Thursday, December 12, 2019


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, 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]

Friday, December 6, 2019


One of my childhood heroes was Nathan Hale, the Connecticut schoolteacher/spy who gave us those thrilling last words before British troops hung him from a tree, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Whenever I’d think of that moment I’d feel a frisson of wonderment. Could I, at such a dire time, the premature ending of my life, exhibit the patriotic courage and poise and presence of mind to bring forth such ringing eloquence instead of begging, weeping, and pooping my pants? I’m still wondering, and I dearly hope the opportunity to learn the answer never arises. But Washington’s Spies, based on letters, diaries, and official records, did clear up one thing about Hale’s final spoken words.

They weren’t what my gradeschool teachers taught me he said.

Hale likely had uttered the words, but earlier, at Yale, where he and classmates read them in Joseph Addison’s play, Cato. Years later, author Alexander Rose tells us, the memorable words were given as Hale’s last by former classmate William Hull, and others. “Hull could not have known what Hale said in his final moments, though he did remember that Hale had been struck by Cato when at Yale, and that he and Hull and [Benjamin] Tallmadge had talked excitedly of its brilliance. Perhaps he had specifically cited the ‘I regret’ line as representative of his patriotic views, and Hull, loyal as ever, allowed his friend the posthumous privilege of uttering it.”

British Capt. Frederick MacKenzie, who attended the hanging, wrote this in his diary: “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief; and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”

I prefer that scenario. It may not resound through the ages, but it rings far truer than the theatrical Cato quote while yet reflecting Hale’s brave comportment at the end. A stoicism remarkable in itself for an amateur spy barely seasoned as an infantry officer standing on the ladder against the rope-slung tree limb by the freshly dug grave he knew was for him. It was almost as if he sensed the irony of his death becoming a martyrdom that would spark his country’s first military intelligence network.

Code-named it the “Culper Ring,” for no known reason other than that it played on Culpeper County, Virginia, where Washington had worked as a land surveyor during his teens. He chose “Samuel Culper” as the cover name for one of the ring’s first members, Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island farmer whose vegetables and livestock gave him easy access to produce-starved New York, selling to British troops and Loyalists. He and several other friends who’d grown up in the tiny Suffolk County, Long Island, community of Setauket formed the nucleus of the embryo spy ring.

Washington was breaking new ground using civilians to work undercover gathering intelligence. Previously armies relied on soldiers to scout out military tactical positions. Hale, an Army captain had volunteered for a plainclothes mission to reconnoiter the enemy. He was cautioned against it by a friend who told him he was too good-looking, and that this and his military bearing would give him away should anyone become suspicious. This proved prophetic, as the blackguard Robert Rogers, working for the British, easily spotted Hale, watched him taking notes at military sites, and finally befriended him as a “fellow rebel.” Rogers won the inexperienced Hale’s unwitting confession over beers in a local tavern.

The problem back then with using civilians was stigma. Only military scouting was acceptable, as civilians, working for money, were not deemed trustworthy. But Washington wanted information from civilians embedded in enemy territory. To help him set up such a system he hired Nathaniel Sackett, a middle-aged member of New York’s Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies—the enforcement arm of the political revolutionaries. “If Sackett succeeded in recruiting agents,” author Rose tells us, “he would certainly require a deputy empowered to detail army riders to run their messages to headquarters, as well as able to soothe the snippier colonels annoyed that a civilian was interfering in matters they regarded as their own prerogative. To that end, Washington quietly appointed a freshly made captain, Benjamin Tallmadge of the Second Continental Light Dragoons, as Sackett’s military contact.”

Familiar name? One of Nathan Hale’s best friends at Yale. Rose includes some affectionate letters between the two during and after their college days, and concludes “If anything malign ever happened to one, the other would be merciless toward his assailants.” In addition, Tallmadge was a native son of Setauket, where the fledgling spies would be recruited. One code name leaped out at me as if deliberately bringing irony into our present day Washington imbroglio: Tallmadge was known in the Culper Ring as “John Bolton.”
Benjamin "John Bolton" Tallmadge

Rose’s exhaustive study of previously unexamined documents from this period won praise from colleagues for his scholarship.

After working on Washington,” writes —Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington, “I knew there was a story to tell about his reliance on spies during the Revolutionary War. But I believed the story could never be told because the evidence did not exist. Well, I was wrong, and Alexander Rose tells this important story with style and wit.”

Richard Brookhiser, author of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, writes that Rose, “making brilliant use of documentary us intrigue, crossed signals, derring-do, and a priceless slice of eighteenth-century life.

As an enthusiast of the period, albeit with none of their scholarly dedication, who am I to disagree. I enjoyed this history unveiling immensely, with only one complaint. For the sake of my twenty-first century ear Rose might have gone easier on the direct quotes from correspondence and documents in that era. They spoke, or at least wrote, in what seems now a convoluted style that’s almost another language. Here, for example is part of a letter from Tallmadge to Hale in their college days: “Friendly Sir, In my delightsome retirement from the fruitless bustle of the noisy, with my usual delight, &, perhaps, with more than common attention, I perused your epistle—replete as it was with sentiments worthy to be contemplated...” I’ve read it several times now, and yet am not certain I have the drift.

I came to the book by way of a four-season TV series, Turn: Washington’s Spies, which I borrowed on dvd from the public library. Checking just now I see it is available online from several sources, including Netflix. The dramatization strays a bit from historical accuracy, but at least the dialogue is current. I’d happily watch it again. In fact I recommend watching it first, as I did, and then reading the book. Remembering scenes from the series helped me visualize their counterparts when reading the historical version.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]