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The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War & "The Veteran" (Modern Library Classics)by Stephen Crane
From the Introduction by Shelby Foote
When I first encountered The Red Badge, back in my early teens, it fairly bowled me over, this story of how a New York farmboy who, in his terrifying baptism of fire-a baptism of which it could truly be said, in churchly terms, that it was "by total immersion"-first turns tail and runs, a coward, but then rejoins his regiment and comports himself, throughout the second day of battle, as a hero. More than half a century later, and with my own war behind me, the novel bowls me over still, but in a different way, especially in my understanding of Crane's ultimate assessment of his young protagonist: "He was a man."
From the time of that furious ten-night burst of first-draft writing, in the early spring of 1893, to the presumably final product in New Orleans, in March of 1895, he had tinkered with and labored over the text, off and on, for two full years. Like Schliemann at Troy, explicators have unearthed at least seven layers of composition and revision underlying the version most of us read today, although some of those scholars-ignoring the fact that Crane never expressed any reservations about what he had passed for the printer-restore the excised portions, long and short, in brackets or in supplements, in an attempt to reinforce their notion of what it was that Crane had been trying to say before he yielded to pressure from Ripley Hitchcock to clip the soaring novel's wings; which, incidentally, is rather like copping the old plea, "The devil made me do it." Crane didn't believe in the devil, nor in "the lake of fire and the rest of the sideshows," and would probably be no more than mildly interested in the outcome. He had known what he was after from the start, yet it was only by making the effort, including the additions and excisions, that he discovered how to get where he was going. The point is that he got there, and he got there in the fewest possible words.
From the outset, having chosen his model--Chancellorsville, as even the most elementary student of the conflict can plainly see from point to point in Crane's account--he was determined to make it universal, not only to broaden its scope but also to avoid the harping of veterans and those who would presently be called buffs. "I evaded them," he afterwards explained, "because it was essential that I should make my battle a type and name no names." Only two place-names are mentioned throughout, Washington and Richmond, and one river, the Rappahannock. Except for the subtitle, added later, not even the war itself is identified. Neither secession nor emancipation is referred to, any more than are Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis; Joe Hooker is never spotted through the drifting smoke, astride his big white horse, and no rumor makes the rounds to tell of Stonewall Jackson's fatal wounding in the flame-stitched twilight of the first day's fighting. In the course of Crane's revisions, even the main characters' names Jim Conklin, Wilson, and Henry Fleming-were deleted, outside of dialogue passages, and changed respectively to "the tall soldier," "the loud soldier," and "the youth," whose surname remains undisclosed until midway through the book, when he imagines his comrades jeering at his absence, "Where's Henry Fleming? He run, didn't 'e? Oh, my." Not that this avoidance of the nominal specific detracts from the verisimilitude of the novel in its depiction of combat; quite the opposite, in fact. "I was with Crane at Antietam," a retired veteran colonel proudly claimed soon after the book appeared.
For the most part, this triumph of conviction proceeds from the writing itself If The Red Badge has a hero, surely that hero is the American language, and yet the major literary influence on Crane in his use of that instrument came from abroad, from France by way of Russia: first from Stendhal, whose Charterhouse of Parma has its young protagonist, Fabrizio del Dongo, flounder about on the field of Waterloo in a state of disoriented confusion much like Henry Fleming's. Crane, it seems, had never read Stendhal, but Tolstoy had, and had learned from him, and Crane learned from Tolstoy, whose Sebastopol came out in translation half a dozen years before the first draft of The Red Badge was put on paper. Crane had read and admired it, but apparently not War and Peace ("It goes on and on like Texas," he is reported to have complained) nor Zola's La Débâcle, also often cited as an influence, though Crane himself only said of him, "I find him pretty tiresome." In a larger sense his major influences came from life itself, from the people he knew and moved among and the veterans he talked with. For example, "I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field, " he once declared, and his Claverack. training in close-order drill and the manual of arms was of greater use to him than anyone trying to write about army life without such training could ever know.
Impressionist or expressionist, realist or naturalist he was called all those things and more-he did have a credo he stuck to from the start. A preacher's son, he said flatly: "Preaching is fatal to art in literature. I try to give readers a slice out of life, and if there is any moral or lesson in it I do not point it out. I let the reader find it for himself " All unknown, he was combining Emily Dickinson's "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" with John Keats's "negative capability" when he wrote, late in his short life, "An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways, and every artist must be 'in some things powerless as a dead snake."
Working within this credo and definition, he could be wonderfully exact and at the same time highly evocative in communicating sensation, the sight and sound and feel of an action or an object. Of a green command, ordered into its first shoulder-to-shoulder advance under fire, he writes: "The line fell slowly forward like a toppling wall, and, with a convulsive gasp that was intended for a cheer, the regiment began its journey." Up ahead, "The forest made a tremendous objection," and presently, at closer range, "bullets buffed into men" and "grunting bundles of blue began to drop." The attackers bared their teeth as they charged, and "their eyes shone all white." Guyed by veteran units they passed on their withdrawal to the rear, "the men trudged with sudden heaviness, as if they bore upon their bended shoulders the coffin of their honor." Critics might bridle at grammatical lapses and complain that the text fairly bristled with pathetic fallacies--some more pathetic than others-but there could be no denying that what came across in the end had a tactile validity beyond anything of its kind they had encountered in their book-cramped lives. No wonder the old line colonel thought he had fought alongside Crane at Antietam or that other veterans were amazed to learn that the battle he described so well (and from the inside, so to speak, all those thirty years ago) had been fought nearly a decade before he was born.
