The Red Badge of Courage is a war novel by American author Stephen Crane (1871–1901). Taking place during the American Civil War, the story is about a young private of the Union Army, Henry Fleming, who flees from the field of battle. Overcome with shame, he longs for a wound, a "red badge of courage," to counteract his cowardice. When his regiment once again faces the enemy, Henry acts as standard-bearer.
Although Crane was born after the war, and had not at the time experienced battle first-hand, the novel is known for its realism. He began writing what would become his second novel in 1894, using various contemporary and written accounts (such as those published previously by Century Magazine) as inspiration. It is believed that he based the fictional battle on that of Chancellorsville; he may also have interviewed veterans of the 125th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Orange Blossoms. Initially shortened and serialized in newspapers in December 1895, the novel was published in full in October 1895. A longer version of the work, based on Crane's original manuscript, was published in 1983.
The novel is known for its distinctive style, which includes realistic battle sequences as well as the repeated use of color imagery, and ironic tone. Separating itself from a traditional war narrative, Crane's story reflects the inner experience of its protagonist (a soldier fleeing from combat) rather than the external world around him. Also notable for its use of what Crane called a "psychological portrayal of fear", the novel's allegorical and symbolic qualities are often debated by critics. Several of the themes that the story explores are maturation, heroism, cowardice, and the indifference of nature. The Red Badge of Courage garnered widespread acclaim, what H. G. Wells called "an orgy of praise", shortly after its publication, making Crane an instant celebrity at the age of twenty-four. The novel and its author did have their initial detractors, however, including author and veteran Ambrose Bierce. Adapted several times for the screen, the novel became a bestseller. It has never been out of print and is now thought to be Crane's most important work and a major American text.Stephen Crane published his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, in March 1893 at the age of 22. Maggie was not a success, either financially or critically. Most critics thought the unsentimental Bowery tale crude or vulgar, and Crane chose to publish the work privately after it was repeatedly rejected for publication. Crane found inspiration for his next novel while spending hours lounging in a friend's studio in the early summer of 1893. There, he became fascinated with issues of Century Magazine that were largely devoted to famous battles and military leaders from the Civil War. Frustrated with the dryly written stories, Crane stated, "I wonder that some of those fellows don't tell how they felt in those scraps. They spout enough of what they did, but they're as emotionless as rocks." Returning to these magazines during subsequent visits to the studio, he decided to write a war novel. He later stated that he "had been unconsciously working the detail of the story out through most of his boyhood" and had imagined "war stories ever since he was out of knickerbockers."
At the time, Crane was intermittently employed as a free-lance writer, contributing articles to various New York City newspapers. He began writing what would become The Red Badge of Courage in June 1893, while living with his older brother Edmund in Lake View, New Jersey. Crane conceived the story from the point of view of a young private who is at first filled with boyish dreams of the glory of war, only to become disillusioned by war's reality. He took the private's surname, "Fleming," from his sister-in-law's maiden name. He would later relate that the first paragraphs came to him with "every word in place, every comma, every period fixed." Working mostly nights, he wrote from around midnight until four or five in the morning. Because he could not afford a typewriter, he carefully wrote in ink on legal-sized paper, occasionally crossing through or overlying a word. If he changed something, he would rewrite the whole page. He later moved to New York City, where he completed the novel in April 1894.The title of Crane's original, 55,000-word manuscript was "Private Fleming/His various battles", but in order to create the sense of a less traditional Civil War narrative, he ultimately changed the title to The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War. In early 1894, Crane submitted the manuscript to S. S. McClure, who held on to it for six months without publication. Frustrated, the author asked for the manuscript to be returned, after which he gave it to Irving Bacheller in October. An abbreviated version of Crane's story was first serialized in The Philadelphia Press in December 1894. This version of the story, which was culled to 18,000 words by an editor specifically for the serialization, was reprinted in newspapers across America, establishing Crane's fame. Crane biographer John Berryman wrote that the story was published in at least 200 small city dailies and approximately 550 weekly papers. In October 1895, a version, which was 5,000 words shorter than the original manuscript, was printed in book form by D. Appleton & Company. This version of the novel differed greatly from Crane's original manuscript; the deletions were thought by some scholars to be due to demands by an Appleton employee who was afraid of public disapproval of the novel's content. Parts of the original manuscript removed from the 1895 version include all of the twelfth chapter, as well as the endings to chapters seven, ten and fifteen.
