Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 2, Autumn 2001 article 2


Issue 2, Autumn 2001 article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 2, Autumn 2001

Parody, Sincerity and the Martial Ideal in the Literary Impressionism of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage

John Fagg
© John Fagg. All Rights Reserved

Sitting in camp awaiting his first taste of battle, Henry Fleming, the youth in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, considers the type of warfare he is likely to encounter during his involvement in the American Civil War:

He had long despaired of witnessing a Greek-like struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. 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.[1]

This formula is repeated three pages later. Punctuated less tentatively and not directly attributed to Henry, the repetition and apparent affirmation grant it the status of a statement significant to the nature of the narrative about to unfold. The statement contains two incommensurable views of what a Civil War battlefield may contain. Either, war holds true to a martial ideal unchanged since Ancient times, as battle is a transhistorical condition; or, in accordance with the beliefs that the youth espouses but secretly wishes to be dissuaded of, warfare has been rationalised and civilised, tamed by education and brought under theinfluence of capitalist economics. Amy Kaplan relates the notion of war as a “Greek-like struggle” to the complex cultural response to conditions of “overcivilisation”, emasculation andreification identified by the historian Jackson Lears in No Place of Grace.[2] Lears claims that in the 1890s masculinity underwent a process of redefinition with appeal to earlier images of heroism and valour especially to Ancient and Medieval mythology.[3] Kaplan reads The Red Badge of Courage as an attempt to “reinterpret the war through the cultural lenses and political concerns of the late nineteenth century”, arguing that any participation in this mythological discourse is mediated by the parodic or ironic mode that “provides a central narrative strategy in all of Crane’s writing” (Kaplan, 78, 84).

Kaplan acknowledges that her historicised reading stands in opposition to “most critical approaches” which are predicated on the “illegibility of history in Crane’s war novel” (Kaplan, 78). Such an approach was taken by Joseph Conrad, who explained the apparent lack of historical grounding by claiming that Crane was an artist who “dealt with what isenduring”,thus casting the novel in terms of universal themes and fundamental truths. This radical interpretative divergence is registered in the direct opposition between Conrad’s assertion that Henry Fleming stands as “the symbol of all untested men”[4] and Kaplan’s claim that Crane’s narrative deconstructs the figuration of war as a “crucible for the test of individual manhood” (Kaplan, 81). Writing more than sixty years apart, the dichotomy between these two writers can, in part, be explained by the vastly different types of ideological assumption they make about literature, but the possibility of such polarised readings must also be attributed to the fundamentally ambiguous nature of Crane’s work. The source of much of this ambiguity is the particular set of stylistic traits that grant the novel its unique status and that have commonly been termed “Literary Impressionism”.

In Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism, James Nagel charts early critical responses in which Crane’s Impressionism was widely seen as a practice that produced fragmented, episodic prose distinguished by its focus on “sensory imagery” intended to “[record] the impressions of the characters”.[5] Emphasis was placed on the striking use of colour and the creation of a uniquely visual literary style. The critical debate outlined by Nagel progresses from these claims to more complex discussions of the relationship between the author and the protagonist, which are produced by the reliance on the sensory in Crane’s work. Crane’s narrative voice typically operates within a perceptual field in which “the apprehension of reality is limited to empirical data interpreted by a single human intelligence” (Nagel, 19). Thus, when “[t]he youth’s ears were filled cups…incapable of hearing more” (98) the narrator is similarly unable to access any further information about the sounds of the battlefield. A more complex situation arises with the inclusion of value-laden utterances such as the description of the soldiers fighting in heated battle as “the slaves toiling in the temple of this god” (31). This metaphor must obviously have been produced at a level other than that of the immediate sense perception of the soldier in battle, but to attribute it directly to Crane breaks the narrative frame and produces an overly simplistic account of authorial positioning in the novel.

The primacy of the visual, as a privileged and contested medium, forms the basis of the stylistic comparison that can be made between Impressionist approaches to literature and painting. R.W. Stallman’s characterisation of Crane’s work as “prose pointillism”, wherein “disconnected images…coalesce” to form a “configured whole” (Nagel, 8), suggests thepossibility of an analogous relationship at the level of critical terminology. Perhaps more illuminating is a consideration of the underlying ethos that informed both Impressionisms. Discussing Manet, T.J. Clark discerns a “new course” in the history of art that can be described as “a kind of scepticism, or at least unsureness, as to the nature of representation in art”.[6] Nagel makes a similar point about Monet, suggesting that his work elucidates the “fundamental ideology [that] reality is a matter of perception; it is unstable, ever changing, elusive, inscrutable” (Nagel, 13). Reality is all these things in The Red Badge of Courage. Fundamental doubts about what is being perceived and by whom, produced by the ambiguous position of the narrator, cast Henry’s apprehension of reality as the central theme of the text.

