony is intended to insure that we interpret other things rightly. We need to see, for example, Henry's quite positive relation to Wilson, his friend, the loud soldier (all one and the same person, as pointed out before), in proper perspective. The irony allows this.
John Conder (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Conder, John. "The Red Badge of Courage: Form and Function." In Modern American Fiction: Formand Function, edited by Thomas Daniel Young, pp. 28-38. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Conder argues that the figure of Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage is less of a literary character and more of a representation of Crane's interest in determinism and freedom of will.]
The function of the form of The Red Badge of Courage remains an especially significant issue because some recent criticism ignores the compelling conclusions that follow from the novel's subject. Those conclusions affect our understanding not only of this novel but of two of the three other crucial works in the Crane canon as well. This criticism might be seen as a continuation of the second of the two stages that criticism of Crane has gone through in the past: an avowal that determinism is a central presence in his work and a denial that it is a central presence or a presence at all. ("The Open Boat" is an exception to Crane's determinism because the story treats a primitive society whose very simplicity permits the existence of freedom.)1
The basic materials of the novel are the same as those of "The Blue Hotel" and Maggie. They are the conditions that generate the thoughts, emotions, and actions of the characters. This emphasis on conditions governing character, as opposed to an emphasis on character as autonomous agent, emerges because the characters are not individuals. Certainly the youth Henry Fleming is not an individual. What little history we learn of him from the flashback hardly individualizes him. What Bergson would have called "lived time," the growth and development of the inner life of a human being, is not a concern in The Red Badge, because Henry Fleming is not really a person.2 He is in fact a case study, a psychological type—the complex type called adolescence—and the novel is about the psychological type called adolescence meeting the congeries of conditions called war.
If the history of Henry in the flashback does not point to him as an individual, it does point to him as a social type. Though his adolescence is of primary concern in the novel, he is also a farm boy, a hick, and thus a social type recalling the treatment of character as social type in Maggie. (The distinction between social and psychological type in Maggie is not a hard and fast one, of course, but is a matter of emphasis.) The understated treatment of Henry as a social type also forecasts the various social types who constitute the world of "The Blue Hotel" —an Easterner, a cowboy, a hotel keeper, a ne'er-do-well, a gambler, and a host of nameless people of the small town who represent the average person writ large: the community. In these shorter works as well as within the novel, conditions emerge as the dominant basic material precisely because the characters are not individuals, then, but types. And this emphasis on types permits us to see characters as governed rather than as autonomous agents, either because the line between the type and the environment producing it is impossible to draw or because character is treated idiosyncratically so that it acts as condition for behavior.
This view of character in general in Crane's world is reinforced by an understanding of the form of The Red Badge. By its form, I mean the nature of the narrator, the special arrangement of materials that produces irony, and the use of the device of a sharp shift in perspective to emphasize the function of the irony. The point of view is third-person limited, and the narrator presents the conditions giving rise to Henry's changing thoughts, emotions, and actions in such minute detail that the clear effect is to see the narrator studying the youth as though this youth were a rabbit or a chicken being put through a series of behavioral tests. The narrator, in other words, is detached, and his is the voice of the behavioral scientist, the voice that says: "The youth cringed as if discovered at a crime."3
The character of that voice is best captured by a line used in "The Blue Hotel" to describe the Easterner: "The Easterner's mind, like a film, took lasting impressions of three men." It is the voice that opens "The Blue Hotel" with the words, "The Palace Hotel at Fort Romper was painted a light blue, a shade that is on the legs of a kind of heron." It is the voice in Maggie that says, "The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle."4 Such detachment does not deny that a human being is different from other creatures in nature, any more than it denies that there is a difference between a chicken and a heron or between a heron and a panther. So this fact should be kept in mind when objecting that there is a separation between two worlds, the human and the natural, in The Red Badge. The human world is viewed in the same way as the natural world in the novel, and the same narrative angle of vision prevails in these other works as well.
The second aspect of form, the internal arrangement of materials producing irony, in fact produces two types of irony. The first, dramatic irony, surfaces when a character, or what passes as a character, is thoroughly ignorant of facts or aspects of reality known to the audience or reader. Both the narrator and the reader are spectators of Henry Fleming's thoughts, feelings, and actions, and through Crane's adroit juxtaposition of details, they see dramatic irony everywhere—in Henry's failing to recognize that a creature pouncing on a fish, for example, does not support his recently adopted view that nature is "a woman with a deep aversion to tragedy" (46).
In The Red Badge Henry's failure of recognition is a function of an overwhelming emotional state, guilt, and therefore he is beyond judgment. Likewise, in Maggie, Pete, Jimmie, and Mrs. Johnson are beyond judgment for their ignorance of their behavior as a factor in Maggie's downfall. The reader who has finished Chapter 4 of the novella knows that these characters are types, that as types they are products of an environment, and that these products are incapable of serious or prolonged introspection.
If dramatic irony does not imply moral censure but instead exposes ignorance, much the same can be said of the second kind of irony operative in Crane's world: situational irony, in which an event gives birth to an unexpected outcome. Several examples appear in The Red Badge, one of which is at the heart of the action: a deserting soldier gives a wound to a deserter (Henry) that permits Henry to return to his unit with honor. There are other such ironies. The tattered man's expression of concern leads not to Henry's social reinstatement but to his further flight and alienation. Henry's actual reinstatement in his unit leads to his feeling of superiority over Wilson. Henry's uncontrolled, blind fighting earns him the commendation of "wildcat" and leads to his regarding himself as a hero. The sun appears through the clouds as if to confirm Henry's view of benign nature. Like dramatic irony, this second kind exposes ignorance, though in this case the reader must be included among the ranks of the ignorant. Neither reader nor character can foresee the unexpected consequence of an act. Neither dramatic irony nor situational irony, therefore, implies moral censure. Each does imply the weakness of man's mental machinery, so this fact should take care of the view that irony is necessarily moral in its thrust.
In The Red Badge of Courage a spatial retreat to a distance appears in references to the sun, but a pronounced shift in perspective of a different kind also appears in the last chapter of the novel. I will reserve full discussion of that chapter till later because I wish to discuss its special change in perspective in tandem with another major point, the novel's determinism. Here I note that the novel's various references to the sun issue collectively in the meaning of the novel's dramatic irony in the most comprehensive way possible. The youth may be astonished "that nature had gone tranquilly on with her golden processes in the midst of so much devilment" (38) when he first sees the sun, and his astonishment may very well change to gratitude that the appearance of the sun, at the end of the Appleton manuscript, confirms his view of a friendly nature, a view appearing in both endings of the novel.5 But the reader witnesses Henry's (and man's) relation to nature from the true perspective of the sun—that is, from the eye of nature's cosmic indifference, a sight that shows man's place in nature to be pretty much the one exposed by the spatial retreat to a distance found in "The Open Boat."
Critics who object to the view that The Red Badge is deterministic fail to see that the novel's form—in this case, the arrangement of those governing conditions that constitute the basic materials of the novel—functions to meet a definition of determinism because they never offer such a definition. I stress this fact because a failure to define determinism handicaps critics of the novel, whether they deny or affirm its determinism or whether they simply ignore the issue by assuming the existence of freedom. Bernard Berofsky has issued a warning to philosophers that should be issued to literary critics as well: "In discussions of human freedom it is not uncommon to omit a definition or clarification of the thesis of determinism, although reference to it may be made. This is quite serious if one considers … the fact that this thesis often plays a fundamental role in conceptions of human freedom."6 I hasten therefore to offer this definition of determinism, one that in fact is not my own but that seems to me pertinent to discussions of literary naturalism: "Determinism is the general philosophical thesis which states that for everything that ever happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen."7
Traditional novelists assumed human freedom within obvious limitations. Crane's distinctiveness as a novelist depends on his fashioning his work into a coherent vision that forces the reflective reader to question the authenticity of man's freedom. The novel's form forces the reader to see that it advances the definition of determinism I have just provided, and the same form makes the appearance of freedom an illusion.
Of the innumerable ways of classifying novels, one can divide them into two groups according to the kind of axis they possess. A nondeterministic novel usually has a moral axis. It rests on the assumption that at some point or other characters could have acted in a way different from the one they did under the same conditions, an assumption that permits moral judgment because it grants freedom to the individual. Crane's novel has what one might call a would-have-been axis. It rests on the assumption that the youth would have behaved differently if—if conditions had been different. And its basic material, the conditions generating the youth's thoughts, emotions, and actions, suggests that given these conditions, he could not behave other than as he does behave, a fact that undermines the possibility of moral judgment because it denies man's freedom.
The first skirmish in which the youth participates can demonstrate what I mean about the novel's axis. It divides into two parts that the reader inevitably juxtaposes in his mind. In the first, the youth does not run from battle because conditions permit him to be sustained by his consciousness of "the subtle battle-brotherhood" (35). He would have run from battle if conditions had been different, if he had not been conscious of "the subtle battle-brotherhood." That fact seems the whole point of Crane's having the youth initially hold fast in the first part of this skirmish and then run in the second part. And in the second part, run he does. He would not have run if he had still been conscious of "the subtle battle-brotherhood." But conditions have changed, the youth now sees panic-stricken faces among the brotherhood, and he also sees some men who seem to be running from the brotherhood. Thus he becomes the pawn of that overwhelming fear that earlier had been subdued by his sense of "the subtle battle-brotherhood." These two battle scenes, with their contrasting outcomes, emphasize the dominance of conditions governing thought, emotion, and action throughout the novel. The youth's discovery that his regiment had in fact held fast while he ran then becomes the condition for his guilt and subsequent rationalizations—feelings and thoughts which he would not have been bombarded with if conditions had not changed to induce his uncontrollable panic.
This would-have-been axis continues throughout the novel and challenges recent readings that dismiss the issue of the novel's naturalism (or determinism) with a flat, unsupported denial that it belongs in that camp and offer an analysis that simply assumes the existence of freedom in The Red Badge. Since both Donald Pease and William Wasserstrom treat Henry's first blind, wild fighting in battle (Chapter 17) as an expression of rage, it will be useful to focus on their treatment of the way that rage develops in order to illustrate my point. Pease locates the beginning of the rage with Henry's aborted philippic, whereas Wasserstrom locates it later, after Henry's learning "the lesson of yesterday" about retribution.8 Despite this disparity, the forms of their arguments show the same deficiency, and so they can be treated as types of the same argument.
Pease argues that Henry deliberately and freely manipulates his emotions—especially fear and shame—for two related reasons: first, to create an identity for himself based on a rereading of conventional war narratives, though with significant variations to accommodate his own experience; and second, to give coherence to the incoherent. The literal experience of battle, that is, is incoherent, but Henry replaces this incoherence with narratives that by their very nature as narrative possess coherence. Through a "personal act of choice" he develops "an ethos of fear as his basis for a unique personality." By becoming a "‘mental outcast,’" for example, he becomes the star of the show through his special way of handling his fear. The coherence that he gives his experience in this way, breaks down with Jim Conklin's death (and is symbolized by the sun imaged as a wafer). Thereafter, Henry essentially reacts "with rage against the inadequacy of all rationales," and his blind fighting is a part of his waging "war on the discourses" that he used earlier to give coherence to his experience.9
I cannot go into all the steps in Pease's complicated argument but quote enough to show that he endows Henry with a good deal of self-control. The fact that Pease largely ignores the narrative voice that renders Henry's thoughts and instead makes Henry appear to be creating his own narrative reinforces this impression of autonomy.10
William Wasserstrom also gives Henry a good deal of autonomy. Reading the book in the light of William James's theory of human behavior in extraordinary situations, he finds Henry's instincts suppressed by a genteel civilization symbolized by his mother, and he thinks Henry escapes such suppression when he discovers that "the lessons of yesterday had been that retribution was a laggard and blind" and that "he could leave much to chance" (86). According to this argument, Henry comes to see through the ethics of an America that promised sure and swift retribution for sin, an America represented by the mother who said, "Don't think of anything 'cept what's right" (7). Seeing the fraud, Wasserstrom writes, Henry "plans to replace this muddle of morals with plain fury." Like Pease, but for a different reason, Wasserstrom gives Henry a good deal of control by seeing his enraged fighting as a response to a lesson in fraud autonomously absorbed by a now-educated Henry. Wasserstrom writes: "Yesterday when his world had buckled he'd ‘imagined the universe to be against him.’ Today he knows that the universe is neutral, that his sole adversary is ‘the army of the foe,’ an enemy against which he now feels a ‘wild hate.’"11
Both arguments miss the novel's would-have-been axis, the compelling relation between condition and perception or condition and action. Although the novel traces a thorough network of causal conditions leading from Henry's initial fear to his blind fighting, the details that I choose here will be governed by my attempt to show that the arguments that I have just summed up are but variants of Marston LaFrance's treatment of his selection of events leading to Henry Fleming's fighting successfully in battle; that a refutation of LaFrance's treatment can show that determinism is a presence in this sequence of events, as it is throughout the major action of the novel; and that a proper understanding of this sequence of events shows that determinism comes to embrace the novel's controversial ending, which does not initially appear to be deterministic and which Pease treats within a context of will.12
Marston LaFrance called attention to a "carefully wrought sequence" of "silly illusions," which he says collapse and lead to what he calls Henry's "willed commitment" to fight after his return to his regiment.13 He had in mind those illusions that make Henry seem so obnoxious when he confronts the "formerly loud soldier" and that are represented by the ironic statement: "He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man" (86). Wasserstrom ignores these illusions, and Pease alludes to them in a context of Henry's anticipating and neutralizing judgment against himself.14 But those illusions are germane here both because they lead to Henry's blind fighting and because Crane treats them in a way that makes conditions of primary importance here as elsewhere. Henry's obnoxiousness, his feeling of superiority to Wilson, it should be stressed, has its condition: his release from his intense fear of exposure as a deserter. Such relief manifests itself through an exaggerated sense of superiority, and that sense in turn acts as the condition for Henry's lesson about retribution, a lesson that is only partly true. If "the lesson of yesterday" was accurate in teaching that "he could leave much to chance," nonetheless chance does not always see to it that "retribution was a laggard and blind." But this illusion is of great importance as a link in the chain of causation leading to Henry's fighting. The illusion permits the youth to gain sufficient confidence, through a chain of psychological causes and effects, to fight the enemy, a chain that terminates in these words: "He had a wild hate for the relentless foe. Yesterday, when he had imagined the universe to be against him, he had hated it, little gods and big gods; to-day he hated the army of the foe with the same great hatred" (94). Crane thereby shows that he understood the meaning of the psychological phenomenon called transference even if he was not aware of the term. For he stresses the youth's unconscious transference of hatred from hatred for a nonhuman universe that threatened him because it would not support his rationalizations for having run, to hatred for a human enemy that now threatens him. The confidence generated by the youth's unwarranted feeling of superiority, though momentarily deflated by the sarcastic man, remains sufficiently strong in his psyche to permit him to redirect his hate.15
The careful reader thus can see that these illusions in fact are parts of a causal network permitting Henry to fight, and thus the view that they lead to Henry's "willed commitment" to fight is undermined. So, too, is the assumption of freedom and autonomy underlying treatments of Henry's perceptions and thoughts prior to his enraged fighting. Conditions create Henry's fear and shame, conditions permit his reinstatement into his unit, conditions create his illusions, conditions induce his (partly false) education about the nature of retribution, conditions inspire Henry's hatred, his rage against the enemy, and conditions thus permit him to fight.
Were the adolescent to have that authentic freedom asserted or implied by all these treatments, one must find somewhere in the novel some evidence that conditions do not dictate, that under the same conditions, this adolescent could behave in a way different from the way he does. To accommodate free-will readings of the novel, in other words, one must find a free-will axis in the work, for its existence implies that a character could act differently under the same conditions.
The emphasis on conditions in the major action of the novel seems to me to undermine any free-will axis there, but there does seem to be one in the flashback and in the ending of the novel, both in the version by Henry Binder and in the one that I choose as aesthetically superior, the edition of Fredson Bowers.16 In this discussion of form and function, my emphasis on the events leading to Henry's enraged fighting makes it pertinent that I discuss the ending rather than the flashback, which is also part of the causal chain of mental and physical events constituting the career of that psychological type named Henry Fleming.17 In both versions of the ending, we find that Henry is released from "the condition" of the "animal blistered" in war and can now activate his hitherto idle "machines of reflection" to reflect on, among other things, his "sin," and the very word sin thus suggests the presence of a free-will axis, here a moral axis that presupposes freedom (133, 135). Of course the reader knows that when Henry committed his "sin," that sin had no moral status, because it was impelled by his overpowering fear of social censure. Yet that Henry thinks in terms like sin suggests that he has entered a realm in which he can act other than as he does under the same conditions. But in fact the chain of causation that seems clearly deterministic in the major part of the work is related to the ending. In the conclusion, the reflective reader sees that a release from battle becomes the "new condition" (133) that makes the youth feel "that the world was a world for him" (135), and nature now seems distinctly friendly, not indifferent. The reader becomes conscious of conditions existing off the battlefield as well as on, in other words, and he becomes aware that off the battlefield they breed illusions just as they do on it. The major part of the novel and the novel's ending thus share an emphasis on a causal link between condition and illusion, and this shared emphasis deprives the reader of any certainty that the youth has entered the world of could-have-been. The reader is certain only of the existence of a would-have-been axis. And that axis is perfectly consistent with, in fact is an expression of, the thesis of determinism, the thesis that states that "for everything that ever happens there are conditions such that, given them, nothing else could happen."18
But there is even more to the matter of this novel's form because of what I have tried to show earlier. If the form of The Red Badge of Courage undermines current assumptions about freedom in its pages, then the fact that The Red Badge is a paradigm of two of Crane's three other major works makes it clear that such assumptions cannot be made about those works either.
1. John Conder, Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase (Lexington, Ky., 1984), 1-2. On "The Open Boat," see pp. 22-30.
2. In describing duration, Bergson called it "the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live." Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson (London, 1910), 100.
3. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, 1975), 45. Vol. II of The Works of Stephen Crane. Subsequent references to The Red Badge are to this edition and will appear in the text.
4. Stephen Crane, "The Blue Hotel," in Crane, Tales of Adventure, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, 1970), 159, 155. Vol. V of The Works of Stephen Crane; Stephen Crane, Maggie, in Crane, Bowery Tales, ed. Fredson Bowers (Charlottesville, 1969), 24. Vol. I of The Works of Stephen Crane.
5. For a discussion of the endings, see the bibliographical essay in Conder, Naturalism in American Fiction, 213-15.
6. Bernard Berofsky, "General Introduction: Determinism," in Berofsky (ed.), Free Will and Determinism (New York, 1966), 1.
7. Richard Taylor, "Determinism," in Paul Edwards (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (8 vols.; New York, 1967), II, 359.
8. See Donald Pease, "Fear, Rage, and the Mistrials of Representation in The Red Badge of Courage," in Eric J. Sundquist (ed.), American Realism: New Essays (Baltimore, 1982), 155-75. For his denial of Crane's naturalism and also for his analysis of the beginning of Henry's rage, see p. 169. See also William Wasserstrom, "Hydraulics and Heroics: William James, Stephen Crane," in Wasserstrom, The Ironies of Progress: Henry Adams and the American Dream (Carbondale, Ill., 1984), 77-99. For his rejection of Crane's naturalism, see p. 86; for his treatment of the beginning of Henry's rage, see p. 93.
9. Pease, "Fear, Rage, and the Mistrials of Representation," 162-63, 171, 173.
10. For Henry as creating his own narrative, see Ibid., 160, 161, 162, 169. For other examples of emphasis on Henry's will see pp. 163, 165, 174.
11. Wasserstrom, "Hydraulics and Heroics," 93.
12. Marston LaFrance, A Reading of Stephen Crane (London, 1971), 112-17. For will in the ending, see Pease, "Fear, Rage and the Mistrials of Representation," 174.
13. LaFrance, A Reading of Stephen Crane, 116-17.
14. Pease, "Fear, Rage, and the Mistrials of Representation," 172-73.
15. For a fuller discussion of the sequence of events between Henry's meeting Wilson again after his return to camp and the period when he develops his hatred, see Conder, Naturalism in American Fiction, 58-61.
16. See note 5 above.
17. For a discussion of the flashback, see Conder, Naturalism in American Fiction, 53-56.
18. See note 7 above.
Karl E. Avery (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Avery, Karl E. "The Red Badge of Courage." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 3, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 1095-103. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1990.
[In the following essay, Avery offers a bio-critical reading of The Red Badge of Courage, emphasizing Crane's intense distaste for war and his belief that war "holds no redemptive qualities."]
About the Author
Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, the youngest child of the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane. The Cranes dated their roots in New Jersey back to 1665, when an ancestor also named Stephen Crane had settled in the area. The Reverend Crane died on February 16, 1880, after a brief illness. After her husband's death, Mrs. Crane moved her family to the nearby town of Roseville. In 1882 the Cranes moved to Asbury Park, a seaside town on the Jersey shore where Crane attended school for the next six years.
In 1888 Crane enrolled at Hudson River Institute (also called Claverack College), a semi-military academy. Crane entered Hudson with a less than stellar academic background, but although he failed to post an impressive academic record here, too, he did enjoy the cadet life at the academy. He stayed at Hudson for two years, working summers at his brother's news service in Asbury Park, and it was during these years that he began his lifelong rebellion against religious dogmatism. In 1890 Crane entered Lafayette College, which, like Hudson, was a Methodist school.
He rarely attended classes, failed his courses, and dropped out at the end of the semester. His next school was Syracuse University, where again he lasted for only one semester. While there, in 1891, Crane wrote the first draft of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. After returning to New Jersey, he met Hamlin Garland, an established writer of realistic fiction who exerted a strong influence on Crane's writing.
In the fall of 1891 Crane moved to New York City, where he lived with art students in a boarding house and explored the slums of the city, particularly the Bowery. Following the advice of his mentor, Garland—who maintained that in order to depict slum life realistically, a writer must experience the pain endured by slum dwellers—Crane visited soup kitchens and other places where poor people congregated. Crane knew genuine deprivation during this period, and his health, never robust, was weakened. For the rest of his life he had a racking cough and a low resistance to disease. The Bowery became the fictional locale for Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which was privately printed in 1893. The novel won the praise of William Dean Howells, an important writer whom Crane met through Garland.
In 1894 an abridged version of The Red Badge of Courage, which Crane had started writing the previous year, was published by the Bacheller Syndicate in its newspapers. Crane traveled in the West and Mexico from January to May 1895, and returned to see a book version of The Red Badge of Courage published by D. Appleton and Company in October. Before going West, Crane had become infatuated with a beautiful young society girl, Nellie Crouse. Some of his most revealing letters were written to her. Largely uninterested in social status, which was very important to Crouse, Crane knew his infatuation was hopeless. Their relationship was limited to the seven letters he sent her.
