Stephen Crane and the Red Badge of Courage, article in the Saturday Review 1896
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The want finds the book as the opportunity finds the man: Mr. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage really supplies the want more completely, and, therefore, more satisfactorily, than any other book with which we are acquainted. Tolstoi, in his War and Peace, and his sketches of Sebastopol, has given, with extraordinary depth of insight and extraordinary artistic skill, the effect of battle on the ordinary man, whether cultured officer or simple and rough soldier; but he takes no one man through the long series of experiences and impressions which Mr. Crane describes in its effects on young Henry Fleming, a raw recruit who first saw service in the last American Civil War. While the impressions of fighting, and especially of wounds and death, on an individual soldier, have been painted with marvelously vivid touches by Tolstoi, the impressions of battle on a body of men, a regiment, have been also realized and represented with characteristic vigor by Mr. Rudyard Kipling in such admirable work as The Drums of the Fore and Aft. With less imagination, but with an accumulated mass of studied knowledge altogether too labored, M. Zola in La Debacle has done some excellent literary work, but work not so convincing as Kipling’s, and work certainly far inferior to Mr. Stephen Crane’s, whose picture of the effect of actual fighting on a raw regiment is simply unapproached in intimate knowledge and sustained imaginative strength. This we say without forgetting Merimee's celebrated account of the taking of the redoubt. The writing of the French stylist is, no doubt, much superior in its uniform excellence; but Mr. Crane, in the supreme moments of the fight, is possessed by the fiery breath of battle, as a Pythian priestess by the breath of the god, and finds an inspired utterance that will reach the universal heart of man. Courage in facing wounds and death is the special characteristic of man among the animals, of man who sees into the future, and has therefore much to deter him that affects him alone. Indeed, man, looking at the past, might almost be described as the fighting animal; and Mr. Crane’s extraordinary book will appeal strongly to the insatiable desire, latent or developed, to know the psychology of war—how the sights and sounds, the terrible details of the drama of battle, affect the senses and the soul of man. Whether Mr. Crane has had personal experience of the scenes he depicts we cannot say from external evidence; but the extremely vivid touches of detail convince us that he has. Certainly, if his book were altogether a work of the imagination, unbased on personal experience, his realism would be nothing short of a miracle. Unquestionably his knowledge, as we believe acquired in war, has been assimilated and has become a part of himself. At the heated crises of the battle he has the war fever—the Berserk fury in his veins; he lives in the scenes he depicts, he drinks to the dregs the bitter cup of defeat and the bitter cup of fear and shame with his characters no less completely than he thrills with their frantic rage, when repulsed by the enemy, and their frantic joy when they charge home.
The Red Badge of Courage—a name which means, we may perhaps explain, a wound received in open fight with the enemy—is the narrative of two processes: the process by which a raw youth develops into a tried and trustworthy soldier, and the process by which a regiment that has never been under fire develops into a finished and formidable fighting machine. Henry Fleming, the youth who is the protagonist of this thrillingly realistic drama of war, has for deuteragonist Wilson, the loud young boaster. Wilson, however, comes only occasionally into the series of pictures of fighting, and of the impressions that fighting produces on the hypersensitive nerves of the chief character. Fleming, a neurotic lad, Constitutionally weak and intensely egotistic, fanciful and easily excited, enlists in the Northern Army, and finds himself a raw recruit in a new regiment, derisively greeted by veteran regiments as "fresh fish." Nights of morbid introspection afflict the youth with the intolerable question, Will he funk when the fighting comes? Thus he continues to question and torture himself till his feelings are raised to the nth power of sensitiveness. At last, after many false alarms and fruitless preparations, the real battle approaches, and whatever confidence in himself remained oozes away from the lonely lad. “He lay down in the grass. The blades pressed tenderly against his cheek. The liquid stillness of the night enveloping him made him feel vast pity for himself. . . . He wished without reserve that he was at home again.” He talked with his comrades, but found no sign of similar weakness. He felt himself inferior to them: an outcast. Then, in the gray dawn, after such a night of fear, they start hastily for the front. "He felt carried along by a mob. The sun spread disclosing rays, and one by one regiments burst into view like armed men just born from the earth. The youth perceived that the time had come. He was about to be measured. For a moment he felt in the face of his great trial like a babe, and the flesh over his heart seemed very thin." He looked round him, but there was no escape from the regiment. "He was in a moving box." The experiences of the battle are led up to with masterly skill. First he is fascinated by the skirmishers, whom he sees running hither and thither, “firing at the landscape.”
The new regiment took its ground in a fringe of wood. Shells came screaming over. "Bullets began to whistle among the branches and hiss at the trees. Twigs and leaves came sailing down. It was as if a thousand axes, wee and invisible, were being wielded." Then the tide of battle moved toward them, and out of the gray smoke came the yells of the combatants, and then a mob of beaten men rushed past, careless of the grim jokes hurled at them. "The battle reflection that shone for an instant on their faces on the mad current made the youth feel" that he would have gladly escaped if he could. “The sight of this stampede exercised a flood-like force that seemed able to drag sticks and stones and men from the ground.” At last, “Here they come! Here they come! Gun-locks clicked. Across the smoke-infested fields came a brown swarm of running men who were giving shrill yells. A flag tilted forward sped near to the front.” .