Crane's contract with Appleton allowed him to receive a flat ten percent royalty of all copies sold. However, the contract also stipulated that he was not to receive royalties from the books sold in Great Britain, where they were released by Heinemann in early 1896 as part of its Pioneer Series. In 1982, W. W. Norton & Company published a version of the novel based on Crane's original 1894 manuscript of 55,000 words. Edited by Henry Binder, this version is questioned by those who believe Crane made the original edits for the 1895 Appleton edition on his own accord. Since its initial publication, the novel has never gone out of print.On a cold day the fictional 304th New York Regiment awaits battle beside a river. Eighteen-year-old Private Henry Fleming, remembering his romantic reasons for enlisting as well as his mother's resulting protests, wonders whether he will remain brave in the face of fear, or turn and run. He is comforted by one of his friends from home, Jim Conklin, who admits that he would run from battle if his fellow soldiers also fled. During the regiment's first battle, Confederate soldiers charge, but are repelled. The enemy quickly regroups and attacks again, this time forcing some of the unprepared Union soldiers to flee. Fearing the battle is a lost cause, Henry deserts his regiment. It is not until after he reaches the rear of the army that he overhears a general announcing the Union's victory.
In despair, he declared that he was not like those others. He now conceded it to be impossible that he should ever become a hero. He was a craven loon. Those pictures of glory were piteous things. He groaned from his heart and went staggering off.
The Red Badge of Courage, Chapter eleven
Ashamed, Henry escapes into a nearby forest, where he discovers a decaying body in a peaceful clearing. In his distress, he hurriedly leaves the clearing and stumbles upon a group of injured men returning from battle. One member of the group, a "tattered soldier", asks Henry where he is wounded, but the youth dodges the question. Among the group is Jim Conklin, who has been shot in the side and is suffering delirium from blood-loss. Jim eventually dies of his injury, defiantly resisting aid from his friend, and an enraged and helpless Henry runs from the wounded soldiers. He next joins a retreating column that is in disarray. In the ensuing panic, a man hits Henry on the head with his rifle, wounding him. Exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and now wounded, Henry decides to return to his regiment regardless of his shame. When he arrives at camp, the other soldiers believe his injury resulted from a grazing bullet during battle. The other men care for the youth, dressing his wound.
The next morning Henry goes into battle for the third time. His regiment encounters a small group of Confederates, and in the ensuing fight Henry proves to be a capable soldier, comforted by the belief that his previous cowardice had not been noticed, as he "had performed his mistakes in the dark, so he was still a man". Afterward, while looking for a stream from which to obtain water with a friend, he discovers from the commanding officer that his regiment has a lackluster reputation. The officer speaks casually about sacrificing the 304th because they are nothing more than "mule drivers" and "mud diggers." With no other regiments to spare, the general orders his men forward.
In the final battle, Henry acts as the flag-bearer after the color sergeant falls. A line of Confederates hidden behind a fence beyond a clearing shoots with impunity at Henry's regiment, which is ill-covered in the tree-line. Facing withering fire if they stay and disgrace if they retreat, the officers order a charge. Unarmed, Henry leads the men while entirely escaping injury. Most of the Confederates run before the regiment arrives, and four of the remaining men are taken prisoner. The novel closes with the following passage:
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.Although Crane once wrote in a letter, "You can tell nothing... unless you are in that condition yourself," he wrote The Red Badge of Courage without any experience of war. He would, however, later serve as a war correspondent during the Greco-Turkish and Spanish–American Wars. Nevertheless, the realistic portrayal of the battlefield in The Red Badge of Courage has often misled readers into thinking that Crane (despite being born six years after the end of the Civil War) was himself a veteran. While trying to explain his ability to write about battle realistically, Crane stated: "Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field, or else fighting is a hereditary instinct, and I wrote intuitively; for the Cranes were a family of fighters in the old days".
Crane drew from a variety of sources in order to realistically depict battle. Century's "Battles and Leaders" series served as direct inspiration for the novel, and one story in particular (Warren Lee Goss's "Recollections of a Private") contains many parallels to Crane's work. Thomas Beer wrote in his problematic 1923 biography that Crane was challenged by a friend to write The Red Badge of Courage after having announced that he could do better than Émile Zola's La Débâcle. This anecdote, however, has not been substantiated. The metaphor of the "red badge of courage" itself may have been inspired by true events; historian Cecil D. Eby, Jr. noted that Union officer Philip Kearny's insisted his troops wear bright red unit insignia patches, which became known as marks of valor and bravery. While the 304th New York Volunteer Infantry is fictional, many strategies and occurrences in the novel echo actual events during the Civil War. Details concerning specific campaigns during the war, especially regarding battle formations and actions during the Battle of Chancellorsville, have been noted by critics.
It is believed that Crane listened to war stories in the town square of Port Jervis, New York (where his family at times resided) told by members of the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Orange Blossoms. The Orange Blossoms first saw battle at Chancellorsville, which is believed by local historians to have been the inspiration for the battle depicted in The Red Badge of Courage. Furthermore, there was a Private James Conklin who served in the 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and Crane's short story "The Veteran", which was published in McClure's Magazine the year after The Red Badge of Courage, depicts an elderly Henry Fleming who specifically identifies his first combat experience as having occurred at Chancellorsville.