Stephen Crane was born on November 1, 1871, in Newark, New Jersey, the youngest child of the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane. The Cranes dated their roots in New Jersey back to 1665, when an ancestor also named Stephen Crane had settled in the area. The Reverend Crane died on February 16, 1880, after a brief illness. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Crane moved her family to the nearby town of Roseville. In 1882 the Cranes moved to Asbury Park, a seaside town on the Jersey shore where Crane attended school for the next six years.
The Red Badge of Courage attempts to recreate the combat experiences of a young, frightened soldier in the American Civil War. Henry Fleming, the protagonist, has never seen a real battle and worries about how he will behave under pressure. Crane’s novel has been praised ever since it first appeared in print as highly realistic in its presentation of the psychology of a young man facing injury and possible death. One of the best American short novels, Crane’s work vividly presents some of the horrors, both physical and psychological, that soldiers encounter in battle.
War, for Crane, was a favorite metaphor for human life, equally applicable to coal miners (“In the Depths of Coal Mine,” 1894) or to the people living in the slums of New York (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets). Courage and heroism come under Crane’s scrutiny in his classic book about wartime, The Red Badge of Courage. Henry has read classical tales of heroism, and dreams of performing brave deeds on the battlefield, but he is deeply worried about what will happen when the regiment finally goes into action. He and his regiment have marched into northern Virginia, but since then have done nothing but wait. His concern is not “How will we men of the 304th New York Regiment do when we go into battle” but “How will I do?” In the course of his self-questioning, he has been “forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.” Of course, although Henry does not consider it, all the men around him are also worried about the coming battle and how they will behave under fire.
In preparation for writing The Red Badge of Courage, Crane studied the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady and illustrations by painter Winslow Homer and drew on his own highly empathic imagination. The writers Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, Crane’s good friends in England, claimed that Crane subscribed to the impressionistic literary movement and strictly observed the canon of impressionism: “render; never report.” By means of his sharply etched and poetic images, Crane hoped to help his readers feel as if they were actually on a battlefield. For example, Crane describes the wounded enemy standard-bearer behaving as if he had “invisible ghouls fastened greedily upon his limbs” as he tries to escape with his flag; Crane also renders a vivid image of the dirt and smoke assaulting the regiment: “Wallowing in the fight, they were in an astonishingly short time besmudged….Moving to and fro with strained exertion, jabbering the while they were, with their swaying bodies, black faces, and glowing eyes, like strange and ugly fiends jigging heavily in the smoke.”
Crane’s novels reflect his basic beliefs about humanity. The chronic misery of the poor aroused his sympathy, as did the plight of common soldiers in wars. Having rejected traditional theological explanations as a boy, Crane never found a philosophy that adequately explained the hardships inherent in the human condition.
VII TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Crane said that he learned from the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that certain colors affect human feelings. What use does Crane make of colors in The Red Badge of Courage?
Crane’s novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets depicts the embattled lives of people surviving in the New York inner city and the brutalizing effects of poverty, ignorance, and drunkenness on their lives. The book has been labeled a work of naturalistic fiction; like Emile Zola, a nineteenth-century French naturalistic writer, Crane suggests that people are victims of their environments.