The Red Badge of Courage

Citation metadata

Editors: Tom Quirk and Gary Scharnhorst
Date: 2006
American History Through Literature 1870-1920
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 958


A classic in the tradition of realism, generally considered the most important novel of the American Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage was written by a young author who had never seen a battle. Stephen Crane, who was born six years after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, began the novel when he was twenty-one and finished his revisions a year later. The book was published by Appleton in 1895, a few days before Crane celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday. Given the vivid descriptions of battle scenes, the youth and inexperience of the author seem strange, even in the early twenty-first century. Stranger still is the fact that The Red Badge of Courage seems utterly remote from the issues—such as slavery and secession—that are usually cited as the causes of the Civil War. Except for the subtitle, An Episode of the American Civil War, and the distinctive local color that defines its social, temporal, and spatial milieus, the war depicted in Crane's novel might have occurred in a thousand different settings.


The youngest son of a Methodist minister, Stephen Crane (1871–1900) was born in Newark, New Jersey. In 1878 the family moved to Port Jervis, New York, a railroad hub in Appalachia on the Pennsylvania border. He was schooled at the Pennington Seminary and at Claverack College, a military prep school on the Hudson River. In 1890 he entered Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, but transferred to Syracuse University in 1891 for one desultory term, excusing himself from classes and specializing in baseball.

Sponsored by his brother, Townley, he became a stringer or reporter for the New York Tribune covering the Jersey Coast, but he lost his job when his callow satire caused a minor brouhaha. By 1892 Crane was living with fraternity brothers on Avenue A in Manhattan. There he wrote Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (A Story of New York) (1893) and published it with the inheritance he received from his mother's estate.

Crane began The Red Badge of Courage, as a "potboiler" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, p. 91), while living with his brother, Edmund, in Lake View, New Jersey, in the summer and early autumn of 1893. He continued its composition when he moved to the old Art Students' League at East Twenty-third Street in Manhattan, where, as an impoverished bohemian, he shared a large studio with struggling artists. Crane became a nocturnal writer, working often after midnight until dawn.

A chief source for The Red Badge of Courage, according to Crane's artist friends, was the series of Civil War memoirs published in the Century between 1884 and 1887. Corwin Knapp Linson, for example, remembered Crane "poring over the Civil War articles" in 1893 (p. 19). Presumably, the stories of veterans in Port Jervis were an oral source; the movements of Crane's fictional Page 959  |  Top of Article
Stampede of the Eleventh Corps on the Plank Road. Illustration by A. C. Redwood for The Chancellorsville Campaign by Darius N. Cough in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 18871888. Chancellorsville, Virginia, is the site of the battle in Cra Stampede of the Eleventh Corps on the Plank Road. Illustration by A. C. Redwood for "The Chancellorsville Campaign" by Darius N. Cough in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 1887–1888. Chancellorsville, Virginia, is the site of the battle in Crane's novel. GRADUATE LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN regiment, the 304th New York, parallel those of the 124th New York State Volunteer Regiment (called the Orange Blossoms), which saw its first combat at Chancellorsville, Virginia, the site of the battle in the novel. Another oral source, John B. Van Petten, one of Crane's teachers at Claverack and a noted raconteur of war stories, had been a chaplain and lieutenant colonel in the Union army. Seriously wounded and decorated for bravery, Van Petten served in the battles of Antietam and Winchester, where he witnessed the panic and confusion of terrified soldiers running from the enemy. Several literary works—notably Leo Tolstoy's Sebastopol (1855), Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed (1890), and Émile Zola's La Débâcle (1892)—have been cited as possible sources of The Red Badge of Courage, but although the similarities are sometimes striking, there is no evidence that Crane read these books. Again, he may have been influenced by the perspectives of infantry soldiers in such works as Wilbur F. Hinman's Corporal Si Klegg and His "Pard": How They Lived and Talked and What They Did and Suffered While Fighting for the Flag (1887) and by the vivid fictional descriptions of warfare in John W. De Forest's Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), Joseph Kirkland's The Captain of Company K (1891), and Ambrose Bierce's Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). Without conclusive evidence, however, the influence of these works remains controversial.

