My Copy: 9780880298995 (image from abebooks.com)
This is one of those books I’ve seen pop up on “best books” lists since I was a little kid. Amazingly enough, I’ve never read it until now…though the book’s been on my shelf for so damned long I’m surprised the glue hasn’t let the pages go yet.
Then again, the old Barnes and Noble Hardcovers tend to be sturdy and well-made–that’s why I like getting them when I can.
Anyhoo, The Red Badge of Courage is a book I’m rather wishy-washy about. It’s been a few hours and I’m not sure how much I liked it. Especially the ending, but I won’t spoil it for you. I’m not sure how it should have ended, but maybe this was the best way to do so, considering the writing style.
There are a few things I can’t stand about this book. For one, Mr. Crane constantly refers to the main character, Henry Fielding, as “the youth.” Okay, maybe it was a device to help along the confusion of events and remind his audience that this is an impressionable young man who has no idea what he’s really in for or war’s about. Occasionally, though, others would refer to him as “Henry” or “Fielding” and it’d take me a moment to realize the youth is who they were talking to.
Gradually, I got used to it, but because I wasn’t expecting it, it took a bit of time at the start. Also when we get to the peculiarities of certain characters’ language, with all the apostrophes and their particular diction going on for whole paragraphs–it became distracting and I got annoyed.
That’s the kind of thing writing teachers would throw our papers back in our faces for–doing that for pages on end. At least the whole book isn’t like that.
But I also found plenty of things particularly good about The Red Badge of Courage. For a man who hadn’t been to war (and they don’t tell you where the battle is taking place, though synopses everywhere say the Battle of Chancellorsville), Mr. Crane sure had a good view of it.
The events are muddled, confusing, and the pace is all over the map. There’s sudden action, sudden silence, confusion, and some parts had to be re-read to make sure I got them. However, this actually HELPS the book along. I believe Mr. Crane wanted to get across the futility of being known as a hero, the different sides of cowardice and courage (or what it means to be either), the confusion of fighting and retreating and stopping, etc.
I believe he succeeded fantastically. It flies in the face of traditional narratives about war, about the glory and everything that only seems to come about long after the battles are over. I think it’s the old soldier’s way to put meaning on something as generally inhuman as war. Mr. Crane, however, puts you in the thick of it, the multitude of thoughts and circumstances that occur in what was “modern warfare” during and after the Civil War.
Before Erich Maria Remarque and Philip Gibbs stripped away the veneer of glorious battles and heroic death, Stephen Crane got the ball rolling with this book. I’ll recommend it for its landmark status as a novel about an ordinary soldier, and the comings and goings of events. It’s a good introduction to more difficult works about war for younger readers, say Junior High or early High School. It’s not that long, but certainly deep when you let yourself get absorbed in it.
I suppose I like it better for its challenges than I thought I did after all.