In time, readers would come to see that there might be more beneath than there was above the novel's surface; reticence was a masking device that magnified even as it concealed. John Berryman, a mid-twentieth century Crane biographer and poet, speaks in this connection of "the immense power of the tacit"; but Frank Norris, a contemporary, put it in simpler terms, remarking that Crane "knew when to shut up." Others who knew him in his life gave other clues. Wells, for example, spoke of his "persistent selection of the elements of an impression." But perhaps the finest assessment of all, from Crane's own day to the present, was given by another British contemporary, Edward Garnett, author of "Mr. Stephen Crane: An Appreciation," the first in-depth study of his work as a whole, up to the time he knew him in England. Garnett revised the piece after Crane's death, adding perceptively: "It is his irony that checks the emotional intensity of his delineation, and suddenly reveals passion at high tension in the clutch of the implacable tides of life. It is the perfect fusion of these two forces of passion and irony that creates Crane's spiritual background, and raises his work, at its finest, into the higher zone of man's tragic conflict with the universe."
The novel's prevalent irony begins with its title. Henry Fleming's "red badge of courage" is an all but self-inflicted wound, suffered while trying to question one of O. O. Howard's rattled Dutchmen, numbers of whom--skedaddlers too, but faster on their feet, thrown rearward in panic by Jackson's flank attack-had run past him moaning, "Say, where de plank road? Where de plank road?" and one of whom, crying "Let go me! Let go me!" in response to Henry's clutch and question, "Why-" struck him a knee-buckling blow across the head with the butt or barrel of the rifle which, unlike Henry, he had somehow forgotten to drop in his flight from fury. But this is only the first and most obvious of the ironies that, as Garnett saw, serve to "check the emotional intensity" of the novel and sometimes even reverse, from underneath, the meaning of what is said on the surface.
A case in point is "He was a man," referred to earlier. The sentence or phrase occurs five times in the course of the novel. First: "He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member." Next: "He had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man." The third concerns the whole regiment, badly winded on the march: "Since much of their strength and their breath had vanished, they returned to caution. They were become men again." Another follows their stalwart repulse of a rebel charge: "They gazed about them with looks of uplifted pride, feeling new trust in the grim, always confident weapons in their hands. And they were men." The fifth, on the next-to-last page of the book, applies to Henry alone: "He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man. " The first describes an automatonic melding, while the second reveals an undetected coward. The third portrays humanity recovered through exhaustion. Only the fourth and fifth imply outright manliness in the macho sense and, coming as they do on the heels of success, reflect a sort of congratulatory optimism, not entirely based on fact. The one interpretation common to all five is that they define, at best, the act of rejoining the human race; "they returned to caution." Crane's ultimate irony pertains to the confidence Fleming and his fellows feel at having survived the ultimate challenge of manhood. For if this is Chancellorsville-and it is Gettysburg is only two months up the road in Pennsylvania, a still more horrendous kind of hellish testing for all involved, including Henry Fleming.
Nor is that by any means the limit of Crane's use of irony as a means of undercutting what he seems to say. Nature herself plays a tricky role in the drama, including its controversial two-line final paragraph, added in New Orleans just before he left for Texas: "Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the leaden hosts of rain clouds." Supposedly this is an upbeat ending, but a look back raises doubts. On the march to the Rappahannock crossing, "the sky overhead was of a fairy blue," and when the regiment halts for the night Henry begins to wonder whether he'll "run when the time comes." He does indeed run next day in the heat of combat, but during a lull just before he takes off rearward he observes "the blue, pure sky and the sun gleaming on the trees and fields" and finds it "surprising that Nature had gone on with her golden process in the midst of so much devilment." He runs, then manages to rejoin his outfit in time for the next day's fighting, and comports himself well in breaking up another rebel charge. As he is congratulating himself on his share in the repulse, he no sooner notices "the sun now bright and gay in the blue, enameled sky" than he also sees his childhood friend Jimmie Rogers, gut shot and soon to die, "thrashing about in the grass, twisting his shuddering body into many strange postures [and] screaming loudly." The action resumes "under a sapphire sky," and reaches a climax in a charge that is broken off by orders to fall back across the river in the rain. The battle is over, and Crane's ahistorical historical novel ends with that ray of gold. Whether its portent is any more valid than all those others, as a symbol of hope or a confirmation of Henry's newfound resolution, is a question each reader can answer for himself Yes or no; either will serve. You can even take one and then the other; both will do.
Any true work having to do with war is bound by definition to turn out antiwar in its effect, and so of course does this one. Its beauty obtains in its devotion to truth, in its highly original use of materials that were very much at hand but were neglected until Crane took hold of them. Startling in its contrast to the ruck of books engendered by that fratricidal conflict, fact or fiction, The Red Badge is itself the "golden ray" that "came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds."
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