George's Mother, another novel set in the New York slums, and a revised version of Maggie were both published in June 1896. That December, The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War was published. These stories capitalized on the success of The Red Badge of Courage, and Crane was now obsessed with the wish to see a war firsthand. An attempt to reach revolution-torn Cuba failed when his ship sank off the coast of Florida on January 2, 1897. "The Open Boat," published in June, is a fictionalized account of Crane's experiences as he and three others rowed through high seas to shore.
Having failed to reach Cuba, Crane decided to go to Greece to cover the Greco-Turkish War. He was accompanied by Cora Taylor, whom he had met while waiting for passage to Cuba in Jacksonville, Florida, where she ran a bordello. Both Crane and Taylor worked as war correspondents in Greece. Twice divorced and five years older than Crane, Taylor was still legally married to an Englishman who refused to grant her a divorce. Nonetheless, Crane and Taylor were married on August 25, 1898. After covering the war in Greece, the couple settled in England, where Crane made friends with many leading writers of the time, including Joseph Conrad, H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford, and Henry James. Always short of funds, the Cranes nonetheless entertained lavishly at their elegant house in Ravensbrook. Crane wrote constantly, but could not become solvent. When the United States and Spain went to war in Cuba in 1898, he sailed for New York, having borrowed money from Conrad and other friends. The U.S. Navy would not accept Crane as a seaman, but he was hired by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World as a war correspondent. In Cuba, fellow correspondents were impressed by his courage.
In 1897 Crane had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, but the disease seemed to be in remission. While in Cuba, however, he fell ill with malaria, an event that possibly reactivated his tuberculosis. His health deteriorating, Crane still managed to get out his dispatches, some of which rank among his best work as a reporter. Fired by Pulitzer as the result of a misunderstanding, he returned to New York and was hired by William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal as a war correspondent. In all, Crane covered the war from April to November 1898. Meanwhile, several of his better stories had been published, including "The Monster," "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," and "The Blue Hotel."
Crane returned home to England in 1898, and he and Taylor moved to Brede Manor, Sussex. As their extravagance continued, Crane, gravely ill, turned his hand to any kind of writing to pay his debts. He published a novel, Active Service, in 1899, its quality far below his usual standard. A volume of poems, War Is Kind, also appeared in 1899.
During a large Christmas week party at Brede, on December 29, 1899, Crane collapsed with a severe pulmonary hemorrhage. He died on June 5, 1900, at a sanatorium in Badenweiler, Germany. The Whilomville Stories and Wounds in the Rain were published posthumously the same year.
The Red Badge of Courage attempts to recreate the combat experiences of a young, frightened soldier in the American Civil War. Henry Fleming, the protagonist, has never seen a real battle and worries about how he will behave under pressure. Crane's novel has been praised ever since it first appeared in print as highly realistic in its presentation of the psychology of a young man facing injury and possible death. One of the best American short novels, Crane's work vividly presents some of the horrors, both physical and psychological, that soldiers encounter in battle.
The battle of Chancellorsville in northern Virginia, waged from May 1 to May 3, 1863, seems to have been Crane's model for the fictional battle in The Red Badge of Courage. The action of the novel follows that of the original conflict—a Confederate victory—quite closely. Chancellorsville is not mentioned in the novel, nor is General Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker, the leader of the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. At one point in the novel, though, Crane does name the Rappahannock River, which separates the two armies. The real setting of The Red Badge of Courage, however, is the consciousness of Henry Fleming. The battle, his fellow Union soldiers, and the landscape are all seen through his eyes. His attitudes, which change frequently, determine what he and the reader see.
Themes and Characters
War, for Crane, was a favorite metaphor for human life, equally applicable to coal miners ("In the Depths of Coal Mine," 1894) or to the people living in the slums of New York (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets ). Courage and heroism come under Crane's scrutiny in his classic book about wartime, The Red Badge of Courage. Henry has read classical tales of heroism, and dreams of performing brave deeds on the battlefield, but he is deeply worried about what will happen when the regiment finally goes into action. He and his regiment have marched into northern Virginia, but since then have done nothing but wait. His concern is not "How will we men of the 304th New York Regiment do when we go into battle" but "How will I do?" In the course of his self-questioning, he has been "forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself." Of course, although Henry does not consider it, all the men around him are also worried about the coming battle and how they will behave under fire.
Henry, more often referred to as "the youth," has a small circle of friends that includes Jim Conklin, "the tall soldier," whom he has known all his life, and Wilson, "the loud soldier," who constantly struts and brags. Most characters in the novel remain unnamed except for epithets such as these. Henry's identification with his companions is not strong enough to give him a sense of community with them. The regiment is often pictured as a powerful organism breathing, snorting, and shooting flames like a dragon.
The regiment goes into action after its long period of inactivity, and although Henry is relieved in a sense, his anxieties soon increase. When the enemy forces make their first charge, Henry's training helps him perform in the accepted manner; he and the regiment stand their ground, and the enemy is repelled. But all too soon a second charge is under way. The tired men of the 304th Regiment resume firing, but soon many of them throw down their rifles and run. Panic-stricken, Henry also heads for the rear, running "like a blindman" and crashing into trees.
As his panic subsides, Henry rationalizes his desertion: he has behaved in a highly reasonable fashion; he has saved the U.S. government a piece of valuable equipment, himself; and he has followed the dictate of nature, which bids every creature to protect itself. Guilt-ridden despite his rationalizations, Henry falls in with some wounded men who have been forced to seek shelter in the rear. He finds the company of the wounded preferable to that of his own regiment, which he hopes has been soundly defeated, for its defeat would vindicate him completely.
But Henry's conscience undergoes further assault when he notices a man referred to as a "spectral soldier," walking as if he were a dead man looking for a grave. Henry suddenly realizes that this mortally wounded soldier is Jim Conklin, his best friend. Henry, hysterical with grief, promises to take care of his friend, but Jim recognizes Henry only for a moment before he shakes off Henry's hand. In a fit of panic, Jim runs from the road into a field, where he convulses and dies as Henry looks on helplessly.
Henry later suffers a head wound when a frightened deserter unexpectedly hits him with the butt of his rifle. An unnamed friendly soldier leads Henry back to his regiment, where Wilson, previously known as the "loud soldier," is on sentinel duty. Henry finds that Wilson has matured from a swaggering braggart to a quietly confident soldier. Wilson and the corporal who examine Henry assume that he has been shot.
The wound is Henry's means of entry back into the military society, and he realizes that this is the only society available to him.
After Henry's cover story has been accepted, his remorse practically disappears. He still worries that his cowardice will be exposed, but his ego has been restored. No longer an isolated wanderer in the company of the wounded and dying, Henry learns to take pride in his regiment and in his own ability to contribute to the war effort. Going into battle he fights like a madman, firing so furiously that he wins the admiration of his fellow soldiers. Henry becomes less self-centered as he begins to identify with Wilson and the other soldiers, and he finds the strength of purpose to atone for his earlier cowardice.
Throughout Henry's transformation, Crane emphasizes that coming of age involves an awareness of and concern for others. Henry learns that he is a person of contradictory impulses and actions, at times brave, at times cowardly, and this knowledge allows him to identify with the society around him. He thinks of others as well as himself; his is no longer an egocentric universe.
But Crane is careful not to present war as a simple rite of passage; he emphasizes that war brings out the most horrible aspects of life. War indeed tests souls, but in the process it ruins more men than it converts to higher ideals. Although the survivors of war were sometimes stronger, more compassionate men, Crane could never reconcile this phenomenon with the horror and the suffering of innocent creatures everywhere. Henry is able to change, but Crane himself never came to terms with a God who could tolerate wars.
In preparation for writing The Red Badge of Courage, Crane studied the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady and illustrations by painter Winslow Homer and drew on his own highly empathic imagination. The writers Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, Crane's good friends in England, claimed that Crane subscribed to the impressionistic literary movement and strictly observed the canon of impressionism: "render; never report." By means of his sharply etched and poetic images, Crane hoped to help his readers feel as if they were actually on a battlefield. For example, Crane describes the wounded enemy standard-bearer behaving as if he had "invisible ghouls fastened greedily upon his limbs" as he tries to escape with his flag; Crane also renders a vivid image of the dirt and smoke assaulting the regiment: "Wallowing in the fight, they were in an astonishingly short time besmudged…. Moving to and fro with strained exertion, jabbering the while they were, with their swaying bodies, black faces, and glowing eyes, like strange and ugly fiends jigging heavily in the smoke."
Ending The Red Badge of Courage was difficult for Crane. The professional writers among his friends marveled at how rapidly he produced his work, whether prose or poetry, and how rarely he revised what he had written. But three attempts to bring his second novel to a close were required, and even then he probably was not satisfied. Although he wrote the first draft of The Red Badge of Courage in nine days, he told Willa Cather that "he had been unconsciously working the detail of the story through most of his boyhood."
"It was essential that I should make my battle a type and name no names," Crane said when explaining the overall plan of his book. As several critics have noted, this choice makes The Red Badge of Courage resemble an allegory. What makes it different from typical allegories such as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) or William Langland's Piers Plowman (c. 1395) is Crane's attitude toward conventional Christianity. Raised in a family of ministers and religious workers, he himself became an agnostic. Some of the imagery of the novel is drawn from religion, such as "the chapel," where Henry hopes to escape from the battle. But throughout the novel, everybody curses, nobody prays, and Crane uses imagery from his religious training to show that, for him, war is demonic; demons and devils abound in his poetic metaphors. Critic R. W. Stallman sees the death of Jim Conklin as a crucifixion and notes that the soldier's initials are the same as those of Jesus Christ. Critic Bettina L. Knapp sees the battle as an initiation similar to the one religious devotees experience before they receive illumination, the knowledge that God is with them and that they are one with him. The novel may well invite such interpretations because of its stark simplicity.
The best-drawn characters in Crane's books are usually those from low socioeconomic backgrounds—inner-city residents, soldiers, coal miners, seamen, and farmers. Crane did not romanticize his characters because he recognized that poverty-stricken people are quite capable of making their have-not status a basis for conceit. Crane found this attitude quite prevalent in the Bowery, and he made it as much the target of his ironic barbs as he did the conceit of the rich.
Crane's novels reflect his basic beliefs about humanity. The chronic misery of the poor aroused his sympathy, as did the plight of common soldiers in wars. Having rejected traditional theological explanations as a boy, Crane never found a philosophy that adequately explained the hardships inherent in the human condition.
Because Crane's theme in The Red Badge of Courage is the fear and isolation common to all war, he deliberately avoids all specific references to the Civil War itself. The battle is presumed to be Chancellorsville, but neither its name nor the names of commanding generals are mentioned. Few characters have names or identities, and even Henry is usually referred to simply as "the youth." Crane is not concerned with the causes of the war, the implications of slavery, the tactics of the armies, or even the outcome of his battle. For the purposes of the story, it makes no difference that this is the American Civil War, or that in the real battle of Chancellorsville thirty thousand men were killed.
The novel vividly depicts the ravaging emotions that lead Henry to abandon his idealism, reevaluate his conception of bravery, recognize nature as a malevolent force, and repudiate the existence of God. The violence that he experiences holds no redemptive qualities. What he has learned in war—the indifference of death, the folly of valor and patriotism, and the illusion of God—becomes distorted and tangled in his memory by the novel's end, so that even the reality is lost and everything becomes a lie. There is no glory in war, not even for the heroes. There is only death for the victims and confusion for the survivors.
James Cox (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Cox, James. "On Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage." In Classics of Civil War Fiction, edited by David Madden and Peggy Bach, pp. 45-62. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
[In the following essay, Cox highlights the textual originality of The Red Badge of Courage, suggesting that the novel had little in the way of literary antecedents and classifying the text as among the most realistic written accounts of warfare to date.]
As I write this essay on The Red Badge of Courage, we are once again at war. It is the fourth war in my lifetime in which this country has engaged in major conflict. I do not of course count the Spanish Civil War in which Americans sent significant volunteer units; nor do I count such recent paltry rehearsals for the present war in Iraq as Grenada, Libya, Panama, in which instant success was inevitable. Our last major war was in Vietnam—the longest though far from the bloodiest war we have ever fought—and the reaction to it was so negative that one would have thought we would never fight a war again. Yet here only a bit more than fifteen years later we are again at war, and many who had opposed the Vietnam war almost to the death now find themselves dusting off theories of just wars by way of explaining their approval of what in their youth appalled them. To review this history with a slight detachment (even I was in World War II) is to know how great a title Hemingway had for his first collection of short stories. In Our Time he named it, quoting from the Book of Common Prayer, yet with an irony that must strike any reader as little short of savage when considered in relation to the contents of those remarkable chapters that lie between the stories, forming the interchapters. The irony is even greater when the title is considered in relation to this now dying century, which seems to have given us more war than peace in our time. Not only that. We might as well realize that war, if it is not necessary, is nonetheless inevitable—that we can't do without it, that we need it, that somewhere and somehow as human beings we want it. Like hate and love, killing and birthing, living and dying, peace and war are a binary axis in the mind and heart of humanity as well as in its language. Hard pressed as we might be to define war, we know what it is. We know that far from being merely savage, it is nothing if not civilized, the civilized form of at once channeling and releasing the instincts of aggression that reside in the heart and soul—yes the soul—of humanity. Milton was well on target when he put his pure war in heaven, not on earth. Seeing war as the process of civilizing aggression is as essential as seeing the family as the civilizing form for the control and release of sexual energy. No wonder the craft of war—the discipline, the codes of conduct, the making of arms—is as much art as science. Any visitor to West Point has to be struck by the evidence on every hand that the institution wants to think of military art as much as it wishes to emphasize military science.
Being both civilized and instinctual, both science and art, war is at once dynamic and inertial. It carries with it all the acceleration at the command of civilization to discover new and more powerful forms of weaponry just as it forever retains the possibility of hand to hand combat. The very word arms evokes the development from club to gunpowder to rifle to bomb at the same time that it refers to the aggressive upper limbs of the body. The combination of acceleration and inertia works through the emotions attending war. War is after all a hastening toward death; it is for the young who, whether eager for it or forced into it, whether reckless or afraid, whether angry or appalled, find themselves both rushing and rushed toward an end that by the logic of peace ought to be further in their future. Given such acceleration, no wonder that the emotions of fear and anger, the twin expressions of helplessness, are forever at play beneath the soldier's burden of facing death in the form of an enemy.
Given this form, a science and an art at the heart and soul of civilization, we should not be surprised at the fierce reality it holds for our imagination. Since its essence is mortal conflict, it fatally attracts narration. We may deplore the narration we get—the censored presentations from the Pentagon, the lies and shameless exaggerations, the bureaucratic masking of violence, the banal human interest stories, the gamelike accounts of missiles hitting their targets—yet we are both galvanized and magnetized by these reports and wish to read and hear and see more and more of them. Indeed, the technology of communication is equal in its acceleration to the technology of weaponry, as if the processes of war and narration were one vast symbiosis. Here if ever is proof that the technology of language itself is equal to the technology of war; so much so, that we well could wonder whether the technology of language may have preceded the technology of war, whether the origin of language may have been a curse, whether the mouth itself were the prefiguration of the caves our ancestors once occupied. We always come out to such an uncertainty between the primacy of word or world.
There is a reason that the acceleration of both communication and weaponry have brought us increasingly disappointing accounts. Even with reporters near the front to relay stories and images instantly to us of soldiers in their trenches, or planes roaring off a runway, or anti-aircraft explosions making a thousand points of light over Baghdad we seem as far as ever from what we know is the truth of war; and so we settle for the observation, now proverbial, that truth is the first casualty of war. Thinking of that truth, we know that it must have at its heart fear, excitement, recklessness, hate, rage, horror, and death. Melville's lines are apt here. In a poem, "The Coming Storm," after claiming that Sanford Gifford's painting of that name served as a prefiguration of the Civil War, he concluded by relating both picture and war to the primary language of Shakespeare:
No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakespeare's core;
That which we seek and shun is there—
Man's final lore.
Surely, reflecting on the dynamic and inertial nature of war, we might well brood, in this last decade before the millenium, on the fact that the United States, claiming that it possesses the most advanced civilization and the accelerating technological weapons that accompany it, is bombing Baghdad, located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers—the very place that we learned in our earliest schooling was the Cradle of Civilization. Beyond that, there is the first great image of the war disclosing the incinerated bodies being pulled from the rubble of an air shelter in Baghdad—a building that the Pentagon insists was a command and communications center. Such reflections could lead us to a larger fact: that the Middle East, which sustained the birth of three of the world's great religions, has held beneath its surface the richest oil wells in the world. Facing such a fact we know that the burning bush did indeed burn. As the dynamic force of religion has faded, or been converted, into the secular force of science, the inertial force of oil has been discovered to fuel the "advanced" nations.
All of which brings us to the Civil War—the one war that, for all its horror, has come down to us as a just war. Even Bob Dylan in his antiwar song of the Vietnam war significantly omitted it from the list of wars which were brutally conducted with "God on our side." That war, far more than any of our others was surely fought with God on our side. Beside every other war, even World War II, it has to seem to the majority of Americans a just war. At the same time it was the most total and bloody war in our history; its 700,000 dead would, in relation to our current population, be fifteen million. It was also a modern war, replete with great advances in weaponry and communications. If railroads, ironclads, submarines, and breech-loading carbines came into use, so did the telegraph, observation balloons, and hordes of reporters to file their stories. Both during and after the war it was the most written war that had ever been fought anywhere. There were the day to day accounts in hundreds of newspapers, there were the letters home; then came the endless postwar accounts by participants, the 128 volumes of Official Records published by the U. S. Government, the countless histories of the war that continue to be written, and finally the innumerable fictive efforts to capture the "reality" of the war.
Of all the fictions, The Red Badge of Courage is without question preeminent. In the almost one hundred years since its publication in 1895 it has incontrovertibly established itself as the greatest Civil War novel and one of the great war novels of world literature. It still seems miraculous that the novel could have been written by a twenty-four year old author who had not even been born until six years after Appomattox. From almost the moment of its publication, its striking power seemed to be grounded on two contradictory categories of life: experience and youth. Since it immediately brought Crane both popularity and notoriety, the compressed authority of its representation of battle experience was belied by the youth and art of its author. If the book brought Crane forward in this country as a Bohemian writer, it brought him recognition, particularly in England (when it was published there in 1896), from the literary establishment. A writer as strong as the young Joseph Conrad and a critic as acute as Edward Garnett immediately recognized that the element that resolved the contradiction between experience and youth was nothing less than the remarkable art of Crane's narrative. The art, in a word, was what made the book new, or we could say young, at the same time that it reorganized the vision of war, one of the oldest subjects to attract the narrative efforts of humanity. After all, what we consider Homer's oldest epic was the Iliad.
Those who focused on the youth of the author found themselves at pains to provide a literary precursor from whom Crane had descended, an effort that has continued down the years. Was it Tolstoy, or Zola, or Stendhal? Was it, among American authors, John William De Forest (Miss Ravenel's Conversion) or Wilbur Hinman (Corporal Si Klegg and His Pard)? Or was it Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, a series of articles by former commanders published in the Century magazine? Or could it have been the monumental Official Records? Although these questions, in the form of scholarly claims and contention, have been put forth throughout the century, the stark originality of The Red Badge continues to remain by far the most striking aspect of the book. The originality is, after all, at once the experience of the narrative. Small wonder that it would be classed as a work of realism, since it seemed true to what we now imagine is the reality of war. Or that it would be seen as naturalistic, since that classification places it in an up to date relationship with the sequence of literary movements that followed realism. Or that it would be called impressionistic, since that designation places it in graphic relation to the art of its time.
These efforts to locate the book either in relation to its author or in relation to its literary origins or to literary history are but an index to the manner of its originality. What no one would or could doubt is its identity as a war novel—and a war novel not just about any war but about the Civil War. We feel that we would know that much even if its subtitle were not An Episode of the American Civil War. As a matter of fact, the subtitle is usually absent in most editions of the novel. Yet here again, the hunger for more specific references has led to many speculations as to what particular battle of the war is being represented. Of the many interpretive forays in this direction, the battle of Chancellorsville has been the leading candidate, yet the book itself is utterly mute in the matter of naming either battle or state where the action takes place.
To see, in what we never doubt is a Civil War novel, just how little there is of what we traditionally associate with the historical Civil War, though it may not tell us what the novel is, will at least impress us with what it is not. Not only are there no actual place names; there are no fictive place names. If there is topography in the form of a small river or an open field or a forest, it remains utterly generalized. There is exactly one mention of Richmond and Washington. There is no Grant or Lee or Hooker or Jackson or Meade or A. P. Hill. There is not even a North or a South. Even the terms Yankee and Rebel appear only once or twice as yank and reb. There is no fight for the union or against slavery. There is not a mention of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. There is not a hint of states' rights or the protective tariff. Even the characters themselves are barely named; they are a tall soldier, a loud soldier, and a youth before they are Jim Conklin or George Wilson or Henry Fleming. A tattered soldier and a cheery soldier, although they play significant roles in the book, have no names at all. Beyond all this absence, there is no real sense of the technology of war. We know that Henry Fleming has a rifle, that he moves through a world of bullets and exploding artillery shells, that there are horses and wagons and gun carriages, but we get no particular or detailed identity of any of the machinery. We get no mention of supply depots or howitzers. Finally, there is no romance in the book—no real girl left behind or met—no letters from home, no sense of a society behind or outside the society of the battlefield. True there is Henry's mother and a girl schoolmate Henry believes is looking at him as he readies for departure (this all stated in a few paragraphs in the first chapter), but they are left behind as completely as Aunt Charity in Moby Dick when the Pequod makes its plunge into the lone Atlantic.
To see what is left out, or better cut away, is to see how Crane achieved both reduction and concentration of his vision to the field of battle and to the single consciousness of a private soldier. He emerged with an incredibly short novel—shorter even than The Scarlet Letter—whose twenty-four short chapters stand at once as reminders of the twenty-four books of the Iliad and as a line of sentinels marking the violently abrupt sequence of war. The very first paragraph of the book sets the scene:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from being troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.
So much is done here. First there is the pathetic fallacy hard at work throughout the passage: the cold reluctantly passing, the fogs retiring, the river purling by day and sorrowful at night. Nature herself is being psychologized as if it had a human will, and at the end of the paragraph it has become an animated form containing the eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the brows of distant hills. Even more important, the natural process reveals the army stretched out and resting, awakening, and trembling at the noise of rumors. Yet if nature is sufficiently animated by the reportorial narration to reveal the scene, it nonetheless must be invested with the power. In such an exchange we can see at the very outset that the book is neither fully naturalistic nor impressionistic, neither deterministic nor subjective but involved in both worlds even as it is subjected to a reportorial narration that implicates both forces, glaringly mixing them together.
