I finally read this classic and was immediately swept away by the tale of young Henry Fleming (often referred to as ‘the youth’ in Red Badge of Courage), who itches to go to war, despite his mother’s wishes.
Stephen Crane’s writing has aged gracefully since the novel was first published in 1893. The forbidding atmosphere of war is ideally suited to a style that might be considered florid by today’s standards. The potent tone fits the story but the writing still feels current, authentic and devoid of sentimentality.
Henry’s character is laid bare as he experiences both cowardice and bravery in battle. Both emotions are seen as almost uncontrollable responses in times of war and the author doesn’t pass judgment, letting subtle ironies prevail instead. Red Badge of Courage is as much a psychological novel as a war story. And faced with what Henry and many of his comrades confronted, the reader might well have turned and headed for the trees as well.
Images of war are lightly rendered in comparison to modern novels but just as jarring. In one scene the wounded trudge to their impending deaths (as anyone injured in battle during the Civil War frequently had mere hours to live), and young Henry describes a soldier he encounters who has two wounds, ‘one in the head, bound with a blood-soaked rag, and the other in the arm, making that member dangle like a broken bough.’
Hemingway said that Red Badge of Courage was ‘one of the finest books of American literature.’ Reading Crane’s prose, it’s easy to see precursors of Hemingway’s own style:
‘It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky.’
Stephen Crane modestly stated that he wanted to write a war story reminiscent of the books he read as a boy, and ended up penning an adventure story that doubles as fine literature and perhaps the ultimate anti-war novel.