This Day In Literary History
On October 3rd, 1895, The Red Badge of Courage, the classic novel by the famous American writer Stephen Crane, was published in book form. Like most novels of the time, it first appeared in a serialized format, published by a newspaper.
The book version differed greatly from Crane's original serialized manuscript, as its publisher feared that its subject matter - how the horrors of war can bring out both the best and the worst of soldiers in battle - would prove too controversial. The manuscript was heavily edited.
Crane was no stranger to controversy; his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) was a critical and commercial failure due to its controversial story of a Bowery girl driven to poverty, prostitution, and despair after her violent alcoholic mother kicks her out of the house.
The author hadn't deliberately intended to offend his readers, he just believed in literary realism, which was being employed by his contemporaries, such as the legendary French writer Emile Zola.
After reading accounts of famous Civil War battles in magazine articles, Crane was appalled by the dry writing, which he found to be "as emotionless as rocks." What was it really like to be a soldier in battle, facing the horrific carnage of the Civil War?
He had the idea for his next novel and immediately began work on the manuscript. He completed it in April of 1894. The original title was Private Fleming / His Various Battles. It would later be changed to The Red Badge of Courage.
Henry Fleming is an 18-year-old private in the Union Army. Carried away by the romance of war and glory, he joined the Army over his mother's objections. The novel opens with Henry's regiment, the 304th New York Regiment, awaiting battle by a river one cold day.
As he anxiously waits for the battle to begin, Henry wonders if he'll be brave when the time comes or turn tail and run. His hometown friend and fellow soldier, Jim Conklin, admits that he'd run if the other men did. Suddenly, the battle begins as the Confederates charge.
Henry's regiment initially drives the enemy back, but the Confederates regroup quickly and attack again. Some of the Union soldiers are forced to flee. Fearing that the battle is lost, Henry deserts his regiment and escapes into a nearby forest - but not before hearing a Union general declare victory.
Ashamed of his cowardice, Henry wanders through the woods and comes upon an eerie sight - a decomposing corpse in a quiet clearing. Frightened, he flees the forest and happens upon some injured soldiers returning from the battle - one is Jim Conklin, delirious from blood loss.
Jim angrily refuses Henry's help and dies. Henry crosses paths with a group of retreating soldiers and is accidentally struck on the head by a gun butt. Tired, hungry, and thirsty, Henry decides to return to his regiment regardless of his shame.
At camp, his comrades, believing his wound was the result of a bullet graze, take care of him. Nobody witnessed Henry's desertion; he's in the clear. He still feels ashamed. The next morning, his regiment goes into battle against smaller group of Confederates, and he proves himself a good soldier.
In the final battle between his regiment and the Confederates, Henry acts as a flag bearer to replace the fallen color sergeant. A Confederate regiment, hidden behind a distant fence, attacks. The Union soldiers, having no cover, are sitting ducks.
The regiment faces an agonizing choice: death if they stay or disgrace if they retreat. The officers order a charge. Though as a flag bearer, he's unarmed, Henry bravely leads the other men in the charge. He escapes injury and the Confederates are defeated.
The novel concludes on this haunting, impressionistic note:
It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks — an existence of soft and eternal peace.
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
The Red Badge of Courage, with its remarkably modern, realistic style and nontraditional plot, became an overnight sensation, receiving ten print runs in its first year. Most critics raved about it, but a few condemned it as "a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies."
The novel would be adapted as a feature film a few times. The first and most famous adaptation was released in 1951. Directed by legendary filmmaker John Huston, it starred real life war hero turned actor Audie Murphy as Henry Fleming.
Though he tragically died young of tuberculosis at the age of 28, during his short lifetime, the prolific Stephen Crane published five novels, five short story collections, and two poetry collections. Other works were published posthumously.
Quote Of The Day
"A man with a full stomach and the respect of his fellows had no business to scold about anything that he might think to be wrong in the ways of the universe, or even with the ways of society. Let the unfortunates rail; the others may play marbles." - Stephen Crane
Today's video features a complete reading of Stephen Crane's classic novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Enjoy!