Naturalism and impressionism are not the only literary registers brought into focus in the text. There is also realism. No wonder W. D. Howells saw in Crane's early work—he was less enthusiastic about The Red Badge —a writer who was extending the range of realism into the urban streets. In The Red Badge, Crane extends realism down into the society of soldiers. They are invariably middle class soldiers, speaking an American vernacular that could be either urban or rural. The narration is clearly committed to erasing any distinction that could be made between the two. Crane, who had written Maggie, a Girl of the Streets, could clearly have made such a distinction, but here he wants merely to mime an informal language characterized by its deviation from formally "correct" speech yet not individuated to city or region. More important, the language is not discriminated in terms of character. The youth, the tall soldier, the loud soldier all speak alike. If they are privates they nonetheless speak a "general" vernacular—a representative language of their society—an ungrammatical, slightly deviant, and unschooled language, yet not one to evoke sympathy so much as to express a unity, directness, and informal simplicity of background. Just as their designation as tall soldier, loud soldier, and youth takes precedence over their individual names, their language designates their identity as soldiers rather than individuals.
For all that they are soldiers, their world is not in any strict sense military. True they are subject to orders from the officers, but there is nothing in this beginning that stresses the abuse and repression so familiar in narratives of military life. Indeed these private soldiers seem wonderfully free in their informality. Instead of being called to attention or suffering under high handed officers, they are subject to the vanity, skepticism, and restiveness that come from the boredom of waiting for action. When the tall solider, whose name is later revealed to be Jim Conklin, brings a new rumor of a military action, he "swells" with the importance of his narration but is greeted with such scoffing disbelief from a loud soldier that their exchange threatens to descend into anger. Then a corporal begins to swear at the thought of moving from the comfortable quarters he has constructed for himself. Finally the company joins in a "spirited debate" replete with arguments about strategy. The entire discussion resembles nothing so much as a small town cracker barrel discussion. What is uppermost in the representation is the ordinariness of the participants. They have no real distinction, yet if their foolishness and pretensions are exposed by the narration, they are not belittled. The informal, unschooled ordinariness of these soldiers is the very stamp of Crane's realism.
From this introductory scene and action, accomplished in less than two pages, the narration moves to a "youthful private" who is listening to the "words of the tall soldier," and we are brought abruptly in relation to the consciousness of the central figure of the book. The relation between the narration and Henry Fleming's consciousness is not so much one of invasion as it is of concentrated attachment. The consciousness of Henry Fleming is, after all, his private thoughts. The thoughts of the privates we first see are their public thoughts—what they can say to each other.
Upon hearing them, Private Fleming retires through an "intricate hole" into the privacy of his hut—it is not a tent—"to be alone with some new thoughts that had lately come to him" (6). The narrative rarely leaves that consciousness but reports it in such a way that there is always detachment in its attachment. Thus there is always a gap between the report and the thoughts, sensations, and responses of this youth. The essential nature of the gap is one of irony, an irony that results in exposure as much as disclosure. If we see what Henry is thinking and feeling, we also see the illusory nature of his thoughts in relation to the field of battle in which he finds himself. The great force of the narrative rests in its capacity to render the reality of his experience as well as the external nature of battle. His experience of course colors the battle, but the battle colors his experience. His thoughts always at war with each other, he is himself embattled; at the same time, he is in a battle. To see so much is to see both the nature and violence of civil war.
The best way to see that violence is to sketch the action from the moment the narrative attaches itself to the consciousness of this youth. First of all there is the fact that Henry had "of course dreamed of battles all his life" and had enlisted in the army. If he had dreamed of war, his waking consciousness had feared that wars, the "crimson splotches on the pages of the past," were the vividly red moments of history that were now as bygone as crowns and castles. "Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions" (7). Disappointed at his mother's objections to, rather than her support of his enlistment, he had nonetheless volunteered, had then felt a pang at his mother's helpless assent to his departure and her gift of blackberry jam, and had even felt shame at looking back at her tearstained face as she knelt among the potato parings; but he had felt a thrill of self-importance in the village as he thought he saw a feminine schoolmate looking upon him as his company assembled.
The narrative gives but the briefest moment to this recapitulation of his boyish fantasies of Homeric battles—as an inner life they are every bit as ordinary as the public language of the solders—before launching its report of the move into battle. Throughout the brief march toward the conflict, replete with the soldiers' inveterate complaints and their continuing arguments about strategy, Henry remains silent with his own continuing doubts. Afraid to reveal them, he is astonished when, at the threshold of battle, Wilson, the outwardly brave and loud soldier, sobbingly announces his belief that he is to die and gives Henry a packet of letters to be sent home. In the ensuing battle, Henry manages to stand his ground against the first attack, forgetting himself in the rage of action; but in the very throes of luxuriating in his accomplishment the enemy attacks again. Seeing men beside him waver and run, Henry joins in a flight as blind as his battle stand had been. His flight brings him to a point behind the lines from which, watching artillerymen mechanically serve their battery, he discovers that the blue line has held. Afflicted with this new knowledge, he feels like a criminal and, rationalizing his behavior, begins to justify his flight as an instinctive effort at self preservation. This line of thought, figured in a full retirement from the field, leads him to the isolated depths of a forest, where "the high arching boughs made a chapel" (41-42). Pushing the boughs aside and entering, he confronts the eyes of a rotting corpse.
Recoiling from this ultimate reach of his retreat, he stumbles into a column of wounded soldiers making their way to the rear amid the rush of horse teams bringing reinforcements to the front. Two figures, a spectral soldier and a tattered soldier, galvanize his attention, and, in a true shock of recognition, he realizes the spectral soldier to be Jim Conklin. Stricken with anguish, he listens to Jim's supplications for protection and then watches him spectacularly die. When the wounded tattered soldier, who has reappeared to watch Conklin die, renews his questions about where Henry is wounded (questions which had made Henry try to escape him), Henry feels his questions like knife thrusts. Fearing that he is about to witness another death and distraught at the tattered soldier's delirium, he tears himself away from such a gruesome possibility.
He then finds himself rounding a little hillock, from which he can see retreating soldiers coming from the front in disarray and being met by another column advancing toward the front. That scene, an objective correlative of his conflicted state of mind, mirrors his wish that the army will be defeated so as to hide his cowardice as well as his shame at his own flight. When the advancing column suddenly bursts upon him in full retreat, he accosts a fleeing soldier with the all but inarticulate question of "Why—why—" only to be smashed in the head with the impetuous soldier's gun. Stunned and bloodied, he struggles through the littered battlefield in confusion until a cheery soldier, whose face he never sees, miraculously leads him back to his regiment.
Reunited with his company, he is treated with great solicitation by Wilson, who, after a time, sheepishly asks for his bundle of letters. If Wilson's kindness lacerates the inner sore beneath Henry's wound, his shamed request for the letters gives Henry a privileged stance of superiority. The battle continuing on the following day, he and Wilson—both goaded to rage at an officer's referring to the company as mule drivers—perform with distinction not only in a first but also in a second engagement. So the battle ends on a successful note for Henry Fleming, and he once again indulgently luxuriates in his achievements.
This brief summary of the action provides what we might call a dead line along which to chart the sequence of Henry's emotions. Out of the most basic adolescent fantasies that bring him to the ground of battle, there are first the private doubts that isolate him, then the helpless rage of battle, then the pride of having survived without fleeing, then abject fear and flight, then a shame that produces defensive rationalizing, then the recoil from the ultimate horror of death (the images of the rotting dead soldier and the dying Jim Conklin), then more rationalization combining fear, shame, doubt; then the blow, the wound—both false and true—reducing him to a hopeless, helpless, and lost wanderer whose one instinct is to keep on his feet; then the reunion with his company, bringing with it a mixture of relief and guilt; then Wilson's shamefaced request for a return of the letters, producing a triumphant superiority and aggression; then the rage of battle once more and a fuller sense of triumph when his actions receive praise, and finally a self-satisfied pride in accomplishment resting yet uneasily on the lie of his wound, his red badge of courage.
This abrupt sequence of emotions forms the ground of Henry's action, determining his behavior more than the orders of his officers. Crane's achievement is to displace the technology of war, its accelerating machinery, with an acceleration of emotions running between the poles of fear and rage. Fear is flight from death, rage the assault upon it. Death is, of course, the enemy, at once the feared and fated end of the natural process of living, and, in battle, the hated and feared living enemy determined to kill. It is no accident that the word courage—designating the chief virtue of the soldier—contains within it the word rage, the aggression of the heart and mind. Both fear and rage are all but blind, instinctual, and both generate the lines of energy that society—in this instance civilian society at war with itself—transforms into shame and honor, cowardice and courage, with all the feelings that attend them. Henry Fleming's inner civil war is his violent experience of these emotions at war within himself. Crowded together in the closest proximity, they are always at the point of conflict and collision.
But there is the outer war, whose external reality we never doubt. If it is an expression of Henry's inner conflicts, he is equally an expression of its intensity. It is, as I have noted, the objective correlative of his inner turbulence, but the point is that it is objective. Its essential nature is violent civil disorder—a melee of discordant sounds, as if civil society and speech were themselves dissolving into roars and curses even as the machinery of war assumes the role of civil discussion. Thus artillery opens with a "furious debate," musketry "sputters," cannons "enter the dispute," guns "argue with abrupt violence," shells hurtle overhead in "long wild screams," cannon are engaged in a "stupendous wrangle," artillery "assembles as if for a conference." At the same time the speech of soldiers increasingly descends into incoherence, emanating in curses, oaths, screams, bellowing, yells, roars. Chapter XI concludes with this description of Henry Fleming: "He was a slang phrase" (58). Battle utterances are characterized by incomplete utterances. A good example—one among many—occurs late in the book when the lieutenant rallies his men:
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 on! 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.
That blue haze of curses brings us to the matter of color. Just as Crane's sounds of war veer always between curses and roars, his colors are boldly primary. The brown and green of the opening paragraph set the tone. There we see the process of nature revealed not in gradual but bold change. And we see that process again startlingly shown in the description of the dead soldier in the green forest chapel:
He was being looked at by a dead man who was seated with his back against a columnlike tree. The corpse was dressed in a uniform that once had been blue, but was now faded to a melancholy shade of green. The eyes, staring at the youth, had changed to the dull hue to be seen on the side of a dead fish. The mouth was open. Its red had changed to an appalling yellow. Over the gray skin of the face ran little ants. One was trundling some sort of bundle along the upper lip.
The strength of the passage gives the corpse a life of its own, which indeed it has, since it is still in the process of nature's change; the youth is the one who is arrested in the face of those startling eyes.
But the more memorable presence of color comes about when Crane seems to have almost violently asserted it by abruptly and visibly thrusting it on objects. A sort of index to the process is disclosed in the final battle sequence when Henry, resting on the laurels he feels he has won, recalls "bits of color that in the flurry had stamped themselves unawares upon his engaged senses" (95). This stamping of color is evident in the very title of the book. Even more telling are the "crimson splotches" that, in Henry's mind, constitute the wars on the pages of history. Then there is the red god of battle. Rage, like new blood, is red, though like old blood it can also be black. Flames of musketry are seen as yellow tongues. This flash and splash of color is seen in the red badge itself that Henry wishes for when he enters the column of wounded men; and later, angry at being called a mule driver, he pictures "red letters of revenge" to be written to the insulting officer. Though a search for color will actually disclose that sound is actually much more present in the prose, the instances of color have a vivid force. The title of the book has its own finality, reminding us almost helplessly of those other American titles, The Scarlet Letter and "The Masque of the Red Death," and reminding us too that Hawthorne and Poe are deeply inscribed in this book. Given other Crane titles—"The Blue Hotel," "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," Black Riders and The Third Violet —possibilities of color begin to haunt the mind. It is possible, of course, to pursue these colors into patterns of meaning and symbolism, yet such pursuits inevitably evade the much more important fact that the violent presence of color abruptly converts meaning into vivid images that annihilate prior symbolic reference. Henry Fleming is both enacting and fulfilling this instantaneous process of conversion when, in his triumphant red rage of charging the enemy lines, he becomes the color bearer of his company.
Finally there is the primary quality of form itself. The images in The Red Badge violently assert deformity. Corpses are twisted, bodies writhe, faces are contorted, dead soldiers lie upon the field as if they had been dumped from the sky, a dying soldier is seen "thrashing about in the grass, twisting his shuddering body into many strange postures," soldiers in battle are stretched on the ground or on their knees "as if they had been stricken by bolts from the sky." All the qualities of sound, color, and deformity are concentrated, at almost the exact center of the book, in the description of Jim Conklin's death:
His spare figure was erect; his bloody hands were quietly at his side. He was waiting with patience for something he had come to meet. He was at the rendezvous. They [Henry and the tattered soldier] paused and stood, expectant.
There was a silence.
Finally, the chest of the doomed soldier began to heave with a strained motion. It increased in violence until it was as if an animal was within and kicking and tumbling furiously to be free.
This spectacle of gradual strangulation made the youth writhe, and once as his friend rolled his eyes, he saw something in them that made him sink wailing to the ground. He raised his voice in a last supreme call.
The tall soldier opened his lips and spoke. He made a gesture. "Leave me be—don't tech me—leave me be—"
There was another silence while he waited.
Suddenly, his form stiffened and straightened. Then it was shaken by a prolonged ague. He stared into space. To the two watchers there was a curious and profound dignity in the firm lines of his awful face.
He was invaded by a creeping strangeness that slowly enveloped him. For a moment the tremor of his legs caused him to dance a sort of hideous hornpipe. His arms beat wildly about his head in expression of implike enthusiasm.
His tall figure stretched itself to its full height. There was a slight rending sound. Then it began to swing forward, slow and straight, in the manner of a falling tree. A swift muscular contortion made the left shoulder strike the ground first.
The body seemed to bounce a little way from the earth. "God!" said the tattered soldier.
The youth had watched, spellbound, this ceremony at the place of meeting. His face had been twisted into an expression of every agony he had imagined for his friend.
He now sprang to his feet, and, going closer, gazed upon the pastelike face. The mouth was open and the teeth showed in a laugh.
As the flap of the blue jacket fell away from the body, he could see that the side looked as if it had been chewed by wolves.
The youth turned, with sudden, livid rage, toward the battlefield. He shook his fist. He seemed about to deliver a philippic.
The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.
There it all is. The violent heaving, the strained motion, the animal action, Henry's sinking wail and unfinished supreme call, the muscular contortion, the pastelike face fixed in a frozen laugh, the wolf-like wound, the truncated philippic, and the final sentence sealing the passage in the color of the red sun.
It is hardly surprising that this striking final sentence of the chapter has arrested critics in search of meaning. Robert Wooster Stallman took the wafer to refer to communion and Jim Conklin—with his initials, his wound in the side, and the tattered soldier's accompanying passionate cry, "God"—to be the Christ. Stallman has been sufficiently flogged for his interpretation, so I shall not join the host of his detractors other than to note that he, like those seeking for literary precursors, actual battle sites, and color symbolism as literary, historical and symbolic subtexts of the narrative, was yearning for a religious subtext. The point is that all these subtexts have been blown away by the violence of battle. Henry's philippic breaks off with but one word—hell. Hell in this text has utterly lost its theological sense; it, like all the other curses, is but the expression of present rage springing from the annihilation of traditional religious meaning. The wafer of the final sentence is, as others have seen, like the molten wafer of wax used to seal a letter. Whether it comes from Kipling's The Light that Failed, which Crane had surely read, is beside the point. Just as a wax wafer is pasted on a letter to seal it, so is the sun, as if it had been passed over Conklin's pastelike dead face, pasted in the sky.
The force that pastes the sun in the sky is of course the sentence itself. The entire passage shows just how, even as Henry's voice is unable to complete sentences, the narrative does nothing but complete them. Sentences in this book are the units of force effacing and displacing the author behind them with their own authority. They both report and execute the action. They literally sentence Henry Fleming to the war he has dreamed of all his life. They boldly and visibly stand forth, in the manner that Emerson spoke of his own sentences, as infinitely repellent particles. They all but annihilate paragraphs in their determination to stand alone. Of course they are in sequence, but they expose the discontinuity as much as the continuity of sequence. Their conclusiveness has sufficient finality to transform the silence between them into an abrupt gap of stillness as astonishing as the grotesque images they assert. That astonishment is really the ultimate emotion of battle—more violent than mere surprise. It is an emotion that excessively fulfills the anxiety and curiosity of suspense, those emotions on which novelistic narration so much depends.
That is why these sentences not only threaten to annihilate paragraphs; they threaten the plot and suspense of traditional novelistic narrative. They are as determined to conclude action as they are to continue it. All but equal to each other in their declarative brevity, they have a genuinely democratic order, transforming turning points and climaxes of narrative into a continuum of violent intensity and at the same time annihilating the distinctions of military hierarchy and rank. The officers speak the same informal, ordinary, and violent language as the privates; Henry and the lieutenant are utterly equal in their united bellowing appeals for the men to charge. Higher battle strategy, like the battle lines that dissolve in the violence of battle, disintegrates into the soldiers' arguments about strategy.
Still, this book is a narrative, and the conventions of narrative, like all the traditional meaning and symbols of history and religion are, like the enemy, threatening a counterattack. That threat indicates that there is also a civil war in the very form of the book. That pressure is very much in evidence as the concluding movement of the novel. In the midst of Henry's heroic charge when men, "punched by bullets, fell in grotesque agonies," and the regiment "left a coherent trail of bodies," we are given this passage:
It seemed to the youth that he saw everything. Each blade of grass was bold and clear. He thought that he was even aware of every change in the thin, transparent vapor that floated idly in sheets. The brown or gray trunks of the trees showed each roughness of their surfaces. And the men of the regiment, with their staring eyes and sweating faces, running madly, or falling, as if thrown headlong, to queer, heaped-up corpses—all were comprehended. His mind took mechanical but firm impression, so that afterward everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there.
But there was a frenzy made from this furious rush. The men, pitching forward insanely, had burst into cheerings, moblike and barbaric, but tuned in strange keys that can arouse the dullard and stoic. It made a mad enthusiasm that, it seemed, would be incapable of checking itself before granite and brass. There was the delirium that encounters despair and death, and is heedless and blind to the odds. It is a temporary but sublime absence of selfishness. And because it was of this order was the reason, perhaps, why the youth wondered, afterward, what reasons he could have had for being there.
The delirium that encounters despair and death is, then, the sublime absence of selfishness. Here the novel hovers at the threshold of ennobling Henry's "heroism" and we might well be lulled into seeing the narrative, which is so much in the convention of the bildungsroman, as a register of Henry Fleming's moral growth toward maturity. The book's conclusion, with the regiment retiring from the battlefield and Henry once more luxuriating in a feeling of accomplishment, can be seen to reinforce such a vision of growth. Nearing its end, the narrative boldly asserts, "He was a man."
Yet to conclude moral growth and maturity from this sentence is to displace the iron irony of the narrative with blatant sentimentality. Although Crane cut some passages from the concluding chapter which expose the same complacent self satisfaction, there is sufficient irony remaining to indicate that his asserted manhood is no more secured than it was after his first battle when the narrative asserted the same thing. He is really no better or worse than he was then nor is there evidence he is better or worse than all the men who were killed or who survived. He could just as well have been killed, but that end would truly have made the book sentimental. Crane did better to keep him alive, letting all that selfishness, which had been for a moment sublimely absent, return in the form of pride.
This does not mean that there was nothing to Henry's bravery. He did fight as blindly as he ran, and presumably he killed some of the enemy when he kept blindly firing after his company had retreated, though we are spared actually seeing him in the act of killing. His distinction in battle comes from the excessive rage that is within him if it comes from anything. He had of course dreamed of battles all his life, and he just as arbitrarily of course fought out of the rage and dream that was in him. If war is an expression of death and grotesque disorder, it is nonetheless the sentence of existence, as near as the rage and dream that are always in us. The sentence of war was always in Crane, evident in the violence of Maggie with its opening on a street fight and in George's Mother opening with a woman battling with pots and pans in a kitchen. In The Red Badge he made it fully and exclusively present, so present that he could do little afterward except pursue it over the world as a reporter.
Grotesque and terrible as war may be, Crane does not write against war; he writes through it. His sentences, flattening perspective in their bold and visible presence, have the strength of line and form that we see in a Cezanne painting. They possess the "curious and profound dignity in the firm lines of [Jim Conklin's] awful face." If George Wyndham, who reviewed the book when it appeared in England and who himself had been a soldier, felt that it perfectly expressed his past experience of battle action, Ford Madox Ford, who fought in World War I, felt that it perfectly foretold the experience of that war too. It retains to this day a remarkable modernity.
Joseph Conrad was good, in his memoir of Crane, to leave us his remembered image of Crane sitting at a table with a half-empty glass of beer gone flat, writing by hand in a steady deliberation. No one who reads The Red Badge can doubt that that hand—the inertial hand that writes writing about the hand that fights—was possessed of true courage.
Alfred Habegger (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Habegger, Alfred. "Fighting Words: The Talk of Men at War in The Red Badge of Courage." In Fictions of Masculinity: Crossing Cultures, Crossing Sexualities, edited by Peter F. Murphy, pp. 185-203. New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Habegger asserts that Henry's progression as a soldier in The Red Badge of Courage comes at a cost to his individuality and debates whether or not this evolution can be regarded as an "improvement."]
Much of Stephen Crane's work, especially his perplexing novel The Red Badge of Courage, constitutes an intense inquiry, simultaneously sardonic and passionately involved, into what it means to negotiate the transition from youth to manhood. From the moment Crane introduces his main character, Henry Fleming, as "a youthful private," our attention is directed to his innocence, the private fears of battle that he dare not utter, and his anxiety at not measuring up to the standards of courage and performance he is afraid his fellow soldiers take for granted. Clearly introduced as someone about to be tested in combat, the youth passes through a cascading sequence of extreme experiences and states of mind, ranging from elation at repulsing the enemy's charge to panic-stricken flight and a strenuous effort to avoid seeing himself as a coward. Rather than encouraging us to share the youth's point of view, Crane's narrator sneeringly calls attention to the callowness of his daydreams and self-exculpating rationalizations, particularly when he is wandering in isolation. Once he is back with his regiment, the youth's initiatory experience culminates in "the enthusiasm of unselfishness" as he participates in a frenzied charge, which the narrator calls, almost at one and the same time, mad, savage, and sublime. At the end, though the youth is troubled by his two desertions—of his regiment and of a dying soldier who had tried to assist him—he manages to feel more comfortable about himself. In addition, his "tupenny fury"1 at the heavens has not only been dispelled, but he feels convinced that, in the nature of things, he will be looked after:
With this conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, non-assertive 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 and was for others. He was a man.
Those readers who emphasize the irony with which the youth is regarded, and who tend to prefer the manuscript-based edition of the novel, read the "quiet manhood" passage as the height of sarcasm. For them, the youth's conviction that the great death "was for others" is a sign he has not succeeded in growing up.2 On the other hand, those who feel the youth has completed the passage into manhood (with whatever qualifications) are uneasy about the quoted phrase, which was in fact dropped in the first (Appleton) edition.3 "And was for others": These four words are like a rude interruption in the ennobling ceremonial language climaxing in the terse assertion, "He was a man."
