21 Seiten, Note: 1,0
Note on the Text 1
1 Introduction: Breaking the Monotony of a Decorous Age
2 “Only an Impressionist?” Stylistic Methods in The Red Badge
3 The Abandonment of Traditional War Fiction and War Depiction
3.1 Parodical Elements in The Red Badge
3.2 The Treatment of Chivalric Ideals
4 Conclusion: A Modern Depiction of Modern War
Due to heavy discussions about whether the text as published by D. Appleton and Company in 1895 or a manuscript discovered in later years should be considered the “real” version of The Red Badge of Courage it needs to be said that the following essay has been based on the shorter Appleton text. Apart from reasons regarding the reception history of the novel, it also does not seem to be advisable to turn away from a text which has been the text for over one hundred years because it remains to be clarified who exactly made the excisions from the original manuscript for what reasons.
When Stephen Crane started to write his war book, which was to be named The Red Badge of Courage, in 1893 he was leading an impoverished existence in a former Art Students’ League building in New York. His first novel Maggie, published at Crane’s own expense, had brought him the respect of men of letters Hamlin Garland and W.D. Howells but in no way appealed to the reading public. The Red Badge, however, was acclaimed by critics and attracted the interest of the audience to such an extent that it became a success in both the United States and Great Britain.
Probably the most astonishing fact about this “first novel completely devoted to the experience of war” (Mitchell 13), until today praised as one of the finest pieces of American war fiction, is that it was written by a 21-year-old who had never experienced war himself but built entirely on his imagination and talent. However, the circumstances of its creation were by far not the only aspect which made this work of literature unique and pioneering—even though it took a long time for some of its other facets to be identified and understood.
One of the most outstanding qualities of this novel remains that it polarizes and puzzles with respect to its form as well as to its content. A lot of Crane’s early readers were captivated by its depiction of war experience, which was so uniquely vivid that “one confused veteran was moved to claim that he had been with Crane in Antietam” (Benfey 107). Some critics were struck by Crane’s genuinely new style, which they could hardly find terms to describe, whereas others made fun of Crane’s Impressionist use of color (Weatherford 151 ff.). Regarding Crane’s style he has been labeled as almost everything from Realist and Naturalist to Impressionist, Existentialist or Symbolist (Gullason qtd. in Nagel 6) and even Expressionist (Poenicke 57) and critics have repeatedly tried to nail him down on one single literary style.
The ambiguity of The Red Badge with respect to its content or “message” becomes visible when one compares its use in American high schools “to illustrate a boy’s initiation into manhood” (Benfey 108) and the fact that it has even been published as an Armed Forces edition to raise the morale of American troops (Poenicke 55) with, for example, Ellison’s completely opposite interpretation of the novel as a revelation of war’s dark and ugly sides whose “real mystery lay in the courage out of which one so young could face up to the truth which so many Americans were resisting with a noisy clamor of optimism and with frantic gestures of materialistic denial” (50). Interpretations of the latter sort are also encouraged by a quotation attributed to Emerson which was found in the Art Students’ League building: “Congratulate yourselves if you have done something strange and extravagant and broken the monotony of a decorous age” (Benfey 106). And indeed, the most prominent feature of The Red Badge is its revolt against artistic and cultural conventions.
Numerous approaches to this novel focus on Crane’s personality, the question whether it can truly be called a story of initiation or the complicated relationship between the narrator and his protagonist. In contrast, the following essay will focus on the actual depiction of war and the novel’s relation to traditional American war fiction. It will be demonstrated that The Red Badge cannot and should not be read as purely Naturalist or purely Impressionist, but that it is in fact the combination of Realism, Naturalism and Impressionism which creates the unique effect of this novel. Furthermore, these stylistic innovations go hand in hand with a new interpretation of war as a cultural phenomenon, based on the perspective of a Naturalist and Impressionist worldview. This new interpretation of war also manifests itself in the parody of traditional war fiction and the unmasking of traditional chivalric ideals.
These aspects cannot be completely isolated from the question whether The Red Badge is a Bildungsroman or from its metaphorical reading as a characterization of society and human nature in general, but they will not be at the center of attention. It is Crane’s employment of stylistic methods, especially the use of Impressionist techniques, and his unsparing depiction of war without respect for traditional war fiction which gives The Red Badge its decidedly modern taste and thus makes the novel a significant artistic treatment of war up to this day.
As mentioned above, Crane has been labeled as belonging exclusively to one literary movement again and again. Benfey complains about too narrow critical perspectives viewing The Red Badge as simply Realist (106), Joseph Conrad describes Crane as “the only impressionist and only an impressionist” (qtd. in Nagel 1) and Alfred Kazin sees him as “a naturalist by birth” (34). The critical responses to his most important works demonstrate that a great variety of styles can be found in Crane’s writing so that Gullason’s assessment seems sensible that he “cannot truly be labelled” (qtd. in Nagel 6)—a view which is shared by Nagel (1) and Berryman (44).
