Book club met last night and we discussed The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.
It was published in 1895 and is about the Civil War. Crane wanted to write about
not just the battles, but about the emotions of a soldier at war. It was considered
realistic writing for the time.
Henry Fleming is a young recruit from the 304th Regiment in New York. Specific
battles and place names are not given, but members thought it might have fit in
well with what we know of the Battle of Antietam.
Henry is worried that he might not be brave enough to fight when the time comes.
When a line of wounded soldiers passes by he sees one with a red blood stain on
his shirt. Henry admires that “red badge of courage”.
At the first skirmish he fights and feels very proud. But when a larger battle
looms, he loses his courage and runs away. He wanders farther and farther from
his regiment and walks along with a group of wounded soldiers retreating back
from the front lines. A “tattered” badly wounded man befriends him and asks
with concern about Henry’s wounds–how bad are they?–how does he feel? This
annoys Henry since he’s not wounded at all, but a coward who ran, and he avoids
the tattered soldier, eventually leaving him– perhaps to die alone in the field.
He rejoins his regiment and we follow him through more battles. Crane writes
that the fighting occurs with a “pitiless monotony of conflicts.” Perfect.
The descriptions of the men and the fighting are crisp and colorful in style.
We see and feel the morning fog, the smoke from the rifles, the shouts of
injured men, the noise and confusion. We see the generals on horseback, look
across fields and hills, see lines of marching men. Crane has a poetic gift
of words and phrasing.
Supposedly the book was written in ten days. It was the most famous book
written by Crane, who lived to be only 28 years old. You’ll find it on most
high school or middle school reading lists. It’s a very short book. My copy
had 175 pages, some copies had 110 pages.
And speaking of my library copy, I’d say it was especially interesting. It was a
Reader’s Digest Edition published in 1982 and there were many illustrations which
turned out to be copies of well-known Civil War art. Some of the artists included
were Albert Bierstadt, Edwin Forbes, William L. Sheppard and several by Winslow
Homer. These illustrations richly added interest to the text.
Most of the book group enjoyed the reading and the discussion was interesting.
Next month’s selection is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. It looks good!