In April 1894 Crane showed Hamlin Garland the first half of his manuscript (the other half being held "in hock" with a typist for $15). Garland immediately recognized the novel as "a work of genius" (Roadside Meetings, pp. 196–197). In penciled comments on the manuscript, Garland advised Crane to regularize the regional speech of his characters. Initially Crane followed this advice, but he eventually restored most of the Appalachian dialect except for Henry Fleming's speech. At about this time Crane also substituted epithets for the names of his characters: Fleming became "the youth," Wilson "the loud soldier," and Conklin "the tall soldier." Their names appear only in direct address. Page 960  |  Top of Article The original title, "Private Fleming: His Various Battles," now became The Red Badge of Courage.

With Garland's supporting letter, Crane offered the novel to S. S. McClure for publication in either McClure's Magazine or in his Newspaper Features Syndicate. McClure postponed making a commitment to publish the novel. Six months later Crane lost patience with McClure and took the manuscript to his competitor, Irving Bacheller, who, impressed by its power and vividness, immediately arranged to publish a syndicated version of The Red Badge of Courage in December 1894. An abridged version of the novel was published by Bacheller in at least seven newspapers, including the Philadelphia Press, where it was most enthusiastically received (Wertheim and Sorrentino, pp. 104–117). In December 1894 Ripley Hitchcock, a senior editor at D. Appleton and Company, tentatively accepted the novel for publication. For five months—January through May 1895—Crane was traveling in the West and Mexico on assignment with the Bacheller syndicate. On 17 June 1895 he signed a contract with Appleton for the publication of The Red Badge of Courage. The novel was published by Appleton in the United States in September and by William Heinemann in England in November 1895.


Discrepancies between the manuscript and the first book edition of The Red Badge of Courage have sparked a heated debate among Crane scholars, including Fredson Bowers, the editor of the University of Virginia edition of The Works of Stephen Crane, and Hershel Parker, a distinguished Herman Melville scholar and a severe critic of Bowers's editorial procedures. Parker and his graduate student at the University of Southern California, Henry Binder, have argued that the Virginia edition of The Red Badge of Courage violates Crane's intentions. Parker and Binder insist that the manuscript—not the Appleton first edition—be established as the authoritative text of The Red Badge of Courage (see Parker in Mitchell, pp. 25–47). They reason that Hitchcock must have pressured Crane to delete many passages (including all of the manuscript's chapter 12) in which Fleming's reflections seem especially deluded, pompous, and petulant. According to this argument, Hitchcock intervened in order to produce a book that was acceptable to patriotic readers in the 1890s. The last few pages were heavily revised, and the final paragraph—"Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds"—does not appear in the manuscript. Parker and Binder believe that Hitchcock's invasive role is conspicuous here. This argument, however, is flawed because there is no evidence that the alleged censorship ever occurred. Crane never objected to the published version of his novel or suggested that he was forced to cut anything. The typescript that served as the printer's copy or the printer's proof would probably help to resolve these issues, but unfortunately these items are lost.

This is not merely a pedantic quarrel; the chosen text affects one's overall evaluation of the novel and impinges crucially on matters of interpretation. The Parker-Binder version intensifies Crane's ironic treatment of Henry Fleming and blatantly supports an antiwar reading of the novel. In the early twenty-first century, however, most scholars accept the authority of the Appleton text. The manuscript contributes to the understanding of Crane's imaginative process, but as Christopher Benfey has succinctly observed: "a manuscript is not a book" (p. 108). The manuscript also helps to correct printing and proofreading errors. Among the editors who adopt the 1895 version as their copy text, Bowers accepts manuscript readings that make Crane's use of regional speech consistent. Donald Pizer is conservative with emendations; J. C. Levenson is more so. Because no two editors agree at every point, there is no single authoritative edition of The Red Badge of Courage.