The Red Badge turns out to be a test not just of Henry but of us as readers. We too are in danger, either of being lulled by the resonant organ tones of the "he was a man" paragraph or of encasing ourselves in a bristling and prophylactic irony. The problem is to reach an understanding of the changes the youth has undergone. In some ways he has improved. He is less anxious and defensive. He has attained the inner stability required of an effective soldier. He has learned how to take orders without quailing, and he no longer dreams of becoming a heroic leader. Given the great appeal of this foolish dream, the young man's achievement deserves respect. But it is an achievement that comes at a high cost—a loss of individuality and an illusory sense of being the darling of the universe. Fleming has learned how to follow, how to work with others, how to be a strong and sturdy member of his outfit, but these adjustments seem to entail the comforting illusion that there is a great friendliness out there. The passage says that to become a man is to become one with a group in a rather thoroughgoing sense: you don't speak up, you don't make a fool of yourself any longer, you do what you've got to do, and you've got the heavens on your side. It is all summed up in the honorific cliché, "quiet manhood," which I would imagine was a cliché in 1895.
But why is manhood quiet? The Red Badge is about, not grace, but silence under pressure—about the need felt by men fighting for their lives to refrain from expressing themselves and to stifle other men's more open self-expression. Crane was profoundly concerned with the competing claims of individual self-assertion and solidarity with a team. In The Red Badge he undertook an exploration of the costs and rewards of turning one's back on the team, and the costs and rewards of merging with it. One of the discoveries Fleming makes is that he is more afraid of being isolated from his group than of facing combat as a part of it. To be engaged in a joint battle for survival is to undergo an extreme test of the value of individual self-expression. You're going to have to learn to button up, to keep to yourself much of what you think, if you want to have the group's respect and get out alive. How much do you suppress? If learning how to become a nonassertive but effective member of a fighting team is what becoming a man is all about, then, judging from The Red Badge, there is good reason to feel uneasy about that hard-won quietness.
One of the reasons Crane is of interest is that the uneasiness not only pervades his writing but flagrantly calls attention to itself in his style. His bitter intensity, the conspicuously sardonic tone, and the strained diction emphatically proclaim that he is not one with Henry and the other fighting men. Yet few writers have shown such obsessive interest in the pleasures and pains of being on a fighting team (Crane himself was an expert baseball player). It is the writer's own radical instability (his Civil War) that drives readers to try to reach an integrated understanding of his only important novel. What I have in mind is a thematic interpretation of The Red Badge that neither explains away its disharmonies nor ignores the existence of different textual versions.
To see what is at issue in Crane's treatment of men's reluctance or willingness to express themselves, we must pay particular attention to those scenes in which a band of men respond to an individual's loose speech. This kind of scene, which frequently reappears in Crane's work, is a powerful and defining moment for him. I would like to look at one such scene in "The Open Boat" before considering what we can learn from the characters' speech in The Red Badge.
Survival through solidarity is perhaps the most important lesson learned by the correspondent in "The Open Boat." Well before the conclusion of the story, this character, who is clearly a version of the author (Crane had already partly exploited the adventure in a syndicated story),4 realizes that the experience of selfless mutual assistance is the best thing that has ever happened to him. But of course he does not express this to the three other men. Throughout the story he and they are all suitably laconic. There is one moment, however, where they all break into excited and un-self-conscious speech. At this moment the author's narrative method also changes.
As the castaways observe and comment on the tantalizing movements of a group on a beach, Crane shifts to a very intriguing sort of direct discourse. The speakers are not identified; the speeches seem much more unpremeditated than the rest of what gets uttered on the tiny dinghy; and the conversation, if this is the correct word, seems to represent a group thinking out loud rather than four individual speakers voicing their separate thoughts. Each line of dialogue (again, the term is not quite right) responds to the preceding lines, yet the attention of all four men is not on one another but on people who are obviously out of earshot. The prevailing decorum that rules self-expression on the boat has been set aside, with great relief, and the men happily enter into a cascade of eager collective commentary, a kind of prose choral ode that slowly shifts in tone from excited hope to sullen resentment. The latter feeling is directed at the man on shore whose attention-getting signal, the whirled jacket, remains maddeningly indecipherable, and of course ineffective. At the time banners and hand positions were widely used to convey messages over great distances or loud noises. This man is a loose speaker, as one of the shipwrecked men concludes: "No! He thinks we're fishing. Just giving us a merry hand. See? Ah, there, Willie."5
Those three last words have not drawn comment, even though their meaning seems no clearer than that of the rotated garment. Nearly everyone whom I have approached for an explanation has told me that the speaker is addressing Billie the oiler. When I proposed a query about the passage to a respected journal devoted to the elucidation of American speech, I received the same clarification from the editor:
Since Willie is an alternative diminutive for William isn't it most reasonable to assume that "Willie" is a vocative address to Billie the oiler? Also, my memory is that Crane was pretty sloppy about details; even if he wasn't thinking of the "Willie" as a variant of "Billie," he may well have been thinking of the same character. In any case, for one of the men to call Billie "Willie" would be a perfectly natural thing, it seems to me.
This, evidently the "natural" explanation, is unsatisfactory for many reasons. In my own experience of American speech, "Billie" and "Willie" are not at all interchangeable. Within the scene, not only the speakers' names but their very identities are unguessable: so why is one of them now singled out as a listener? Why would the speaker of the three mysterious words suddenly abandon ordinary functional speech, and why would he do so in addressing a working man? Surely, we may presume that Billie already has his eye on the shore. There is no need to say "Behold!" to this man.
The mysterious exclamation must mean something well beyond the signification of the individual words. If we look at an essay written fifty years later by one of the masters of American speech, "The Secret Life of James Thurber," the general meaning of the phrase becomes apparent. This sketch, a fine put-down of Salvador Dali, exposed the vain pretensions of the artist's memoir of childhood by contrasting it with Thurber's own homely upbringing in the Midwest. Dali had known girls named Galuchka and Dullita and recollected the comforts of his mother's womb. Thurber's first memory was of accompanying his "father to a polling booth in Columbus, Ohio, where he voted for William McKinley." The only romance in Thurber's childhood came from his fascination with idioms not to be taken literally—skeleton key, leaving town under a cloud, crying one's heart out, all ears. In his conclusion, after having vindicated his "secret world of idiom" in the face of Dali's affected glamour, Thurber taunted his rival with the idiom that was now (in 1943) as antiquated and homely as Thurber's boyhood in Columbus—"Ah there, Salvador!"6
Evidently, at one time "Ah there" or "Ah, there, Willie" was an immediately recognizable formula expressing derision and defiance. I am not sure whether "Willie," by itself an insulting term for a homosexual man, a "Willie-boy," was part of the phrase. Neither do I know just when it was in vogue, how it got started, or even precisely what it meant. It may have served as a challenge to fight, a taunt directed at someone not considered a proper man, a victorious crowing at a rival, or something else. Perhaps it was accompanied by a gesture or movement that could not be alluded to in print. (This might explain why a distinguished expert on American speech is not familiar with the phrase.) But it was definitely an expression of rude, personal defiance. That is why the phrase forms the culminating moment of the men's excited commentary on the mystifying signal from shore. "Ah, there, Willie" epitomizes Crane's great interest in representing hoots, jeers, catcalls, threats, surly challenges, and similar utterances. But it was not just the colloquial expression of insults that caught his ear. What primarily concerned him were the social and moral aspects of jeering speech. Rude put-downs were worth recording because they articulated one of the most important means by which groups of men define, defend, and maintain themselves.
What makes Crane complicated and interesting is that he doesn't automatically say the group is always in the wrong whenever it declares a nonmember to be an outcast or a deviant. In "The Open Boat," where the group is itself in the outcast position and we as readers are made to feel that we are in the same boat, the man on shore really does look like a fool who deserves to be insulted. (But then, thinking of the gay-bashing possibly implied by "Willie," one feels uneasy.) Another story, "The Blue Hotel," is a profound investigation of the social process by which a man is defined/defines himself as a pariah. It is characteristic of Crane that this individual, a ham- handed and suspicious Swede, belongs to an ethnic group reputed not to understand the tonal intricacies (in humor, insult, tall tales) of American language. The question of responsibility, raised by two characters at the end of the story, cannot be solved precisely because the operative dynamics are sociological. And yet the story also insists that the question of responsibility is not to be evaded, as the cowboy would like. It's the reader who is left to worry about the problem.
Leaving the reader to his or her anxiety, let us now turn to Crane's most sustained exploration of the relation between a beleaguered group and the disdained outsider, The Red Badge of Courage, whose very title, we note, designates an insignia of attested manhood.
In discussing the representation of speech in this novel,7 I will not be concerned with talk that is metaphorical rather than literal—"the courageous words of the artillery and the spiteful sentences of the musketry." Neither will I have much to say about the many passages in which Henry Fleming's unarticulated thoughts are rendered in language and imagery he himself would not have used. "Minds, he said, were not made all with one stamp and colored green" (54). "He had been out among the dragons, he said" (72). The diction, the absence of quotation marks, and the familiarity of the narrative convention these sentences follow all announce that "said" does not mean "spoke." (Tacit though the convention may be, Crane himself called attention to it in one sentence: "But [Henry] said, in substance, to himself that if the earth and the moon were about to clash, many persons would doubtless plan to get upon roofs to witness the collision," 38; italics mine.) I am confining my attention to those passages that represent spoken language, whether that language is recorded in direct discourse or summarized by Crane in indirect discourse.
Although I will also ignore the much-discussed problem of dialect, using the term to refer to the presentation of regional or uncultivated speech through nonstandard orthography, it will be necessary to comment briefly on the generalized countrified traditionalism of the soldiers' talk. Some of their statements—"Well, I swan" (104), "I'm a gone coon" (21), "Be keerful, honey, you'll be a-ketchin' flies" (41)—probably had an old-timey feel for Crane's first readers. Perhaps the same was true for "kit-an'-boodle" (8, 68), "jim-hickey" (96), "chin-music" (77), "skedaddle" (14, 16), "fresh fish" (7), "fight like hell-roosters" (75), and "smart as a steel trap" (47). Most of the mild oaths and curses probably had an old-fashioned flavor by 1895—"make way, dickens [i.e., devil] take it all" (40), "by ginger [i.e., Jesus]" (62), "Great Jerusalem" (63). That Crane was able to introduce undisguised profanity into the next-to-last charge—"Where in hell yeh goin'" and "Gawd damn their souls" (89)—suggests the various euphemistic oaths were not simply an evasive concession to standards of taste. They also contributed to the general representation of how the 1890s thought the 1860s spoke.
The character with the strongest rural twang is the tattered man, whose speech—"a reg'lar jim-dandy" (46), "there's a bat'try comin' helitywhoop" (44), "first thing that feller knowed he was dead" (47)—shows none of Henry's anxiety at being taken for a greenhorn. Even so, as the last quotation shows, humor and irony are well within the tattered man's range:
"Oh, I'm not goin' t' die yit. There too much dependin' on me fer me t' die yit. No, sir! Nary die! I can't! Ye'd oughta see th' swad a' chil'ren I've got, an' all like that."
The youth glancing at his companion could see by the shadow of a smile that he was making some kind of fun.
Here the bitter countrified drollery with which Crane's yokel speaks is beyond Henry's appreciation.
One could cite a few other expressions that may have struck readers in 1895 as colorful and old-fashioned—"a hull string of rifle-pits" (22), "sore feet an' damn' short rations" (23), "could tear th' stomach outa this war" (80, 106), "sech stomachs aint alastin' long" (7), "Gee-rod [Jesus God], how we will thump 'em" (14). Framed by the narrator's own terse, up-to-date, and highly individualized prose, these and other locutions and speeches helped give the soldiers' talk a slightly quaint, historical feel. The novel had an overwhelming historical authenticity for readers, not because it revived the history of battles and leaders and official rhetoric, but because it revived, or seemed to revive, the unofficial voices and the unexpressed experiences. The book seemed to disclose what went on behind—and in this sense resembles the new social history of our own time (which also uses smoke and mirrors at times). It was the illusion of factual excavation and reconstitution that Crane was appar- ently after. The glaring disparities between his language as narrator and the way his characters speak helped turn the trick.
To single out the more colorful speeches for attention, however, is to convey a misleading impression of Crane's soldiers' talk, which is flat and inexpressive and on the whole rather dull. "Billie—keep off m' feet. Yeh run—like a cow" (16). We're allus bein' chased around like rats. It makes me sick" (77). "Mebbe yeh think yeh fit th' hull battle yestirday, Flemin'." "Why, no, … I don't think I fit th' hull battle yestirday" (76). A general, elated that the center of his line has held, repetitiously gloats, "Yes—by Heavens—they have! … Yes, by Heavens, they've held 'im! They've held 'im" (34). A sort of shapeless ordinariness characterizes the language of all the speakers, ranging from the garrulous cheery-voiced man who guides Henry to his regiment to tongue-tied Henry himself.
In fact, rather than trying to make his characters sound interesting, Crane deliberately spotlights their inexpressiveness. Again and again he shows how poorly their words match their thoughts and feelings. After Henry's regiment has repulsed the first charge, he preens himself on having lived up to his ideals; all he says, however, is "Gee, aint it hot, hay?" (30). When he seems "about to deliver a philippic" (one of the narrator's many references to classical oratory), he can only say, "Hell—" (45-46). His intense effort to deliver a "rallying speech" only produces "Why—why—what—what's th' matter?" (57).8
It is striking how often what we hear the characters saying doesn't match in interest what we are told about their speeches. When a young girl prevents a fat soldier from stealing her horse, we hear the men saying "Gin' him thunder" and "Hit him with a stick," but the "crows and cat-calls" (12-13) that assail him when he runs off are not reported. When "a black procession of curious oaths" comes from Jim Conklin's lips, we hear nothing but another man's not very interesting questions: "Well, why don't they support us? Why don't they send supports? Do they think—" (27). In Chapter 1, it is reported that Jim Conklin and Wilson "had a rapid altercation, in which they fastened upon each other various strange epithets"; the only speeches that get reported, however, are on the order of "Oh, you think you know—" and "Huh" (9). Similarly, there is often a disparity between the claimed and the apparent tone in which speeches are delivered. When we are informed that Henry "yells in a savage voice," the spoken words hardly live up to this advance billing: "Well, yeh needn't git mad about it" (15). The cumulative impression is that, although there may be interesting language somewhere, practically everything we overhear is marked by an all-pervading dullness.
This flagrant inarticulateness, so pervasive and obvious in the novel, of course contributes to its realism of speech, but, more important, it contributes to an ambitious inquiry into the social and moral constraints on self-expression. From the second paragraph on, Crane makes it clear that unrestrained speech carries real risks. In fact, it is an incautious speech that gets the story moving: A soldier identified at first only as tall returns to camp "swelled with a tale" to the effect that the army is about to move. He is immediately contradicted by a sulking soldier who is tagged with the epithet "loud." Before long the two characters are given names, Jim Conklin and Wilson, and as the narrative develops, each one's changing habits of speech reflect what he has learned in battle. For now, though, they are only two different kinds of loose speakers, an expansive tall-talker and a hectoring loud-mouth.
At this early stage Conklin is another version of the jacket-whirling man on shore in "The Open Boat," whose signalling turns out to be without significance. Jim carries a garment that he waves "banner-like," and he adopts "the important air of a herald." When he speaks, it is "pompously" and "with a mighty emphasis" (1, 9). He seems to be the sort who is never at a loss for answers, as when he produces "a heavy explanation" (19) of troop movements: "I s'pose we must go reconnoiterin' 'round th' kentry jest t' keep 'em from gittin' too clost, or t'develope'm, or something" (20). The sentence makes it clear that this great windbag doesn't know the meaning of reconnoiter or the technical military sense of develop.
Later, after Conklin has sustained a mortal wound in the abdomen, he no longer talks like a blowhard. When he says to Henry, "I thought mebbe yeh got keeled over. There's been thunder t' pay t'day. I was worryin' about it a good deal" (42-43), his words ring pathetically true. His newfound gift for honest speech seems connected, paradoxically, to his effort to conceal his mortal wound. There is a grim humor, in fact, in the revelation that his abdomen has the appearance of being "chewed by wolves" (45). Crane, always aware of parallels with ancient Greece, wants us to recall the Spartan boy who was chewed to death by a fox hidden under his cloak. Conklin now knows how to govern his tongue, having learned Laconic speech the hard way. Wilson also develops for the better as a result of his combat experience. Although he begins by ordering Conklin to shut up, he soon learns to express himself more gently. What changes him is the knowledge that others, Henry in particular, have witnessed his fear and cowardice. Wilson's secret is out, and with it his loud defensiveness. His comrades are still liable to be "stung" by "language," but Wilson can no longer be "pricked" by the "little words" that "other men aimed at him" like bullets (68). This invulnerability is what chiefly distinguishes him from Henry, who remains fearful that his shameful acts will come to light. Henry's "tender flesh" is repeatedly "stung" (93) by taunts, and when he and Wilson hear themselves dismissed as "mule-driver" and "mud-digger" by an officer, it is Henry alone who sustains a wound: "arrows of scorn … had buried themselves in his heart" (100). Ironically, Wilson has acquired his armored immunity by rashly disclosing his fear of combat. Henry, by contrast, feels compelled by the accidents of war and his own moral weakness to conceal his desertion of the regiment and of the tattered soldier.
Thus, as far as the capacity to speak moral and emotional truth is concerned, Henry develops in an opposite way from Conklin and Wilson. At first the loud talk of these two men masks their real fears. Then they learn to express themselves: "I was worryin' about it a good deal." Henry, on the other hand, remains alternately tongue-tied and dishonest. At the beginning he does not dare give voice to his "outcry" (19) that the stupid generals are marching the men into ambush. Near the end, recalling his shameful treatment of the tattered man, he can only utter "a cry of sharp irritation and agony" followed by a covering "outburst of crimson oaths" (107). In the few instances when his tongue seems unloosed his speech is notably hollow, as when he finally expresses the thoughts that have been on his mind from the beginning and delivers "a long and intricate denunciation of the commander" (75). Such talk is foolish as well as dangerous, and he lapses back into his uneasy state of silence after being "pierced" by the "words" of a "sarcastic" voice (76). What we follow in The Red Badge is an account of incomplete development, an explanation, partly moral and partly circumstantial, of how a youth loses the capacity to express himself in speech. He grows up to be the kind of man who is chronically unable to speak his mind.
To say that Henry's development is incomplete is not, however, to say that he remains unchanged, as he does succeed in losing the callow daydreams, fantasies, and aspirations that are a product of his untested egotism. In some of the longer passages that were dropped from the manuscript, Henry's lofty philosophizing allows him to feel great disdain for those who do not see how nature tricks men into the risky pursuit of glory. Wandering alone away from his outfit, unable to endure the prospect of being turned into a "slang-phrase" at whom others "crowed and cackled," he sees himself alone on "the bitter pinnacle of his wisdom." He feels called to become the "prophet of a world-reconstruction." "Far down in the untouched depths of his being, among the hidden currents of his soul, he saw born a voice." This voice, grandiloquent and self-honoring, never finds an occasion to express itself in speech, for once Fleming is safely back with his regiment he begins to distance himself from his "foolish compositions." (The manuscript presents Henry as a bad writer—and thus an alternative version of the author—much more so than does the Appleton edition.) In the end he feels contempt for these "earlier gospels" and is glad to know he does not have to be a prophet: "he would no more stand upon places high and false, and denounce the distant planets." As one who has not only survived but who has shown himself capable of heroic deeds in battle, he feels "a large sympathy for the machinery of the universe." The universe is on his side after all, and it is this comforting conviction that introduces the quiet manhood paragraph.9 He is somehow at one with the powers that be: this is the illusion on which his manhood is founded. He has grown up to the extent that he has renounced the megalomania of lonely and unhappy adolescence. But he is very far from the correspondent's wisdom at the end of "The Open Boat."
Because Wilson develops in such a different way from Henry, it is a serious mistake to take Henry's maturation as universal and inevitable. Some readers have made The Red Badge out to be a systemic account of war or struggle or language. In fact, it is close to being a traditional narrative of an individual's moral and social bildung.10 One of its traditional elements is its use of significant contrasts that establish a context for judging the central character. The chapter in which Henry returns Wilson's packet of letters makes the key differences clear. This packet, like Wilson's original "melancholy oration" (one of the novel's countless references to forms of studied speech), constitutes a "small weapon" in Henry's hands. To use this weapon would be "to knock his friend on the head" (70-71). Henry imagines he is acting with magnanimous forbearance by saying nothing about the letters, but in actual fact he is hu- miliating his friend by extorting an embarrassing speech from him. In effect he has wounded Wilson on the head, so that "dark, prickling blood had flushed into his cheeks and brow." Wilson now has his own red badge, except that his shame is public in a way that Henry's will never be. Simultaneously, Henry quietly enjoys a daydream about "the stories of war" (73) he will tell his mother and the schoolgirl back home. The contrast is richly significant: while Wilson makes himself engage in a painful act of communication, Henry indulges a solitary fantasy about the self-flattering speeches he will make elsewhere. The scene brilliantly exposes the evasions of "quiet manhood."
It is surprising how many soldiers are wounded in the head in Crane's novel, and how often their head injuries are linked to the capacity for speech. When the babbling man is grazed on the head by a bullet, he responds by saying, "Oh" (28). Another man has his jaw supports shot away, "disclosing in the wide cavern of his mouth, a pulsing mass of blood and teeth. And, with it all, he made attempts to cry out. In his endeavor there was a dreadful earnestness as if he conceived that one great shriek would make him well" (100). The tattered man apparently gets his mortal wound after a friend, Tom Jamison, blurts out that his head is bleeding. Another man in the tattered man's regiment dies after being shot "plum in the head":
Everybody yelled out t' 'im: ‘Hurt, John? Are yeh hurt much?’ ‘No,’ ses he. He looked kinder surprised an' he went on tellin' 'em how he felt. He sed he didn't feel nothin'. But, by dad, th' first thing that feller knowed he was dead…. So, yeh wanta watch out. Yeh might have some queer kind 'a hurt yerself.
(47; italics mine)
Finally there is the cheery-voiced man's comrade, Jack, who answers a stranger's question at the wrong time:
"Say, where's th' road t' th' river?" An' Jack, he never paid no attention an' th' feller kept on a-peckin' at his elbow an' sayin': "Say, where's th' road t' th' river?" Jack was a-lookin' ahead all th' time tryin' t' see th' Johnnies comin' through th' woods an' he never paid no attention t' this big fat feller fer a long time but at last he turned 'round an' he ses: "Ah, go t' hell an' find th' road t' th' river." An' jest then a shot slapped him bang on th' side th' head.
In all these accounts there is an association between a terrible head wound and the articulation of thought through speech. Whether to speak up and what to say are extremely delicate questions in combat. How you resolve them may well determine whether you emerge dead or alive.
