Imaging America : Stephen Crane's The red badge of courage and visual representations of the Civil War

Gislason, Eric Johann , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

Some early reviews of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) expressed bemusement and discontent with his abandonment of many of the narrative and stylistic conventions of contemporary realism (the tradition of historical romance as it descended from Scott). But others praised the novel's originality, its "photographic revelation" and rendering of the theatre of war. Such disagreement suggests that Crane's novel participates in what Miles Orvell has called the central category of post-photographic American culture: the dialectic of imitation and authenticity. The cultural and artistic quest for authenticity--the apprehension of a "real" that is more than a collection of facts or a mere imitation of surface reality--preoccupied visual and narrative artists in the latter half of the 19th century. In pursuit of authenticity, Crane ignored his literary precursors and drew inspiration for his novel from images of the Civil War which persisted in the public imagination: photographs by Brady, Gardner, and O’Sullivan; paintings by Homer and others. Red Badge's discontinuous succession of "battle pictures" questions the narrative strategies of contemporaneous fictional and historical accounts of the War, critiques their unsatisfactory, often self-congratulatory answers about its significance to American society. The novel is not strictly concerned with imaging the violence, confusion, and death of war: in Crane's portrait of Henry struggling with his comrade to uphold the colors on the battlefield can be seen the seed of what Ralph Ellison has called the "antagonistic cooperation" so crucial to democratic society. Both Henry and the loud soldier have learned that iii the justification of one's life must come from its dedication to a community, and that the · virtues so instinctual in war are also important to everyday life. 

The first section of the project, "Critical Reception: Early Reviews," examines the responses of several of Crane's contemporaries. George Wyndham and Harold Frederic celebrate Crane's fresh presentation and original vision, drawing comparisons between his prose and photography. The contributions to the Dial controversy remind readers that perhaps Red Badge is in fact a more political novel than many subsequent critics have deemed it to be. 

The second section, "The Battle: Chancellorsville," argues that Crane set Red Badge in a specific historical situation: the bloody Civil War battle of Chancellorsville. This particular battle suits Crane's historical and thematic purposes: it was the first battle for many regiments (as it is for Henry's); it was bloody--a total of 27,000 men lost their lives; it brought embarrassment and near disaster to the Union while serving only as a pyrrhic victory for the South's losing cause. Crane's reliance on Century magazine's Battles and Leaders of the Civil War for the factual framework of his narrative is carefully outlined here, as is his use of many of that volume's illustrations as inspiration for scenes in Red Badge.

With the identification of Crane's artistic and cultural concerns--a rejection of the generic conventions of popular fictions about the war and a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War's significance to American history--comes an examination of Crane’s reliance on well-known visual representations of the War to address these concerns. The concluding section of the project, "Imaging the Civil War: Authenticity in Painting, Photography, and The Red Badge of Courage," suggests that Crane drew on visual representations of the Civil War by Brady, Gardner, Homer, O'Sullivan and others to critique contemporary attitudes toward the Civil War. Brady and O'Sullivan's photographs of the Civil War dead are of corpses produced by the machine of war, not heroic knights of old. Crane, like Brady and perhaps others, stages his battle pictures to imortant rhetorical effect: he questions the myth of valorous death, asking: Why are these men here? Henry is himself, despite all his experience, unable to definitively answer this question. Crane emphasizes, as well, the loneliness and isolation of the soldier's experience so powerfully rendered in Homer's paintings of Civil War experience. Evoking the Homer's "The Veteran in a New Field," Crane portrays Henry's initiation into war with irony--it is difficult to think of Henry as a hero in any conventional sense--but also with a wistfulness that suggests Henry has at last found reasons to be devoted to a cause larger than himself. 

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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