Stephen Crane's best-known work remains singularly powerful more than a century after publication, a remarkably vivid acid-trip-like ride told in a grippingly naturalistic way. The product of a man in his mid-20s who had never been closer to war than military school and veteran's parades, "Red Badge Of Courage" captures both the lulls and terrors of combat as experienced in the Civil War.
Henry Fleming is a young man newly recruited to the Union cause. When his regiment, the 304th New York, is put on the front line, the youth recoils from a strong Confederate attack and finds himself wandering the broken hinterlands of the battlefield. As the war around him continues, another war goes on inside Henry as he tries to convince himself he is not a coward. But only battle will restore his sense of self.
The edition I read is billed as the "only complete edition", from Crane's original manuscript. People who complain that the later final edition is too purple for its own good would probably dislike this even more. There's more of Fleming's internal struggle, and more adjectives. Certainly editing had its advantages. I don't think one of "Red Badge's" most famous lines benefits from the adjective "fierce", as in "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer."
But there are compensatory benefits to this editions. While narrating Henry's various self-justifications for his running away from battle, some of which have a ring of meretricious substance about them, there is this nice line, excised from the final text: "...he peers into the core of things and sees that the judgment of man is thistle-down in wind".
Editor Henry Binder overstates how much of the editing was to the novel's detriment, arguing that it obscures Crane's message of Fleming as a badly-flawed character only made worse after answering Mars' call to duty at last. Fleming doesn't strike me as guilty of more than being a kid in a tricky situation, out on his own for the first time in the most testing of circumstances. I've never been to war, but I identified with the highly vivid journey of self-discovery Henry takes. It's to Crane's credit he keeps so much of Fleming under the table, even barely referencing him by name. That way he becomes an everyman, and a reader surrogate.
What kind of takeaway does Crane desire from his readers? Was it, to echo a title of a later Crane poem, that "War is kind"? "He had fought like a pagan who defends his religion," Crane writes of Fleming. "Regarding it, he saw that it was fine, wild, and, in some ways, easy."
Yet you also get vividly horrific descriptions of dead bodies reeking in the sun, and senseless death and suffering.
Ultimately Crane probably saw war as a natural byproduct of humanity and an uncaring universe, neither good nor bad. It's a limited philosophical construct, perhaps, but one that "Red Badge" makes a case for in bold, unforgettable hues.
This work is on most standard High School reading lists, as well as it should be. I first read this one over 45 years ago, and still take if off the shelf every so often and give it a reread. The author's prose is wonderful. The story is well defined. It is an excellent example of what good writing should be. The feelings the author conveys are absolutely astounding, particuarly when you know that King never expierenced war, first hand, himself. That being said, and I do not mean this in a demeaning … more
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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Like the Carroll volume above, this edition of the seasoned veteran provides a new twist. Crane's Badge was originally serialized in the New York Press in 1894, a year before the story was published in novel form. This volume offers both the slightly different serial version and the finished work. Though every library no doubt has numerous copies of Red Badge, academic and public libraries supporting American literature curricula should pop for this one, too, especially at the price. Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to thePaperbackedition.