The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel by American author Stephen Crane (1871–1900). Taking place during the American Civil War, the story is about a young private of the Union Army, Henry Fleming, who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound, a “red badge of courage,” to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, Henry acts as standard-bearer.

 

Although Crane was born after the war, and had not at the time experienced battle first-hand, the novel is known for its realism. He began writing what would become his second novel in 1893, using various contemporary and written accounts (such as those published previously by Century Magazine) as inspiration. It is believed that he based the fictional battle on that of Chancellorsville; he may also have interviewed veterans of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Orange Blossoms. Initially shortened and serialized in newspapers in December 1894, the novel was published in full in October 1895. A longer version of the work, based on Crane’s original manuscript, was published in 1982.

The novel is known for its distinctive style, which includes realistic battle sequences as well as the repeated use of color imagery, and ironic tone. Separating itself from a traditional war narrative, Crane’s story reflects the inner experience of its protagonist (a soldier fleeing from combat) rather than the external world around him. Also notable for its use of what Crane called a “psychological portrayal of fear”, the novel’s allegorical and symbolic qualities are often debated by critics. Several of the themes that the story explores are maturation, heroism, cowardice, and the indifference of nature. The Red Badge of Courage garnered widespread acclaim, what H. G. Wells called “an orgy of praise”, shortly after its publication, making Crane an instant celebrity at the age of twenty-four. The novel and its author did have their initial detractors, however, including author and veteran Ambrose Bierce. Adapted several times for the screen, the novel became a bestseller. It has never been out of print and is now thought to be Crane’s most important work and a major American text.

Stephen Crane published his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in March 1893 at the age of 22. Maggie was not a success, either financially or critically. Most critics thought the unsentimental Bowery tale crude or vulgar, and Crane chose to publish the work privately after it was repeatedly rejected for publication. Crane found inspiration for his next novel while spending hours lounging in a friend’s studio in the early summer of 1893. There, he became fascinated with issues of Century Magazine that were largely devoted to famous battles and military leaders from the Civil War. Frustrated with the dryly written stories, Crane stated, “I wonder that some of those fellows don’t tell how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they’re as emotionless as rocks.” Returning to these magazines during subsequent visits to the studio, he decided to write a war novel. He later stated that he “had been unconsciously working the detail of the story out through most of his boyhood” and had imagined “war stories ever since he was out of knickerbockers.”

At the time, Crane was intermittently employed as a free-lance writer, contributing articles to various New York City newspapers. He began writing what would become The Red Badge of Courage in June 1893, while living with his older brother Edmund in Lake View, New Jersey. Crane conceived the story from the point of view of a young private who is at first filled with boyish dreams of the glory of war, only to become disillusioned by war’s reality. He took the private’s surname, “Fleming,” from his sister-in-law’s maiden name. He would later relate that the first paragraphs came to him with “every word in place, every comma, every period fixed.” Working mostly nights, he wrote from around midnight until four or five in the morning. Because he could not afford a typewriter, he carefully wrote in ink on legal-sized paper, occasionally crossing through or overlying a word. If he changed something, he would rewrite the whole page. He later moved to New York City, where he completed the novel in April 1894.

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