Red Badge of Courage
RED BADGE OF COURAGE
Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, is the story of Henry Fleming, a young, inexperienced small-town soldier who is coming of age during the Civil War battle at Chancellorsville. Fleming finds himself involved in a bewildering and petrifying landscape of war rather than the patriotic scenes of glory that he romanticized from the songs and tales of his youth. Mustering up the courage for a heroic rush into battle only to suffer a failure of nerves, he moves back and forth within himself between the desperation for a bold, visible statement of heroic manhood (a wound, or "red badge") and the crippling anxiety that engulfs him. Fleming eventually achieves his heroic charge as his fear gives way to a wild, mad frenzy of "sublime recklessness" in a brave resolution to run at a faltering flag.
The Red Badge of Courage is significant for a number of reasons. It greatly changed the conventions of the traditional war story because it constructs a new point of view, set almost exclusively on the battlefield without ever returning to life on the home front, offering comic relief, or providing other national or patriotic subplots that characterize more romantic war narratives. The language of the novel is minimal and sparse, more journalistic than the traditional grandeur that dominates war stories, contributing to the reader's sense of the "reality" of battle. The looming feeling of anonymity and the animal-like descriptions of the characters suggest what becomes known as a "naturalist" vision of the universe in which the motives and actions of the characters are forces largely beyond their control. Within this worldview that Social Darwinists call "survival of the fittest," whatever high and moral reasons might motivate agency give way to the violent indifference to human suffering that is the central defining feature of nature, the world, and the self.
Although other works had in many ways anticipated naturalism, The Red Badge of Courage inaugurated what became a significant movement in American literature. It met with tremendous approval from both its American and British readerships and saw ten reprintings within its first year. Despite its revision of the mainstream portrait of military courage, the novel was published in a historical moment that was charged with a patriotic, militant imperialism. President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid admirer of the novel, saw its success as an occasion to revitalize an apathetic nation through vigorous military application.
The novel survives today as a masterpiece of American realism and a classic rite of passage from boyhood into adulthood. It is also another illustration of how war inspires literature and how literature transforms views of warfare. Crane's realism answers Cooper's romanticism and thus provides new cultural images that contributed to America's emergence as a world power.
Cady, Edwin. Stephen Crane, rev. edition. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Colvert, James B. Stephen Crane. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1984.
Pizer, Donald, ed. Critical Essays on Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage." Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Jonathan E. Vincent