The first reviews that appeared in U.S. newspapers noted the vivid detail and terrifying realism of the novel. The Detroit Free Press (7 October 1895) found it "so vivid a picture of the emotions and the horrors of the battlefield that you will pray your eyes may never look upon the reality." To Edward Marshall in the New York Press (13 October 1895), "the description is so vivid as to be almost suffocating." The Boston Times (27 October 1895) stressed its "pitiless vividness": "the most realistic and ghastly picture of the late war which has ever come to our notice." The Philadelphia Press (13 October 1895) praised the novel "as a most impressive and accurate record of actual personal experiences." Similarly the New York Times (19 October 1895) found it "extraordinarily true." Among the negative reviews, the New York Tribune (13 October 1895), still with a grudge against Crane, denounced the novel as "tedious," "grotesque," "ridiculous," and "exaggerated." William Dean Howells, one of Crane's steadfast mentors, wrote a bland review for Harper's Weekly (26 October 1895). Psychologically, he wrote, "the book is worth while as an earnest of the greater things we may hope from a new talent" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, pp. 141–146).

While The Red Badge of Courage was, in general, an instant success in the United States, in England it was a sensation. Arthur Waugh, in a "London Letter" for the Critic (28 December 1895), wrote that "everyone is Page 961  |  Top of Article asking about [Crane]; and his Red Badge of Courage is being read all over the country." A reviewer for the London Sketch (18 December 1895) found it "fascinating," "almost diabolically clever," "amazing—indeed, Zolaesque." In the Pall Mall Gazette (26 November 1895), H. B. Marriott-Watson wrote: "Mr. Crane . . . has written a remarkable book. His insight and his power of realization amount to genius" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, pp. 152–157). The most sustained and penetrating analysis was written by George Wyndham for the New Review (January 1896). Wyndham was among the first to note Crane's innovations in prose style and narrative method. Crane, he said,

has hit on a new device. . . . In order to show the features of modern war, he takes a subject—a youth with a peculiar temperament, capable of exaltation and yet morbidly sensitive. Then he traces the successive impressions made on such a temperament, from minute to minute, during two days of heavy fighting. He stages the drama of war, so to speak, within the mind of one man, and then admits you as to a theatre.

Wyndham repeatedly compared Crane to Tolstoy and Zola and concluded: "Mr. Crane, as an artist, achieves by his singleness of purpose a truer and completer picture of war than either" (reprinted in Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, Norton Critical edition, pp. 175–182).

A hot exchange was provoked by a letter written to the Dial, 16 April 1896, by Alexander C. McClurg, the magazine's owner and a decorated hero of the Civil War. The Red Badge of Courage, McClurg wrote, "is a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies." Henry Fleming "is an ignorant and stupid country lad [who] acts throughout like a madman. . . . [He] first rushes madly to the rear in a crazy panic, and afterwards plunges forward to the rescue of the colors under exactly the same influences," McClurg complained. "Nowhere are seen the quiet, manly self-respecting, and patriotic men, influenced by the highest sense of duty, who in reality fought our battles." McClurg suggested that the novel was an expression of British anti-American prejudice. Replies to McClurg by Appleton and Sidney Brooks were printed in the Dial in May but were offset by a renewed burst of criticism by J. L. Onderdonk and by a letter in Harper's Weekly by William M. Payne supporting McClurg's attack on Crane's "monstrous extravagance" (Wertheim and Sorrentino, pp. 179–184).


Most readers agree that The Red Badge of Courage is a masterpiece of social and psychological realism. Many readers also see it as a classic in the tradition of naturalism. Others, by observing its painterly style, link it to impressionism. Still other readers find a mythic or philosophic subtext that lifts the novel above its historical context to a more universal level.

The Red Badge of Courage may be read as a document in the social history of the Civil War. The novel is known to have been based on the battle of Chancellorsville. Harold Hungerford points out that the battle is mentioned explicitly in "The Veteran," a short story that Crane published a year after The Red Badge of Courage, in which an older Henry Fleming says, "That was at Chancellorsville" (p. 223). Crane presumably studied the history of this campaign in the Century and interviewed veterans in order to develop an exact knowledge of the relevant historical background. The geography, troop movements, and details of battle scenes in the novel consistently correspond to actual events. Late in April 1863 the Union army massed at Falmouth, Virginia, then crossed the Rappahannock River, and attacked Confederates on 2 May. It was the first battle of the year and the first military action for many of the soldiers. Thus, Chancellorsville served as an apt framework for studying the responses of a raw recruit in his first battle. This campaign probably attracted Crane's attention also because of its ironic nuances: after only two days it ended in a stalemate and was a humiliating defeat of Union troops under the inept Joseph Hooker, whose vastly superior manpower (two to one) was defeated through the ingenuity of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, commanders of the Confederate army.

