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, ambertinted 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.
One of the better openings of a novel I have ever read. It beckons you straight-up, easing you into its dark milieu with an indelible foreshadowing scene using plain yet startling words that tickle portentous corners of the imagination.
Marvelous writing, that opening scene. My jaw hung open as I copied it from Kindle page to Word document to use in this review. Surprised I hadn’t remembered it from my first reading of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, as a boy, and it didn’t dawn on me until just now that it’s the finest writing in the entire novel.
All I did remember from back then was a vision of the protagonist--a boy a few years older than I—running terrified from the battlefield through a woods amid a stampede of retreating soldiers. I remembered the shame he felt, that he hadn’t lived up to his fantasies of heroism, and that he eventually was able to justify fleeing the fight when one of the others shuffling to the rear—they weren’t running, all were wounded—clubbed him on the head with his rifle. The injury drew blood, thus he obtained his “red badge of courage.”
Ominous talk lately about “civil war” in our current political word skirmishes prompted me to take another look at Red Badge. Surprised to see it’s only eighty pages, I was worn out from the flu and decided it would be a quick, non-taxing read. Mistake. Slogging along as if it were War and Peace, I was surprised again when I finished it and checked again for the page count: Eighty. Seemed more like three-hundred and eighty.
And the problem was the writing. It seems once Crane put the finishing touches on that glorious first paragraph, he pulled out all the stops. Arching over the entire narrative is the strained, convoluted 19th century literary style. I’ve navigated it in other works, but found it strangely out of place in a novel that takes place solely on battlefields and their environs. On top of that is the barely literate vernacular of the characters—all soldiers, and mostly uneducated enlisted men. I’ve always found extended phonetic representations of dialect tedious. A little bit, for flavor, and then, please...no more. Here’s a sample of the kind of dialogue strewn across the story as so many stumbling blocks I started feeling like one of Crane’s infantrymen trudging along wondering where in hell we were going.
“Oh, there may be a few of ’em run, but there’s them kind in every regiment, ’specially when they first goes under fire,” said the other in a tolerant way. “Of course it might happen that the hull kit-and-boodle might start and run, if some big fighting came first-off, and then again they might stay and fight like fun. But you can’t bet on nothing. Of course they ain’t never been under fire yet, and it ain’t likely they’ll lick the hull rebel army all-to-oncet the first time; but I think they’ll fight better than some, if worse than others. That’s the way I figger.
Okay, I move my lips when I read to myself. Sometimes. Found them, my lips, jabbering silently trying to pronounce whatever the hell was being said up there and in all of the rest of the dialogue. Bit my lower lip accidentally more than oncet. And here’s Crane’s narration, self-consciously literary, out of context for an uneducated youth: “Swift pictures of himself, apart, yet in himself, came to him—a blue desperate figure leading lurid charges with one knee forward and a broken blade high—a blue, determined figure standing before a crimson and steel assault, getting calmly killed on a high place before the eyes of all. He thought of the magnificent pathos of his dead body. These thoughts uplifted him. He felt the quiver of war desire.”
Most of the narrative takes place in the protagonist’s head. He’s referred to only as “the youth,” although his name is mentioned casually here and there in conversations with other soldiers. His two closest acquaintances are likewise named similarly, but we know them as “the tall soldier” and “the loud soldier.” Not having the names foremost in my mind irritated me at first, but eventually I came to find it helpful. More than a few named characters in novels often confuse me as to who is who. So that’s one for Crane.
What got on my nerves more than anything else was the confusion in The Youth’s head, and as I got back into the book I remembered this is precisely what bothered me when I read it as youth myself. Though premise is valid, there is only so much agonizing over oneself a reader needs to catch the drift that here’s a young recruit, wet behind the ears, fearing he won’t live up to his fantasies of heroism and the expectations of his comrades. Too much repetition, as if Hamlet simply could not stop repeating “to be or not to be” come hell or the Confederate Army.
Historians credit Crane for his “naturalism” and detail in describing battle conditions and psychologies, especially as he’d had no experience himself on a battlefield when he wrote Red Badge. He was a journalist, eventually covering the Greco-Turkish and Spanish-American wars.
Still, his literary imagination and writing prowess at times converge to create scenes of near visceral realism, especially in the wider view. “...upon this stillness,” he tells us, “there suddenly broke a tremendous clangor of sounds. A crimson roar came from the distance. The youth stopped. He was transfixed by this terrific medley of all noises. It was as if worlds were being rended. There was the ripping sound of musketry and the breaking crash of the artillery...the battle was like the grinding of an immense and terrible machine to him. Its complexities and powers, its grim processes, fascinated him. He must go close and see it produce corpses.”
Ernest Hemingway said of Crane’s novel in the 1942 collection Men at War: The Best War Stories of All Time, which he edited, Red Badge "is one of the finest books of our literature, and I include it entire because it is all as much of a piece as a great poem is."
A 1951 movie of Red Badge starred genuine war hero Audie Murphy as “Henry Fleming,” aka The Youth, and famed war cartoonist Bill Mauldin. It was directed by John Huston. The book was adapted for TV in 1974.
|Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin|
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]