Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage - Study Guides on Works and Writers

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Study Guides on Works and Writers

(New York: Appleton, 1895)

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was an unconventional and prolific writer whose life was unsettled and tragically short. The fourteenth child of a Methodist minister who died when Crane was eight, he attended two different colleges before finally leaving school for good to pursue work as a journalist and a writer. He paid for the publication in 1893 of his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, an unsparing tale of a young woman trapped in prostitution. While the work was not widely read, it attracted the attention of other prominent authors, most notably W. D. Howells and Hamlin Garland, who recognized Crane’s talent, even while they expressed reservations about his subject. After reading old copies of Century magazine containing its acclaimed 1880s series on the Civil War, Crane began work on The Red Badge of Courage in 1893 while continuing to pursue journalism and to write “lines,” as he referred to his poems. A shortened version of the novel first appeared in syndication newspapers in 1894. His first book of poetry, The Black Riders, was published in 1895, followed later that year by The Red Badge of Courage. The book was a critical and popular success, and it established its young author as a literary force and a reluctant celebrity. Crane wrote three more novels during his short career: George’s Mother (1896), The Third Violet (1897), and Active Service (1899). He was at work on a fourth novel, The O’Ruddy (1903), when he died of tuberculosis. Along with a prodigious amount of journalism, he completed another collection of poetry, War Is Kind (1899), and five collections of short stories. He also served as a war correspondent in Greece and Cuba. Despite numerous personal adventures and controversies, Crane was forever identified with his first tale of a young man under fire, The Red Badge of Courage.

Crane’s novel tells the story of Henry Fleming, a private in the Union army who volunteers in anticipation of heroic scenes of battle and valor. After a long winter in camp, his ardor has cooled, and, as rumors circulate that his regiment will soon be engaging the enemy, he begins to question his courage and grapple with his fear that he will run in the face of the enemy. When finally put to the test, he withstands the first assault but, upon a second charge, his nerve fails him and he runs. What follows is a nightmarish journey behind the lines punctuated by several significant episodes. The first comes as Fleming seeks solace in the quiet of nature, seeking both relief and, in the fleeing of a squirrel from a pinecone he flings, justification for his actions. His hopes for solace are dashed when, upon entering a “chapel” of tree boughs, he is confronted by the corpse of a Union soldier. He later falls in with a group of injured soldiers leaving the battle; there he is reunited with his friend Jim Conklin, who has been seriously injured. Fleming and another soldier, “the tattered man,” follow Conklin as he walks off into the woods with single-minded determination before finally succumbing to his injuries. As the tattered man, who continually queries Fleming about his nonexistent injury, begins to fail as well, Fleming leaves the man wandering pathetically in an empty field. After he is struck on the head with a rifle butt by another fleeing soldier, he is finally led back to his regiment by a “cheery man” whom he never sees. While he had feared becoming a “slang phrase” for his cowardice, his fellow soldiers accept his explanation for his absence, and after being nursed by a fellow soldier he returns to the front where he displays an unconscious, animalistic fury in battle, eventually seizing the enemy’s colors and winning the attention of his commanding officers. Save for a final pang of guilt for the wounded soldier he abandoned, Fleming leaves the field smiling, pleased with his actions and content in his belief that “he was a man.”

At the time of its publication, Crane’s readers could have read two different versions of The Red Badge of Courage: the shortened newspaper publication of 1894 or the Appleton book publication of 1895. A third version became available when a facsimile of the manuscript was published in 1972, including a great deal of deleted material. Much critical debate ensued, with supporters of the new edition, most prominently Hershel Parker, arguing that the manuscript was more true to Crane’s intentions, his published work being compromised by his financial necessity and an intrusive and cautious editor. Opponents argued that the evidence for editorial meddling was circumstantial and that, since Crane had approved of the novel at its publication, the Appleton text should be read as authoritative. (See James Colvert, “Crane, Hitchcock, and the Binder Edition of The Red Badge of Courage,” in Critical Essays on The Red Badge of Courage, edited by Donald Pizer [1990]). Despite an energetic debate, the manuscript version (known as the “Binder Edition,” for its editor) does not seem to have gained acceptance. More recently, the newspaper publication has gained increased attention, including a careful study by Charles Johanningsmeier in American Literary Realism (2008).


