The Red Badge of Courage, serialised in 1894 and first published as a single edition in 1895, is a novel about the American Civil War. Though it’s taken me two attempts to finish, it’s soon read in a week or so and truly engaging as a war story as much as it is a study into the way we move from adolescence to adulthood.
The novel follows the experiences of 18-year-old Henry Fleming, who impulsively enlists for the Union despite his mother’s misgivings. Heading into his first battle, Fleming finds himself overwhelmed by the sensations of war and deserts his regiment. Rattled by his experience, the young soldier attempts to come to terms with his emotions and guilt while trying to reunite with his unit.
As he walks the country, Henry meets other soldiers – some determined to fight, others looking to retreat – and begins to shape his personality amid the chaos. As the war continues and he’s drawn into further battles, he learns to deal with his fears whilst making the transition from teenager to veteran.
The Red Badge of Courage was a conscious attempt to write a story that dealt with the psychology of war rather than a simple chronicle of various victories and defeats. He achieves this through Henry’s first-person narration, placing the reader inside the young soldier’s still-forming mind. We’re there as he bounces from self-pity to self-aggrandisement and back again.
The writing is naturalistic too, mirroring Henry’s stream-of-consciousness delivery. That’s not to say it doesn’t have moments of beauty but mixes these with the curses and half-heard insults of a frontline soldier. It’s a wonderful way to capture the way many of us think, functional drudgery interrupted by escape into our daydreams, perhaps inspired by a shaft of sunlight through a forest or rifle smoke gently rising from a battlefield.
Where the novel struggles, it’s a result of the author’s youth and developing talent. Only Crane’s second work, written at just 23, The Red Badge of Courage is a phenomenal achievement, more so given that he was born after the war ended. The realism is down to Crane’s efforts in researching the war by speaking to veterans and reading through histories.
Despite his meticulous research, there are signs of inexperience in the writing. It never quite clicks into top gear; paragraphs can need a couple of re-reads to take in and some of the sentences don’t truly flow as they should. Late in the story, Crane seems to fall in love with the world “stolid” until it stands out on the page whenever used.
For a short novel with tight chapters, it lingers like a much longer work. It reminds me of The Beautiful and Damned, F Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel. Both feel like a writer on the cusp of great success, almost capturing perfection but falling just an edit or two short. Fitzgerald went on to write The Great Gatsby whereas Crane sadly never reached the same heights again before sadly dying aged just 28.
Far more than a century since its publication, The Red Badge of Courage remains an important albeit imperfect American novel. As a window into the minds of not only those drafted into war but anyone leaving the safety of childhood for the adult world, it excels. Think of it as a shortcut to some of the natural back-and-forth between courage and cowardice needed to find our personal resting points.