The Red Badge of Courage is now universally recognized as a masterpiece, although when it first appeared in book form in 1896 (two months later in England than in the United States) it provoked mixed reactions. The English critics, in fact, brought it to the attention of the American public, which had generally ignored it. Those early readers who approved saw in it a “true and complete picture of war,” a book which “thrusts aside romantic machinery” in favor of dramatic action and photographic revelation.
Its critics attacked it for hat they considered its utter lack of literary form – its “absurd similes,” “bad grammar,” and “violent straining after effect. ” Edward Garnett, however, praised its “perfect mastery of form,” and Conrad, who had known Crane, said in 1926 that The Red Badge of Courage was a “spontaneous piece of work which seems to spurt and flow like a tapped stream from the depths of the writer’s being,” and he found it “virile and full of gentle sympathy! ” while it was happily marred by no “declamatory sentiments.
Throughout the first four decades of the entury the book was variously praised and condemned for its naturalism or “animalism,” its realism and its extraordinary style. V. S. Pritchett, writing in 1946, may be said to represent the prevailing opinion when he declares that Crane’s “verisimilitude,” his grasp of “human feelings,” and his “dramatic scenes and portraits” give The Red Badge of Courage a place in the literature of war. It is only in the forties that serious literary analysis of the book begins.
It had of course long been recognized that novels such as Zola’s La Debacle and Tolstoy’s Sevastopol and War and Peace had had ome influence on Crane, and that he had made use of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (which had first appeared serially in the Century Magazine) as well as accounts of particular campaigns; his brother William, for one thing, was an expert on the strategy of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and there are many parallels with this battle to be found in The Red Badge.
But scholars like Pratt, Webster, Osborn, and Stallman began to call attention to the possible role played by less significant factors, like Crane’s personal cquaintance with General Van Petten, an instructor at Claverack College, who might have provided him with a first-hand account of the Battle of Antietam. Crane may also have derived some less important conceptions from Civil War potboilers like Hinman’s C! orporal Si Klegg or Kirkland’s The Captain of Company K. Although Crane himself acknowledged an early influence by Kipling’s novels, it was S. C. Osborn who pointed out that the famous “red wafer” image at the close of Chapter 9 probably had its source in Kipling’s The Light That Failed, and who thereby inaugurated discussion (maintained chiefly by R. W. Stallman) about the meaning of this image. The “wafer” may be a wax sealing wafer or it may be, as Stallman suggests, an allusion to the Christian communion wafer, but it lies at the center of the controversy concerning the alleged Christian symbolism of the novel.
Discussions of the structure and total meaning of the novel date from about 1950. John Schroeder believes that Crane has not achieved a successful accommodation of antithetical elements: “War as man- made blasphemy” is not “distinguishable from nature’s pattern of serene wisdom”; and he feels that the putting off of the Old Man [by the youth] . . . is largely a matter of accident. ” R. W. Stallman, on the other hand, asserts that a consistent, meaningful pattern unifies the story.
The Red Badge “is about the self – combat of a youth who fears and stubbornly resists change and spiritual growth. . . . Henry’s regeneration is brought about by the death of Jim Conklin. ” Psychological and mythic criticism of a book whose action centers mainly about a “wound” was perhaps inevitable, and Maxwell Geismar (1953) explains that “Fleming’s shame at his psychic wound . . led him to yearn for the physical wound. ” The basic pattern of the narrative conforms to that of “acceptance after a t! rial by ordeal. Geismar further sees this as all a reflection of Crane’s own “psychic wound,” declaring that “much of Crane’s career was spent in the attempt to validate the imaginary experience in The Red Badge of Courage by the test of battle itself. ”
In a similar vein, J. E. Hart concludes that The Red Badge is about the making of a “hero” (in the mythical sense). Noting that Henry atones for his guilt with blood and then feasts ommunally with his comrades, Hart decides that through atonement and rebirth (Henry’s awakening from a “thousand years’ sleep”) he has become a member of the tribal unit. Following the general pattern of myth . . . Crane has shown how the moral and spiritual strength of the individual springs from the group. ” A more conventional conclusion has been reached by M. Solomon, who regards Crane’s novel as a “study in the meaning of social responsibility and freedom,” interpreting the youth’s flight as an act of blind defiance of authority and his return as a “submission to arbitrary power and to the military.
Solomon finds that the deepest patriotism of the novel is to be discovered in Crane’s “devotion to and confidence in the common people. A far greater degree of ironic detachment is imputed to the author by Charles C. Walcutt, who observes that the terms Crane employs “suggest [that war is] a solemn farce or a cosmic and irresponsible game. ” Henry, he believes, “has never been able to evaluate his conduct. . . . The whole business is made of pretense and delusion. ” Recent statements have occasionally been polemical. Philip Rahv (in 1956) attacked the views of Stallman and his supporters, claiming that they misappropriated techniques of poetic analysis in reading Crane’s novel.
Rahv contended that Stallman’s “Christian allegorical” reading was absurd, and that such interpretations as that of taking Jim Conklin’s initials to be a reference to Jesus Christ reduce criticism to a cabalistic hunt for clues. Stanley Greenfield takes earlier critics to task for misreading the text and takes the position that Crane’s irony “neatly balances two major views of human life . . . ethical motivation and behavior versus deterministic and naturalistic actions. Colvert also sees a double point of view in the story, but adapts his position to the “redemption” theory. The structure of the novel,” he asserts, “is characteristically a series of loosely related ironic episodes built up in the contrast between two points of view toward reality. ” These two vi! ewpoints are a subjective illusory one, and the objective “long view” of the narrator. “Henry is redeemed by a successful adjustment of his point of view. ” Two fairly recent evaluations of The Red Badge may serve to epitomize the contradictory esponses Crane’s story continues to evoke.
Norman Friedman is convinced that “Fleming undergoes no change of character whatsoever . . . the change which he does undergo [being] one of thought,” while James T. Cox sees in the book the idea “that the selfless behavior of heroism paradoxically emerges only from the grossest, most infantile, animalistic, fiery hatred born of the vanity of egocentrism. ” It does not seem likely, in view of such discrepancies of viewpoint, that agreement about total meaning of The Red Badge of Courage is soon to be reached.