  • 1. Criticism of The Red Badge of Courage has inevitably centered on the question of how readers are to make sense of Henry Fleming’s experience and his final assessment of his actions. Has war truly made him a man, or is this another example of the same naive misapprehension that led him to enlist in the first place? One of Crane’s earliest biographers, Robert W. Stallman, argues that Henry Fleming’s is a story of Christian redemption, noting the religious symbolism of Jim Conklin’s death, most significantly a much-discussed image that ends chapter 9: “The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.” For Stallman, this is a sacramental image, and Fleming is saved through the death of J. C. Other critics, while uneasy with elements of Stallman’s religious readings, have nevertheless embraced the notion that Fleming emerges strengthened and transformed by his ordeal. In what some term the “literal” reading, Fleming’s assessment of his manhood is taken as accurate, his earlier misunderstandings and bravado replaced with self-assurance. He has passed through a kind of initiation ritual into manhood.
  • 2. Those who see irony in Fleming’s assessment of his manhood point out that he has been repeatedly mistaken in his assessments of events throughout the novel. He is inordinately swayed by what he sees, and, as with the squirrel who flees his pinecone, he has a mind that rationalizes his behavior and throws it into the best light. Even when contemplating his desertion of the dying tattered soldier, “gradually he mustered force to put the sin at a distance.” Moreover, his bravery, like his flight, seems to be the product more of instinct than deliberate courage. While the majority of recent critics seem to have adopted the ironic reading of Fleming’s views of his manhood, the debate persists.
  • 3. Related to these questions is the novel’s relation to Naturalism, a movement in literature commonly associated with European authors Emile Zola and Leo Tolstoy, whose war novel Sebastopol (1856; translated, 1888) is cited as an inspiration for The Red Badge of Courage. In the commonly understood definition of Naturalism, human events are seen as insignificant in the face of an uncaring, often destructive, natural world. Proponents of reading the novel in terms of Naturalism cite Fleming’s confrontation with the corpse in the “chapel” of trees as one of many examples that demonstrate how Crane eschews a more Romantic view of nature. One of the earliest critics to offer this view is Charles C. Walcutt in American Literary Naturalism, a Divided Stream (1956). More recently, in a tribute to Donald Pizer, James Nagel has argued that reading the text solely in terms of Naturalism tends to reduce rather than enlarge our understanding and appreciation of the novel (“Donald Pizer, American Naturalism, and Stephen Crane” [2006]).
  • 4. Given the paucity of formal names, the absence of any discussions of ideology or causes for conflict, The Red Badge of Courage has been seen by some as less a historical novel than a meditation on war in general and the human psyche. However, the historical accuracy of Crane’s depiction of battle has long been a topic of discussion. In 1963 Harold R. Hungerford first documented the historic parallels between the novel and the battle of Chancellorsville. More recently, Perry Lentz has argued in a book-length study that Crane conducted much more research than has generally been acknowledged (Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: The Red Badge of Courage and the Civil War [2006]). In addition to reading Century magazine, Lentz asserts, Crane likely read the expanded versions of these articles in the four-volume collection Battles and Leaders of the Civil War and may even have read the official government report on Chancellorsville. While much of Lentz’s argument regarding Crane’s sources is conjectural, he is meticulous in pointing out the accuracy of Crane’s description of the battle and martial details of the story.
  • 5. Other critics, notably Amy Kaplan, have read the novel more for what it suggests about the 1890s than for its depiction of the 1860s. For Kaplan, the novel is caught up in a rhetoric regarding “strenuous” action and masculinity and a culture that emphasizes spectacle as a means of representing conflict (Norton Critical Edition, third edition, pp. 269-294). More recently, Andrew Lawson has argued that the novel needs to be read in the context of the economic upheaval of the late nineteenth century (“The Red Badge of Class: Stephen Crane and the Industrial Army” [2005]). While Lawson’s reading is suggestive and points toward the kind of creative work that can still be done in considering the context of the novel’s creation, a great deal of critical attention continues to be paid to the accuracy of Crane’s portrayal of war and to questions of theme.


Primary Works

The Red Badge of Courage: A Facsimile Edition of the Manuscript, two volumes, edited by Fredson Bowers (Washington, D.C.: NCR/Microcard Editions, 1972, 1973).

Includes material deleted from the 1895 edition of the novel.

The Red Badge of Courage: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, edited by Donald Pizer, third edition (New York & London: Norton, 1994).

A critical edition of the text, with bibliographies and critical essays.


Patrick K. Dooley, Stephen Crane: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Scholarship (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992).

An informative guide to scholarship on Crane and his works, including relevant biographies, through 1991.

Donald Pizer, “Crane and The Red Badge of Courage: A Guide to Criticism,” in The Red Badge of Courage: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, edited by Pizer, third edition (New York: Norton, 1994), pp. 120-145.

A thorough and readable survey of major works of criticism and central areas of scholarly debate through 1992.


John Berryman, Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography, revised edition (New York: Cooper Square, 2001).

First published in 1950, when Crane was reentering the American literary canon. Critics have taken exception to some of Berryman’s psychoanalytic interpretations, as he concedes.

Robert W. Stallman, Stephen Crane: A Biography (New York: Braziller, 1968).

One of the earliest biographies of Crane. Stallman argues for a religious interpretation of The Red Badge of Courage.


Charles Johanningsmeier, “The 1894 Syndicated Newspaper Appearances of The Red Badge of Courage, ” American Literary Realism, 40 (Spring 2008): 226-247.

Andrew Lawson, “The Red Badge of Class: Stephen Crane and the Industrial Army,” Literature and History, 14 (October 2005): 53-68.

Perry Lentz, Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: The Red Badge of Courage and the Civil War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006).

James Nagel, “Donald Pizer, American Naturalism, and Stephen Crane,” Studies in American Naturalism, 1, no. 2 (2006): 30-35.

Donald Pizer, ed., Critical Essays on The Red Badge of Courage (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990).

Charles C. Walcutt, American Literary Naturalism, a Divided Stream (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1956).

Includes the chapter “Stephen Crane: Naturalist and Impressionist.”

Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino, The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane, 1871-1900 (New York: G. K. Hall, 1994).

A detailed retelling of Crane’s life that has become a frequently referenced source of biographical information.

Linda H. Davis, Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

An engaging and accessible retelling of Crane’s life.

—Martin T. Buinicki