I read this when in high school and it made a very small effect on me. I liked it, but it’s slog through the awareness of a Union private undergoing his first battle seemed very small-potatoes to me, a snail-eyed view of an epoch-defining conflict. The Red Badge of Courage seemed to reduce the entire Civil War to a neurotic’s fit.
Now, on an older man’s reread, I am startled by two things: the vividness of Crane’s prose, and the verisimillitude of the story. Reading Henry’s journey of dread, shame, and redemption captures me in a way it did not in my callow youth. As a meditation on how the modern soldier conceives and attempt to implement the military virtues, Red Badge is a grown-up’s adventure story. Thus, the fact that we have no idea what battle is being fought, or when in the war (my instinct says Virginia in 1864, but my instinct didn’t write the book), a fact that quietly annoyed me in my teenage years, fits the theme of a young man struggling to find his place in the Great Unknown. It doesn’t matter what the battle is, or what is decided, if young Henry cannot earn his piece of the decision, the book seems to say.
Now, as to Crane’s prose, a sample:
But the firing began somewhere on the regimental line and ripped along in both directions. The level sheets of flame developed great clouds of smoke that tumbled and tossed in the mild wind near the ground for a moment, and then rolled through the ranks as through a gate. The clouds were tinged an earthlike yellow in the sunrays and in the shadow were a sorry blue. The flag was sometimes eaten and lost in this mass of vapor, but more often it projected, sun-touched, resplendent.
This constitutes a common sample of what’s in Red Badge, and it can be appreciated both for its imagery and for the ease in which that imagery folds into the narrative. It surprises me that I did not notice how good this was when I was young. Crane strikes me as a significant writer, surprisingly modern.
In other words, I’m going to be checking my work against the Master when its done.