The Red Badge of Courage may also be read in the context of the 1890s—that is, as a reinterpretation of the Civil War as it was popularly understood when Crane wrote and published his novel. Similarly, cultural and political issues that were being played out at the end of the nineteenth century found their way metaphorically into The Red Badge of Courage. Images of violent class conflicts between workers and owners, the results of a modern industrialized machine, are obliquely depicted in Crane's novel. As Amy Kaplan points out (in Mitchell's New Essays), it also anticipates the Spanish-American War and the global wars of the twentieth century.

Irony is often seen as the key to The Red Badge of Courage. Henry is the romantic dreamer: in fantasy he sees himself as a Homeric or chivalric hero, when in reality he is an ignorant farm boy and a self-centered antihero who becomes consumed with "wild battle madness." Eric Solomon has concluded that Crane's war novel is therefore a parody of traditional popular historical fiction. Other critics, notably William Bysshe Stein and Florence Leaver, argue that the novel should Page 962  |  Top of Article be read ironically. To Stein, who draws a parallel to the French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, Henry Fleming is an absurdist hero. Leaver reads The Red Badge of Courage through the lens of David Reisman's 1950 study The Lonely Crowd. She maintains that Fleming is a prototype of the "other-directed" outsider, emphatically not a Civil War hero. While most critics prefer the ironic approach to The Red Badge of Courage, they often debate the degrees of irony that can be found throughout the novel, especially in its ending.

In the realm of mythic and archetypal interpretation, one name stands out: R. W. Stallman. In an introduction to the Modern Library edition (1951) of The Red Badge of Courage, Stallman reinterpreted the novel as a religious allegory, a timeless story of sin, suffering, and redemption. Stallman found religious symbolism throughout the novel, but most notably he located it in the death of Jim Conklin, Crane's "intended" Christ figure. At the end of chapter 9, the blood-drenched, wafer-like sun symbolizes the crucified redeemer, and Fleming's "spiritual rebirth begins" at this moment (pp. xxxiv–xxxv).

For at least twenty years, Stallman was the center of a fierce academic debate, and he kept the issues alive by rewriting his interpretation six times. Finally he totally contradicted himself by arguing that Fleming is not spiritually saved; rather, the whole redemption myth is an intended irony: "Proud Henry . . . [thinking] that he is reborn . . . is self-deceived" (Stephen Crane, p. 175). With the decline of archetypal criticism, Stallman's eccentric interpretation has virtually disappeared from hermeneutic discourse. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell provides a lens for another mythic reading of The Red Badge of Courage. Using Campbell's model, John E. Hart sees Henry Fleming as a hero who passes through the successive stages of separation, initiation, and return.

The dominance of brute instinct over reason, of environment over personal choice, and of natural processes over teleology—in short, naturalism, is another popular framework for reading The Red Badge of Courage. Some scholars, such as Lars Åhnebrink, have drawn parallels to European antecedents, principally Émile Zola. Others, such as Charles C. Walcutt, believe that with a close reading of the text one sees Henry moving lockstep from naive idealism to challenging circumstance and then to panic and flight. The often-cited "chapel" scene in The Red Badge of Courage illustrates this type of naturalism: Henry enters a verdant, quasi-religious enclosure where he faces a dead soldier, a corpse rotting and being eaten by black ants that seem surrealistically to pursue the terrified, fleeing recruit. Elsewhere, human beings are reduced to devils, barbarians, hell-roosters, wolves, and wildcats. Unlike Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser, however, Crane does not interrupt the narrative flow to preach a naturalistic philosophy; he simply places his characters in a life-threatening environment and lets "nature" run its course.