Henry himself is struck and injured on the crown of his head while confusedly attempting to declare himself, though whether he is trying "to make a rallying speech, to sing a battle-hymn," or simply to ask a question is not clear: "‘Why—Why—’ stammered the youth struggling with his balking tongue." What counts is that he gets his wound while struggling unsuccessfully to express his thoughts, and, strangely, from then on his red badge marks a permanent incapacity to speak the truth about his experience in war. The tattered man has it right: Henry has sustained "some queer kind 'a hurt" in his ability to communicate through speech. The Red Badge is the circumstantial account of an odd injury to the central character's capacity to utter moral truth about himself.
Because we cannot know exactly what goes on in the minds of the other soldiers, it is difficult to say whether they share Henry's systematic untruth. (The question is similar to the one that bothers Henry in Chapter 1.) But there are certain features of the narrative that invite us to see him as representative of a large class of men, though not of all men. He is identified as "the youth," first of all, and the deceptive silence that characterizes him at the end seems to be the new order of the day. Significantly, the final instances of direct discourse in the novel are all rude putdowns intended to reduce others to silence:
"Oh, shet yer mouth."
"You make me sick."
"G'home, yeh fool."
The Appleton edition kept only the first of these, the command to shut one's mouth. This and the two following commands, and also the immediately preceding speeches, all by unnamed members of the regiment, are placed within the frame of Henry's agonized reflections on his abandonment of the tattered man. Evidently, the other men also feel it is best not to engage in public postmortems. Indirectly, they are telling Henry to keep his shame to himself. Confession would be sickening. The way to be a man among men is to refrain from telling what you have done or how you feel about it.
Wilson is the significant exception. The concluding exchanges between him and Henry imply that Wilson has become an outsider by virtue of his newly devel- oped ability to talk. Like Crane's own father (whose profession was defined by formalized talk, that is, the sermon), Wilson is now "a dog-hanged parson" (77). One particular exchange establishes the final positions of the two young men relative to speech. "Well, Henry, I guess this is goodbye-John," says Wilson, and Henry answers, "Oh, shet up, yeh damn' fool" (91). Wilson's speech is not notably mawkish or embarrassing. Indeed, his use of a humorous colloquialism serves to keep his sentiment at a safe enough distance. Even so, Henry orders him to cease speaking, in this way expressing his solidarity with the final sentiment of the other men: whatever it is you have to say, keep it to yourself.
One of the most horrifying moments in the novel occurs when Jimmie Rogers, mortally wounded, is noticed by his fellows:
When their eyes first encountered him there was a sudden halt as if they feared to go near. He was thrashing about in the grass, twisting his shuddering body into many strange postures. He was screaming loudly. This instant's hesitation seemed to fill him with a tremendous, fantastic contempt and he damned them in shrieked sentences.
A very minor character, Jimmie is forgotten as the battle continues. In the final chapter, however, in a passage excised from the Appleton edition, Wilson remembers him:
[H]e suddenly gestured and said: "Good Lord!"
"What?" asked the youth.
"Good Lord!" repeated his friend. "Yeh know Jimmie Rogers? Well, he—gosh, when he was hurt I started t' git some water fer'im an', thunder, I aint seen'im from that time 'til this. I clean forgot what I—say, has anybody seen Jimmie Rogers?"
"Seen'im? No! He's dead," they told him.
His friend swore.
Before being deleted, this passage served to interrupt a sequence in which Henry reflects on his performance and seeks to overcome his sense of private shame. Just before the passage Henry struggles "to marshall" (106) his acts and make them "march" (106) in front of him. There follows the transition to Wilson's act of recollection: "His friend, too, seemed engaged with some retrospection" (106). Then, immediately after the Jimmie Rogers passage, our attention is called to the contrast between Wilson's act of memory and the triumphal procession that Henry is privately staging for his own benefit: "But the youth, regarding his procession of memory, felt gleeful and unregretting, for, in it, his public deeds were paraded in great and shining prominence," (106) figuratively marching "in wide purple and gold" (106) and culminating in a glorious "coronation" (106). There is an obvious contrast between Wilson's public act of recollection and the private march of triumph Henry indulges in.
Curiously, the difference between Wilson's and Henry's ways of recalling scenes of battle matches the difference between the manuscript and the Appleton edition. In suppressing the imagery of the triumphant procession along with Wilson's recollection of Jimmie Rogers (and in combination with other deletions), the latter version largely prevents us from getting a purchase on Henry's self-deceptions. Indeed, Crane even added a final sentence that closely parallels the self-flattering coronation: "Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds." In replacing the private and ironic coronation with an external and quasi divine endorsement of Henry's new faith and confidence, Crane in effect rewrote the ending as Henry might have written it. The private self-solacing deception in the manuscript becomes objective reality in the version of the novel that all readers regarded as authoritative until 1982, when Binder's edition first became available.
It is not necessary to explain such major alterations in the text and meaning of the novel by blaming them on Crane's editor or publisher.11 The fact that the altered sense of the last chapter is so closely entangled with the questions at issue in the book suggests that Crane himself may well have been responsible. Belonging to a band of men was no less vital for him than was the need to go off on one's own, whether in a social or philosophical sense. The Red Badge emerged from a battle waged within himself, and the battle was still being fought as he moved from the manuscript to the version finally brought out by Appleton.
The instability in Crane is epitomized by a curious opposition between the way The Red Badge (both editions in this case) and "The Open Boat" treat the sort of scene in which a man becomes the butt of others' derisive laughter. In Henry's eyes, the worst social injury a man can sustain is to be turned into a "slangphrase" by another man uttering "a humorous remark in a low tone" (54) to a group of men. After alternating between an incommunicable anxiety about his proven treachery and a sense of satisfaction at his public image, Henry joins the group whose identifying speech-act is the silencing jeer directed at the outsider. Wilson, however, seems to be well on his way to becoming the butt of someone's "Ah, there, Willie." We have very different feelings for the man who painfully acquires a decent kind of honesty in The Red Badge and for the loose signaler of "The Open Boat." Yet, as the similarity in their names suggest, it would not be completely absurd to see them as the same man. But if they are the same man, then Crane himself must have been two very different men.
1. The quotation comes from the end of Chapter 10 of Henry Binder's edition (New York: Norton, 1982). Based on the manuscript, this edition gives considerably more attention to the pessimistic philosophy Henry Fleming indulges in while isolated from his regiment. The passages, later excised, in which he mentally labors on his new "gospels" originally constituted the conclusions of Chapters 10 and 15 (Chapter 14 in the Appleton edition), a long section in the middle of Chapter 16 (Chapter 15), and all of Chapter 12. These segments are repetitious and overwritten and are narrated with heavy sarcasm, and it is understandable that they would have been dropped. Unfortunately, they are necessary in order to make sense of certain key passages in the concluding chapter, as Hershel Parker was the first to notice. For that reason alone, my text is the one first assembled by Binder. The virtue of this text is that it gives us an idea of what the author originally had in mind in composing the novel. But there will never be an adequate final text.
Space and time forbid any consideration of the third version of the novel, the abridgement published by a newspaper syndicate, which emphasized action over reflection and concluded with the successful capture of the rebel colors.
2. See Henry Binder, "The Red Badge of Courage Nobody Knows," in Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Henry Binder (New York: Avon, 1987), 150.
3. See Donald Pizer, "‘The Red Badge of Courage Nobody Knows’: A Brief Rejoinder," Studies in the Novel 11 (Spring 1979): 77-81, and "The Red Badge of Courage: Text, Theme, and Form," South Atlantic Quarterly 84 (Summer 1985): 302-13.
4. "Stephen Crane's Own Story," in Prose and Poetry (New York: Library of America, 1984), 875-84.
5. Stephen Crane, Prose and Poetry (New York: Library of America, 1984), 897.
7. Of those who have considered the representation of speech in the novel, W. M. Frohock, "The Red Badge and the Limits of Parody," Southern Review 6 (1970): 137-48, comments on Crane's use of free indirect discourse and Fleming's "bucolic" speech. Robert L. Hough, "Crane's Henry Fleming: Speech and Vision," Forum (Houston) 3 (1962): 41-42, shows that the inconsistencies in Crane's reproduction of Fleming's colloquial speech testify to Crane's lack of interest in the accurate recording of actual talk. I wish to thank Donald Pizer for calling these articles to my attention and for providing the impetus to pay closer attention to Crane.
8. See Amy Kaplan's treatment of the inadequacy of storytelling in "The Spectacle of War in Crane's Revision of History," New Essays on the Red Badge of Courage, ed. Lee Clark Mitchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 91-94.
9. Hershel Parker first pointed out that the deletion of the two paragraphs preceding the sentence, "With this conviction came a store of assurance," removes the referent of "this conviction."
10. For a recent example, see Christine Brooke-Rose's deconstructive reading, which maintains that "The hero/the monster, running to/running from, separation/membership, and spectator/spectacle … are intertwined with each other and caught up in the opposition that subsumes them-that of courage/cowardice" ("Ill Logics of Irony," in New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Lee Clark Mitchell [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], 129). This essay relies on Paul de Man's claim that "a narrative endlessly tells the story of its own denominational aberration" (141). Brooke-Rose's dependence on a thinker known to have con- cealed his Nazi collaborationism in order to construct her argument that Fleming's cowardice and savagery are exemplary for all men ravages her claim that the distinction between cowardice and courage may be safely collapsed.
11. In any case this argument has not held up to critical scrutiny. See James Colvert, "Crane, Hitchcock, and the Binder Edition of The Red Badge of Courage," in Critical Essays on Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), 238-63.
Daniel Shanahan (essay date fall 1996)
SOURCE: Shanahan, Daniel. "The Army Motif in The Red Badge of Courage as a Response to Industrial Capitalism." Papers on Language and Literature 32, no. 4 (fall 1996): 399-409.
[In the following essay, Shanahan examines the roles of contention, competition, and capitalism in Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.]
In 1904, four years after the death of his friend Stephen Crane, Henry James returned to the United States for the first time in twenty-one years. He describes his approach to New York City this way:
… the monster grows and grows … becoming … some colossal set of clockworks, some steel-souled machine room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws. The immeasurable bridges are but as the horizontal sheaths of pistons working at high pressure, day and night …
This was the New York which, in the two short decades of James's absence, had replaced the prosaic city of James's youth; this new city of motion and machines was the New York Crane had lived in as he wrote The Red Badge of Courage. It was a city that, like the country it represented, had been "seized by change" (Martin 361).
Indeed, probably nothing could better characterize the period of James's absence than the overwhelming transformation and retransformation that America underwent from 1880 to 1900.1 And the forces behind the changes which took place in those years were largely those which underlie James's description of New York: the impetus of capitalism and industrialization, of the competitive drive to succeed and the machine which helped make success possible. As Larzer Ziff points out, the early literary response to the social upheaval created in America by capitalism and industrialization was ambiguous—and weak. The problem was not lack of talent: it was lack of vision. As Ziff suggests of the architectural establishment of the time, writers who had grown up in pre-Civil War America "yearned to impose upon the whirl of late-nineteenth-century-America the dream of stasis, an ideal and all-covering beauty … Static idealization of the human condition seemed to be the answer to the impossibly unaesthetic whirl of social conditions" (22). But what was needed was a vision which would unify the "unaesthetic whirl" without confining it, and to achieve that vision a writer would have to be willing to allow the whirl to emerge without bending it to his own purposes. Didacticism, ideal or apocalyptic, could easily betray the integrity of any attempt to distill the temper of the times into a literary work.
"Static idealization" was not, however, the only response to the turmoil and confusion. There had been one fairly recent instance in which an overriding national spirit had been forged into a purposive and intensely satisfying—at least for some—raison d'etre: the American Civil War. In the face of the rapid transformation of American social, political and even moral life, what had been to some a national tragedy of overwhelming proportions became for others a touchstone upon which they tried to base a new sense of national character, a national pride, and, above all, national direction. By the 1880s, the Civil War was close enough in time to have been the most formative national experience in the lives of men of letters, and far enough distant to have become ripe for mythologizing. As John L. Thomas says, it was common in the 1880s for
social observers, many of them New Englanders, to prescribe martial virtue as a cure for the ills of society or to recommend the lessons of the Civil War as a means of renewing national vigor … In the years after 1880 Francis A. Walker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.—all veterans of the Civil War and sons of New England acutely conscious of its heritage of nationalism—elaborated new concepts of the "useful citizen" and the "soldier's faith" derived from experiences on Civil War battlefields.
Two of the more popularly successful attempts to draw on aspects of the "martial" experience of the Civil War as a way of addressing the social convulsions of a society hurtling into capitalism and industrialization did not actually portray the War itself, but both rely on an army motif to evoke the social climates of nascent competition and mechanization in the fictional worlds they create. Edward Bellamy's utopian Looking Backward: 2000-1887 envisions a future society in which mechanization has been tamed and competition transformed into cooperation, largely through the aegis of a huge "industrial army" into which society, now harmonious and productive, has been organized. Looking Backward was the third most popular novel of its time, it produced a wave of nationalism in the country, and thus became a social event in its own right.2 But it also spawned a series of responses and rebuttals, one of the more apocalyptic of which was Ignatius Donnelly's anti-utopian Caesar's Column. In Donnelly's dystopian work, an oligarchical dictatorship which has harnessed the miracles of modern mechanization to perpetuate an Orwellian-style slave state is overthrown by an underground army of loosely organized rebels; but because the rebel chiefs cannot harness the fury of the subjugated masses that erupts once the insurrection begins, civilization as we know it is destroyed.
Despite the contrasting nature of their respective visions, both Bellamy and Donnelly seem to use the army motif because it evoked for them the importance of social organization in an age beset by the "unaesthetic whirl" of social transformation. As Thomas puts it,
The time in Bellamy's own experience when Americans had massed and marched as armies was the Civil War, and to that "grand object-lesson in solidarity," as he called it, he instinctively returned for the organizational principle of his utopia.
However, their didactic purposes—Bellamy's determination to show how American society could transform itself into a humanistic utopia, and Donnelly's equally determined attempt to prove Bellamy wrong—kept either man from using the army motif as powerfully as they might have. Neither of their novels captures the unsettling vibrancy of the 1880s and 90s, and neither is a work of lasting fictional importance.
While there is no direct evidence that Stephen Crane read either Bellamy or Donnelly, it is hard to imagine that anyone who lived and traveled, as Crane did, in the literary circles of the 1890s could have avoided reading Looking Backward. Indeed, the novel's popularity was such that almost any college student of the late eighties or early nineties is likely to have read and discussed both Bellamy and Donnelly. But whether or not Crane read either, it can hardly be mere coincidence that he, like the others, chose the army as one of the overriding images with which he develops his most important work. More importantly, because The Red Badge of Courage brings the themes of capitalistic competition and technological advancement into play without subordinating them to a didactic purpose such as Bellamy's or Donnelly's, Crane was able to use a motif similar to theirs to create one of the major literary works of his time.
Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage immediately after Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, a novel which presents a vision of contemporary society as a ruthlessly competitive domain in which all men—and women—are reduced to their predatory instincts and all of their distinguishing characteristics are effaced by the brutality to which they themselves become subject. The effects of emergent capitalism on American society are never far from view in Maggie, and given the novel's highly competitive social environment, it comes as no surprise that the theme of competition so thoroughly informs Red Badge. From the opening moments of the book, in which Crane portrays two soldiers arguing over rumors about troop movements, to the near-brawl that erupts before the first chapter closes—this time about how well the regiment will fight—contention is the dominant mode of social interaction. In the world Crane creates, the army is rife with internal contention even before it enters into the grand competition by which, Marx had argued only a few years before, industrial capitalism sustains itself.
But throughout the first half of the novel, the main character, Henry Fleming, is an exception to the rule of contention and competition as the dominant mode of behavior, and while it is common to see Henry as a character taken from romantic idealism about war to a tempered bravery, it is less common to see how Henry's reluctance to compete, and his later willingness to do so, punctuate his change in character.
Because he seems to lack the innate competitive instincts of the other men in the regiment, Henry never takes part in any of the arguing, sparring or contending that goes on between his fellows. In short, he fails to communicate with them on the terms in which they most frequently seem to communicate with one another, so he remains an outsider, and only nominally a member of the army. Only after he witnesses the death of his friend, Jim Conklin, does Henry begin to show signs of adopting the aggressiveness he will need to face the realities of war. Moments after Jim's violent death, Henry makes "a furious motion" in response to the tattered soldier's questions about Henry's non-existent wound; Henry became "as one at bay" (55) and he feels "the quiver of war desire." This is the first competitive flicker in Henry's character, and its appearance marks his readiness for the "red badge" which will initiate him into the fellowship of his social environment.
Surprisingly little has been made of the fact that Henry's "wound," the red badge of "courage" which marks the turning point in his character development, comes neither from the enemy nor even from a random unidentifiable bullet: it comes from one of his own men, a soldier fleeing wildly, as Henry did, and who perceives Henry as merely another opposing force, another competitor. In this pivotal moment, Henry is attempting to communicate; however, he cannot see that his attempt has only one meaning in the lexicon of men each battling for his own survival: he is a threat to the soldier. And as a consequence, Henry receives the one response which makes sense: the man floors him with a single, vicious blow from his rifle—used, by a man in his most primitively competitive frame of mind, as a club.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, given that from the outset of the novel contention has been the currency of social communication, it is this blow from a comrade that punctuates the end of Henry's isolation from his fellows and initiates him into their ranks. Hence-forth he is truly a member of the army, and as time goes on he reveals the effect of that initiation by becoming supremely competitive. Markedly contentious on several occasions during the night and morning after his return to the regiment, Henry enters battle with "his teeth set in a curlike snarl" (80); "he lost everything but his hate, his desire to smash into pulp the glittering smile of victory which he could feel upon the faces of his enemies." Not surprisingly, Henry shines in battle, possessed by "the spirit of a savage religion-mad," engulfed in "wild battle madness," and awaiting "the crushing blow that would prostrate the resistance."
In short, by the end of the novel Henry has reached the apotheosis of competition: he has become a true predator, and as such he demonstrates William Graham Sumner's belief "that the struggle for existence and the competition of life … draw out the highest achievements" (85). Congratulated by his fellows for his performance and complemented by his superiors, Henry ultimately finds himself a deeply different person for his experience. "He was," Crane tells us, "a man" (109) and, of course, he has also become "one of the men" in a way he could not previously. He has joined the army—that motif which seemed to carry such potency for writers trying to deal with the "unaesthetic whirl" of the late 19th century—he has found membership in society, and the catalyst of that discovery has been his acquiescence to the competitive spirit shared by his fellows.
There is another way in which The Red Badge of Courage echoes Looking Backward and Caesar's Column, but here again Crane's achievement is one of lasting importance, where those of Bellamy and Donnelly are of rather passing interest. Like the other two, Crane uses mechanical imagery to position his novel on the pivot of the change wrought by the technological transformation of America wrought by industrialization, but because he does so without any overt didactic purposes, he comes much closer to making of the "unaesthetic whirl" what Tolstoy had made of national pride in War and Peace and what Kafka would make of faceless bureaucracy in The Trial: a vibrant undercurrent which transforms social realities into a lasting vision of the human condition.
Early on, in the first battle scene, machine imagery begins to appear after Henry has fired his first wild shot: "Directly," Crane says, "he was working at his weapon like an automatic affair" (31); soon the entire regiment "wheezed and banged with a mighty power" (31). Before long both Henry and the regiment are described in assembly-line images: clanking and clanging become the dominant sounds of the battle. This imagery pervades the novel. In the battle in which Henry flees, he imagines that the enemy "must be machines of steel" (36); the men who fail to run Henry calls "methodical idiots! Machine-like fools!" (37). As he wanders aimlessly, Henry finds the battle "like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine" (43), the purpose of which is to "produce corpses," and when he joins the wounded column he reflects how the "torn bodies expressed the awful machinery in which the men had been entangled" (45). Even the death of his friend, Jim Conklin, takes on a machine-like quality: as it goes into its final death spasms, Conklin's body is like some engine wheezing and sputtering jerkily to a final halt, its broken gears causing the grotesque and halting dance of death. Indeed, in a later battle in which the regiment seems near its own death, Crane calls it "a machine run down" (91).
Machine imagery does not, however, account for the powerful evocation of turmoil Crane achieves. As R. W. Stallman long ago pointed out, "motion and change [are] … the dominant leitmotif of the book and a miniature form of its structure" (xxiv). Henry's initiation into the regiment's competitive, contentious mode of life is the consequence of having plunged himself into the motion of the battle; joining in the surging "blue demonstration," he becomes part of it and thereby achieves cog-like membership in his social environment. Similarly, when the flux of battle begins to dominate the novel, the battlefield itself takes on the appearance of a giant engine in which the armies are like pistons crashing to and fro in a wild orgy of mechanical power.
For example, late in the novel, as Henry and his comrades watch the battle from a distance, Crane describes the sound of the artillery as "the whirring and thumping of giant machinery"; then
On an incline over which a road wound he saw wild and desperate rushes of men perpetually backward and forward in riotous surges. These parts of the opposing armies pitched upon each other madly at dictated points. To and fro they swelled.
While overtly the natural image of the sea, the to and fro motion, coupled with the "whirring and thumping of machinery" and the pitching of armies upon each other at "dictated points" make this passage strongly suggestive of piston motion. Unlike Henry Adams, who finds the steam engine and its mechanics too spiritless when compared to the dynamo, Crane finds in them the essence of the world of his time, plunging his readers headlong into the piston-like fury of the mechanical age—as his friend Henry James would when he returned to America four years after Crane's death.
This riot of motion continues as Henry and his regiment enter the final engagement of the battle. Twice Crane describes them as moving "to and fro" (100, 101); they begin to fire automatically, "without waiting for word of command." And as they approach the climactic confrontation with the enemy, Henry anticipates the moment this way:
As he ran a thought of the shock of contact gleamed in his mind. He expected a great concussion when the two bodies of troops crashed together. This became a part of his wild battle madness. He could feel the onwards swing of the regiment about him and he conceived of a thunderous, crushing blow that would prostrate the resistance and spread consternation and amazement for miles. The flying regiment was going to have a catapultian effect.
Here Crane reaches his crescendo: Henry has immersed himself in the regiment, the regiment plunges itself piston-like into the fray, and as they become caught up in the furious motion of battle, both Henry and his regiment, as we have seen, take on the attributes of predatory animals as Crane brings together the two churning forces which have created his world's "unaesthetic whirl": competition and technological change.
The question of whether Crane's vision of Henry is ironic has elicited a great deal of discussion among readers of the novel.3 But perhaps a passage Crane deleted from the final paragraphs of the novel's final version holds the key to understanding both Crane's attitude towards Henry and the world he creates for him and his comrades to inhabit. In the deleted passage, Crane says of Henry:
He was emerged from his struggles, with a large sympathy for the machinery of the universe. It was a deity laying about him with the bludgeon of correction … He would no more stand upon places high and false, and denounce the distant planets. He beheld that he was tiny but not inconsequent to the sun. In the space-wide whirl of events no grain like him would be lost.
