Book Review: The Red Badge of Courage

Book Name: The Red Badge of Courage
Author: Stephen Crane
First Published: 1895

Stephen Crane was born in 1871 and only lived a scant 28 years. His work was noted as being in the realist tradition and would prove to be some of the earlier examples of American Naturalism and Impressionism. It is said that had he lived longer, his reputation as an author of American literature might have rivaled Mark Twain.

His schooling began at Pennington Seminary, a ministry-focused boarding school not far from his home. His mother had taken ill and there had been several deaths in the family due to illness and accident. After two years, young Crane left the boarding school and was enrolled in a military school. Cadet Crane excelled at history and literature, but was considered fortunate if he managed to pass his exams in math or science. Later, Crane would say that the happiest years of his life took place at Claverack College. While he was known to skip class to play baseball, he rose rapidly through the ranks of his cadet battalion. Many of the men on staff were Civil War veterans and Crane became fascinated by their war anecdotes. It is thought that this is where he gained his first interest and initial research for his novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

Crane was interested in pursuing a military career, but his family persuaded him to consider obtaining a degree in mining engineering instead. He transferred to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, but again proved to be an indifferent student. Instead of classwork, he joined the baseball team and the largest fraternity on campus along with two literary societies. After a semester at Lafayette, he transferred to Syracuse University where he changed his major to Liberal Arts and took a single class in English Literature.

By this time, Crane was putting most of his time into writing. He was constantly publishing in the college literature societies, but also in the New York Tribune. In 1891, Crane decided that college was a waste of time and decided to become a full-time writer and reporter.

Crane began to publish a series of news reports from a small and once prosperous area in Manhattan. The Bowery shops and mansions had given way to saloons, dance halls and brothels. Crane frequented these places, claiming that it was part of his research for writing. He found the slums to be “open and plain, with nothing hidden”. Along with the news reports, this area would become the setting for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

During this time, he began courting a married woman, Lily Brandon Munroe, who was estranged from her husband. He asked her to elope with him despite her family’s opposition. Crane lacked money and prospects, and Lily was forced to decline his offer. They continued to see each other on and off for several years, but while Crane did gain success via his writing, she still refused to marry him.

In 1895, Crane published his Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage. While he had never gone to war himself, the stories that he had gleaned from the veterans at Claverack College served as ample research for his book. It was met with critical acclaim and became a best seller. A reviewer for The New York Press wrote, “One should be forever slow in charging an author with genius, but it must be confessed that The Red Badge of Courage is open to the suspicion of having greater power and originality that can be girdled by the name of talent.” H.G. Wells, a friend of Crane’s remarked that his novel was greeted with “an orgy of praise”.

In 1896, Crane entered into a highly publicized scandal after bearing witness in the trial of a suspected prostitute, his friend Dora Clark. To remove himself from the scandal, Crane took a job as a war correspondent and departed for Cuba later that year. While on his journey, Crane’s ship sank off the coast of Florida. The time that he and others from the ship spent adrift in a lifeboat became the inspiration for a short story called The Open Boat.

The final years of his life, he continued to work as a war correspondent covering conflicts in Greece. He settled in England with Cora Taylor, a former madam of a Florida brothel. Suffering financial difficulties and physical fragility, eventually Crane died of tuberculosis at the age of 28.

The Red Badge of Courage tells the story of a young 19 year old named Henry Fleming. It is a simple coming of age story and about what a man faces when he goes off to war. Fleming enlists to fight in the Civil War, but runs during his first combat experience. He spends the next days of battle attempting to redeem himself for his act of cowardice. The plot is not what this book is remembered for. The book examines the young private’s state of mind, his motivations, his interactions with the fighting and with the other soldiers around him. The author uses a great amount of symbolism, based on nature and colors to help portray what the battle is like. The realism of what happens in the battle is intense and what made the novel original and memorable for its time.

I remember The Red Badge of Courage from my my high school days. It was a required reading assignment in one of my English Literature classes. I have never forgotten the book, although I did not count it as a favorite when I was young. While the story is centered around a nineteen year old boy, the concepts about war and its effect on this young man are very mature. I found the battle scenes to be extremely intense and Henry Fleming to be distant and unlikable to me as a young woman. Yet, it is hard to turn away from this book as it draws you into the conflict that these soldiers face. Now that I’ve reread it as an adult, I find that I appreciate the story and the writing style much better.

The novel has been made into a movie several times. Director John Huston created the first one, starring Medal of Honor Winner, Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming in 1951. In the mid-sevenities, a made-for-television movie starring actor Richard Thomas as Henry Fleming was released.

The Red Badge of Courage Book CoverThe Red Badge of Courage can be found for free download at Project Gutenberg.

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