This revolutionary war novella from Stephen Crane (1871-1900) is about the American Civil War. According to its brief introduction, it was one of the first war novels to remove any romantic undertones of heading off into battle, and instead favoured showing the gritty, harsh reality of explosions and bullets. It makes for an even more impressive read as, when it was published, Crane was in his 20s and he’d not fought in a war. Instead, this tale is based on the stories he had read and his interpretation of the events on a solider.
We picked up this tattered 1940s edition with no front cover (although it features interesting pictures inside) from Manchester’s best (and most knackered) independent book store next to the Arndale centre. For those of you interested in war novels on the coverage of conflict, this is a must read for its revolutionary stance, particularly in noting the perceived notions of cowardice in warfare at the time. Onwards!
The Red Badge of Courage
Crane’s story focuses on Henry, a young man who is overwhelmed by the war he patriotically heads into. Initially filled with bravura, he flees his first battle in a complete panic and is left utterly ashamed by what he considers to be abject cowardice.
Once he steels his nerve and returns to battle, he is determined to receive a red badge of courage (i.e. a war wound) in an attempt to regain his shattered honour. It’s a taught and brief story, one which is slightly confused by the use of American dialect in the conversations soldiers have, but ultimately rich with the nature of fear and the capricious nature of battle.
What made the novel stand out at the time was its focus on Henry’s psychological state of mind, whereas war books prior to this had primarily considered everything happening at once. In Crane’s words, it was a “psychological portrayal of fear” and (given the time it was published) this is a pioneering achievement from a young author.
Unfortunately, after the relative success of this novel Crane struggled to find further public interest in his subsequent work and he died of tuberculosis aged only 28 in 1900. His texts did, at least, influence Ernest Hemingway, so there’s plenty to be thankful here. Merci, Mr. Crane.
This is quite an unusual war novel in that its author hadn’t fought in one at that stage in his life, whereas we’re so used to reading novels by those stuck in the middle of the hellish nightmare itself. In this sense, it’s quite the achievement to write something which is renowned for its truthful portrayal of conflict.
In Frederick Brereton’s (we believe he was a war hero and author who died in 1957 – he had been a heroic part in Britain’s Empire in the late 19th century) introduction, he states the book is a “masterpiece”. He states:
"There is a relentless march about the book, a terrific feeling of the absolute inescapability of battle, or ordeal by battle, for it is that which the youth dreads, that common fear of the unknown which is the normal prelude to battle ... Never before in fiction had the heart of a soldier been laid bare with such consummate skill and disconcerting honesty. Gone for ever was the illusion of the soldier as a romantic figure. All that remained was a vision of a face trampled in the mud and eyes that saw no more the light of the sun."
In this respect, the Red Badge of Courage foreshadows absolute masterpieces such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Storm of Steel which are promote further still a pacifist leaning (even if Hitler did love the latter) with its condemnation of war, and it clearly reflects the psychological crush of wartime on the mind.
We don’t consider it a masterpiece. It is certainly a highly insightful read, but it is one which was bettered by writers of startling talent during the near apocalyptic events during the 20th century, no least with novels like the two aforementioned and others such as Empire of the Sun.