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.”
Ending The Red Badge of Courage was difficult for Crane. The professional writers among his friends marveled at how rapidly he produced his work, whether prose or poetry, and how rarely he revised what he had written. But three attempts to bring his second novel to a close were required, and even then he probably was not satisfied. Although he wrote the first draft of The Red Badge of Courage in nine days, he told Willa Cather that “he had been unconsciously working the detail of the story through most of his boyhood.”
“It was essential that I should make my battle a type and name no names,” Crane said when explaining the overall plan of his book. As several critics have noted, this choice makes The Red Badge of Courage resemble an allegory. What makes it different from typical allegories such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c. 1395) is Crane’s attitude toward conventional Christianity. Raised in a family of ministers and religious workers, he himself became an agnostic. Some of the imagery of the novel is drawn from religion, such as “the chapel,” where Henry hopes to escape from the battle. But throughout the novel, everybody curses, nobody prays, and Crane uses imagery from his religious training to show that, for him, war is demonic; demons and devils abound in his poetic metaphors. Critic R. W. Stallman sees the death of Jim Conklin as a crucifixion and notes that the soldier’s initials are the same as those of Jesus Christ. Critic Bettina L. Knapp sees the battle as an initiation similar to the one religious devotees experience before they receive illumination, the knowledge that God is with them and that they are one with him. The novel may well invite such interpretations because of its stark simplicity.
The best-drawn characters in Crane’s books are usually those from low socioeconomic backgrounds-inner-city residents, soldiers, coal miners, seamen, and farmers. Crane did not romanticize his characters because he recognized that poverty-stricken people are quite capable of making their have-not status a basis for conceit. Crane found this attitude quite prevalent in the Bowery, and he made it as much the target of his ironic barbs as he did the conceit of the rich.