If you wrote Stephen Crane’s life story as a novel, many readers would be hard pressed to believe its contradictions and ironies.
Crane grew up in a god-soaked household, his father a Methodist minister, his mother a powerful figure in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Yet a scandal with a prostitute ruined his reputation in America.
He wrote the most vivid and compelling battle scenes of the Civil War ever put on a page…yet he never drew one breath of gun smoke during that conflict. In fact, Stephen Crane wasn’t even born until six years after the end of the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history.
He had to self-publish his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Yet Crane’s second novel, The Red Badge of Courage, has never gone out of print after almost 120 years.
Crane changed forever the way writers wrote about war, changed forever the way thinkers thought about war and changed forever the way artists in other media—painting and sculpture and song—portrayed war in their own works. He did all this despite living just 28 years.
Let me give give you the opening sentences of The Red Badge of Courage. Savor a taste of the novel that affected American and world literature in its way as profoundly as Huckleberry Finn or The Sound and The Fury or The Catcher In The Rye.
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 at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.
We stand in the mind’s eye of Stephen Crane. Crane himself stands on that fictive promontory where a writer surveys two whole worlds—the seen and the imagined.
Crane’s description personifies two armies that soon will tangle like wild animals in a huge conflict most scholars believe to be the Battle of Chancellorsville. For Crane’s northern states, Chancellorsville proved a notable ass-whipping. Strategists still study the battle for the daring (or desperation) of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, who divided his vastly outnumbered army in the face of the enemy, sending General Stonewall Jackson’s fleet “foot cavalry” on a night march to attack a flank of the Yankee army. The surprise maneuver sent the whole Union force into flight. Jackson, incidentally, lost his life in this battle; his own men mistakenly shot him in the confusion of battle. Jackson died a few days later after uttering these famous last words: Let us cross over the river and rest beneath the shade of the trees.
Crane then draws in the fictive shutter from the panoramic view of the two armies to the closest possible focus—on a group of Union soldiers in the 304th New York Regiment. One of these soldiers, Henry Fleming, at 18, hardly measures out as more than a boy. He marched off the farm and into the army full of romantic notions about conflict and heroic acts, but the eve of battle finds him filled with doubts about his courage. All around him, soldier buddies—one named Jim Conklin—blather and brag about what they’ll do when the time comes to fight Johnny Reb.
What does Henry Fleming do? He panics. He runs. He flees when battle grows confusing and overwhelming. War’s not like he thought. Whatever glorious triumphs he imagined turn into pandemonium and screams and spurting blood before his eyes. The glorious charges to win the field in a golden sunset turns out to be instead a half-dozen frightened men shooting blindly into clouds of smoke, cursing the idiot leaders of the army, falling down with Confederate bullets in them.
Before Stephen Crane wrote this way, war fiction mostly glorified conflict. If war appalled, its upside—the fruits of victory, the spoils, the glory to god and country—outmatched all else. In the Confederate army, the war ideal spun from the pen of a writer far across the Atlantic, Sir Walter Scott. Books like Ivanhoe and Kenilworth gave Southern gentlemen a romantic ideal of gallantry and honor and chivalry. Needless to say, Shiloh and the trenches of Petersburg and Pickett’s Charge and the hundreds (some say 5,000) of shells a day for three weeks dropped onto Atlanta during the siege of that city popped that pretty bubble.
Crane’s sharp pen also punctured a bubble for the Yankee crowd, many still drunk on triumph and full of ever-exaggerated remembrances of Civil War glory. Crane found himself in his early twenties reading back issues of a magazine called Century, which included accounts by real Civil War soldiers of what they’d been through. The young writer felt he should be true to what those veterans remembered—horror hoisted on the same battle flag as the honor. The truth about war, in other words.
Crane talked to a number of veterans who still lived in and around New York and New Jersey. He wrote his novel fast, sent it to McClure’s magazine, the day’s go-to publication for Civil War writing. The magazine sat on the manuscript, until Crane withdrew it and finally submitted it for publication as a serial to the Bacheller-Johnson Newspaper Syndicate. In 1894, it began appearing in newspapers. Readership spread like rumors through a soldier camp, and in just months Stephen Crane became a household name.
Because Crane wrote this way, blending impressionism and naturalism on the page like a painter, we have Hemingway, we have Mailer, we have Vonnegut, we have Joseph Heller. War writing changed from grand and glorious hymn-making to blood-soaked, intimate vignetting that charted cowardice and courage, doubt and redemption. That’s right—redemption. By the end of The Red Badge of Courage, Henry Fleming finds a way to conquer terror and live up to his own ideal of manhood. He carries the Union flag in a charge that routes a rebel force. He captures enemy colors. He proudly wears a war wound—a red badge of courage.
He also looks into the glowing red eyes of war, and forces readers to do the same. Those 1894 citizens who picked up a newspaper with Crane’s story over morning coffee might have expected a trumpet blast of righteousness and justification for war—after all, that’s what war journalists normally wrote.
Instead, in a most remarkable passage in mid-book, Henry Fleming comes face-to-face with his camp buddy, Jim Conklin, shot in the belly, a mortal wound. The description of Conklin’s death goes on and on, pages of horrific prose, ink poured out like blood. Conklin staggers down a road away from war, suffers cruelly, dies like an animal dies. If Henry Fleming ever harbored illusions of romance about war…or if those readers over their morning coffee ever did…those forever go to the grave in this sobering transitional moment of war literature.
The genie of realism comes out of the bottle, and war writing will never be the same.
Here’s how Stephen Crane ended his novel:
It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace.
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
Paste reader, in not too many years, that golden ray came down on Crane himself. He set himself up for scandal by defending a lady friend (and prostitute) in a sensational trial. Crane felt she had been falsely accused by police. Rightly or wrongly, Crane fell out of public favor.
He eventually moved to England. He lived beyond his means there, striving to satisfy another lady friend, this one a former madam of a bordello. He fell badly into debt. Then during an extravagant three-day Christmas party in Sussex, he suffered a hemorrhage of the lungs, and went quickly downhill in health. He passed away at the obscenely early age of 28. In one of those great literary coincidences, he died in Badenweiler, a spa for tuberculosis patients in the southernmost tip of the Black Forest in Germany. It’s the same place the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov would die just four years later, at age 44.
Crane’s reputation nearly died with him. For about 20 years, he seemed forgotten, much the way Herman Melville seemed lost at sea for decades after Moby Dick; or, The Whale. A critic came to the rescue, a man named Thomas Beer, who reintroduced Crane to the cognoscenti and placed his star once and for all in the literary heavens.
With Crane died a fictional chivalry that had colored the literature of war since Homer and the King Arthur tales. Perhaps that great mythology somehow made it easier for men to go out and kill other men.
War seemed glamorous, gallant, romantic and righteous before Stephen Crane. After The Red Badge of Courage...and to this very hour in the sesquicentennial years of the great Civil War…every reader knows war’s losing side too.
Charles McNair is author of the Pulitzer-nominated novel, Land O’ Goshen, and has been Books Editor at Paste Magazine since 2005. His second novel, Pickett’s Charge, publishes September 20.