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 1893, 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 124th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Orange Blossoms. Initially shortened and serialized in newspapers in December 1894, the novel was published in full in October 1895. A longer version of the work, based on Crane’s original manuscript, was published in 1982.
My take: 4 looks
I enjoyed this book, which I should have probably read in my high school years. Crane’s writing has a definite cadence, and at times I found myself in the midst of a true page-turner, as I wanted to know how a particular scene would be played.
The story is more a character study, rather than the description of a particular battle of the Civil War. In that, there is no pro- or anti-war sentiment, but merely the focus of a young man struggling to leave his mother to go to war, and then details of how the war changes him. Because of the frenzy of the writing, it is hard to tell how much time passes from the beginning of the novel to the end, but much growing occurs in the lives of several soldiers. While this story focuses on the Union, I can imagine that the feelings were very similar for the rebels.
Crane uses the language beautifully in describing war. His use of colors, giving human characteristics to inanimate objects, and creating wonderful visuals of the smoke and fog of gunfire on the layout of the land … it’s quite mesmerizing.