My reading’s been all over the map this year, but since I hadn’t tackled any Civil War-era war stories, I didn’t see any reason to turn my nose up at Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage .
Truth is, I had no idea what I was about to read. If you asked me a week ago, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you the difference between Captains Courageous , Profiles in Courage , and The Red Badge of Courage . All reportedly great books, all on my mental To-Be-Read list for years, but all of them a confusing jumble of "courage" in my poorly-read head.
Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , as it turns out, is not a daring rescue at sea or an examination of valiant senators, it is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, and of the second bloodiest day of the American Civil War as told from the perspective of a “youth” who is seeing battle for the very first time. And while there’s lots of tactical blow-by-blow, that’s not what makes it great. What makes it great is Crane’s fascinating probing into the psyche of soldiers who are in fact scared spitless.
You see them wrestling with the same questions we would all probably face in their shoes: Will I run when it gets ugly? Or will I have what it takes to stand up and fight? And what’s great about it is that we get to follow a main character whose experience runs the gamut: over the course of a few days he turns tail and runs, he deserts wounded comrades, he finds his regiment again and then fights bravely, he picks up the flag when the color sergeant goes down- and through it all he doesn’t come to consider himself a coward or a hero, so much as he comes to truly know himself and grow through the experience. It’s a book that’ll make you think.
And the language is beautiful. Here’s the first paragraph:
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army's feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.”
Anyway, it’s short, and it’s sweet. You should do yourself the favor of checking it out.