To look for Crane to approve or disapprove of Henry, or of the society of which he becomes a part, would be to attribute to Crane a didactic purpose which he did not have. His aim was to distill the essence of his time, not to show its potential, like Bellamy, or warn of its horror, like Donnelly. As an artist, Crane set out to capture the "unaesthetic whirl" in an aesthetic rendering that would preserve the dark tension of its beauty, and Red Badge is entirely consistent with that aim.
Unquestionably, Henry has changed by the novel's end; unquestionably, he has become more courageous and more selfless. He has even become more humble. But he has done so within a context that deals bludgeoning blows to its creatures. He has reacted involuntarily to those blows where one might prefer measured response; he has even learned to deal them himself, where one might hope he would refuse to do so; and he has given up the one thing which might have allowed him responsible refusal: his individuality. Yet at the same time he has matured over the course of the novel, he has become broader and more tested than he was at the novel's outset, and he no longer lives life as an alienated onlooker: he has jumped with both feet into his social context. In other words, by the end of the novel not only has Henry become, as Crane tells us, "a man" (109), he has become a man of his time.
In that sense, Crane is much closer to Kafka than to Tolstoy. Just as Kafka takes one aspect of his own experience of contemporary life and uses the underlying purposelessness he finds there to portray the larger vacuity to which we may all be susceptible, Crane takes one aspect of his contemporary experience and uses it to develop a broader picture of the human condition. Crane uses the army and the war to portray the mass mentality which has begun to replace individualism in his time, to evoke the spirit of predatory competition which has begun to dominate the American landscape, and, at the same time, it affords him the opportunity to expose the powerful engines of change and motion which underlie this new, predatory mass society. And by avoiding the didacticism of a Bellamy or Donnelly, Crane creates for his readers a novel which is both of its time and at a distance from it, a vision which confronts the "unaesthetic whirl" and makes of it a truthful symmetry.
1. The titles of some of the works which deal with the period reflect its temper very aptly: Martin's Harvest of Change; "The Shock of Change," Chapter 2 of Samuel Hays's Response to Industrialism; The Big Change, by Frederick Lewis Allen—to name but three.
2. See also Eric Fromm's introduction to the Signet edition of Looking Backward (New York, 1960).
3. Milne Holton's Cylinder of Vision still contains the best summary of the positions taken in this discussion. See 114-15.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. The Big Change. New York: Harper, 1952.
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Eds. Bradley, Beatty, Long and Pizer. New York: Norton, 1976.
Fromm, Erich. Introduction. Looking Backward. By Edward Bellamy. New York: Signet, 1960.
Hays, Samuel. Response to Industrialism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.
Holton, Milne. Cylinder of Vision. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP, 1972.
James, Henry. The American Scene. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1968.
Martin, Jay. Harvests of Change. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1967.
Stallman, R. W. Introduction. The Red Badge of Courage. By Stephen Crane. New York: Random, 1951.
Thomas, John L. Introduction. Looking Backward. By Edward Bellamy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967.
Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s. New York: Viking, 1966.
Perry Lentz (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Lentz, Perry. "‘He Was a Man’: ‘Manhood’ in The Red Badge of Courage." In Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: "The Red Badge of Courage" and the Civil War, pp. 237-67. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
[In the following essay, Lentz analyzes Crane's subtle criticisms of the often stereotypical definitions of manhood and heroism in The Red Badge of Courage.]
Our central endeavor in this book has been to study The Red Badge of Courage in terms of the historical realities upon which it is based and in which it is set, to the end of seeing it as clearly, fully, and accurately as possible. The last chapter focused upon the events on the morning of the second day of the battle, both as they actually unfolded on the western face of the Union army's deployment in the Wilderness of Virginia on May 3, 1863, and as Crane depicted Private Henry Fleming and his fellow soldiers in the 304th New York experiencing them, showing how these soldiers judged themselves, how others judged them, and how a reader enabled by the historical record could perhaps achieve a sophisticated judgment upon these judgments. The Red Badge of Courage then brings us, finally, to two paragraphs showing Private Henry Fleming coming to a profound final judgment of himself.
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.
(RBC [The Red Badge of Courage ] 231-32)
Yet again, then, and with the end of the book before us, we are confronted with a compelling self-assessment; the frequency with which such self-assessments appear constitutes one of the most significant strategies in this "Episode of the American Civil War." Crane's development of these moments is consistent. He never contradicts or confirms them with overt, direct authorial intrusions. It is up to the reader to judge whether such self-assessments are accurate. This is the consistent end of Crane's method. But what follows such moments elsewhere in the book—what Private Fleming then goes on to do or what superior officers or experienced witnesses then say—should warn a reader against the error of unreflectively accepting such self-assessments as accurate, self-evident, or justified.
Nothing of a similarly "objective" or cautionary quality follows this last self-assessment. Only three paragraphs remain in the book, and the first two of them, still set firmly within Private Fleming's thoughts, respond to this critical moment with lyrical, positive images. The book's final paragraph presents a flat but seemingly confirmatory meteorological statement. Then the novel ends. The penultimate paragraphs of any fictional narrative hold a powerful tyranny over a reader's imagination. These two paragraphs surely seem typical of such penultimate moments. They surely seem typically right: appropriate, and hence persuasive. "He was a man": we are powerfully tempted to assign this critical sentence to the "author," the "book," or the "truth." But there is no compelling rhetorical reason not to locate it also—if indeed not entirely—in Private Fleming's own conscious perception of himself, at the moment.
The crucial passage consists of four monosyllabic words and is understated in its simplicity. If we credit this thought to Private Fleming's own conscious perception, its rhetorical quality alone compellingly suggests that the matter of its essential accuracy is as closed as the book is about to be. Do we not instinctively assume that the use of understatement is, itself, a sign of maturity?
Because the category of "manhood" implies more at this moment than virtues involved in infantry combat, the gender exclusivity of the language must be acknowledged. I wonder, though, if the narrative pattern described in Chapter 6 does not predominately focus upon male characters, and if the conceptions about "reality" and "maturity" we will shortly be considering are not those especially involved in masculine self-assessment. It is beyond both the scope of this study and my own capacity to do more than suggest this, but it seems to me that the great majority of narratives centering upon the disillusionment of a hero are centered upon male heroes. Were Shakespeare's great tragedy the tragedy of Cordelia rather than of Lear, its pattern and its climax and, above all, the psychological trajectory of its central character would be entirely different. Even when a work attends particularly to the disillusionment of a female character, as in the story of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or of Jane Eyre, or of Dorothea Casaubon in Middlemarch, the lines of force do not lead to the moment of disillusionment, but from it and into the ways in which the heroine then deals with life. It is certainly the case that the single female figure of consequence in The Red Badge of Courage would find it no consolation at all, in her wise, mature, loving agony of concern for her son, to learn that Private Fleming is now considering himself to be a "man."
To return, though, to Private Fleming's situation at this moment, the stylistic simplicity in this moment of self-assessment does seem to reflect a new maturity. We surely ascribe this style—unconsciously, but correctly: "This is the way the youth himself is thinking, right now"—to the mind that is asserting herein that it is now mature. So the temptation to accept Private Fleming's self-assessment at face value is almost overwhelming. But is this the most insightful and informed response?
The 304th New York: "And They Were Men"
The crucial assertion "He was a man" in this final self-assessment exactly echoes the one, "And they were men," assumed by the 304th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment at an earlier moment of self-assessment. It was powerfully tempting, then, to assign that assertion to "the author" or to "the truth of the book," and that assertion also consisted of four monosyllabic words. These two assertions of "manhood" are so exactly analogous that the novel teases the attentive reader to recall the first when finally confronting the second, and the first assertion was produced quite some time before the book was to be either literally or figuratively closed.
Having driven off the first rebel advance against them earlier on the morning of May 3, the 304th New York Volunteers had been grimly exultant: "‘By thunder, I bet this army'll never see another new reg'ment like us!’ ‘You bet!’" (RBC 169-70). This regimental pride was swiftly undercut for privates Fleming and Wilson and for the reader when their new brigade commander assessed the 304th as "a lot 'a mule drivers" (175). But the two privates did not report this insult (178), so the regiment proceeded into their counterattack unaware of how their previous performance had been assessed professionally, and thus with their illusions intact. The regiment's blundering failure then ensued, but as they fell back from the woods, they vanquished a rebel attacking formation; and they reacted to this minor but unmistakable victory with "joy" and "a hoarse cheer of elation" (197).
The two paragraphs summarizing this portion of the 304th New York's experience that morning are strikingly similar to the two penultimate paragraphs summarizing the entirety of Private Fleming's experience throughout these two days of battle:
It had begun to seem to them that events were trying to prove that they were impotent. These little battles had evidently endeavored to demonstrate that the men could not fight well. When on the verge of submission to these opinions, the small duel had showed them that the proportions were not impossible, and by it they had revenged themselves upon their misgivings and upon the foe.
The impetus of enthusiasm was theirs again. They gazed about them with looks of uplifted pride, feeling new trust in the grim, always confident weapons in their hands. And they were men.
These paragraphs also seemed somehow right, both in the way they addressed the large issues and in the way the rhetoric resolved itself into that short conclusion, so persuasive precisely because so short. Its brevity and understatement also seemed to replicate the quality of "manhood" being ascribed—or rather, self-ascribed—to the regiment: "Yes, that is the way," something urges the reader to acknowledge, "that is just the way ‘men’ conceive of themselves, once they have genuinely achieved manhood." So "manhood" in this context implies a particular quality, one that has emerged from a particular kind of experience, and we find ourselves caught up in quick agreement.
We may or may not agree that "manhood" is indeed a genuine quality, or virtue, but if we disagree, our disagreement is—we viscerally feel, we instantly assume—not with these soldiers' assessment of themselves, but with "Crane," or "the book," or "the patriarchal culture that celebrates such barbarous, or gender-specific, or chauvinistic virtues."
What do these critical paragraphs exactly mean, then? Why have we agreed with them so readily, as summing up a profound truth as the novel understands the truth? What exactly is that truth?
The first critical point that these paragraphs claim is that the soldiers have been through a chastening ordeal, of a specific kind. This ordeal explicitly introduced them to—it was indeed even administered by—the essential hostility of the reality surrounding them: "events were trying to prove" their helplessness, "little battles had evidently endeavored" to demonstrate their weakness; they had been brought to "the verge of submission to these opinions" generated in them by the apparent malevolence of their circumambient world. This experience was emotionally painful; it created profound psychological "misgivings," of course; but it also led them (it is more than suggested) to come to know the painful truth that the universe is actively malevolent and that we will suffer in it. Assuming such a malevolent "reality" is the way we instantly make sense of the claim that, because they won a "small duel," they "had revenged themselves upon their misgivings [that is, they had proved themselves, in some critical way] and upon their foe."
After all, the passage is far too portentous to permit us to think that this "small duel" merely "showed" how the five hundred men of the 304th New York were capable of outshooting the two hundred men of the Twelfth North Carolina Infantry Regiment, say (OR 390). It never occurs to a reader to make only this of the experience. You cannot even assume that "the foe" means only the Army of Northern Virginia: to do so would also belie the rhetorical sweep of the paragraph and would be manifestly illogical, because their "small" victory over a rebel unit hardly meant they had "revenged themselves" upon R. E. Lee's entire army (which by the way was still relentlessly attacking their brigade's position).
We understand instead, and instinctively agree, that this "small" victory has much wider significance. We understand that the men demonstrated thereby their ability to face the harsh reality of their existence, to continue to function despite that harsh reality, and even to seize small victories from it. What finally is implicit immediately and persuasively, I think, for most readers is that this "small duel" was a combat against a manifestation of the malevolent structure of the world around them.
Thus, then, their "manhood": it is a "new trust" in their weapons and in their own abilities, and one that will "always" be resident in the weapons in their hands, a self-confidence upon which they know they can always rely, and a new "pride" that is thoroughly warranted, because both the self-confidence and the pride are based upon their sure knowledge that they have faced and overcome the ultimately "grim" truths of the world. "And they were men": at last capable, through the new knowledge garnered through this brutal experience, of facing and dealing with whatever else "reality" may yet have in store for them. And they are modest, to boot, because childish notions based upon delusions of human importance in a felicitous world are firmly and forever shorn from them.
Why does it seem so unnecessary, even so tedious, to offer this exegesis? Even the explanation of what it means to capture an enemy regiment's flag (see Chapter 8) probably seemed less unnecessary and redundant. Why, again, do these paragraphs seem so inherently and immediately right? Why have they brought us to agree so readily with this last assertion, believing without even a moment's reflection that it sums up a profound "truth as the novel understands the truth"?
Do these paragraphs seem so right because of literary tradition? Granted, the exegesis above is in one way a reprise of that most pervasive of all literary patterns (see Chapter 6), wherein a hero such as Achilles or Lear, or a group of people such as Christ's disciples or the "Seven Samurai," possessed by some sort of illusion, undergoes or undergo a shattering disillusionment, and thence, after suffering, achieves or achieve a final triumph that, because of the new wisdom generated thereby, is altogether different from that which was first sought. But while the issue of "manhood," of masculine maturity or of human maturity irrespective of gender, may indeed be a part of this final triumph, it is not necessarily central to the pervasive pattern: "manhood" or "maturity" seems not necessarily or even particularly relevant to the ultimate personal triumphs achieved by Sophocles' Oedipus, or Shakespeare's King Lear, or Duke Prospero in The Tempest, or Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in the novel of that name, or Ahab in Melville's Moby-Dick, or Hemingway's Tenente Frederic Henry, or the Japanese warriors in "The Seven Samurai," or for that matter even Achilles himself—all of whom entered their shaping experiences with considerable and in some cases even wizened familiarity with the realities of their worlds. The Chorus at the end of "Oedipus the King" would not say "And he was a man," would it?
Do these paragraphs seem so right because of the more recent, post-World War I tradition about literature and war? At first glance, this exegesis may seem something of a reprise of that pattern of literature about war wherein individuals are transformed completely and forever by contact with the random, meaningless obscenity of modern combat (see Chapter 5). But the transformation undergone by the soldiers of the 304th New York is clearly a positive one, no matter how brutal the experience that engendered it or how "grim" the new attitudes characteristic of it. The rudimentary plot device shared by most all of such works is simply not present. There is no single devastating wound shared by the entire regiment, nor are there any wounds administered by soldiers on the same side. Had that red-bearded officer followed through with his cries and managed to have a volley pumped into his own retreating soldiers; failing that, had some of them followed through with their "dangerous" glares and murdered him during their panic-stricken moments in the woods; then we would have had a pivotal moment to place alongside the pivotal moments in A Farewell to Arms or Paths of Glory, or "Paths of Glory," or "Attack."1 But no such thing actually occurred.
So we have to look elsewhere, away from these two possibilities, to answer our question. It is worth rephrasing the question here. Why does it make such instant sense, why does the meaning of it seem beyond doubt when, at the end of their abortive counterattack, it is written "And they were men"?
When the claim about the regiment's "manhood" was made, the novel was not yet nearing its end. So let us put it back in the context of the moment of its utterance, and remark what then followed (see Chapter 8). Whatever the phrase meant to the soldiers of the 304th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and whatever a reader may assume it means more generally, it meant nothing at all to the "gaunt and bronzed" soldiers of the "veteran" regiments who witnessed the New Yorkers' performance and who mocked them in terms insisting upon their callow- ness: "Was it warm out there, sonny?" (RBC 200). The claim meant nothing to their new color-bearer, perhaps the best individual private soldier in their ranks, who, given the chance to reflect, looked at his fellows with veiled "disdain." And the claim obviously would mean less than nothing, would be utterly ridiculous, to the commander of their brigade (no "Grandpa" Henderson he) who upbraided them publicly in terms that remind a reader—as "mule drivers" now became "mud diggers" in his stuttering rage—of his previous estimation of them. Nor did Colonel MacChesnay think to advance this claim on their behalf—"Well at least, Sir, they are now men."
Crucial to this claim "And they were men"—again, it seems rather silly to spell this out—is the understanding that they were now at last capable of effectively dealing with "reality" no matter how it would challenge them. The claim implies that they now know the true nature of "reality," and the truth of their own abilities. But, thinking again about the analysis of their final actions on May 3, 1863, is this the case?
The immediate challenge that "reality" next presented them this morning was one they had faced twice before, viz. a rebel infantry attack of regimental size or less. Their response seems in fact no different—in particular, no more capable—than yesterday afternoon, before their "transformation" into "manhood." At the beginning of this final action, "There had been no order given; the men, upon recognizing the menace, had immediately let drive their flock of bullets without waiting for word of command" (RBC 214). This may suggest they have gained a new sense of battlefield reality. But remember that yesterday afternoon Private Fleming himself "got the one glance at the foe-swarming field" and blazed away "before he was ready to begin" and obviously before he was ordered to open fire, and remember too that the regiment joined him instantly (see Chapter 3). The most salient "fact" about their defensive fire then was their lack of poise and a consequent failure to do much damage to the rebels. Their quick response on this third occasion may reveal some new instinct for battle, but the result was the same and "their flock of bullets" did not at all arrest the rebel rush. Yesterday afternoon they had suffered casualties all out of proportion to their situation, given all the advantages the rifled musket should have bestowed upon them as infantrymen in a defensive posture. They had failed then to provide themselves with effective field fortifications (despite ample opportunity to do so), or to discipline themselves to take advantage of such. This morning, they likewise "bled extravagantly" (RBC 216), and were so badly positioned or so ineptly entrenched that they found themselves being "sliced up" by rebel infantrymen who had achieved "the protection of the wandering line of fence"—an obvious feature of the terrain immediately before them that they still had not had the wisdom to recognize as a menace to their own line.
Judging from the officers' conduct on this occasion, nothing in the phrase "and they were men" would seem to apply quite yet to the regimental officers of the 304th New York. There was nothing newly competent or confident in the officers' conduct, either, no matter their experience during the regiment's counterattack. They did order their men to erase the rebels' superior position with a counterattack, but they seemed just as "resentful" and mistrustful of their men as they had been yesterday. Colonel MacChesnay was still leading from the rear (RBC 217).
Private Fleming's own response to this predicament may have been his alone, but its placement suggests that it can to some degree be credited to his fellow soldiers. "He saw that to be firm soldiers they must go forward. It would be death to stay in the present place, and with all the circumstances to go backward would be to exalt too many others" (RBC 217). Clearly he had in mind the stinging criticisms just visited upon the regiment. But is such motivation a part of what it means to be a "man"? To allow the criticism of others—even in cases where you do not believe it to be true—to direct your own actions even to your own death? Here, as in much else, A Farewell to Arms provides an interesting counterpoint: after he has deserted from the Italian army, Frederic Henry, in civilian clothes, is scorned by some aviators: "They avoided looking at me and were very scornful of a civilian my age. I did not feel insulted. In the old days I would have insulted them and picked a fight" (FTA [A Farewell to Arms] 243).
Private Fleming "expected that his companions, weary and stiffened, would have to be driven to this assault, but as he turned toward them he perceived with a certain surprise that they were giving quick and unqualified expressions of assent" (RBC 217). Is this response indicative of some new maturity? Perhaps. But in essence they were "assenting" to following the orders they had been given. The further description of their motivation suggests not maturity of some toughened kind but an altogether different psychological state. Their "rush" was explicitly "blind and despairing" at the outset, though as they rush forward, they "were again grown suddenly wild with an enthusiasm of unselfishness." This last, the "unselfishness" bit, has a noble sound, but one that seems rather dissonant with the tone of the assertion ("And they were men") with which we are wrestling. In any case, Crane immediately goes on to stress not the nobility of their effort here, but the frenzy; and to suggest, startlingly, that the main source of their wild emotion, now that they were bodily committed to the attack, might lie in those "vanities" we (and surely they) assumed they had put well behind them in the "grim" process of becoming "men": "they were in a state of frenzy, perhaps because of forgotten vanities, and it made an exhibition of sublime recklessness" (RBC 218-19). Blindness, despair, recklessness, frenzy based upon childish vanities—are these constituent, central elements in the state of being "men"? In any case, all these psychological states were surely true of them in their first encounter with the rebels the previous afternoon.
Their responses to their "successes" yesterday and today are similar. Yesterday, when the first rebel probe was blunted, Private Fleming had gone "into an ecstasy of self-satisfaction," and "There were some handshakings and deep speeches with men whose features were familiar, but with whom the youth now felt the bonds of tied hearts" (RBC 64-65). Today, after they had successfully driven away this rebel threat, "there began more wild clamorings of cheers. The men gesticulated and bellowed in an ecstasy. When they spoke it was as if they considered their listener to be a mile away." Privates Fleming and Wilson—the latter "jubilant and glorified"—"sat side by side and congratulated each other" (RBC 223-25). With their captured rebel soldiers and their captured rebel flag they were (understandably) far more exhilarated this morning. But there is no hint of any more wise, experienced, or chastened awareness in any of this second celebration; the men seem as innocently joyful now as they were then.
It is striking that even their conversation after their "conversion" into "manhood" is identical to their conversation before. As the campaign opened for them, they had argued about whether the Army of the Potomac was being committed to a turning movement against the rebels (RBC 2). In the battle line they had discussed officers (the lamentable Captain Carrott, at least) knowledgeably enough and talked about the accident that befell Bill Smithers when his hand was crushed by a fellow soldier (RBC 47-48). This is exactly the substance of their conversation as they march away from the field at the end:
"Oh, hush, with your comin' in behint 'em. I've seen all 'a that I wanta. Don't tell me about comin' in behint—"
"Bill Smithers, he ses he'd rather been in ten hundred battles than been in that heluva hospital. He ses they got shootin' in th' nighttime, an' shells dropped plum among 'em in th' hospital. He ses sech hollerin' he never see."
"Hasbrouck? He's th' best off'cer in this here reg'ment. He's a whale."
"Didn't I tell yeh we'd come aroun' in behint 'em? Didn't I tell yeh so? We—"
"Oh, shet yeh mouth!"
Is this being too critical? After all, the sequence of events seems so clear: they failed, yet established in the process their ability to face "reality"; given a second chance, they succeeded handsomely, capturing a rebel flag in the process. What could be clearer confirmation that they have indeed undergone a significant transformation, one that has rendered them "men"? But refer back to a close consideration of this sequence (see Chapter 8), which reveals that it has no inherent significance at all. Given a chance to achieve something of real tactical importance on this narrow part of the front, they failed, through a lack of leadership, battlefield discipline, experience, and courage. Thereafter the rebels, directed by superior leadership, battlefield discipline, and experience, confronted them with the necessity to secure their own defensive position, at which they succeeded with that "rush"—a success modest enough in itself, and which manifestly had no significance at all, even to this even narrower part of the front. No sooner had they driven the rebels off than they abandoned the position themselves. In this latter process, through an overabundance of courage, the rebels virtually gave them a handful of prisoners and a regimental flag. The sequence itself is ludicrous enough. To find therein a significant confirmation of some quality about the soldiers of the 304th New York Infantry Regiment clearly is an act not of clarification or of analysis, but of imposition.
