The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

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When Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage at 24, he did so without having any first-hand war experience. His contemporaries didn’t think that; they thought that someone who could write so realistically about war (in this case, the Civil War) had to have experienced it firsthand. Alas, Crane was born six years after the end of the Civil War; his experience with war would come later in life, as a war correspondent during the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 and the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The Red Badge of Courage departs from traditional war novels by looking at a single persons experience throughout the war: Henry Fleming, a Union soldier, who flees from battle when things get hairy. With his shame weighing heavily on him, Henry hopes to get a war wound – a “red badge of courage”. In the end, he does end up getting a wound – but not how he expected to.

The book was met with universal praise upon its release. It’s known for its realistic portrayal of battle, as well as its mixture of naturalistic, realistic, and impressionistic prose. The novel is about a man in war, as opposed to a larger narrative on the war itself. It could, in fact, likely take place in any war. Crane did this purposely, wanting to show a “psychological portrayal of fear” that is divorced from any single context.

If you want to do a deep dive into the book, the Norton Critical Edition is a great place to start. If you just want a compendium of Crane’s works, this is an affordable option.