Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: The Red Badge of Courage

Classic book has been on reading lists for over a hundred years...should this be called a Book Announcement rather than a Book Review? Here's a shiny new edition you can buy from Amazon. What I physically read, reviewed, and have already sold, was a nostalgic, battered discard from a school library...

Title: The Red Badge of Courage

Author: Stephen Crane

Date: 1894, 1951, many reprints since then

Publisher: D. Appleton & Company (1894), Random House (1951)

ISBN: none

Length: 267 pages

Quote: “So they were at last going to fight. On the morrow, perhaps, there would be a battle, and he would be in it.”

Stephen Crane, who claimed to believe that great writing should reflect the writer's life experience, is remembered for two novels that substantially distorted any life experience Crane could possibly have put into them: Maggie, the story of a woman of the sort Mrs. Crane exploited, and The Red Badge of Courage, the story of a soldier in a war that ended ten years before Crane was born. In practice Crane could almost have been said to adhere to Willa Cather's rule—writing the stories of people who interested the writer by being so different from the writer. He shared Cather's gift of visualizing other people's stories so vividly that they agreed his books captured what their stories had been like.

It was on the strength of his vivid visualization of the American Civil War that Crane was allowed to visit a battlefield as a journalist, and see for himself that he'd imagined how he'd react to combat conditions, quite well. Real Civil War veterans bought The Red Badge of Courage. They criticized it liberally—one particular line, according to the reprint I have, was for some time “the most notorious metaphor in American literature”--but they recommended it to students with equal liberality. This novel has been on high school reading lists for a hundred years.

Crane said that he'd set out to communicate an experience as it had been communicated to him, without philosophy, symbolism, moralism, or overt religion. There are no meditations on life and death. Readers have often felt that there ought to be some significance about the initials of Jim Conklin, the character whose death (from a wound in the side, yet) gives his younger friend Henry a vicarious experience that helps Henry overcome panic. Crane never said that there was.

I acquired my copy of The Red Badge of Courage because a school library discarded it. My copy shows wear, including students' doodling. Newer editions are available and are what online purchasers are likely to receive.

Should schools keep on buying new editions of The Red Badge of Courage? I think so, even though, as I recall, even bright, precocious middle school kids are likely to miss the point. At sixteen or eighteen, when teenagers are considering military service, thinking about the horrors of war is horribly appropriate. At ten or twelve, I remember understanding all the words in this novel but thinking of it as just another gross-out horror story. (Not that it's terribly explicit--considering the historical reality it reflects, the gross-outs have been toned down. We see Jim dying quickly; we don't have to watch people dying slowly from wounds that went septic, or dead men and animals left rotting on the field...) If literary admiration is the reaction teachers want from students, Cather might be a better choice.

However, I can now affirm that, if you were a teenybopper who was told to read The Red Badge of Courage in school, and all you learned or remember is that you “didn't like” it, this unrelentingly grown-up story is worth rereading as an adult. Crane's literary achievement, and the question of whether Henry's experience is anything like one you had or think you might have had, deserve some attention from people who've lived long enough to have some idea what this novel was about.

Psychologists have been blamed for trying to offer “death education” to students before nature had provided them any opportunity to face the reality of mortality. Efforts to march any group of children through any curriculum plan, in lockstep, tend to fail so I don't blame parents for objecting to “death education.” Nevertheless, the psychological fact is that many people's anxious reactions and cowardly conduct seem to be caused by an excessive fear of death, and the experience of observing what might be called a “good” death can be liberating. Awareness that life ends, that the choices people make often contribute to making the ends of their lives more or less unpleasant, can help us make the most of the time we have. The “badge of courage” can even show up as a mental attitude that, without being aggressive, commands respect and scares off attackers. Children are not necessarily capable of developing this awareness. Teenagers' reckless thrill-seeking may be a not very effective effort to develop it—courage is risking your life for a valid reason, not for a stupid one. Adults, nevertheless, need a “badge of courage.” I believe they can come from watching good people die bravely in peacetime, from old age, too.

Obviously this is not a Fair Trade Book. It is, however, a small enough book to fit into a package along with several Fair Trade Books, so feel free to scroll down and look for some; James McPherson's Ordeal by Fire , an historical study of the years before, during, and after the Civil War, would be a nice choice for background information on this story. If you don't insist on one specific edition that may be hard to find, The Red Badge of Courage can be purchased in support of this web site for $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment.