Notes on Crane’s Style #2: “The Red Badge of Courage”
One of Crane’s best effects depends on a kind of tonal polyphony that oddly harmonizes what would otherwise be discordant moods. The effect usually suggests the complexity, or the ironic objectivity, of Crane’s point of view. A fine example occurs early in Red Badge of Courage.
After complicated journeyings with many pauses, there had come months of monotonous life in a camp. [Henry Fleming] had had the belief that real war was a series of death struggles with small time in between for sleep and meals; but since the regiment had come to the field the army had done little but sit still and try to keep warm.
He was brought then gradually back to his old ideas. Greeklike struggles would be no more. Men were better, or more timid. Secular and religious education had effaced the throat-grappling instinct, or else firm finance held in check the passions.
He had grown to regard himself merely as a part of vast blue demonstration. His province was to look out, as far as he could, for his personal comfort. For recreation he could twiddle his thumbs and speculate on the thoughts which must agitate the minds of the generals. Also, he was drilled and drilled and reviewed, and drilled and drilled and reviewed.
The rhetoric of the first paragraph is uncomplicated. It merely gives us to understand that army life and army myth are not the same. The second paragraph is a repetition, almost verbatim, of an earlier passage describing the content of Henry’s “ideas.” Crane often resorts to repetition of this sort. Here, it suggests (somewhat condescendingly) the poverty of Henry’s mentation, and also its wavering incoherence. Men no longer fight because they are “better”; men no longer fight because they are too “timid”; men no longer fight because they have been educated out of the instinct; men no longer fight because the lords of the land find it unprofitable to allow them to do it. The alternatives in each case exclude one another, and should a single mind contemplate them all simultaneously, it would be an incoherent mind indeed. But as I say, no single mind is before us here. Crane’s mind—the mind of his ironic narrator, if I may speak of a narrator as having a mind—overlaps and circumscribes the more limited mind of his protagonist. I suspect we’re to understand that Henry sees no irony in his “old ideas,” that he regards the pairs of alternatives as in each case live, whereas for Crane the second in each pair pretty clearly undercuts the first, with the final irony being, simply, that timidity, prudence, decency, and altruism are insufficient, even in combination, to moderate an undignified “throat-grappling instinct” in men. The third paragraph quoted revives the uncomplicated mode of the first, with a flourish of repetition in the last sentence registering the tedium of camp life. We are getting a fair picture of the alienation of the common infantryman who learns to regard himself as “part of a vast blue demonstration.”
That much seems to me more or less unremarkable, though fine. The next two paragraphs of the passage, however, are pure Crane:
The only foes [Henry] had seen were some pickets along the river bank. They were a sun-tanned, philosophical lot, who sometimes shot reflectively at the blue pickets. When reproached for this afterward, they usually expressed sorrow, and swore by their gods that the guns had exploded without their permission. The youth, on guard duty one night, conversed across the stream with one of them. He was a slightly ragged man, who spat skillfully between his shoes and possessed a great fund of bland and infantile assurance. The youth liked him personally.
“Yank,” the other had informed him, “yer a right dum good feller.” This sentiment, floating to him upon the still air, had made him temporarily regret war.
Here, Crane wryly bullies his characters. Notice how he narrates at once from inside and outside his hero’s sensibility, so to speak. Henry might well see the rebel pickets as “sun-tanned,” of course, and perhaps also as “philosophical” in the colloquial sense of “mature” and “steady of nerve.” But Henry would not think of their pot-shots as “reflective”—an adjective motivated by the term “philosophy,” but ironically so, in that the idle shooting is almost certainly thoughtless and cruel. To say that the offending pickets are “reproached” by their targets is to speak as if their musketry is essentially a show of bad form—“barbarously abrupt,” as the difficult breakers are said to be in “The Open Boat.” It might be regarded as such either by (let us say) a cavalier Virginia officer, or by the grunts in his command, though the two parties would resent the sniping for different reasons: the first as a sin against honorable combat, the second as a sin against the fellowship that ought to bind together in solidarity against the conceit of the officer corps the poor grunts on both sides of the skirmish—a solidarity which is, in fact, a theme in this passage.
But what is Crane’s investment in the affair? It is the amused “investment” of an onlooker who sees little sense in the whole display—whether on the grunts’ part or the officers.’ In any case, to speak of “reproaches” and the “expression of sorrow” is ironically to pretend that the business is more dignified and politic than it really is. But that is precisely what the soldiers themselves sometimes do. The youth, for example, appears to believe that his rebel picket possesses an admirable assurance. That is the pretense. But in fact, his “great fund” of assurance is said to be “bland and infantile”—two terms that Henry would neither contemplate nor apply in this situation, their complexity of implication (and their ironic affect) clearly being beyond him. Other readers—W.M. Frohock, for example—have noticed this technique of Crane’s. Crane will often lay into the “free indirect discourse” associated with Fleming—i.e., into language ostensibly originating in, and loosely inhabiting, Fleming’s mind—words and phrases that Fleming himself would neither use nor entirely understand.
A typical example occurs in this passage: “He had no rifle; he could not fight with his hands, said he resentfully to his plan. Well, rifles could be had for the picking. They were extraordinarily profuse. Also, he continued, it would be a miracle if he found his regiment.” The phrasing of the second sentence (“Well, rifles could be had for the picking”) is conditioned by Henry’s mind, while that of the third, which merely re-states the idea in a sort of whimsically high diction (“They were extraordinarily profuse”), is conditioned by Crane’s. The phrases “said he” and “he continued” disingenuously specify the “habitat” (so to speak) of all these reflections as interior to Henry. But in fact there is, in this passage, a tactically seamless blending of two trains of thought—the character’s and the narrator’s—just as when the adjectives “bland and infantile,” which reflect the view Crane takes, are dropped in to qualify and vitiate the impressive “assurance” Henry credits the Confederate soldier with.
The effect is to make us always feel that Crane exercises a kind of leverage over against his yokel hero—that he has, so to speak, mirthfully colonized his mind. In any event, we understand, in the longer passage quoted above, the impression the rebel picket makes on Henry, and are also given to understand that he is a little foolish to be so impressed: “`Yank,’ the other had informed him, `yer a right dum good feller.’ This sentiment, floating to him upon the still air, had made him temporarily regret war.” Crane, too, may “regret” war. But not because it has no respect for the dignity of encounters like this one. Crane himself allows for no dignity in them. Henry is a fool for “regretting” war and a fool (a moment before) for not “regretting” it. Crane simply will not let him alone.
Immediately following that passage I’ve been discussing occurs the best part of this, the first chapter of the novel.
Various veterans had told him tales. Some talked of gray, bewhiskered hordes, who were advancing with relentless curses and chewing tobacco with unspeakable valor; tremendous bodies of fierce soldiery who were sweeping along like the Huns. Others spoke of tattered and eternally hungry men who fired despondent powders. “They’ll charge through hell’s fire an’ brimstone t’ git a holt on a haversack, an’ sech stomachs ain’t a’ lastin’ long,” he was told. From the stories, the youth imagined the red, live bones sticking out through slits in the faded uniforms.
The insertion of the phrase “chewing tobacco” does the deflationary trick. The irony, of course, depends on the way the “advance” of the fierce soldiery and the “chewing” they do somehow seem alike to share in this “unspeakable valor.” The parallelism is comically false—a droll Augustan technique that Alexander Pope used to good effect. It is as if Crane chose precisely the wrong adjective to modify “valor”: “inexpressible valor” appears to be the phrase around which Crane allusively orbits, here. But of course, “unspeakable,” his arch substitution, means something more like “reprehensible”—a nuance perhaps motivated by the sense of affronted outrage the green Yankee soldiers feel. As they experience them, the Confederate attacks are a capital rudeness, a breach of good decorum, as much deserving a social “reproach” as a martial counterattack. Crane’s diction slyly evokes, in a parodying way, the gentlemanly cult of good breeding that some still liked to believe—especially in the post-Reconstruction era of the Lost Cause—had governed the combat at least of the “Cavalier” rebels. And Red Badge is nothing if not a satire of chivalry.
As for choosing precisely the “wrong” word, another example is “bewhiskered” in the phrase “gray, bewhiskered hordes.” The adjective might more commonly be applied to a face one finds attractive in a quaint sort of way. “Grizzled” is what one expects to find in the martial context before us here. The “bewhiskered” alternative places a slight ironic distance between the narrator and the men he describes. In characterizing their views of the situation confronting them he never quite adopts their language. Or rather say: the language Crane uses swings unsteadily between their discourse and his own.
But I’ll attend still more closely to Crane’s manner, which, as I see it, persistently suggests that he regards himself as existing above, and outside of, the situations with which he has to do. And this is precisely why readers have never comfortably been able to assimilate The Red Badge of Courage to conventionally “heroic” modes (though many have tried, and still do). It explains also why readers whose cultural/political orientation sets them apart from Crane’s cocky, devil-may-care mode of urbanity often find his writing unsettling and vaguely offensive, as did General Alexander McClurg for one reason—he, a holdover Radical Republican, gave the book its harshest review—and, apparently, as did the members of the Port Jervis, New York, V.F.W. for quite another. In 1983 they demanded that “Stephen Crane Memorial Park” be renamed “Veterans Memorial Park at Orange Square.” Why? They regarded Red Badge as a standing insult to our men and women in uniform.
The tonal complexity of passages like the ones I’ve just examined can both explain and, perhaps, settle the most important and long-standing controversy surrounding the novel. Is Henry Flemming a “hero”? Does he, or does he not, “mature” as the novel progresses? Does the conclusion of the novel mark a turn, an upward development, in his character? Or is he, all the way through to the bitter end, regarded with ironic condescension by the narrator (and by Crane)?
Related to this is another important controversy. Do we encounter in Crane the acid sort of irony, the inexhaustible sort of impiety, of a writer like H.L. Mencken? Alfred Kazin offers the best account of him in these terms, in An American Procession and elsewhere. Or instead of a cynical ironist do we encounter in Crane a writer genuinely in search of the providential sense of national and individual purpose that we Americans apparently lost in the Gilded Age? The best reading of Crane along these lines is Andrew Delbanco’s in “The American Stephen Crane: the Context of The Red Badge of Courage.” In this debate, I very much favor Kazin, who seems more in harmony with Crane’s sense of style—with the work Crane really did do as a writer.
To be sure, the novel does, as Delbanco suggests in Required Reading, lend itself inevitably to readings of it as a bildungsroman: “It has long been an English teacher’s favorite,” Delbanco says, “because it has a conveniently interrogatory form: What, it obliges us to ask, does Henry Fleming learn?” This question has been variously answered by critics. Henry learns (we are sometimes told) to accept mortality as the inevitable fate of the body. Or he learns to become a soldier—to subordinate his merely private interests to the imperatives of the larger social body to which he belongs, the Union Army. Or Henry learns how to be a “man.” He faces his fears, disciplines and manages them, and in the end recognizes that honor (for example) is a higher principle than mere survival. Arguing along these lines, R.W. Stallman—author of the fullest biography of Crane yet published—contends that “Henry progresses upward toward manhood and moral triumph.” As it happens, I find none of these answers compelling, chiefly because I think the question “What does Henry learn?” is impertinent. Henry, in fact, learns nothing.
To some extent, the controversies to which I refer, here, are explained by a simple historical fact. The text of The Red Badge of Courage has been difficult to establish. The first text to appear was a severely truncated version, which ran in several newspapers late in 1894. The second was a much longer text published in book form in 1895 by D. Appleton and Company of New York. For decades readers assumed that this latter text was the most authoritative available, and it was upon the basis of it that the debate as to Henry Fleming’s “heroism” arose. But beginning in the 1950s more documentary evidence came to light, and, as the textual scholar Hershel Parker demonstrated in a fine 1986 essay, the Appleton text is not, in fact, reliable—or even, perhaps, coherent. Crane’s editor at Appleton, Ripley Hitchcock, caused Crane, however indirectly, to cancel a number of passages from the novel, and in fact an entire chapter (this would have been chapter twelve in the original, swelling the total to twenty-five chapters).
The effect of the excisions—which total several thousand words—is to mute, somewhat, the severity of Crane’s ironic treatment of Henry, with the result that it becomes just barely possible to see, in the broad outline of the plot, a story of his redemption. The reductio ad absurdum to which this reading of the novel may be taken is best illustrated by R.W. Stallman’s interpretation of it as a Christian allegory of redemption: “The theme is that man’s salvation lies in change, in spiritual growth. Henry Fleming recognizes the necessity for change and development but wars against it. But man must lose his soul in order to save it. The youth develops into a veteran: `So it came to pass [that] his soul changed.’ Significantly enough,” suggests Stallman, “in stating what the book is about Crane intones Biblical phrasing.” In due course Stallman concludes that, as he witnesses Jim Conklin’s death, Henry figuratively “partakes of the sacramental blood and body of Christ [Stallman makes way too much of the dead soldier’s initials, ‘J.C.’], and the process of his spiritual rebirth begins at the moment when the wafer-like sun appears in the sky. It is a symbol of salvation through death.” This is a far cry from the usual reading of Crane as an insouciant rebel against his parents’ strict Methodism. It is a reading that finds the father and the mother in the son, and, withal, the Son of the Father Himself in that most famous “sun” in late nineteenth-century American literature, the one Crane “pastes” in the sky “like a wafer”—a communion wafer, if readers like Stallman are to be believed.
I suppose there is a sense in which this reading has its integrity. And it has been an influential reading owing to the fact that Stallman’s detailed biography of Crane, which recapitulates it, remains to this day something of a standard, consulted by teachers and students alike. But this “redemptive” reading ought to make any reader wary, if only because its solemnity, its gravity, sorts so uncomfortably with Crane’s playfully sardonic prose (and then there are always the textual problems any Christian/Redemptive reading of the novel must overcome, as Hershel Parker makes clear). My suspicion is that the network of “ecclesiastical” metaphors with which Stallman is concerned—and they are there to be dealt with—is motivated less by any aspiration of Crane’s to probe matters eschatological than by a more or less opportunistic tendency on his part to follow out, dutifully, the implications of the figurative language available to him. So, when, early on in Red Badge, we find a reference to the “cathedral light of the forest,” we ought not think of it as anything other than an extension of what is, after all, a commonplace and centuries-old figure (i.e., the forest as “cathedral,” as in “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang“). Nor should we be either surprised, or put on our guard for Deep Meaning, when the youth stumbles into a grove “where the high, arching boughs made a chapel,” which, as chapels tend to do, also has “portals” and “doors” (in this case, green), and a “carpet” (in this case, of pine needles). What else would one expect to find in the “chapel” of a forest “cathedral” than “religious half light”? Why would not the wind-swayed trees be said, there, to “sing a hymn of twilight” in “chorus,” and the “insects,” their own song abating, be said to “bow their beaks” and make a “devotional pause”?
Crane’s habit—call it his hobby, his avocation—is to follow out even the most commonplace of metaphors in careful, at times ludicrous, detail. His real interest is precisely in what critics used to call the “vehicles” of his metaphors, more than in what we may suppose to be their “tenor,” or cargo, which explains the characteristic fastidiousness with which he so often develops them, though they are certainly not without their odd, perhaps even careless, flourishes. Can insects, for example, be said to have “beaks”? When have they ever had them except within the pages of this novel? It is as if the metaphor whimsically confuses birds and insects. Crane’s prose everywhere has the effect of arresting our movement from “vehicle” to “tenor.” The “vehicles” are, for Crane, simply too much fun to toy with.
They satisfy what William James calls, in The Will to Believe, “the head’s play instincts” all too well. In the passage before us here, for example, Crane’s mind is chiefly on the fact that “cathedrals” imply “chapels,” and that “chapels” imply “portals” and “carpets”; and on the fact that all of these things imply “hymns,” “bowing,” and “devotion.” Nothing in a religious allegory, if that is what we had here, would require him to lay it on so thick. All of which is merely to say: Stephen Crane is not T.S. Eliot, no matter how much the New Criticism—and, here, R.W. Stallman is representative of the school—may have needed him to be. Stallman so needs to find in Crane the model of a “serious” artist that at one point he writes: “[Crane] brooded over his germinal ideas the same as Brahms and Yeats and Conrad.” Whatever else he may have been, Crane was not, as we experience him on the page, a “brooder.”
I find in the famous “chapel” scene in chapter seven of the novel, whose verbal details I have been considering, neither a particularly Christian inquiry into the fact of mortality—notwithstanding that a corpse is among the furnishings of this “chapel”—nor a seriously Christian crisis in the “spiritual growth” of Henry Fleming. The corpse in the copse may be a memento mori. But nothing about this scene really inspires us gravely to say, as with George Herbert, “how tame these ashes are, how free from lust.”
And as for this question of growth and development, consider in some detail the famous conclusion to the novel:
So it came to pass that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility, and it was as if hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.
It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky. Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He 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.
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
We are told, here, that the world is now a world “for” Henry Fleming, “though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks.” Much might be said about this. In the first place, the world can be “for” Henry Fleming only in the rather absurd sense in which, say, the Pullman Palace Car is “for” Sheriff Potter and his new wife in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” The Pullman car is, Crane tells us, “the environment of their new estate,” and Potter gazes upon it with “the pride of an owner.” (In the same way, Henry Fleming looks on his new estate of manhood with proprietary satisfaction, as a thing achieved.) But we know, and are never allowed to forget, that his lush Gilded Age “environment” rather owns the bumpkinish Sheriff Potter. It foreshortens him. It makes him and his dish-washing bride appear ridiculous to the upper-crust passengers bound for southern California, for whom, after all, Texas is but a tedious obstacle. As the Populist “Omaha Platform” of 1892 puts it:
“The time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” And plainly, Sheriff Potter and his Belle are now owned. “To the minds of the pair,” Crane tells us, “their surroundings [in the Pullman car] reflected the glory of their marriage that morning in San Antonio. This was the environment of their new estate, and the man’s face, in particular, beamed with an elation that made him appear ridiculous to the negro porter. This individual at times surveyed them from afar with an amused and superior grin. On other occasions he bullied them with skill in ways that did not make it exactly plain to them that they were being bullied. He subtly used all the manners of the most unconquerable kind of snobbery. He oppressed them, but of this oppression they had small knowledge, and they speedily forgot that unfrequently a number of travellers covered them with stares of derisive enjoyment. Historically there was supposed to be something infinitely humorous in their situation.”
Well, so there is something “infinitely humorous about their [historical] situation.” They neither understand nor withstand it. Any claim of possession—as if the Pullman were “for” Sheriff Potter and not Sheriff Potter “for” the Pullman—is a conceit. Crane’s relation as a narrator to most all of his characters—”The Open Boat,” in which he is himself a character, being the exception that proves the rule—resembles the relation of the on-looking travelers and the porter to Potter and his Bride: “derisive enjoyment.”
And so it is with Henry Fleming and “the world.” Which brings me again to the “oaths and walking sticks” of which too many discover, it seems, the world to be “made.” For what can be the meaning of these? I am invited, it appears, to suppose that Henry is no longer “hobbled” by the world—that on the serene plateau to which he thinks he has ascended no more vexations will elicit from him “oaths,” nor any constitutional weakness send him reaching for his “walking stick.”
But the reader simply must conclude—Crane’s arch tone leaves him little choice—that for Henry the world will always be, as it is for every other character in Crane, made precisely of oaths and walking sticks. And that he is ”a coxcomb not to die in it” (if I may borrow a phrase from an oft-quoted passage in Crane’s “The Blue Hotel“). The mastery, the sheer fluency, that Henry here supposes himself to have achieved—the thought of it is introduced, I take it, in a kind of free indirect discourse—is an illusion. “So it came to pass,” we are told, “that as he trudged from the place of blood and wrath his soul changed. He came from hot plowshares to prospects of clover tranquility, and it was as if hot plowshares were not. Scars faded as flowers.” The “place of blood and wrath,” “hot plowshares” (as opposed to “cool swords”?), and “clover tranquility.” The phrases are just a bit too stereotypically whimsical to be taken seriously. And as for “scars fading like flowers”: the figure is oddly imprecise. One doesn’t wish flowers to fade, as one certainly wishes scars to. Scars are blemishes, not adornments. Though perhaps the idea is that, to Henry, his ill-gotten, dishonestly sustained, but nonetheless prestigious wound (his red flower-scar), is a kind of boutonniére, a “badge” to wear on parade in the Main-street of his boyish imagination. Anyway, the postcard pastoral of the scene here evoked, with its tranquil skies and fresh meadows, is but the emanation of Henry’s still naively “youthful” state of mind.
He has recovered what Crane earlier calls an ability “to see himself in a heroic light.” He has acquired adequate breathing space, as Crane says after the first of the two climactic charges is done, “in which to appreciate himself.” And he does just that—with “much satisfaction.” The successful charge against the enemy color guard only leaves him “preparing to resent some new monstrosity in the way of dins and smashes.”
It would be hard to demonstrate that the following late passage is any less ironic in tone than those toward the beginning of the book, where, clearly, we are to regard Henry’s self-knowledge as faulty in the extreme: “He found that he could look back upon the brass and bombast of his earlier gospels and see them truly. He was gleeful when he discovered that he now despised them. With this conviction came a store of assurance. He 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.” For my part, I feel invited here to suppose that Henry’s ”store of assurance” is like that of our old friend, the Confederate picket: ”bland and infantile.”
And what of the last sentence in the novel, the one so often quoted? “Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.” Readers who find in Red Badge an intricate pattern of contrasts—e.g., light/dark, haze/translucence, confusion/insight—regard this conclusion as the capstone to the whole symbolic edifice of the novel: Henry has at last emerged from the tempest of his youthful ordeal into something like a harbor. It is as if the weather of the novel exteriorizes Henry’s state of mind. “That Crane plotted the entire novel by images and situations evoking contradictory moods of despair and hope is evidenced not only in this terminal image of the book,” writes R.W. Stallman, “but in the opening image of chapter one,” in which the fog clears from the land. And yet this terminal image, so integral to the pattern of the book as Stallman understands it, is not present in the surviving manuscript of Red Badge, and there is some controversy as to whether it “belongs” in the book at all. As Hershel Parker sees it—and the evidence is strong—Crane’s editor Ripley Hitchcock
prevailed upon [him] to compose a new and upbeat final paragraph: `Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.’ As John T. Winterich [and editor of The Colophon] said in 1951, this sentence `bears the unmistakable spoor of the editor’ and `sounds like a concession to the send-the-audience-home-feeling-good school.’ With these last changes—maybe the little decisively placed addition was the last of all—Hitchcock had engineered disproportionately great changes in the apparent meaning of crucial passages. In the first stage of expurgation, he had purged the book of passages likely to prove most objectionable, those where Henry Fleming indulged in vaingloriously adolescent ontological heroics; in the second, the mopping up stage, he had purged it of those where Fleming displayed a heartlessly triumphant egotism.
In short, the passages missing from the published text and present in the manuscripts, or else present in the published text and missing from the manuscripts, strongly suggest, when taken all together, that the novel as Crane “really” wrote it is unremitting in its irony. Fleming is a youth who never comes into his majority. He remains perpetually a minor, in what Crane at one point calls “an ecstasy of self-satisfaction.” Never does he attain what Stallman calls his “own bright serenity, his own tranquility of mind.” Never is his “conscience reborn and purified.”
So, I see no “education” worthy of the name as having taken place, nor any profound “development” in Henry’s character. The elements of the bildungsroman are certainly there, but so are the elements of a Wild West tale “there” in “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.” In both cases—and the point is hardly a new one, with respect to the latter story—the effect is essentially parody. I’m suggesting, then, that the “coming-of-age tale” is at work only stereotypically in Red Badge. It is present in such a way as to stimulate in a certain sort of reader the impression that he has in fact read a “coming-of-age story.” But this is an illusion—an illusion of the sort Crane was particularly good at exploiting. The Monster, we might say, exploits late nineteenth-century social protest writing in similar ways, just as Maggie exploits the muckraking literature of the slum for its chiefly comic effects. In all of these cases, Crane’s relation to genre is parasitic. His books feed off of genres—in the case of Red Badge, the battle-scarred bildungsroman—to which we can never precisely assimilate them. They are filled with matter of the most “conventional” sort, from Irish apes, to country bumpkins, to minstrel show dudes, to small town Philistines. Sometimes the conventions are allowed to exist unmolested, as it were. But as often as not they are there to make us feel them as “conventional,” in the way of parody generally.
For example, at one point in Red Badge Henry resolves to lose himself in death. “He had concluded that it would be better to get killed directly and end his troubles. Regarding death thus out of the corner of his eye, he conceived it to be nothing but rest, and he was filled with a momentary astonishment that he should have made an extraordinary commotion over the mere matter of getting killed. He would die; he would go to some place where he would be understood. It was useless to expect appreciation of his profound and fine sense from such men as the lieutenant. He must look to the grave for comprehension.” What could be more childish in its “you’ll-miss-me-when-I’m-gone” posturing? But the oncoming racket of the battle turns him about, whereupon we are treated to another “tender” scene, in which this time Henry’s mouth is the one yokelishly agape:
The youth, forgetting his neat plan of getting killed, gazed spell bound. His eyes grew wide and busy with the action of the scene. His mouth was a little ways open. Of a sudden he felt a heavy and sad hand laid upon his shoulder. Awakening from his trance of observation he turned and beheld the loud soldier. “It’s my first and last battle, old boy,” said the latter, with intense gloom. He was quite pale and his girlish lip was trembling. “Eh?” murmured the youth in great astonishment. “It’s my first and last battle, old boy,” continued the loud soldier. “Something tells me”—”What?” “I’m a gone coon this first time and—and I w-want you to take these here things—to—to—my—folks.” He ended in a quavering sob of pity for himself. He handed the youth a little packet done up in a yellow envelope. “Why, what the devil”— began the youth again. But the other gave him a glance as from the depths of a tomb, and raised his limp hand in a prophetic manner and turned away.
What reader—and, now, what movie-goer—has not witnessed a score of such scenes? By all appearances the “loud soldier” had himself witnessed a few too many, and so acted the “Greeklike” part. Complete with the melodramatic touch of a limp hand raised in prophecy, so that all might be fulfilled. Really, nothing is missing from this soldier’s story. Crane’s wry relationship to stock scenes like this one is paradigmatic of his relation to the coming-of-age tale as a whole.
But if Crane is not really writing about the progress of a boy into manhood, or about the redemption of a boy from fear, or about “spiritual” growth, or about the sacramental blood of Christ, or even about the making of a veteran soldier, what is the “subject” of the novel, the “theme”? We can best answer the question by attending, again, to the prose. Crane’s fiction is forever chiefly concerned with, or chiefly captivated by, writing.
Most remarkable about Crane’s style is the character and integrity of his metaphors, which are, at times, extended over a great many pages. As Frederick Crews has noted: “In pursuing his elegant and sometimes strained metaphors, Crane verges on self-conscious dandyism—another trait common to many writers of the nineties.” No doubt Crane was a fine craftsman, and perhaps a genius of sorts. But he is not as much concerned with “design,” in (say) Stallman’s pompously august sense, as he is with “style” more generally—with style as a way of cutting a figure in the world; with style as charisma; with style as a mode of address; with style as a thing cultivated not for the purpose of realizing any particular work of art, but for the purpose of creating, of making vividly real, a “literary” and ”cool” personality. So, by all means attend to what Stallman calls the “surface” of Crane’s prose. But do so with the idea that the surface is all there really needs to be. I’m not concerned with the patterns of darkness or smoke, and light or sunshine, that respectively (and implausibly) “symbolize,” for Stallman, “concealment and deception” on the one hand, and “spiritual insight and rebirth” on the other. Nor do I suppose that the “retiring fogs” in the opening phrases of the novel really anticipate, and symbolize, the “mental awakening” Henry is said by some to achieve at the novel’s end. I am instead concerned with Crane’s words as very concrete things-in-themselves, as “vehicles” without much heavy cargo, since that is the way—or so the writing suggests—Crane himself experienced them. R.G. Vosburgh, with whom Crane shared a room in 1893-94, published a brief memoir of Crane in 1901. “In revising his work,” Vosburgh recalls, Crane “would rewrite a whole sheet when a correction was necessary rather than make an erasure, if only to change one word.” So captivated was he by his own turns of phrase, and by his metaphors, that he “studied them out with much care, and after they had been trimmed and turned to final form he would repeat them aloud and dwell on them lovingly.” That strikes me as just about right.
A good place to extend our inquiry along these lines is chapter one, which opens as follows:
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. It cast its eyes upon the roads, which were growing from long troughs of liquid mud to proper thoroughfares. A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp-fires set in the low brows of distant hills.
Informing these sentences is a simple equation: the army is like a single man; the army is in fact a man, which might, as men do, “stretch out on the hills, resting,” and which might “awaken,” and “cast its eyes upon the roads.” Nothing seems out of the ordinary here, and the personification is, in certain respects, conventional—so conventional as not to be strongly felt “as a metaphor.” But Crane, I believe, is doing something new with this familiar metaphor, which, as he seems to remind us, is always implicit in military terminology: an army is a “corps,” a body. This is confused somewhat when the “distant hills” are said to have “brows” with campfires for eyes: that makes it seem like the land, and not the “corps” of men upon it, is the “body” with which we have to do, or perhaps that one “body” is laid upon another. But that confusion is no matter. What does matter here is the idea that two “corps,” two bodies, are facing one another across a river. And as the novel unfolds we see just how “literal” Crane takes this metaphor to be. If the army is a “body,” a “corps,” then the individual soldiers themselves must be its “cells” or “corpuscles.” And, lo, later we find Crane developing precisely this idea: “A small procession of wounded men were going drearily toward the rear. It was a flow of blood from the torn body of the brigade.” The “corps” is here in danger of becoming a “corpse.” And, to be sure, at one point on its march the great body divides to clear the way for exactly that, a “corpse,” in which it no doubt sees itself mirrored. The metaphor latent in phrases like “a great body of troops” has been worn away through their sheer familiarity. Crane’s achievement is to make them feel like metaphors again, as he does with another phrase in the following sentence: “At nightfall the column broke into regimental pieces, and the fragments went into the fields to camp.” Again, Crane takes what is usually not felt as a metaphor—the column “broke”—and follows it out scrupulously as if it were one; he makes the metaphor live again. There is something in him of the mischievous pedant who forever points out, with delight, the strangeness of ordinary speech (as when we say that the sun “rises”). Though no one instance of this mischief much matters, there is, to be sure, a kind of cumulative effect, as the play recurs, page after page. Even the most unadorned English—for Crane’s prose is hardly purple—comes to seem peculiar again, and fresh. Crane’s writing has the effect of giving us our language again.
More complex is Crane’s handling of a more or less conventional metaphor first introduced in chapter eighteen of The Red Badge of Courage, in which Henry Fleming overhears two officers discussing tactics. This is the passage in which the officers dismissively call the infantrymen “mule drivers.” It is a revelation to Henry. “New eyes were given to him. And the most startling thing was to learn suddenly that he was very insignificant. The officer spoke of the regiment as if he referred to a broom. Some part of the woods needed sweeping, perhaps, and he merely indicated a broom in a tone properly indifferent to its fate. It was war, no doubt, but it appeared strange.” What “startles” Henry is the idea, forced upon him many times during the course of the novel, that he is merely an instrument in “a vast blue demonstration”—that he is not a “real” agent at all. He is a broom, or, what is worse (and more accurate), a single straw in the homely regimental brush of a broom. The broom is first brought out of the closet by another soldier, and to another purpose, in a remark about the Confederate dead: “Lost a piler men, they did. If an’ ol’ woman swep’ up the woods she’d git a dustpanful.” He imagines his and Henry’s regiment wreaking havoc and an old woman cleaning up after them. It is a satisfying thought, and “sweeping” or “mopping up” is commonplace military slang. But on hearing the officers confer, Henry reworks the regiment’s relation to the “broom” along humiliating lines. In any case, he now feels that a broom is no sort of implement to carry into battle, let alone to be in battle. Brooms are for women’s work. It is a double indignity (Henry feels) for a soldier to think of himself as one; it un-mans him. And soon after, a grunt along the line prophesies to Henry, as they contemplate the opposing Confederates: “We’ll git swallowed.”
The ideas of the broom and of the swallowing coalesce to absurd effect some ten pages later, in chapter twenty: “As [Henry] noted the vicious, wolflike temper of his comrades he had a sweet thought that if the enemy was about to swallow the regimental broom as a large prisoner, it could at least have the consolation of going down with bristles forward.” The thought is “sweet” not least because it redeems the figure of the regimental broom, here oddly imagined as a “prisoner” of war. If the soldiers are but a broom, in the eyes of haughty commanders, they may as well fight dirty. So, the “bristling” gunfire mentioned, by the narrator, a handful of sentences back, becomes the porcupine “bristles” of a “broom” reluctant to be “swallowed” by the enemy, as if in some terrible (and terribly undignified) kitchen brawl. It is not clear whether Henry himself appreciates the ludic quality of the metaphor as much, and in the same way, as does the narrator. Defeating a hostile and tenacious regiment is like swallowing a broom, bristles forward. True, in what is for him an impressive show of intellection, Henry himself draws together the broom and the swallowing; we are given access to his thoughts, as so often, through the medium of free indirect discourse. But I doubt whether Crane ascribes to him the full ironic purchase on his commander’s disdain that this “sweet,” “bristling” thought would allow. In any case the figure of the “bristle” is used to different purpose by the narrator, who first employs it (“their curving front bristled with flashes”), than it is by Henry Fleming. Here indeed is an odd example of the discourse of a character coalescing with that of his narrator, almost as if Fleming “overheard” his author and troped him (as one of the mowers in Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” overhears Marvell allegorizing about him in Biblical tones, and tropes him: “He called us Israelites!” the mower exclaims in astonishment, with reference to the speaker of the poem). The transaction usually goes the other way, of course, with Crane troping the speech of his characters. But however that may be, the refreshing thing about the passage before us here is the way it recalls, and fuses, two distinct metaphors from two chapters back in the novel—the broom and the swallowing—and adds to them the lucky flourish of those equivocal “bristles.” The facility with which Crane performs the maneuver argues a spirited but leisurely sort of play carried on superfluously above the narrative and hard to associate with the business of war, let alone with the gravitas of much popular discourse about the Grand Army of the Republic. And the effect is entirely characteristic of him.
Earlier in the novel, in chapter sixteen, Crane says in the midst of a passage describing the clamor of battle: “At last the guns stopped, and among the men in the rifle pits rumors again flew, like birds, but they were now for the most part black creatures who flapped their wings drearily near to the ground and refused to rise on any wings of hope.” Here Crane takes up a figure laid down first at the start of chapter four: “[The soldiers] mouthed rumors that had flown like birds out of the unknown.” And in this second example, from chapter sixteen, the simile is developed with almost whimsical deliberation, as if Crane’s interest, again, were more in the “vehicle” than in the “tenor” of the figure. Crane’s technique, in passages like this, is to take more seriously than is usual the implications of commonplace figures of speech like “the rumors flew” or “the wings of hope.” His writing is forever a commentary on the unexploited ludic possibilities of our language. He chuckles.
And then there is the queer comedy of this passage: “Bullets began to whistle among the branches and nip at the trees. Twigs and leaves were sailing down. It was if a thousand axes, wee and invisible, were being wielded.” Bullets as “wee axes”? The technique, here, involves a well-managed incongruity of adjective and noun. “Wee” belongs to a rather effete, infantile (or perhaps just quaintly “Scottish”) lexicon; its association with axes is a bit startling. We are asked to imagine, if only for an instant, a welter of tiny elves chipping away at the trees, piecemeal. Also to be accounted for are odd flourishes like this one: “They of the reserve had to hold on. They grew pale and firm, and red and quaking.” The sense is: some men were pale and firm, while others were flushed and trembling. Assimilating the two incompatible sorts of men into the undiscriminating pronoun “they”—as if each particular soldier were, by turns, and in concert with all the other soldiers, doing these incompatible things—nicely conveys the disarray of the regiment.
To similar effect is this passage from the same page: “There was rustling and muttering among the men. They displayed a feverish desire to have every possible cartridge ready to their hands. The boxes were pulled around into various positions, and adjusted with great care. It was as if seven hundred new bonnets were being tried on.” Again, the joke involves an apt incongruity, which here brings together a stereotypically feminine preening (as with the bonnets), and the panic of men preparing to receive an enemy charge; what the two things apparently have in common is a striking fastidiousness. A bit later still we hear of a colonel who scolds his troops “like a wet parrot.” The addition of “wet”—exactly how does a parrot feel when wet?—nudges into novelty what would otherwise be something of a cliché: to scold like a parrot. We have to consider the sheer wet parrotness of the scolding. And what of the peculiar quality of phrases such as this following? “Strange gods were addressed in condemnation of the early hours necessary to correct war,” where the phrase “to correct” seems by turns to mean “to conduct war correctly,” or to “put war aright,” or “to admonish war,” and yet can be reduced to none of these; its grammatical ambiguity, its suspension, is precise and perfect (the grammatical ambiguity has to do with whether or not “to correct” is an infinitive, or whether “correct” is an adjective modifying “war”). Or, later, we read that Henry and his regiment move “to and fro with strained exertion,” like “strange and ugly fiends jigging heavily in the smoke.” The odd verb “jigging” does the trick: the men are imagined as somewhat ridiculously dancing, and heavily dancing, too (how else would soldiers ”jig”?). For all we know, they are getting themselves up to do what Crane elsewhere calls the “hideous hornpipe” of the death throe.
