Oct 6 2009

The Red Badge of Courage

Civil War SoldierAfter a great many years, I finally got around to reading Stephen Crane‘s 1895 novel “The Red Badge of Courage“. Why’d it take me so long? I don’t know, probably the same reason I’ve never read “Lord of the Flies” (which is on my list) or most of the other stuff that kids read in school. The book tells the story of a young man’s experience as a soldier during the American Civil War, specifically the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville (explained in a 1896 short story titled “The Veteran”). The author claimed that the story was written because all accounts of the war to that date were dry and unemotional. He wanted to infuse a war story with all the thoughts and emotions that must go through a young soldier’s mind as the battle unfolds. Keep in mind that until that time, Crane had never taken part in war (he later became an international war correspondent).

I must digress here, to point a finger (not saying which one) at one of my University professors who told me not to write about war if I hadn’t experienced it. Here we have one of the most renowned war novels of all time, written by someone who learned about warfare from issues of Century. Not enough? How about Alfred Tennyson‘s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”? Not enough? Idiot.

Back to the book at hand… I’m not sure what I should be taking from this book. Am I supposed to understand that war makes men out of children? That it teaches them truths about life, death, courage, and camaraderie? Am I supposed to sympathize with a character that never seems to reflect on the lives of men he’s shooting at? Is that something soldiers never do? Or something that they choose not to do (out of need)? For a character that thinks himself into knots throughout a horrible situation, I can’t help but thinking that there could have been more. Maybe it’s not fair to criticize sensibilities¬† over a span of 100+ years, but…

Overall this is a good story and a captivating (though imaginary) window into a terrible moment in American history.

“He would die; he would go to some place where he would be understood. It was useless to expect appreciation of his profound and fine sense from such men as the lieutenant. He must look to the grave for comprehension.”

4 out of 5