Crane, Stephen: The Red Badge of Courage

Unusually, the proposer was absent attending a celebration in Belgium. However, he did manage to send an introduction to the book, praising it as an exploration of courage, the nature of manhood, self-realisation and personal values. Of relevance to subsequent discussion, he noted that Steven Crane was born after the American Civil War in 1871, and had no personal experience of armed conflict. The Red Badge of Courage (RBC) was written in 1895 between “Maggie, a Girl of the Streets” (1893) and “The Open Boat” (1897), about a shipwreck. The Red Badge of Courage was his most famous work, by some margin, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential American novels. Unfortunately Crane suffered from ill health throughout his life, and died from TB in 1900, when only 28 years old.

 The discussion was lively. No one present had direct experience of armed conflict,with many born in the post-WWII baby boom, and therefore in a similar situation to Crane, born six years after the American Civil War. Similarly, it was difficult to understand fully the impact of the book on 1890’s America from a perspective more than a century into the future. One member tried to draw an analogy between RBC and the recent success of ‘The Black Watch’ by Gregory Burke, but most thought this was stretched.

 The first point of discussion was the description of conflict, bearing in mind the inexperience of both author and reviewers. All but one (‘not authentic’) thought that the description had an air of realism, and was particularly strong in representing the ‘fog of war’, the inability of the participant to comprehend or act on the whole conflict, fighting their own personal battle with no knowledge of strategic imperatives, if they exist. There was praise for the description of ‘blood and gore’, of a face shattered by a musket ball, of mental breakdown, and of the protracted act of dying of the tall solider.

 For example, consider the passage, “Another had the gray seal of death already upon his face. His lips were curled in hard lines and his teeth were clinched. His hands were bloody from where he had pressed them upon his wound. He seemed to be awaiting the moment when he should pitch headlong. He stalked like the specter of a soldier, his eyes burning with the power of a stare into the unknown.”

 Attention was drawn to the Homeric references at the start of the book, and the descriptions of suffering after the first battle. One could see parallels being drawn between the imagined and real conflict, presaging the experience of the 1914-18 conflict in Europe. Yet, the book was still ambiguous at the end as one was not sure whether war was rather being depicted as a necessary evil to ensure the testing of the mettle of the protagonists.

 Was the description of the battle too erudite for the assumed narrator, and ordinary foot soldier? Certainly some thought this detracted from the authenticity. On the other hand, much of the book was written from diaries and other sources so the author had access to first-person descriptions. It was mentioned that the Civil War occurred soon after the development of photography, and probably the author had access to the many photographs (Brady, Cook et al.). Apparently this was the fourth war to be photographed after the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the Crimean War (1854–1856) and Indian Rebellion of 1857. More generally, we discussed whether personal experience was necessary to write great novels; the general consensus was against this view and there were certainly many counter examples. Yet there was a sense that Crane was living vicariously an experience which he had been denied through birth and ill health. Certainly his wide travel as a reporter revealed a taste for adventure.

 Next, the discussion centred on the intended audience. Was this a male viewpoint, intended for a male audience? In general, the consensus was that this was probably so in 1895, although it might now attract a wider audience. Was it intended to shock? Again the general consensus was affirmative, although the motivation was in dispute. Some thought it was written partly as an anti-war tome, but most thought not, thinking the emphasis on the baptism of fire or coming of age as the recruit eventually passes the test outweighed any description of the pointlessness of the conflict. A substantial minority thought that the book had been written with some cynicism, by a writer more anxious to establish his reputation than to say something important about the nature of personal experience or the nature of war. As evidence, they cited the rapidly shifting subjects of interest, and the fact that ‘Maggie’ had received poor criticism. Further, they suggested that the use of the American Civil War, rather than some other conflict, helped to boost the author’s reputation and sales as the audience had a thirst for books about the conflict.

 This brings up the next issue, whether the book was really about the American Civil War. (Chancellorsville was mentioned as a possible battle). The group were fairly sure that this was about war, or indeed the passage to manhood, and the topic was generic rather than specific. To support that view, there are many characters specified as ‘the youth’, the ‘tall soldier’, the ‘loud soldier’, the ‘tattered soldier’ etc, so this emphasises the Everyman nature of the book. (Of course some characters like the youth are also named by third parties.) Throughout the book there is no mention of context or purpose. In the passages in which the tattered man asks Henry where he has been hit, his lack of a wound is possibly a metaphor both for his trial by ordeal that is still to come, but also of Crane’s lack of personal experience. Developing this view one thought that war was only a metaphor, and that the book was about any rite of passage through strife. Reference was made to conflicts in the playground at primary school!

 In conclusion, the majority view was of a book on the experience of conflict, which defines a man; about war, not for or against war but a realistic depiction; a book with no historical context or political agenda, intended for as wide an audience as possible, but primarily a male audience. All agreed the book was very well written, entertaining, and thought-provoking. They congratulated the absent proposer on a good choice.