Distinct from naturalism, impressionism—a prose technique involving the interaction of light and color—offers an alternative context. Garland's initial response to the manuscript indicates an early interest in this feature of Crane's style, for "veritism"—Garland's personal theory of realism—includes impressionism as a vital component. Harold Frederic noted the pictorial aspect of The Red Badge of Courage, and Joseph Conrad also stressed Crane's impressionism. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism (1980) by James Nagel is the fullest and most convincing discussion of this approach.

The presentation of war as spectacle provides another context for reading The Red Badge of Courage. Battles are depicted as football games or other sporting events, circus parades, and theatrical tableaus. Bill Brown maintains that the entertainment industry, which expanded dramatically in the 1890s, seeped unconsciously into Crane's works, where grotesque parallels are often drawn between violence and amusement.

Lastly, Crane's family background in the temperance movement provides still another context for understanding the novel. Both of Crane's devout parents actively supported the relentless war against alcohol. Their writings on the subject, as well as the enormous body of temperance literature, must have been repeatedly brought to Crane's attention during childhood. George Monteiro argues that the upturned faces of corpses on the battlefield, including the soldier that Fleming encounters in the green chapel, derive from temperance descriptions of ragged men lying dead drunk in the dirt and covered with bugs. The ravings of Jim Conklin in his death scene suggest the temperance accounts of delirium tremens.

A review of the scholarship pertaining to The Red Badge of Courage, including the books by Brown and Monteiro, shows that Crane's novel has evoked and continues to evoke fresh interpretations. If a test of a literary classic is its complexity and therefore its ability to generate multiple interpretations, then surely The Red Badge of Courage is a classic.


Primary Works

Crane, Stephen. The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. Edited by Stanley Wertheim and Paul M. Sorrentino. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Edited by Donald Pizer. Norton Critical edition, 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1994.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. Edited by Fredson Bowers. In The Works of Stephen Crane, vol. 2. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.

Crane, Stephen. Stephen Crane: Prose and Poetry. Edited by J. C. Levenson. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Crane, Stephen. "The Veteran." McClure's Magazine 7 (August 1896): 222–224.

Secondary Works

Åhnebrink, Lars. The Beginnings of Naturalism in American Fiction. Uppsala, Sweden: American Institute of the University of Uppsala, 1950.

Bassan, Maurice, ed. Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Benfey, Christopher. The Double Life of Stephen Crane. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Brown, Bill. The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economics of Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Commemorative edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Garland, Hamlin. Crumbling Idols: Twelve Essays on Art Dealing Chiefly with Literature, Painting, and the Drama. 1894. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960.

Garland, Hamlin. Roadside Meetings. New York: Macmillan, 1930.

Hart, John E. "The Red Badge of Courage as Myth and Symbol." University of Kansas City Review 19 (1953): 249–256.

Hungerford, Harold R. "'That Was at Chancellorsville': The Factual Framework for The Red Badge of Courage." American Literature 34 (1963): 520–531.

Leaver, Florence. "Isolation in the Work of Stephen Crane." South Atlantic Quarterly 61 (1962): 521–532.

Linson, Corwin Knapp. "Little Stories of 'Steve' Crane." Saturday Evening Post, 11 April 1903, pp. 19–20.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. New Essays on "The Red Badge of Courage." Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Includes Hershel Parker, "Getting Used to the 'Original Form' of The Red Badge of Courage," pp. 25–47; and Amy Kaplan, "The Spectacle of War in Crane's Revision of History," pp. 77–108.

Monteiro, George. Stephen Crane's Blue Badge of Courage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.

Nagel, James. Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

Solomon, Eric. Stephen Crane: From Parody to Realism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Stallman, R. W. "Introduction." In The Red Badge of Courage. Modern Library edition. New York: Random House, 1951.

Stallman, R. W. Stephen Crane: A Biography. New York: Braziller, 1968.

Stein, William Bysshe. "Stephen Crane's Homo Absurdus." Bucknell Review 8 (1959): 168–188.

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

Weatherford, Richard M. Stephen Crane: The Critical Heritage. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

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

John Clendenning

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3470800211