The man at the youth's elbow was mumbling, as if to himself: “Oh! we’re in for it now; oh! we’re in for it now.” The youth fired a wild first shot, and immediately began to work at his weapon automatically. He lost concern for himself, and felt that something of which he was a part was in a crisis. “He felt the subtle battle-brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.” "Following this came a red rage. He had a mad feeling against his rifle, which could only be used against one life at a time." The description goes on, full of vivid realistic touches, of which we can only give a fragment or two. "The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din, as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels." The “men dropped here and there like bundles.” One man “grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute indefinite reproach.” The first attack was repulsed. The youth had stood his ground and was in an ecstasy of self-satisfaction. The supreme trial, he thought, was over. Suddenly from the ranks rose the astonished cry, "Here they come again!" and a fresh attack developed. The men groaned and began to grumble. On came the rebel attack. “Reeling with exhaustion, the youth began to overestimate the strength of the assailants. They must be machines of steel.” “He seemed to shut his eyes and wait to be gobbled.” Then “a man near him ran with howls—a lad whose face had borne an expression of exalted courage was in an instant smitten abject. He, too, threw down his gun and fled. There was no shame in his face. He ran like a rabbit.” The youth saw their flight —-yelled—swung about—and sped to the rear in great leaps. "He ran like a blind man. Two or three times he fell down. Once he knocked his shoulder so heavily against a tree that he went headlong."
The fugitive, after a time, comes upon a procession of wounded men, limping and staggering to the rear. The wounded men fraternize with him, supposing him to be wounded also. The growth of shame that begins with a brotherly question, “ Where yeh hit, ol' boy?” is as good as any part of this long psychological study. “At times be regarded the wounded soldiers in an envious way. He wished he too had a wound, a red badge of courage.” There was a spectral soldier at his side, whose eyes were fixed in a stare into the unknown; he suddenly recognized his old comrade, Jan Conklin, the tall soldier. The gradual dying on his legs of the tall soldier is described with extraordinary vividness. The soldier, with the instinct of the animal wounded unto death, wishes to creep off and be alone. His comrades, anxious to help him, insist on following him. He suddenly slips away and leaves them. "Leave me be, can’t ye? Leave me be for a moment," is his entreaty, and they follow at a distance. They watch his death, as wonderfully described as a death in Tolstoi. "Well, he was reg’lar jim-dandy fer nerve, wasn’t he?" says the tattered soldier in a little awe-struck voice. “I never seen a man do like that before.” Presently, the incoherent talk of the wounded man is made to reflect with a Sophoclean irony on the runaway youth. The night bivouac in the forest after the battle is finely described. The weary men lying round the fires, under the forest roof; the break in the trees, through which a space of starry sky is seen. At dawn the motionless mass of bodies, thick spread on the ground, look in the gray light as if the place were a charnel-house.
The fighting of the new regiment, a forlorn hope, proceeds with a breathless speed of narrative that emulates the actual rush of the battle-worn and desperate men, among whom there is no flinching or fear now, any more than there is in the sensitive youth, who, having had his battle baptism, is soon to bear the colors, wrenched from the iron grip of the dead color-sergeant. “As the regiment swung from its position out into a cleared space, the woods and thickets before it awakened. Yellow flames leaped towards it from many directions. . . . The song of the bullets was in the air, and shells snarled in the tree-tops. One tumbled directly in the middle of a hurrying group and exploded in crimson fury. There was an instant's spectacle of a man, almost over it, throwing up his hands to shield his eyes. Other men, punctured by bullets, fell in grotesque agonies." The regiment stopped for breath, and as it saw the gaps the bullets were making in the ranks, faltered and hesitated. The lieutenant worked them forward painfully with volleys of oaths. They halted behind some trees. Then the lieutenant, with the two young soldiers, made a last effort. They led the regiment, bawling "Come on! come on!" “The flag, obedient to these appeals, bended its glittering form and swept toward them. The men wavered in indecision for a moment, and then, with a long wailful cry, the dilapidated regiment surged forward and began its new journey. Over the field went the scurrying mass. It was a handful of men splattered into the faces of the enemy. Towards it instantly sprang the yellow tongues. A vast quantity of blue smoke hung before them. A mighty banging made ears valueless. The youth ran like a madman to reach the woods before a bullet could discover him. He ducked his head low like a foot-ball player. In his haste his eyes almost closed, and the scene was a wild blur. Pulsating saliva stood at the corners of his mouth." At last the men began to trickle back. In vain the youth carrying the colors aided the lieutenant to rally them. The battered and bruised regiment slowly makes its way back, only to be condemned by the general who had ordered the charge.
The book is crowded with vivid passages and striking descriptions, often expressed in picturesque diction.
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