The Red Badge of Courage

The Red Badge of Courage is now universally recognized as a masterpiece, although when it first appeared

in book form in 1896 (two months later in England than in the United States) it provoked mixed reactions.

The English critics, in fact, brought it to the attention of the American public, which had generally ignored

it. Those early readers who approved saw in it a "true and complete picture of war," a book which "thrusts

aside romantic machinery" in favor of dramatic action and photographic revelation. Its critics attacked it for

what they considered its utter lack of literary form - its "absurd similes," "bad grammar," and "violent

straining after effect." Edward Garnett, however, praised its "perfect mastery of form," and Conrad, who

had known Crane, said in 1926 that The Red Badge of Courage was a "spontaneous piece of work which

seems to spurt and flow like a tapped stream from the depths of the writer's being," and he found it "virile

and full of gentle sympathy!

" while it was happily marred by no "declamatory sentiments." Throughout the first four decades of the

century the book was variously praised and condemned for its naturalism or "animalism," its realism and its

extraordinary style. V. S. Pritchett, writing in 1946, may be said to represent the prevailing opinion when

he declares that Crane's "verisimilitude," his grasp of "human feelings," and his "dramatic scenes and

portraits" give The Red Badge of Courage a place in the literature of war.

It is only in the forties that serious literary analysis of the book begins. It had of course long been

recognized that novels such as Zola's La Debacle and Tolstoy's Sevastopol and War and Peace had had

some influence on Crane, and that he had made use of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (which had first

appeared serially in the Century Magazine) as well as accounts of particular campaigns; his brother

William, for one thing, was an expert on the strategy of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and there are many

parallels with this battle to be found in The Red Badge. But scholars like Pratt, Webster, Osborn, and

Stallman began to call attention to the possible role played by less significant factors, like Crane's personal

acquaintance with General Van Petten, an instructor at Claverack College, who might have provided him

with a first-hand account of the Battle of Antietam. Crane may also have derived some less important

conceptions from Civil War potboilers like Hinman's C!

orporal Si Klegg or Kirkland's The Captain of Company K. Although Crane himself acknowledged an early

influence by Kipling's novels, it was S. C. Osborn who pointed out that the famous "red wafer" image at the

close of Chapter 9 probably had its source in Kipling's The Light That Failed, and who thereby inaugurated

a discussion (maintained chiefly by R. W. Stallman) about the meaning of this image. The "wafer" may be

a wax sealing wafer or it may be, as Stallman suggests, an allusion to the Christian communion wafer, but

it lies at the center of the controversy concerning the alleged Christian symbolism of the novel.

Discussions of the structure and total meaning of the novel date from about 1950. John Schroeder

believes that Crane has not achieved a successful accommodation of antithetical elements: "War as man-

made blasphemy" is not "distinguishable from nature's pattern of serene wisdom"; and he feels that the

"putting off of the Old Man [by the youth] . . . is largely a matter of accident." R. W. Stallman, on the other

hand, asserts that a consistent, meaningful pattern unifies the story. The Red Badge "is about the self -

combat of a youth who fears and stubbornly resists change and spiritual growth. . . . Henry's regeneration is

brought about by the death of Jim Conklin." Psychological and mythic criticism of a book whose action

centers mainly about a "wound" was perhaps inevitable, and Maxwell Geismar (1953) explains that

"Fleming's shame at his psychic wound . . . led him to yearn for the physical wound." The basic pattern of

the narrative conforms to that of "acceptance after a t!

rial by ordeal." Geismar further sees this as all a reflection of Crane's own "psychic wound,"