Accordingly, a more promising approach to the novel is to trace the elements of different styles in Crane’s writing and to analyze their contribution to the overall effect as well as their interaction. In the following sections the significance of Realist, Naturalist and Impressionist traits in The Red Badge will be examined in order to, as Benfey suggests, “follow . . . the strange turns of Crane’s highly idiosyncratic vision” (106) and thus gain a deeper insight into the novel’s depiction of war. This step is also supposed to elucidate the overwhelming and captivating “effect” of the novel to make it more accessible. However, this examination does not and, in fact, could not claim completeness in the sense of listing the Realist, Naturalist and Impressionist features of the novel, since the focus is on their contribution to war depiction.
As far as his mode of presentation in general is concerned, Crane first of all followed Howell’s conception of Realism, which aimed at a detailed, photographic depiction of scenes called verisimilitude (Benfey 10; Perosa 83). In The Red Badge this shows in the narration of trivialities regarding settings as, for example, the details of Henry’s tent early in the novel: the construction of the tent and the positions of cracker boxes and rifles are neatly described, although the place does never occur again in the novel (Crane 4). The scenes on the battlefield are also not always a sensory tumult but in some instances, where Henry is not directly involved in fighting, described in detail, stating the position of the regiment, the noises from the left and right and the men’s posture (Crane 147f.). A remarkable exception is that the reader learns hardly anything about the characters’ outward appearance: Apart from attributes such as “tall” (Crane 1) or “youthful” (Crane 3), which are used to identify the respective person, no descriptions are offered.
Another Realist aspect are the colloquial dialogues between the characters, which give the whole novel a taste of local color literature. The first occurrence of this style is to be found in the third paragraph of the novel already and hits the reader straight in the face, when the tall soldier says “We’re goin’ t’ move t’morrah—sure” (Crane 2). Of all the scenes in the novel the colloquialism reaches its comic climax just when another soldier of the regiment reports how the colonel and the lieutenant have praised Henry and Wilson, inserting a whole lot of “ahem!” and “ses th’ colonel,” “ses th’ lieutenant” (Crane 197f.).
Realism is in so far at the very basis of presenting the “real” experience of war to the reader: the details and the idiosyncrasies of the situation provided are what gives the reader a feeling of authenticity and directness. This aspect of Realism may be present in The Red Badge only to a minor extent, but if one imagines the novel without these details, the credibility of the “imagined reality” (Perosa 87) would be far less powerful and the novel would in fact be left with the all too obvious appearance of a pure work of imagination.
There are severe limitations to Realism as the mode of presentation in The Red Badge due to the Impressionist worldview underlying the novel’s approach to reality. As Nagel puts it, “The logic of Realism depends on a consistent reliability of both interpretation and perception” (22), whereas Impressionism highlights the instability and subjectivity of reality. The consequence of Impressionism is that there is no objective reality to be captured, but exactly this objective reality is an essential prerequisite of Realism—in fact, it is simply taken for granted. The Realist detail and unambiguous mode of presentation are therefore contained in The Red Badge in a relatively small dose; nevertheless, as shown above, this amount of it is vital to the novel’s impression on the reader.
Beside the aspects of narrative style, the interpretation of war resulting from the novel is Realist. War is stripped of all the Romantic ideals and attributes traditionally assigned to it in American literature and culture and his presented as it “really” is so that The Red Badge is in the truest sense what Poenicke refers to as “ungeschminkte Darstellung,” which is typical of Realism (11). Crane reveals the ugliness of war to the extreme but also, even more astonishingly, its dullness.
Regarding the latter point, Henry’s reflections lay open the gap between traditional expectations of war experience and reality when he states that “He had had the belief that real war was a series of death struggles with small time in between for sleep and meals; but since his regiment had come to the field the army had done little but sit still and try to keep warm” (Crane 10). Similarly, Wilson complains in another scene about “getting moved here and moved there, with no good coming of it” (Crane 28), raising thereby a problem lying heavy on the soldiers which is non-existent in traditional, Romantic war depiction. A comparable effect is achieved by the depiction of the little inconveniences in a soldier’s life:
 original source: Gullason, Thomas A. Introduction. The Complete Short Stories and Sketches of Stephen Crane. By Stephen Crane. Ed. Thomas A. Gullason. New York: Doubleday, 1963.
 original source: Conrad, Joseph. “To Edward Garnett.” 5 Dec 1897. Letter 213 of Stephen Crane: Letters. Eds. R.W. Stallman and Lilian Gilkes. New York: New York UP, 1960.
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