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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
When The Red Badge of Courage was published in 1895 (it first came out in installments in a Philadelphia newspaper at the end of 1894), the Civil War had been over for thirty years. In some ways Americans were forgetting the war. In the South, whites tried to undo some of the war's effects. By the 1890s many of the old Confederate leaders were back in power, and blacks had lost their right to vote, and couldn't go to school with whites. But in other ways Americans liked to remember the Civil War. In little towns in New England and the Middle West they built monuments to Civil War dead-something they had not done after the Revolution or the War of 1812. Stories about the war were tales of bravery and heroism. Its songs were stirring anthems like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Imagine, then, how shocking it must have been to turn the pages of The Red Badge of Courage. Here was a novel where you didn't even find out the hero's name-if you could call a boy who ran away from battle a hero-until halfway through the book. Instead of being wounded by Confederate fire, this so-called hero gets his "red badge of courage" from a panicked fellow soldier. Henry Fleming's best friend, the tall soldier, Jim Conklin, dies horribly, jerking around alone in the middle of a field, rather than expiring decorously in Henry's arms with his mother's name on his lips. When Henry overhears a general speaking with his aide, he wants to know when he's getting his cigars, not about the progress of the battle. And as if it weren't enough that this Stephen Crane stripped away the glories of war, who had ever written in such language? Most novels were graced by flowing sentences, ample paragraphs, and chapters it took a whole evening to read. What was this? Who had ever heard anything as weird as Crane's language?
Those of us who watched "M*A*S*H" or read Catch-22 are not shocked by Crane's vision of war. But readers in 1895 couldn't wait to find out who Stephen Crane was. One veteran insisted that Crane had been in his regiment at Antietam (one of the great battles of the Civil War). He was wrong. Stephen Crane was a twenty-four-year-old journalist who had never seen a battle, much less fought in one; a young man who had flunked out of two colleges, where he had displayed more talent for playing baseball and drinking beer than for writing. (Several years later, after Crane covered a war in Greece as a journalist, he confessed with relief to his friend, the English novelist Joseph Conrad, that "The Red Badge of Courage is all right.")
So how did a twenty-four-year-old who had never seen combat create a novel that would forever change the way Americans wrote about war? One answer might be that he copied the style of a European novelist. In fact, European writing in the 1890s was beginning to change in some exciting ways. Two French writers, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert, published novels that outraged proper people. Zola in particular wrote in a way that people found brutal and shocking. He wrote about prostitutes and coal miners, people who did not appear in the novels of the day. And he tried to show that people were in the grip of forces-heredity, environment, and instinct-that they could not control.
Some modern critics have claimed that Zola's novel La Debacle was one inspiration for The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane had read some of Zola's novels-in English, since his French wasn't that good-and he knew about La Debacle, although nobody knows for sure whether he read the novel or only a review of it. War and Peace and Sebastapol, both by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, have also been named as possible sources for The Red Badge of Courage. Again, Crane may have read the books, but he also may have read only reviews.
Crane liked to read, and in high school he had enjoyed nineteenth-century British novels and the Greek and Roman classics. But he was always more interested in two other things: playing baseball and acting rowdy-drinking beer, playing cards, smoking, and swearing, all the things that would have made his minister father turn over in his grave. It doesn't seem likely that Stephen Crane would have been inspired by other people's books.
Baseball and being tough were probably what helped Crane imagine what war was like. In fact, Crane once said, "I believe that I get my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field. The psychology is the same." Actually, baseball was Crane's sport. He was an excellent player, and loved to show off by playing without a glove. Crane claimed that when he was at boarding school, a place called Claverack College on the Hudson River in New York State, "I never learned anything. But heaven was sunny blue and no rain fell on the diamond when I was playing baseball." When Crane went to college (despite its name, Claverack was a high school), first at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and then at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, the amount of time he spent playing baseball contributed to his flunking out.
Crane wasn't being fair to Claverack. He learned something there, something about being a soldier. For Claverack was a military academy, and Crane's mother had sent him there because the only thing he loved more than baseball was playing soldier. (Once, as a boy in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Crane had gotten so involved in a game of war that he buried a friend in the sand.) At Claverack Stephen practiced military drills. And in the evenings, around tables in the dining hall, the teachers, former soldiers, sometimes reminisced about their experiences in the Civil War. Stephen's favorite, General John Bullock Van Petten, had fought at Antietam, which the battle described in The Red Badge of Courage resembles in some ways (although it is closer to the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863). Some of the stories that showed up in The Red Badge of Courage may have been planted in Stephen's head by General Van Petten's tales.
But in the end, Stephen Crane's ability to describe war and to get inside soldiers' heads probably came from the kind of person he was, and the way he had grown up. Stephen Crane was a minister's son-and a minister's grandson and nephew, too-and like at least some other boys in that position, he wanted to show people that he was a regular guy. That need may have led Stephen to a career in journalism (although both of his parents also wrote, as did two of his brothers), and to a desire to shock more respectable people.
The struggle to find out what he was really made of, and to test his courage in battle, was as important to Stephen Crane as it was to Henry Fleming. After The Red Badge of Courage was published he traveled as a journalist to Cuba, then fighting for its independence from Spain, and to Europe, where he eventually settled in England. He became a respected war correspondent for several newspapers, showing a great deal of bravery, and he continued to write stories, novels, and poems. Like Henry, Stephen could have said that "He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man."
Stephen Crane died of tuberculosis on June 5, 1900, five months before his 29th birthday. If he had lived, would he have, as Henry did, "rid himself of the red sickness of battle" and "turned... with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks"? It is hard to know. It's almost impossible to imagine Stephen Crane as an old man.