Once I had a relative - call him Jack - who was trying to write a novel about the Civil War, making heavy weather of it, and to be helpful I suggested he read Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. That book, I said, will tell you how the army and battle seemed to a raw recruit. He was scornful - he had read it years ago and it had nothing to teach him. I shouldn't have bothered; Jack was not about to learn anything from anyone. Amateur writers, serene in their egotism, know everything. I have known the noxious breed for nearly 60 years, first because I was one at the start, later because I was an English teacher, finally because I was a published writer and editor. Their every word, they think is golden, and all they want is praise. Even as I write these words a manuscript from another relative has arrived. Spare me!
Jack sent me his manuscript to show me what a real Civil War novel was like, and then I saw why he learned so little from Crane. Jack knew everything there was about Civil War uniforms, weapons, medals, titles, regulations, etc., etc., and when you are done you thought you had joined a Civil War Round Table. There is none of that in Crane. You don't even know the name of the battle that is the central event of the book. Crane was not interested in the war itself, only in the reactions of one soldier to the vicissitudes of battle. It is not a history but a novel. Of course a novel can contain history - War and Peace is an example, and so is Vanity Fair - but we must be clear about the subject here. Jack was trying to write a novel with an authentic historical background, while Crane was writing a novel that used the war as an instigator of action. It cannot be criticized on the basis of its fidelity (or not) to the war, just as Kipling's stories cannot be faulted for giving an inaccurate picture of India. Kipling's India is his creation, and it is true to the extent that he makes us believe it. So Crane's novel is successful if he makes us believe in Henry Fleming and his situation.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness of the noise of rumors.
So the opening sentences. Note the way the army is described as an organic entity with a life of its own. Then a soldier, Jim Conklin, hears a rumor of imminent action and spreads the news. The regiment is untried, and much speculation and argument is stirred up by the rumor. The narration then shifts to Henry Fleming, a hut mate of Conklin and Wilson, the three soldiers prominent in the book. Henry is lying on his bunk thinking about the coming battle, his part in it, and how he enlisted, and wound up in this camp, but everything comes down to the point that "as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself." Bluntly, he's afraid he might run away. Conklin and Wilson come in, arguing about the rumor, and Fleming questions Conklin, in a roundabout way, about the probable fortitude of the regiment and the chances of men running away. So the problem of the book, Henry Fleming's courage under fire, is quickly developed and the main characters are established.
The army gets moving in the next chapter, and the picture of the army we were given at the very beginning of the book is amplified and emphasized.
[The army] was now like one of those moving monsters wending with many feet. The air was heavy and cold with dew. A mass of wet grass, marched upon, rustled like silk. There was an occasional flash and glimmer of steel from the heads of all these huge crawling reptiles. From the road came creakings and grumblings as some surly guns were dragged away. . . .
When the sun rays as last struck full and mellowingly upon the earth, the youth saw that the landscape was streaked with two long, thin, black columns which
disappeared on the brow of a hill in front and rearward vanished in a wood. They were like two serpents crawling from the cavern of the night.
What is achieved by describing the army is such a way is its depersonalization. To the men in the ranks it is an impersonal organization that must seem to them like a blindly griping animal. Crane has to make us believe his picture of the army and the action. Anyone who has read first-hand accounts of camp life and battle in the Civil War will feel the verisimilitude, and the way actions develop and characters suddenly appear out of the mass and then vanish is wholly realistic. The individuals then stand out in the foreground of a broad canvas full of anonymous moving, gesticulating figures. It is a striking way to emphasize thus the massed force of the army and at the same time, contrastingly, the individuality of the characters whose story we follow.
In the first engagement Fleming performs well:
He suddenly lost concern for himself, and forgot to look at a menacing fate. He became not a man but a member. . . . He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire. . . . There was a consciousness always of the presence of his comrades about him. He felt a subtle battle brotherhood more potent even than the cause for which they were fighting.
Just as the men are congratulating themselves on standing fast, however, the enemy charges. Others run and so does Fleming. The next thirty pages describe his wanderings in the rear and his exaggerated shifts of mood, at one moment object, at another absurdly puffed up with visions of his superiority. He comes upon the wounded Jim Conklin and witnesses his horrific death. Then a panicky soldier hits him in the head with a rifle, giving Fleming a "wound" which ensures his easy acceptance back in the regiment later.
Restored to the regiment that evening, he performs more than creditably in some sharp engagements the next day, and finally finds his balance:
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death and was for others. He was a man.
Aside from some memorable stories and a crude early novel (Maggie, A Girl of the Streets), The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895 when he was 24, was Crane's only contribution to beautiful letters (as Mencken used to put it). He lived in a sort of Bohemian poverty as an underpaid journalist and died young of TB. He was not a great writer, and his masterpiece does not rank with War and Peace or even Manning's The Middle Parts of Fortune, but as a keen description of a young recruits' thoughts and feelings as he undergoes his first testing under fire, it is unsurpassed.
It is a harbinger, too. American literature, except for Huck Finn in 1876, had been in a genteel decline from the great decade of the 1850s (Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau), and while Dreiser and Frank Norris were trying to revive it with heavy doses of so-called realism, it was Ernest Hemingway who would finally, in the early 1920s arouse our literature to life by virtue of his style. In that way, Crane was a forerunner, because it is his plain style, by starkly presenting the contrasting images of the army and the main characters that creates the book's success. I shall more to say bout this soon. *