Civil War-era portrait of a Federal soldier.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory.
The Red Badge of Courage… is the narrative of two processes: the process by which a raw youth develops into a tried and trustworthy soldier, and the process by which a regiment that has never been under fire develops into a finished and formidable fighting machine."
—Sydney Brooks, unsigned review, Saturday Review, January 11, 1896, lxxxi, 44-5 on the Red Badge Home Page of the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia
"No intelligent orders are given; no intelligent movements are made. There is no evidence of drill, none of discipline. There is a constant, senseless, and profane babbling going on, such as one could hear nowhere but in a madhouse. Nowhere are seen the quiet, manly, self-respecting, and patriotic men, influenced by the highest sense of duty, who in reality fought our battles.
It can be said most confidently that no soldier who fought in our recent War ever saw any approach to the battle scenes in this book…"
"The book is a vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies. The hero of the book … betrays no trace of the reasoning being. No thrill of patriotic devotion to cause or country ever moves his breast, and not even an emotion of manly courage.
—General Alexander C. McClurg, letter to the Dial, April 16, 1896, XX, 227-8 on the Red Badge Home Page of the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia
In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane presents war through the eyes—and thoughts—of one soldier. The narrative's altered point of view and stylistic innovations enable a heightened sense of realism while setting the work apart from war stories written essentially as tributes or propaganda. One early reviewer declared that reading the novel "impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before." But the conservative General Alexander C. McClurg, in the magazine "The Dial," attacked the work as a "vicious satire upon American soldiers and American armies," with a central character motivated neither by "thrill of patriotic devotion to cause or country" nor "an emotion of manly courage." Though Crane is critical of abstract sloganeering about the manly virtues prized by McClurg, he is far from dismissive of or uninterested in those virtues.
McClurg regarded the novel as unpatriotic and cowardly. The novel's more nuanced exploration of such values will be explored by students with a close reading of Chapter 23 in comparison with a more traditional tale of combat and a systematic look at McClurg's accusations. Using their new understanding, students will be asked to select one of three published endings to The Red Badge of Courage best suited to their understanding of Crane's exploration of values in the novel.
Note: This lesson may be taught either as a stand-alone lesson or as a companion to the complementary EDSITEment lesson The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Realism.
… felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.But he also had
rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks-an existence of soft and eternal peace.This lesson asks students to appreciate more fully Crane's exploration of the values associated with patriotism and war. After making a comparison between Chapter 23 of The Red Badge of Courage and a more traditional piece on war, students address many of McClurg's accusations one by one, defending or contesting them with textual evidence whenever possible. Lastly, students look at three different published endings to the novel and decide which best represents their understanding of Crane's exploration of values.
The Red Badge of Courage took a non-traditional approach to the war story. In addition to stylistic differences (which are treated in detail in the companion EDSITEment lesson The Red Badge of Courage: A New Kind of Realism), Crane eschews the didacticism readers were accustomed to finding in pieces about war. In the course of the novel, Henry Fleming is, in turn, cowardly, selfish, loyal, and courageous.
Share with your students the poem "Keenan's Charge" by George Parsons Lathrop (page 257 page 258 Scribner's Monthly, Volume XXII, May 1881 to Oct. 1881, inclusive), available on The Nineteenth Century in Print Periodicals collection of the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory. Part II of "Keenan's Charge" describes an assault that took place during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Chapter 23 of The Red Badge of Courage also describes a battle charge, probably based on events at Chancellorsville.
Download, copy, and distribute to students the chart The Red Badge of Courage" on pages 1–2 of the PDF (see Preparation Instructions, above, for download instructions). Have students look through "Keenan's Charge" and Chapter 23 carefully as they find evidence from each to complete the chart and answer the questions. When they are finished, refer to student answers as you and the class make comparisons between the two works. Does one or the other make the participants seem more or less realistic? Brave? Patriotic?
Share with students General Alexander C. McClurg's letter to the Dial, April 16, 1896, XX, 227–28, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Studies at the University of Virginia. Provide students with the handout "Is The Red Badge of Courage Cowardly and Unpatriotic?," on page 3 of the PDF, which lists many of McClurg's specific allegations against The Red Badge of Courage. Give students time to complete the chart on their own or in small groups. Then discuss evidence from the text that corroborates or contradicts McClurg's allegations.
Crane's consideration of values in The Red Badge of Courage is one that can't be framed as simply as either cowardly and unpatriotic or courageous and patriotic. On the one hand, the last page of the most well-known version of the text says that Henry
… felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
But he also had
rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover's thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks-an existence of soft and eternal peace.
What is going on in these passages? How can they be reconciled in terms of the text?
General Alexander C. McClurg (1832–1901), soldier, publisher, book collector, headed the publishing firm which owned "The Dial." His letter, written April 11, 1896, is in response to critics who took The Red Badge seriously, including the reviewer for "The Dial." McClurg [attacked] … English reviewers and magazines, cowards and deserters, and the lack of proper censorship of modern literature …
Share with the class the following:
… in commending the book I should dwell rather upon the skill shown in evolving from the youth's crude expectations and ambitions a quiet honesty and self-possession manlier and nobler than any heroism he had imagined.
—From William Dean Howells' review of The Red Badge of Courage, Harper's Weekly, October 26, 1895, xxxix, 1013
A work like "Keenan's Charge" can be seen as a demonstration of the author's cherished values about character. As Howell suggests, The Red Badge of Courage is more about the process of character development, a young person "evolving." [Here character development is meant in the sense of the process of growth we all go through in which a person matures and decides what values to endorse as opposed to the literary term "character development."] What can the students point to in the text or its plot to support that way of looking at the book? "Courage" is certainly the foremost value the book explores, but include in your discussion complementary character traits such as loyalty, patriotism, duty, determination, and self-awareness. What other character traits are treated in the novel?
A different ending was used for each of three publications of The Red Badge of Courage. Each ending is available online via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia. Assume, for the sake of discussion, that in writing the book, Crane was sorting out his feelings about characteristics such as courage and patriotism and that while he was still uncertain, he composed three endings. Eventually, of course, he would have to choose the one ending most faithful to what he learned in the course of writing the book. Share with the class the endings published in the book (top of page), manuscript (page 191 Top, Middle, Bottom; page 192 Top, Middle, Bottom; and page 193), and serial (bottom of page). Which ending was featured in the text the students read? Help students explore the different effects of the alternate endings. How does each ending reflect how Henry has changed during the book? Which ending do students think is most faithful to what Crane learned by writing the novel? In what way? What did Crane learn?
Extend your discussion of Crane and his attitude toward war with a reading from War Is Kind, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the Academy of American Poets. Is it more like "Keenan's Charge," about the author's cherished values? Or is it more about a process like The Red Badge of Courage? Should readers of The Red Badge of Courage allow themselves to be influenced by the poem in understanding the book?
2-3 class periods