Next, consider this description of Henry, as he readies himself to panic: “His hands,” we are told, “seemed large and awkward as if he was wearing invisible mittens. And there was a great uncertainty about his knee joints.” What, strictly speaking, is the difference between saying “as if he were wearing mittens” and saying “as if he were wearing invisible mittens”? The “as if” makes the “invisible” oddly redundant, at least for the purposes of the figure. A little strangely, we imagine Fleming not so much wearing mittens as wearing invisible mittens. Better still is the preposition “about” in “there was a great uncertainty about his knee joints.” Here, Crane neatly allows the secondary sense of “about” (“in the vicinity of”) to infect the primary sense (“concerning”), quite as if the “great uncertainty” were something Henry might shoo away from his knee joints, as he would a fly. Or still again: we read that Henry “yelled” with “fright” and “swung about. For a moment he was like a proverbial chicken.” Here, Crane avails himself of a cliché—the chicken with its head cut off—by waggish indirection. He uses it as if in quotation marks. As a last example, consider what he does with the expression “stir the fire,” in the chapter where the ignominiously wounded Henry—who gets his “red badge” of a wound when a fellow soldier pistol whips him to make him shut his pie-hole—at last returns to his regiment. A kind soldier prepares to nurse him, and to that end gets the fire going: “He fussed around the fire and stirred the sticks to brilliant exertions.” “Exertions” brings out the figurative sense of “stir.” The soldier is imagined to inspire the sticks, to move and exhort them, which is of course what “stirring” can mean, though we usually treat it, in this context, as a reference merely to physical movement.
In the aggregate, as they accumulate page after page—and one might cite many other instances—these tricks and devices dislodge us, a bit, from our customary habits of attention to words. That dislodging, I suspect, is what Crane’s work is somehow always “about.” He is much more interested in the texture of what he says than in the “weight” of it. He is all about levity, not gravity. The world he inhabits, on the evidence of the fiction he wrote, is absurd, silly, brutal, and, in the end, without point: “a high cold star” on a winter’s night is “the word” it gives us, as we read later in “The Open Boat.” And what Crane proposes to equip his reader with is simply a style, a particular mode of stoicism that can accommodate us to our situation as “lice” clinging “to a whirling, fire-smitten, ice-locked, disease-stricken, space-lost bulb,” as the narrator of “The Blue Hotel” describes our planet. That series of adjectives begins ingenuously enough in its existentialism (avant la lettre). But in its sheer extravagance, it moves toward parody of the view it would apparently advance—a drift utterly characteristic of Crane. His fiction contemplates nothing like the program of action the existentialists would later offer. His work is never the work of protest, even when he writes about the slums of the Bowery in Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, or about, as in The Monster, the fate of a persecuted African-American in small-town America at the height of the lynching terror. He is neither activist nor exhorter, because, for him, activism and exhortation are discredited modes of literary art—relics, it may be, of an earlier and more innocently earnest phase of American intellectual life, when it was still possible to “believe” in things. Crane’s work, as I say, is always somehow about the fact that he has a style.I think this helps us understand why he should treat the Civil War as he does in The Red Badge of Courage—that is, with no sense at all of the ideological dimensions of the catastrophe. Crane isn’t really writing about war, certainly not about the American Civil War; he is writing, and writing playfully, in the vicinity of war. Crane simply cannot forget that he is writing, nor be persuaded that the writing isn’t always the main thing after all. Crane’s general preoccupation with style, as against polemics or politics or ideological crises, is what, in my view, makes untenable Andrew Delbanco’s suggestion—and he is otherwise a fine reader of Crane—that “if the character and destiny of American nationhood eluded him as the issues at stake in the Civil War, then, in the end, he felt their absence not as a means to taunt naive believers, but as the loss of an immensely valuable act of mind.” In my view, Crane did not write Red Badge so much “out of and about a crisis of faith—both about God and about God’s instrument, the American nation,” as Delbanco goes on to say. He wrote it out of the complacent assumption that “faith,” whether in God or in America as God’s instrument, was the sort of thing about which only a certain sort of politician—Democrat or Republican: it would hardly matter in 1896—made “heartfelt” appeals to a certain sort of constituency. The constituency, in fact, which Mencken, a sympathetic reader of Crane if ever there was one, was later to denominate boobus Americanus. “The boobus Americanus,” Mencken says in Prejudices: Third Series (1922), “is a bird that knows no closed season—and if he won’t come down to Texas oil stock, or one-night cancer cures, or building lots in Swampshurst, he will always come down to inspiration and optimism, whether political, theological, pedagogical, literary or economic.”
N.B. For other pages within The Era of Casual Fridays having to do with Stephen Crane, click here. For all pages having to do with prose style, click here. For all having to do with the literature of the American Civil War, click here.