This is an act most readers automatically make, and this is the key to the nested sequence of questions posed above. This is the human (perhaps particularly the masculine) response to the blank, meaningless chaos of our condition: to impose an imaginary and preconceived order upon it. And when such an imaginary and preconceived order is widely shared within a culture, it is known as a "myth."
Return again to the claim that "they were men," and to its precipitating moment. Their new brigade commander characterized their abortive counterattack as, in general, "an awful mess," which is fair enough. In both military and experiential terms, it was an instance of sheer chaos. Their battle line instantly lost cohesion; the only thing "coherent" about their attack was the "trail of bodies" it left behind; time and distance lost definition, and the landscape seemed "new and unknown"; bewildered emotional states succeeded each other in stupefying sequence, "mad enthusiasm" becoming "dazed and stupid" paralysis, prideful competence becoming abject despair; their flag appeared to be both "hating and loving"; and a dead man "obstinately" fought in "ludicrous and awful ways" for that flag's possession. Then, right at the apex of utter catastrophe, when the soldiers were "panic stricken" and "beset" with "hysterical fear and dismay," they were presented with a neat little victory.
What the 304th New York actually experienced was an extraordinarily heightened instance of the raw, meaningless chaos that, Crane believes, is the ultimate truth of our predicament in the universe. But what they make of the experience is something quite other. They "interpret" it as an example of perhaps the most widely shared and widely held myth of their (and our) culture. Look again at their response: "It had begun to seem to them that events were trying to prove that they were impotent. These little battles had evidently endeavored to demonstrate that the men could not fight well. When on the verge of submission to these opinions, the small duel had showed them that the proportions were not impossible, and by it they had revenged themselves upon their misgivings and upon the foe" (RBC 197). They are imposing intentionality, consciousness, perhaps even "opinion," upon what is, in fact, raw chaos. They assume that this intentionality, this consciousness, is malevolent, but compared to the truth of the matter (that we are utterly alone in a flatly indifferent, chaotic universe), there is considerable comfort in a belief that the universe is guided by a principle of active, conscious malevolence.
What such a belief does is to see the world as a kind of cosmic boot camp, wherein benign illusions will inevitably be stripped away by experience, wherein experience itself will inevitably (the adverb is critical) be chastening. Those who endure and survive such experience will be "men," demonstrably proof against the capacity of "reality" to surprise them any more. Their newfound knowledge of the malevolence of the world may be a harsh knowledge, but it is indeed knowledge, and not everyone has it. There are always plenty of "Fresh fish," the "new" boys (RBC 16-17) who have not yet learned the truth of reality. Indeed, there are people who never do see the "truth." Such facts actually make it a very pleasant thing, to be burdened with this awful knowledge.
Once again, A Farewell to Arms is immediately apposite. Frederic Henry and his friend Rinaldi and his lover Catherine Barkley manifestly "know"—in dramatic contrast to Helen Ferguson, who believes in old verities, and Gino, who is a patriot, and Ettore Moretti, who is "a legitimate hero who bore[s] everyone he [meets]" (FTA 124). No matter how ghastly this knowledge, in that novel it surely does enable its holders to consider themselves a veritable aristocracy. They speak to each other with the clipped language of members of an elite club, they are smugly superior to the kinds of mores and enthusiasms that dominate nonmembers, they enjoy lavish personalized service from the lower orders—headwaiters, bartenders, paper-cutters—who recognize their superiority. And if you are interested in further apposite examples, remember Lemuel Gulliver. He manages to readjust his perspective after his first and second voyages, but after his fourth voyage—where he alone among the Yahoos was privileged to benefit from the company of the Houyhnhnms and hence was endowed with a special knowledge that made him superior to all the rest of Yahoo-kind, which is to say, all the rest of humanity—he never recovers: "My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day."2 To be the one who "knows" the truth, or to be among the select few who "know" the truth—the appeal to one's pride is overwhelming. Yet the very fact that the knowledge is so grim can obscure the truth of that appeal from the possessor. He (or she) may become a monster of vanity while remaining blessedly unaware of the fact. So thus: "And they were men" (RBC 198).
The reason my exegesis about this claim probably seemed so unnecessary, so self-evident and redundant, is probably because this myth—that "reality" is malevolent and will inevitably strip away benign illusions through chastening experience, and that the condition of "manhood" awaits the survivors at the end of this process—is so prevalent in the modern world. To put it simply, the myth assumes that the devil exists, but God does not. It is not even Gnostic, this myth. It is not even new: it is as old as human despair, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" is a wonderfully sardonic treatment of it.3 But the prevalence of the myth (assisted hugely by folding any sense of an afterlife into those illusions that will inevitably be stripped from us by "experience"), and the striking way that this prevalence is so treasured by the modern sophisticated imagination—these seem to me to be the "modern" ramifications of it.
Under its away, we just assume, we take for granted, that "experience" will sooner or later savage us and strip away our illusions, that this is what it means to "face reality." Hence the happy cynicism so prevalent among American undergraduates, especially undergraduate males. To assume this stance in advance of experience—American undergraduates currently being among the most generously and fortuitously endowed people in the history of the world—is, in a way, a sort of inoculation, and in another way a sort of one-upmanship. Hence the reiterated claim, to be found in most forms of art that seek wide public audience (popular fiction, film, television), that "everybody knows that everything is full of—, that everything is all—." And hence, too, the thematic justification for the ritualistic use of such debased, obscene language in such works currently. Such language suggests that the user thereof is one who "knows."
According to Crane's fiction all this is, finally, a myth. A belief about the "universe" that is entirely unsupported by any evidence is assumed to be an immutable and unchallengeable fact. The clearest single point to emerge from Crane's mature fiction is that the "universe" is not hostile—not "cruel," which he puts first in his clearest statement of its reality, "nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise"—but that it is "indifferent, flatly indifferent."4
The mythic belief that the universe is malevolent validates certain egocentric attitudes and stances, such as cynicism, and offers us certain genuine comforts: among them, that some category called "manhood" exists, which, once achieved, renders a person invulnerable to further surprise, and confident, competent, and capable to face whatever life may hold. But the history of the 304th New York Infantry Regiment on the morning of May 3, 1863, shows that this, in itself, is an illusion. The history of the 304th New York shows that circumambient reality is utterly chaotic and unpredictable, and that the human mind, a creature of this reality, is likewise chaotic and unpredictable, an organ endlessly capable of reverting back to "forgotten vanities" whatever intervening experience may seem to teach or whatever states of supposed maturity may seemingly have been achieved.
This is a myth especially for survivors, it should be noted; it tends to put them in a category superior to those who do not survive. It tends, further, to imply that having survived is somehow a guarantor of further survival. It ignores the raw fact that a chaotic universe distributes death chaotically. The world's great literature has always insisted upon this fact, needless to say: "How dies the wise man? As the fool" (Ecclesiastes 2:16). It rains upon the just and the unjust alike. Death claims Cordelia as well as her two sisters; the sea swallows the hero Ahab and the coward Pip. It follows that devout cynicism is surely no more "effective" or "protective" than devout belief, in facing the ultimate fact of our morality. It follows that the fact that the soldiers of the 304th New York consider themselves to be "men" after their failed counterattack will be of no consequence whatever in the distribution of death along their battle line in any future fighting. Rather than the superior knowledge of themselves and the world that is implicit in this claim, the soldiers of the 304th would have been far better served, in the fighting immediately before them and the campaigns yet to come, had their experience led them instead to some mundane and specific perceptions about the Civil War battlefield: about the way to secure effective field fortifications for themselves, and about the value of disciplined, coolly aimed rifle fire that could take advantage of the new military technology they have in their hands.
"And they were men." By thus ending a two-chapter sequence in which they 304th New York has undergone a brutalizing experience and then enjoyed a modest success, Crane is taking a considerable risk; especially when he then goes on, in an ensuing three-chapter sequence, to "reward" the regiment with that rebel battle flag. The risk is that his readers themselves will see in this sequence just another confirmation of the widespread myth about the universe and human (or at least masculine) experience in it. The reason he takes this risk is that his subject is not, after all, how the experience of combat affects those who undergo it but, rather, how the human mind reacts to the world in which it finds itself. To make his point in a more facile way, to check this perception about "manhood" with an immediate and overt authorial confirmation would not serve his final end, for it would spare the reader the experience of discovering just how much that myth does indeed shape his or her own instinctive, unreflective, immutable, immediate conception of circumambient reality.
My assumption is that most readers' immediate response to this assertion about the regiment's new "manhood" is to agree, simply and quickly (not even pausing to consider its implications), and to move on: making themselves thereby the freshest possible examples of Crane's point. Confronted by a vicarious experience that is utterly chaotic in nature, readers nonetheless instantly seize upon and agree with this imposed mythic interpretation. Crane himself assumed that this would happen, and that reflective readers, pondering the actual details of these chapters more thoughtfully after having themselves submitted momentarily to the myth, would thereby come to understand the subtle, omnipresent, and compelling nature of this human instinct to make over our world into a more comfortable, because a more comprehensible, place, even at the price of assuming that we are surrounded by a consciously malevolent reality.
But the risk would probably not have appeared all that considerable to Crane, at the hour of his writing his novel. He instantly follows this claim with contradictory challenges from veteran soldiers, from his own central figure, and from an experienced superior officer. He displays the 304th New York's next engagement, where they revert to the incompetence they displayed the previous day, and thereafter revert to old "vanities" as they seek to recover the tactical integrity of their position. He displays all their efforts (and all their celebrations) as rendered irrelevant when they are almost immediately withdrawn from the field. He counts upon a reader's general awareness of the actualities of Civil War combat to assess the progress of the regiment's performance and offers the rebels' successes in constant counterpoint to their blunderings. He must have assumed that, however much the broad outlines of his plot would encourage his readers to see this "Episode" (initially) as just another example of a group of raw soldiers achieving "manhood" through toughening "experience," the constant play of such details would compel intelligent readers to ponder the sequence with some attention and finally to come to the conclusion that whatever the readers' first assumptions, this myth is (in this instance at least) ridiculous, given the amassed and amassing contradictions and complexities of the situation. What Crane might not have foreseen is the submerging of his audience's knowledge of the realities of Civil War combat in the gigantic "testimony" of fiction about subsequent wars: how the ridiculous therein becomes the norm, and proof in itself of the malevolence of general reality.
Nothing in The Red Badge of Courage is more percipient or more forward-looking than Crane's awareness that this sense of the malevolence of reality would come to dominate the human mind as it sought to make sense of the world in the very late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I do not have the expertise, resources, time, or space to consider why this has been so, other than to note the obvious fact that religious beliefs gave way during the nineteenth century in much of the Western world—and in particular, in those parts of the world in which Crane would have found his audience—and that "the abdication of belief," as Emily Dickinson put it, not only makes "The behavior small" but surely leads to a profound—even if (especially if) illogical—sense that something horrible has become regnant in the universe. In the Western world, a belief in God came to be replaced by a powerful belief in human existentialist progress, which, when the fruit of that progress proved rancid, generated in its own turn the ominous figure of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Kurtz can at least say "The horror! The horror!" while Marlow finds himself—as Crane believed that a genuinely insightful hero in the "new ignorance of the grave-edge" would indeed find himself—"with nothing to say" as a summary of our human predicament.5 Whatever the reason, echoes of this myth, that "manhood" involves a brutalizing and transforming experience with the malevolence of the universe, can be found in writers of the time as distinct as Twain and Kipling, and this myth comes into its post-World War I own with Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
A close reading of The Red Badge of Courage reveals that there is a quality within this myth that is profoundly dehumanizing. Not to look too closely, to discipline oneself not to look too closely, at the horror that this myth posits as lying at the center of human existence is one thing. Both Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby have absorbed this well. But there is also a tendency for the myth's adherents to look upon those who are not of this particular "elect"—to look upon those who are not burdened with this knowledge and who do not belong among the people who "know"—with indifference, if not contempt. This is always the problem with any "elect," Calvinist, Communist, or any other individual or group that believes it enjoys a particular status or a particular knowledge making it superior to other people. Kurtz's notorious last injunction to "exterminate all the brutes" is finally not so different in kind from Frederic Henry's gust of contempt for Helen Ferguson; or from Nick Carraway's admiration for Jay Gatsby, which forgives—thanks to Gatsby's "dream" and his final awakening therefrom—the brutal fact that Gatsby established himself in business "‘gonnegion’" with Wolfsheim by employing on the whilom home front his experience as a machine-gun officer in World War I.6 This dehumanizing quality, this sense of a great personal superiority, in these works becomes surprisingly explicit. It is even more so in the popular fictions of our current time: think not only of the treatment of all those by-the-book police captains in the thousands of detective films and television shows of today, but also the treatment of those lesser beings who do not share the central figures' ethos in the television series "M*A*S*H."
In The Red Badge of Courage this dehumanizing quality lies not so much in the attitudes toward the living that the myth generates in its hero as in his attitudes toward the wounded and the dead. If the assumption is that ultimate knowledge is scarifying and is produced by scarifying experience, the death of others can be considered as just a part of one's own education. The pain that is or should be felt in witnessing their suffering can be felt or registered as the price one pays for one's toughening experience in the world, and thus the raw facts of their individual suffering and extinction can be ignored. Private Fleming presented a splendid example of this tendency as he witnessed the death of his hutmate and "friend," Private Conklin. Recall that his first response was to shake his first "toward the battlefield" and say "Hell—" (RBC 99). This might possibly be an expression of regret for the extraordinary suffering and final death of a friend, but more likely it is his own reaction to a particularly harsh lesson placed before him. Most likely it is a purely histrionic gesture akin to a student's groan when the subject of the final examination is announced. Within a few short minutes, as the tattered soldier from the Third Corps was entering his own death agonies, Jim Conklin was already reduced in Private Fleming's mind to "that other one," just another "part player" (104) in the process whereby Private Henry Fleming was destined to become a "man."
We know nothing equivalent about how the minds of other soldiers in the regiment worked, as they noticed or ignored their unfortunate fellow soldiers being transformed from "men" into "bundles of blue" (RBC 216). From the moment the 304th New York Volunteers were committed to their final "rush" through to its successful completion and thence on to the end of the novel, not much attention is given any additional casualties the regiment must have taken when they exposed themselves fully to the rebel rifle fire (218). But then, this portion of the novel is attributed almost completely to Private Fleming's mind. With the prestige of his regiment uppermost in his mind, and the "craved treasure" (221) of that rebel battle flag before him as a target and then as a possession, at this point in the novel we are hardly surprised at Private Fleming's utter lack of interest in his slain or wounded comrades.
Considering their corporate claim that they were "men" and in light of the casualties suffered by the 304th New York Infantry down to that moment, we have to recognize that their claim is based upon a colossal self-absorption. Do they really mean that the captain of Private Fleming's company was not a man because he was killed at the outset, before he could partake of this valuably chastening experience? What of Private Conklin, with his unspeakable agonies of the previous afternoon? Did he die not yet a man? What of Private Jimmie Rogers, "shot through the body" during their first exchange this morning? He did not experience their abortive counterattack either—is he likewise not yet a man, for all the suffering his (doubtless mortal) wound causes to him in his single human (and mortal) existence? Again, this is a myth that particularly celebrates survivors. If these New Yorkers' corporate claim about themselves is correct, the logic that must follow concerning all these casualties is inescapable: they were all less than "men" because they did not survive until the end of the lesson. And as with Private Fleming, so with the 304th New York: does their corporate happy discovery of their own manhood mean that those dead and wounded—including those "Wounded men" they "left crying" behind them in the fire-stung wilderness during their panicked retreat—are finally to be registered as instances, objects, integers essential to the education of the survivors?
Private Henry Fleming: "He Was a Man"
Needless to say, it seems to me that this consideration of the implications of the regiment's belief that "they were men" bears directly upon Private Fleming's ultimate belief that "He was a man." If it seems unwise to accept the former without question, why would it be wise to so accept the latter? The risk Crane runs (see the beginning of this chapter)—that this final claim will nonetheless be taken at face value—is immeasurably greater than the risk he ran in presenting, unchallenged by any authorial comment, the regiment's own assertion of their manhood. So one of the ways Crane cautions a reader against understanding this to be the final and only "truth" of his novel is to present the regiment's claim first and to proceed immediately to assert a sequence of challenges to it; then to present Fleming's claim in ex- actly the same language and exactly the same rhetorical posture (at the end of a very portentousseeming paragraph).
There is a second way the reader has been warned—and repeatedly. This claim that Private Fleming "was a man" is the last in a sequence of similar self-assertions, at least three of which a reader has been compelled to decide were untrue. Perhaps the earliest: "On the way to Washington his spirit had soared. The regiment was fed and caressed at station after station until the youth had believed that he must be a hero" (RBC 10). Literary tradition itself, indeed the entire narrative tradition of Western culture, precludes us from accepting this moment at face value (see Chapter 6). But since we are considering the novel here in light of a current mythology that informs no small part of our current literature and our current narrative tradition, we can here add yet another reason this first moment all but defies us to believe in its validity. The very use of the word "hero" renders it invalid. Modern heroes, given (or "cursed with") the knowledge of the malevolence of the circumambient world, consciously avoid using the word to refer to themselves, because to use it suggests a naivete about reality. There are surely figures in Western culture to whom the nonliterary version of the term has been applied fully and without irony. Such are the historic heroes in the pantheons of nations, who have generally died in inspirationally heroic ways, such as Nathan Hale or Horatio Nelson, or the fictional heroes enshrined in the heroic songs and tales of Western culture, such as Galahad or Roland or William Tell. Such are more modern heroes who have been elevated to that status because of nobility or intrepidity, such as the arctic explorer Robert Scott who sacrificed himself to try to spare his companions, or Charles Lindbergh or Amelia Earhart. The category is amorphous, but these are all figures whose heroism is regularly introduced into the instruction of a nation's children, and who seem to us to have been innocent about the horrific truth of human existence. These were heroes who permitted others to celebrate their victories over mundane foes such as enemy warriors, the weather at the polar extremities of the globe, the reaches of the North Atlantic while flying solo across it in a small monoplane, or who occasioned others to celebrate their heroic deaths, but who never came face-to-face with what is truly horrific according to the dominant mythology of our day; who never came face-to-face with the true malevolence of the universe. There may indeed be a prudential quality in consciously refusing the term "hero." Given a consciously malevolent universe, the first people it would seek to destroy would be those who thrust themselves forward as "heroes," of the very race that is its primary prey. (Think here of the inevitable quick doom that befalls any character in a popular film who proclaims "the bullet with my number on it hasn't been made yet," or the like.)
See again A Farewell to Arms for a classic treatment of such a hero according to the current mythology. Tenente Ettore Moretti has in fact been wounded three times, and one wound, suffered in close combat, refuses to heal. His enthusiastic belief in old military verities—in the significance of wound stripes, medals, and rank, in the respect due to officers of field grade, and in the shibboleths important to soldiers in the line—culminates in the application of the word "hero" to him, which accolade he seems to accept, and happily. This warrants contemptuous dismissal of him by those (including Tenente Frederic Henry, wounded by a trench mortar while eating pasta and cheese) who truly "know." Moretti is the "legitimate hero who bored everyone he met," and so the wound in his foot that steadily extrudes rotten bone is a source of aesthetic revulsion rather than common compassion (FTA 124). This is not, though, to suggest that the central figure in the novel is an "antihero," quite the opposite. Frederic Henry is obviously to be admired throughout the course of the novel, most especially for his escape from a Carabiniere firing squad on the banks of the Tagliamento, for declaring his own "separate peace" when he deserts from the Italian army, and for his feat in small-boat navigation when he rows his pregnant mistress from Stresa up Lake Garda to the safety of neutral Switzerland during a late autumn night. Above all, he is to be admired for knowing the malevolent truth about the universe—"But they killed you in the end. You could count on that. Stay around and they would kill you" (FTA 327)—and yet still knowing how to live, for instance, how to order beer ("A light demi") in a café in Lausanne while his mistress is enduring protracted labor in the hospital. Frederic Henry is indeed a hero because he will not be called one. Real heroes do not call themselves heroes. It is a matter of style ("they're much quieter," says Catherine) and terminology (FTA 124).
And so it is with readers following the experience of Private Henry Fleming of the 304th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. We, too, await the moment when Fleming will finally adopt the style and terminology our myth teaches us is "true." When Tenente Ettore Moretti touches his officer's collar badges at the mention of his getting killed, it seems to us a groundless and ludicrous gesture, because we do not share the myth that produces it. But when we instantly and unquestioningly accept Private Fleming's claim that "he is a man," is it not because we do unquestioningly accept the myth, without even recognizing it is a myth (but then, this is Crane's whole point), in which such terminology and, above all, such understatement validate the true heroism of the person (the man?) who utters it?
Private Fleming's next happy understanding of his own condition came immediately after the regiment's initiation into combat, after they had resisted that initial rebel probe: "He perceived that the man who had fought thus [he himself] was magnificent. He felt that he was a fine fellow. He saw himself even with those ideals which he had considered as far beyond him" (RBC 64). This claim is instantly undone by the behavior that almost immediately followed it, when he fled "like a proverbial chicken" from the rebels' second probe. But still, such rhetoric strikes a reader as inappropriate: true heroes eschew applying words to themselves such as "magnificent" for the same reasons they eschew the word "hero"; even "fine fellow" seems a little arcane ("fine boy" would pass Catherine Barkley's muster, though). True heroes know that in a malevolent universe "ideals" are ridiculous. There may be things worth cherishing—love, friendship, the taste of red wine with cheese and apples even during a major military disaster—but the term "ideals" implies that there is some system of nonmaterialistic value that the cosmos will validate; a ludicrous notion in a world where in fact "they will kill you in the end."
After he had been safely returned (though not through his own exertions) to his regiment, Private Fleming began to reassemble his vanity and self-esteem and in the process fumbled his way into the first explicit use of the formula that confronts us so imperiously at the end: "His self-pride was now entirely restored. In the shade of its flourishing growth he stood with braced and self-confident legs, and since nothing could now be discovered he did not shrink from an encounter with the eyes of judges, and allowed no thoughts of his own to keep him from an attitude of manfulness. He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man" (RBC 149-50). A reader surely shrinks from accepting this claim at face value. Private Fleming has (as yet) demonstrated no capacity for facing a renewal of combat, so in terms of the narrative itself the confidence this reveals is ludicrous enough. But worse: the myth of manhood achieved through illusion-shattering experience is a myth that insists upon a process of internal, interior growth. Fleming's claim implicitly refutes this myth: it obviously argues that being a "man" has to do completely with one's standing in the "eyes of judges" in the surrounding world. It cannot be, we think, that the novel or the author could possibly be affirming Private Fleming in this ludicrous belief that he is still "a man" because his mistakes were not observed.
