A Modern Fairy Tale
Today he is hardly considered a major figure in the annals of American letters. In his own day, however novelist and poet Stephen Crane was recognized as a literary prodigy. Indeed, he was among the brightest orbs in the starry American literary constellation. He was frequently compared with Tolstoy, Zola, and Kipling. Mark Twain praised him as “an undeniable master of the literary crafts.” Buchan, Tolkien, and Lewis each acknowledged his “stunning evocative abilities.” Chesterton ranked him “before Meredith, Alcott, and the Bronte sisters” and “perhaps only behind Scott, Austen, Stevenson, and Dickens” among the great Victorian novelists. Conrad dubbed him “non-comparable as an artist.” And Howells inscribed his name “among the brightest of the sons of genius.” He helped to launch the Naturalist Movement through his use of detached narration, great attention to detail, and characters from lower social classes.
Early on, Crane evidenced extraordinary gifts. He began to compose stories, satires, and verses at the age of fourteen. When his mother, an impoverished widow, secured a college scholarship for him, he turned his hand to political essays, elegies, criticism, and social commentary.
Alas, even the greatest gifts, the best advantages, and the finest opportunities can be easily squandered. He plunged into a life of wastrel bohemianism and concupiscence. He ventured into the rough and tumble literary world at the turn of the century. He frequented the theaters, dressed fashionably, and drank profligately. He boldly rejected the faith of his childhood and embraced a life of defiant worldliness.
He continued to write prodigiously as well—often in dissipated all-night binges. He managed to create an arresting style from a unique conflation of his reading and his own invention, that offered readers an eerie sense of eye witness authenticity—though it was entirely speculative and romantic.
As Crane became more and more adept at manufacturing his fantasies—fantasies of stark realism—his excesses became even more pronounced. Though his piddling advances and royalties were quickly squandered, he actually intensified his dissolute lifestyle. Going without food or sleep for days on end, he wrote ceaselessly with a tortured passion unequaled in American journalism letters. Then he would indulge in drinking sprees, carousings, and fierce street brawls.
His greatest work, The Red Badge of Courage, was published in the autumn of 1895. It quickly went through two editions before the end of the year. By the next summer the novel was an international bookseller list and had gone through fourteen printings; remarkably enough, Red Badge has never been out of print since. Though Crane achieved almost overnight celebrity, unremunerative contracts with the publishers and a general lack of good business sense kept Crane insolvent throughout his life while his debauched lifestyle seriously eroded his health. As quickly as his star had risen, it suddenly fell. Within four years of his first publishing triumph, he was dead at the age of twenty-eight.
In Red Badge, Crane traces the effects of war on a single Union soldier, Henry Fleming, from his dreams of soldiering, to his actual enlistment, and through several battles of the Civil War. Unhappy with his dull, quiet, and boring life at home on the farm, Fleming yearns to somehow earn glory and renown for his heroic achievements in battle. After he enlists however, he discovers that a soldier’s life consists of two parts futility, one part confusion, and one part terror. Set at the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville (though it actually remains unnamed in the story), the young idealistic soldier is forced by the dumb certainties of experience to become a hardened realistic veteran. And in the process, he comes to the difficult realization that boring is actually a virtue not a vice.
The reality is that boring is what most people are actually yearning for—they just don’t know it. Boring is having no people to see, no tasks to accomplish, no expectations to meet, no pressures to deal with—it is the ideal adventure. People go halfway around the world to find a secluded beach or a remote cabin or a mountain chalet, just so they can do nothing. It is dull people who have to be stimulated constantly. Something has always got to be going on.
We are addicted to the razzle-dazzle. We want wow. And we want it now. Our whole culture, from popular entertainment to corporate management, is predicated on the idea that our lives ought to be defined by a frenetic go-go-go sense of busyness. There is no time to reflect. No time to think. No time to do anything at all except be busy.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Somehow, Stephen Crane realized a century ago what we are still struggling to come to terms with. He realized it too late to wrench his life away from the precipitous decline of debauchery—though his novel remains a morality tale, a steadfast warning for us.
Red Badge is a novel of spectacular descriptions—vivid scenes which would satisfy a growing consumer society’s desire for thrilling spectacle. Written in a post-photographic age, the novel discards contemporaneous conventions of battlefield prose for a discontinuous succession of flashing images that yield photographic revelations. Crane limited the novel’s point of view and fragmented its narrative in order to focus the impact of each of his battle pictures. He wanted to somehow make his readers see the truth of his descriptions.
He focused the narrative on the physical, emotional, and intellectual responses of people under extreme pressure, nature’s indifference to humanity’s fate, and the consequent need for compassionate collective action. He explored the effect of colors on the human mind, the harsh realities of war and fighting on the social fabric, the lasting impact of father-son relationships on community life, the interlacing themes of sin and virtue on the cultural consensus. The result was nothing short of riveting.
The English critic Sydney Brooks, totally convinced by Crane's depictions of combat in Red Badge, assumed that Crane had fought in the Civil War. If Red Badge were “altogether a work of the imagination, unbased on personal experience,” Brooks asserted, “its realism would be nothing short of a miracle.”
In fact though, Crane was not born until nearly a decade after the conflicts depicted in the novel took place. When he wrote those scenes, he had not seen any form of warfare at all. Indeed, though informed by a certain amount of research, the book was entirely the work of a fantastic imagination. His realism was completely made up. In that sense, he was a romantic of the basest sort.
In writing about the life and legacy of King Alfred the Great, G.K. Chesterton quipped, “King Alfred is not a legend in the sense that King Arthur may be a legend; that is, in the sense that he may possibly be a lie. But King Alfred is a legend in this broader and more human sense, that the legends are the most important things about him.” Chesterton recognized that sometimes that which appears to be most realistic is actually most fantastic and that which appears to be most fantastic is actually most realistic. In the case of Stephen Crane, we have a remarkable writer known for his authenticity, but whose realism was in fact just a romance.
Modern critics have assumed that Crane produced a new thing—a kind of fictionalized journalism. In fact, what he produced in Red Badge was a fairy tale with a moral.