Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Adventure classics -- Young soldier, young country

The Red Badge of Courage

by Stephen Crane


“It is a very comfortable and manful occupation to trample upon one’s own egotism,” Stephen Crane wrote shortly after the 1895 publication of his Civil War narrative, The Red Badge of Courage. He tramples as well on the egotism of young Union soldier Henry Fleming, and of the still-youthful United States, soon to plunge into conflict again in the Spanish-American War.

The story begins on the eve of a battle, never named but at least partly based on the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia, fought from April 30 to May 6, 1863. (Although Union forces appear victorious in Crane’s narrative, the historical battle was a victory for the Confederate army commanded by Robert E. Lee.)

It will be the first battle for Henry and his friends -- “the tall soldier” Jim Conklin and “the loud soldier” Wilson, and Henry in particular worries, not about whether he’ll live, but how he’ll behave. “Think any ‘a th’ boys’ll run?” Henry asks.

He, of course, will run. When he returns, shamed with anticipation of his friends’ scorn, he finds Conklin dying. Another fleeing Union soldier, panicking, hits Henry over the head with his rifle butt. The blow bestows the visible wound -- “the little red badge of courage” -- needed to regain his regiment without raising questions about where he has

With Wilson at his side, Henry acquits himself well in the second day of battle, captures the enemy’s flag, receives the congratulations of the survivors, and recovers his composure. “He saw his vivid error and he was afraid that it would stand before him all of his life. . . yet gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance.”

I’ve often found my impression of a book I read as an adolescent differs from the one I take from it years later. I was relieved to see a reviewer at Goodreads write how deeply he understood Henry’s terror -- not of battle, but of the fear of public humiliation, because “children understand embarrassment.”

More than the fear that makes him flee at his first battle, it’s this reliance by Henry on the approval of his companions what makes the story “a novel about a young man,” as the editors of the 1979 edition printed from Crane’s original manuscript point out.

Another thing about re-reading books years later -- you may find yourself with a different edition. As an adult, it was a revelation to learn that the ending I had first read -- “He had been to touch the great death and found that, after all, it was but the great death” -- wasn’t exactly the one Crane wrote. In an apparent attempt to make the book more palatable, Crane or his editor made extensive cuts to the original manuscript. The famous sentence originally added “and it was for others” at the end. After all he’s been through, Henry still thinks death is only “for others”? Maturity lay many battles in his future.

In spite of Henry’s obtuseness, The Red Badge of Courage made the Weider History Group’s list of the thirty greatest war novels of all time. See the complete list at

Given Crane’s perpetually ironic tone, it’s hard to tell whether he trampled as hard on himself as he had on Henry Fleming. But if he ever spared himself, life didn’t. Less than five years after the publication of The Red Badge of Courage, Crane would die of tuberculosis at age twenty-eight.

(Next Wednesday -- Adventure classics takes another look at young protagonists of another war, in Erich Maria Remarque’s story of World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front.)

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