But in dumbfounding fact, this positive self-assessment may actually be more plausible than the one Private Fleming will reach at the end of the novel. The issue of whether Private Fleming has finally developed in some crucially "mature" way at the end of the battle of Chancellorsville is very much open to doubt, but that he does still enjoy the respect of his fellows at this moment early on the morning of May 3, 1863, is obviously true. In their eyes, sure enough, "he was a man," in the sense that he was not categorized in any other way—as a coward or a "chicken" or a "boy" or a "mother's boy" or someone who deserves to be called "sonny" (RBC 200). That this is true is of crucial importance in this volatile mixture of self-delusion and self-confidence that motivates him to perform with unquestionable heroism—combat-influencing, unit-leading, reputation-winning heroism—when the rebels close in upon the 304th New York a short while later.
Consider the self-assessment that follows this moment (it is even presented as a separate paragraph): "And, furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of gods and doomed to greatness?" (RBC 151). Fleming's belief here seems manifestly ridiculous, and so much so it cannot be taken seriously. If a reader notes this paragraph at all, it is probably with a whimsical glance: "There goes that youth again, can you believe it?" or the like.
Why, though, is the claim at the end of the novel—that "he was a man"—any more necessarily or self-evidently true than the claim here that "he was chosen of the gods and doomed to greatness"? As the critical record reveals (see Chapter 6), the question of whether Fleming develops in any significant way is far from closed, while a surprisingly strong case can be made for his belief that he is "doomed to greatness." Private Fleming's failures have been miraculously masked from his immediate comrades and superiors, he will be rocketed upward in their esteem without conscious intention or even awareness, and by the end of the book he will have made it untouched through two engagements as color-bearer of his regiment.
His next self-assertion is likewise problematic for those who believe in the myth of cosmic malevolence and all that this entails, or it would be problematic except this instance carries its own scarcely veiled disclaimers. After they repulsed the first rebel assault of the morning and Private Fleming garnered the praise of Lieutenant Hasbrouck, he mused: "He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion. Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy. He had been a tremendous figure, no doubt. By this struggle he had overcome obstacles which he had admitted to be mountains. They had fallen like paper peaks, and he was now what he called a hero. And he had not been aware of the process. He had slept and, awakening, found himself a knight" (RBC 169). To the troublesome term "hero" has been added the antiquated term "knight"—neither at all appropriate according to the myth that Crane is enticing his readers to project upon this fundamentally chaotic episode of the American Civil War. The ease of their achievement implicitly loosens the appropriateness of such terms: "fine, wild, and, in some ways easy"; "paper peaks"; "he had slept." These terms confirm what is implied by the rhetorical patterns—"tremendous figure, no doubt"; "what he called a hero"—that these terms are rendered meaningless because they were earned by worthless conduct. Seeing these unfashionable terms swathed in faintly ludicrous contexts and aware that the novel still has some pages to run, a reader assumes that the "hero," Private Fleming, will see his way (with more experience) to something more true.
While our myth of the malevolent universe may have rendered "hero" and "knight" unfashionable, is it necessarily the case that they are somehow less "true" about Private Henry Fleming than the ultimate word "man"? Is it truly the case that it is inappropriate for Fleming to conceive of himself in these ways? Some associations clustered around the image of the "knight" may be archaic in themselves and so may tinge the knight image with an implication of innocence concerning the nature of reality, an innocence that no self-respecting believer in the myth would ever wish to be accused of. But when the term does appear in popular culture, it is typically applied to people—such as Richard Boone's Paladin in "Have Gun Will Travel" or Joseph Wambaugh's burned-out policemen—who are devoid of chivalric optimism. The image of the knight is not exactly ironic nowadays, but it seems safely remote from romantic or traditional connotations and hence such innocence. Insofar as it implies merely a warrior who has at last proved his capacity for combat, it seems appropriate for Private Fleming to apply it to himself.
Private Henry Fleming is, beyond question, a "hero." During the course of the morning of May 3, 1863, he proved himself completely fearless in combat and ferocious on the firing line, earning the praise of his company commander. At a moment of crisis, he stepped forward from the enlisted ranks to join Lieutenant Hasbrouck in providing exemplary leadership—an amazing act for a young private soldier. When the regiment's color sergeant was slain, he unhesitatingly seized the colors and thereafter kept them steadily to the front, showing again his fearlessness. These qualities brought him to the attention of his regimental commander, who praised him lavishly. His example and his leadership evidently played a major part in the action when the 304th New York captured a rebel banner. Such behavior on a field of battle surely qualifies as "heroic" by any standards of any age.
Yet most readers probably do not assess him thus and are vaguely surprised to see the claim thus validated. Again, several reasons probably conspire. The strong tendency to see Private Fleming as "Everysoldier" masks the outstanding nature of his performance for many initial readers of the novel (see Chapter 5). So too does the portrayal of the experiences of central figures in the overwhelming majority of subsequent post-World War I fiction, where martial heroism at once both conventional and triumphant never appears anymore, so readers are not prepared to see it or register it in The Red Badge of Courage. The myth under which we mostly live and move and have our being nowadays ridicules exactly this kind of heroism. The myth teaches us to expect that characters endowed with this type of heroism will get blown away instantly, or will be figures of ridicule (see Tenente Moretti) to those who really know the score. Insofar as the vividness of The Red Badge of Courage and the plausibility of Private Fleming's character draw us to him, we discount this moment, assuming that he will come to see things more accurately by the end—indeed, that this process of discovery will actually constitute the end and his coming into his true "manhood," which at first glance seems to be the case.
But there is a final twist. Even readers cautioned by the constant play of the novel, and who believe that no such process of discovery has taken place, even readers who do not believe he is at last "a man," are often surprised to discover that Private Fleming must nonetheless be recognized as an authentic "hero." How can someone who so consistently fails to recognize the truth about himself or the reality surrounding him become, or be called, a "hero"? But then, also, why not?
What we actually see in the novel is a central character who tries on a number of titles, as if they were various items in a wardrobe. With splendid and mordant irony the titles we tend to ridicule, ignore, or discount are in fact the ones most applicable, whereas the title we tend to accept and rest happiest with—that at last "he was a man"—is, of all, the least accurate. In this process we ourselves replicate Crane's central thesis, the profound, unreflecting, elementally self-deceptive human tendency to impose a myth upon the chaos of human experience.
Our steady close consideration of Private Fleming has revealed that he undergoes no essential transformation at all in the course of these two days. The same characteristics that marked him at the beginning of the campaign mark him at the end: a vivid visual imagination, devoid of sympathy for others; an absolute and impenetrable solipsism; a profound ignorance concerning mortality, and his own mortal condition in particular. Given every opportunity hallowed by literary convention to achieve a fundamental recognition concerning himself, he never does so. Given extraordinary, even cataclysmic object lessons about reality, he easily ignores their implications.
This is not at all to say that his responses to various challenges are coherent or consistent. His unchanging personal characteristics shield him from any genuine contact with elemental factual realities and thus cause him to respond to events with quite extraordinary (although quite "believable") conceptions about how they may affect him, and with quite extraordinary swings of emotion. The actual conduct of General Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac during those days in the Wilderness, provides a historical correlative to Crane's psychological portrait of his hero.7 So those characteristics at first work to plunge him into panic; subsequently, they conspire to propel him into glorious success, and by the novel's end, they have convinced him he has achieved the status of manhood.
Reconsider, in light of this study, the last pages of the novel. As they withdraw from the Chancellorsville vicinity into the new defensive lines shielding the army's remaining Rappahannock bridgehead at the United States Ford, Private Fleming's mind "was undergoing a subtle change," casting "off its battleful ways" and resuming "its accustomed course of thought." With the distorted emotions of combat behind him, "at last he was enabled to more closely comprehend himself and circumstance" (RBC 228). This sounds promising, and quite in keeping with our most elemental narrative tradition: only a few pages are left, the action is over, we (supposedly) will see that our hero is at last "enabled" to "comprehend himself and circumstance" somewhat "more closely" (228).
His first new "comprehension" could not possibly be wider of the mark, however. "He understood then that the existence of shot and counter-shot was in the past. He had dwelt in a land of strange, squalling upheavals and had come forth. He had been where there was red of blood and black of passion, and he was escaped. His first thoughts were given to rejoicings at this fact" (RBC 229). The most immediately apparent objective fact is that the Army of the Potomac is retiring, it had been defeated; there is no suggestion that the war is any closer to its conclusion than before. Rather than a "closer comprehension of himself and circumstances," he is displaying that same solipsistic tendency to conceive of himself as at the center of the world and the only "real" thing in it. His language betrays his colossal illusion: phenomena of battle are not, in his current imagination, things to which as an enlisted soldier he must become wearily inured but, rather, bizarrely disembodied sensations produced by a "strange" unreal land from which he had permanently emerged. Since he has passed the test and has profited by the experience, he cannot conceive that it is not altogether concluded, that the circus tent or house of horrors is not gone for good. He is back exactly where he was at the end of his first experience of combat the previous afternoon: "So it was all over at last! The supreme trial had been passed," and so on (RBC 64). The raw fact is that these experiences are not at all "in the past," nor has he "come forth" or "escaped" from them: they await him and his fellows at a small Pennsylvania town just two months hence. If he survives that (no sure thing at all), he will return to exactly this same landscape next year at this time, for a campaign of unparalleled slaughter.
Reflection upon his past actions then follows: "he began to study his deeds, his failures, and his achievements," using the relative tranquillity of the moment to "marshal all his acts" for review. "At last they marched before him clearly. From this present view point he was enabled to look upon them in spectator fashion and to criticise them with some correctness, for his new condition had already defeated certain sympathies" (RBC 228-29). As with that "closer comprehension" three paragraphs earlier, so here: another last-chapter paragraph with portentous claims. As in the previous paragraph, Private Fleming is crediting himself with having achieved a "new condition." Now he believes he is no longer infected by "certain sympathies" (presumably immature passions, beliefs, and the like that experience has stripped from him) so that he is now capable of criticizing himself and his past actions correctly. There is no doubt that Private Fleming has been through an altogether extraordinary and cataclysmic two days of battle, exactly such an experience—the myth assures him (and us)—as will strip a "youth" of immature "sympathies" and enable him to understand himself and the world more accurately.
Crane knows how exhilarating it is to believe we have undergone this transformation and are not as we were before, and Private Fleming is "gleeful" as he brings his "new" and more correct judgment to bear upon his past conduct. A moment earlier, however, Fleming's belief that his "brain" was no longer "clogged" was immediately undercut by the inaccuracy of his assessment of his future. The same undercutting pattern obtains again, as he assesses his past. The assessment itself reveals that, despite his belief that he has been stripped of illusions, his mind is in fact unchanged, or if it has changed at all, it has in fact become more infatuated with immature "sympathies" than it was before. "Regarding his procession of memory he felt gleeful and unregretting, for in it his public deeds were paraded in great and shining prominence. Those performances which had been witnessed by his fellows marched now in wide purple and gold, having various deflections. They went gayly with music. It was pleasure to watch these things. He spent delightful minutes viewing the gilded images of memory" (RBC 229). The controlling image is that of the most conventional martial pomp and ceremony: a victorious military march-past complete with bands and outfitted in the specific colors (purple dyes being rare and expensive in the classical Mediterranean world) of Greco-Roman triumph. Those classical references to purple, gold, and "gilded images" suggest those "old ideas" Fleming used to hold, before his enlistment and subsequent experiences (supposedly) outfitted him with this "new condition," which he assumes is maturely purged of "certain sympathies." Back then, he at least believed that "Greeklike struggles would be no more. Men were better, or more timid" (11). Now his imagination is no longer constrained by such precocious cynicism.
What we come to realize is that now, thanks to his belief that he has achieved some mature "new condition" of understanding, he is completely free to apply the most immature, conventional, traditional, and heroic terminology to himself and his conduct. Now that he is a "man," he obviously can no longer believe in childish things. Thus if he now believes he is a hero in the classical mold, it must be true. (If you believe in the modern myth, you cannot be mistaken even if you apply chunks of other myths to yourself.) Indeed, "He saw that he was good. He recalled with a thrill of joy the respectful comments of his fellows upon his conduct" (RBC 229).
Then "the ghost of his flight from the first engagement appeared to him and danced," and "For a moment he blushed, and the light of his soul flickered with shame" (RBC 229). Yet again, we encounter what the narrative tradition in our world teaches us to expect to encounter: a hero's ultimate confrontation with his own past failures, and some placing of them in the context of his current situation. Private Fleming then goes on to remember what most readers (appropriately) find far more damning in his conduct than his panic-stricken flight: he is suddenly beset by "A specter of reproach," the "dogging memory of the tattered soldier" who "had loaned his last of strength and intellect for the tall soldier" and who, "blind with weariness and pain, had been deserted in the field" (RBC 229-30).
These are certainly appropriate occasions for shame and regret. But something about the language in which they are cast is not quite right. In both cases, Private Fleming evidently conceives of these occasions as personified, slightly unreal figures—"ghost" and "specter"—who seem mostly intent upon embarrassing him. He does not remember them as occasions in which he committed acts of treachery with consequences for other real human beings, actions requiring some kind of sincere penitence or expiation. Note the passive construction with which his recollection of the tattered soldier is brought to its conclusion: who "had been deserted," not whom "he had deserted."
The profoundly immature, self-centered quality of his seeming "shame" and self-reproach is confirmed in the very next sentence: "For an instant a wretched chill of sweat was upon him at the thought that he might be detected in the thing" (RBC 230). We are reminded of Twain's mordant comment in "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg": "a sin takes on new and real terrors when there seems a chance that it is going to be found out."8 Even more are we reminded of Private Fleming's concern of the previous afternoon, when another seemingly promising moment of self-reproach turned out in fact to be only a concern for his personal prestige among his fellows: "A moral vindication was regarded by the youth as a very important thing. Without salve, he could not, he thought, wear the sore badge of his dishonor through life. With his heart continually assuring him that he was despicable, he could not exist without making it, through his actions, apparent to all men" (RBC 114). As he now stands "persistently" before this "vision" of shameful acts that could just possibly cost him all his public adulation, he reacts with a spontaneous gesture surely familiar to most of his readers: "he [gives] vent to a cry of sharp irritation and agony," and when Wilson asks him, "What's the matter," he gives "an outburst of crimson oaths" (230). His actions and reactions are utterly typical, enough so (Twain would agree) as to appeal to almost any reader. But the reader must recognize the truth of the matter. Far from a "new" ability to "criticise" his own actions "with some correctness," his "sympathies" (remaining completely, relentlessly only for himself), his concerns, and his attitudes are exactly as they were before.
For some minutes, "this vision" of his own "cruelty brooded over him," because, understanding himself to be at the very center of the world, he feels "sure that" his fellow soldiers "must discern in his face evidences" of "the somber phantom" that is haunting him. Despite the characteristically banal discussion going on in the plodding, "ragged array" around him, he has a "sudden suspicion that they were seeing his thoughts and scrutinizing each detail of the scene with the tattered soldier" (RBC 231), so his solipsism remains as complete as ever. "Yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance" (231-32). His secret, not surprisingly, remains undiscovered. Twain again: our "consciences" readily enough "quiet down," when they become "discouraged."9
This, then, is the specific buildup toward those critical paragraphs that will deposit the final claim, "He was a man." The single word "seemed" leaps into enormous significance—"at last his eyes seemed to open to some new ways"—and in fact it is hard to see what "earlier gospels" he now "despises." The current myth teaches him, and us, that our "new manhood" must be "quiet" and "nonassertive," for the myth denies and devalues an overt hero. But the accolades that so confirmed his profound, happy belief in his new manhood were garnered because he first "bawled," "danced and gyrated" in front of the regiment when its counterattack faltered, and moments later asserted himself by seizing the colors when the bearer was killed. As its color-bearer, he is now the single most prominent enlisted man in the 304th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He is so completely possessed by the myth of his own new "manhood" (exactly as when, on the way to battle, he had been completely possessed by his own new self-pity) that he completely misunderstands and misrepresents his own most recent personal history.
The myth also insists upon his (and our) new capacity to meet any challenge that reality might hit us with; possessing such a new capacity is critical to being "a man." And so with Private Fleming: "He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point." But no such confidence is warranted, according to Crane's most basic and consistent vision. The chaotic universe is not at all predictable: the very image of having "guides" to or within it is a product of a monstrous illusion about it. Nor is the human mind predictable. Refer back to privates Wilson and Fleming themselves, after the soldiers of the regiment had found themselves transformed into "men" during the waning moments of their counterattack. Responding to the new brigade commander's violent criticism of their regiment, Wilson angrily criticized the man, but Private Fleming had "developed a tranquil philosophy" that enabled him to respond "soothingly." And then in the length of three paragraphs, that "philosophy" had been replaced in Fleming's mind by "sudden," furious "exasperation" (RBC 205-6).
"He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death" (RBC 232). This is a paradoxical statement but, loosely considered, it seems potentially plausible, and the kind of statement that professors are paid to explain. But when it is closely considered in the context of the novel and we recall Private Fleming's manifest inability to conceive of his own mortal condition, it becomes no longer paradoxical but fatuous. And when we recall Fleming's self-centered reduction of the dead Jim Conklin to "that other one," the statement becomes appalling. It is surely the case, however, that Private Fleming, who has been widely and publicly praised and now finds himself on his way to comfort and rest, is quite comfortable about death because he still has no conception of it as a real fact of human (and his own) existence: he has never in fact "been to touch it" (or been touched by it) at all.
The paragraphs that follow the statement "He was a man" develop a sequence of stereotypical images of peace: "He came from hot plowshares"—his unconscious confusion about the truth of his situation as an enlisted soldier in the Army of the Potomac in May 1863 is reflected in the unconscious confusion of the biblical imagery of swords and plowshares—"to prospects of clover tranquilly [sic], and it was as if hot plowshares were not" (RBC 232).10 These and other images lead to the triumphant last claim that "an existence of soft and eternal peace" extends before Private Fleming (232). This is absolutely contradicted by the most massive and immediate physical evidence before him at this midmorning moment: infantrymen of a defeated army retreating down muddy roads.
Richly contented with himself, publicly praised, with the prospects of camp and rest before him, carrying the regimental colors, it may indeed seem to him "that the world was a world for him" (RBC 232). The totality of Crane's fiction and poetry bear witness, however, that absolutely no human claim could be further from the truth. The world is not a world for Private Henry Fleming nor, given its blank indifference toward the creatures that inhabit it and its own inherently chaotic nature, is it a world "for" any human being within it.
These penultimate paragraphs cannot, then, be taken at face value. They are not speaking accurately or truly about his actual circumstances and prospects. How then, can the claim that Private Henry Fleming "was a man" be so taken? If we thus recognize that he has not been transformed into "a man" in any significant or essential way, can we see him in any significant or essential way as a hero?
The word "hero" in literary contexts is a tricky one, implying as it does a figure worthy of respect and emulation on the one hand, and the central figure in a narrative work on the other. For example, how can you call Macbeth a hero? The issue is more complicated here, because Private Fleming's conduct on the morning of May 3, 1863, surely deserves the accolade: he is as much a "hero" as one could expect to find in the enlisted ranks of an army. Yet, unquestionably, his "manhood"—in the sense of admirable full maturity, wisdom, or humanity—is radically deficient. To assume he cannot be a "hero" until he is a "man" is to return again to the imposition of a human mythology upon a chaotic reality; it is to assume that true rewards for valor and the like befall only those who have passed the boot camp run by "reality." But there is no such structure in the universe surrounding us; nor is there any such structure even in our own constantly fluctuating human minds. The universe around us is disjointed and discontinuous—as are, by their very natures, our own minds.
Crane's conception of his hero is even more mordantly good-humored than is implied here. It is precisely because Private Henry Fleming fails so hugely to acquire anything resembling true "manhood" that he succeeds so hugely as a genuine military hero. The same characteristics that sent him pelting from the battle line on the afternoon of May 2 promoted him to prominence and success on the morning of May 3 (see Chapter 7). Private John Wilson evidently did undergo some kind of transformation, but this transformation seems to have produced in him qualities that led to moments of more rounded and hence less concentrated perception, to moments of hesitation and self-doubt. At that telling moment when the 304th New York was paralyzed with confusion and close to collapse, Wilson joined in the general despair, earning Fleming's contempt ("Oh, shut up, you damned fool!" [RBC 194]). And although, before that moment and then especially after it, Private Wilson proved himself a superior soldier in his own right, at each critical moment he followed Private Fleming's spontaneous lead. It is absolutely consistent with Crane's general understanding of the ridiculousness of the human predicament in the universe that Private Fleming's worst qualities and his severest limitations as a human being were the very things that conspired to make him a superb and admired combat soldier during the second day of the battle of Chancellorsville.
1. Humphrey Cobb, Paths of Glory; "Attack" (1956).
4. Stephen Crane, "The Open Boat," in The Red Badge of Courage and Other Writings, 309.
6. Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 51; Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby, 70, 179.
7. For an absolutely contrary example, consider how Benjamin Franklin shaped his Autobiography to persuade people against such solipsistic behavior, to the end of achieving what Private Fleming never does: a "uniform rectitude of conduct." Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography and Other Writings, 75.
8. Mark Twain, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," in Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain, 286.
Covici, Jr., Pascal. "Introduction: The Universe and Stephen Crane." In The Red Badge of Courage, pp. 7-34. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983.
Assesses both Crane's biographical influences and thematic intentions in authoring The Red Badge of Courage.
Dooley, Patrick K. "The Humanism of Stephen Crane." Humanist 56, no. 1 (January 1996): 14-17.
Discusses the humanist influences in Crane's The Red Badge of Courage.
Hattenhauer, Darryl. "Crane's The Red Badge of Courage." Explicator 50, no. 3 (spring 1992): 160-61.
Notes the symbolism surrounding the colors blue and gray in The Red Badge of Courage.
Mariani, Giorgio. "The Horrors of War: The Red Badge of Courage, the Spectacle of Ideology, and the Ideology of Spectacle." In Spectacular Narratives: Representations of Class and War in Stephen Crane and the American 1890s, pp. 139-66. New York, N.Y.: Peter Lang, 1992.
Explores Crane's evocation of spectacle in The Red Badge of Courage.
Pizer, Donald. "The Red Badge of Courage: Text, Theme, and Form." In Critical Essays on Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage," edited by Donald Pizer, pp. 217-28. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990.
Offers a study of the effect of Crane's editorial deletions and alteration of the novel's original conclusion in The Red Badge of Courage.
Additional coverage of Crane's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 21; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1865-1917; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 109, 140; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 84; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 12, 54, 78; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; Literature Resource Center; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Novels for Students, Vols. 4, 20; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 80; Poetry for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 7, 56, 70; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 11, 17, 32; World Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Writers for Young Adults; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 2.
"The Red Badge of Courage." Children's Literature Review. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/red-badge-courage
"The Red Badge of Courage." Children's Literature Review. . Retrieved July 12, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/academic-and-educational-journals/red-badge-courage
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