By apparently taking abstract visuality and the perceptual processes of the protagonist as its core thematic, Literary Impressionism lends itself to dehistoricised readings such as Conrad’s interpretation of The Red Badge of Courage. Fredric Jameson’s “Romance and Reification” seeks to reconnect Conrad’s own Impressionistic novel Lord Jim to the mode of production of nineteenth century capitalism in which it was written.[7] The interpretative method and the slogan “Always Historicize” (Jameson, 9), if not the overtly Marxist framework, of Jameson’s close reading of Conrad have paved the way for the subsequent rehistoricisation of other Impressionistic literature. For Jameson, it is a necessity of history that Conrad’s literary production relates to the conditions in which it was created. In opposition to vulgar or reductive Marxisms, the relationship postulated is not simply allegoric but instead deeply complex and subtle, working at the level of “the content of the form”. Conrad’s stylistic and narrative strategies are read as a reaction to the reifying conditions of capitalist society. Rejecting the possibility of a literary practice abstracted from the realm of concrete history through its focus on visual sense datum, Jameson recasts Conrad in the context of a historicised sensorium. The progress of rationalistic capitalism can be seen to have fragmented traditional forms of labour organisation and social structure. Jameson mediates between this critique of capitalism’s impact on society and a conception of the individual consciousness where the once unified psyche is split into semi-autonomous units. The “non-instrumental or archaic functions” such as vision, which do not contribute to the essentially quantifiable processes of means/ends rationalism or abstracted scientific enquiry, aretherefore deprivileged (Jameson, 228). Thus, Conrad’s elevation of individual sense perception can be seen either as a result of the “release in perceptual energy” produced by the deperceptualisation of science, or as a denial of capitalist, rationalist modernity.8

The relationship between Conrad and Crane operates at a number of levels and can be introduced through their creation of contemporary spheres of ‘romantic’ action. Jameson begins his discussion of Lord Jim by stating that “the privileged place of the strategy of containment in Conrad is the sea” (Jameson, 210). The sea, the Orient, and specifically the isolated state of Patusan are all spaces ‘outside’ the dominant condition of late nineteenth century capitalism, in which outmoded codes of feudal culture may still be seen to operate. This enables Conrad to produce a romance of the individual, transforming Jim into a more or less conventional romantic protagonist. In a mode analogous to Conrad’s deprivileging of thesea, Theodore Roosevelt placed warfare in opposition to “the base spirit of gain and greed”, whilst William James described war as “the romance of history”, the sphere of life that “rescues society from ‘industrialism unlimited’”.9 In this context it is clear that war could, for Crane, have served a similar function to that of the sea in Conrad. Such strategies of containment isolate the narrative from the mode of production enabling both authors to engage with the themes of courage, cowardice and the testing of young men’s bravery in the crucible of heated action untroubled by the reifying conditions of industrial society.

Just as Jameson goes on to demonstrate ways in which Conrad’s romantic sphere is permeated by the language of economics and empire, Kaplan finds issues of rationalisation and mechanisation, class struggle and urban conflict, and the heightened militarism and imperialism of 1890s America inscribed within Crane’s Civil War narrative. Where, for Jameson, Conrad’s attempt to cling to feudal modes of power, organisation and representation is undermined by the inevitable influence of contemporary concerns, Kaplan takes Crane to be a willing participant in modernity who produces “a book about social change, about the transition not only from internecine to international conflict or from preindustrialised to mechanical warfare but also from traditional to modern modes of representation” (Kaplan, 78-79). Oral storytelling and various forms of narrative are rejected by the text, to be replaced by modes of visual display and spectatorship which are seen as a more appropriate means of interpreting what Kaplan believes to be a modernised realm of warfare. Henry’s rejection of the “tattered soldier”, who attempts to comprehend the war through anecdotes about his rural neighbours, symbolises this stratification of discourse. In equating the visual and the modern, Kaplan appeals to a chain of ideas that link modernity to urbanisation, and urban life to a specific set of looking relations. In order to navigate an environment devoid of the personal intimacy and shared history of the agrarian epoch, the citizens of the modern city were required to make rapid evaluations based on a predominantly visual discourse. The image represents a modern immediacy and mass legibility that the anecdotes of the tattered soldier lack.

Operating within the same critical parameters as Kaplan, Bill Brown’s rehistoricisation of The Red Badge of Courage offers, within the context of “American Amusement…and the Economics of Play”, an alternative approach to the privileged status of the image. Brown argues that, during the 1890s, recreation began to “assume a pivotal importance in the way Americans conceive and experience their daily lives and public selves”creating a discourse of leisure that shapes the way Henry Fleming sees and is seen (Brown, 4). Broadly, this means that roles on the battlefield are figured through concepts of audience and performance informed by the modern sports event. The implicit relationship between athlete and soldier locates Henry Fleming within “an American tradition of the visualized, objectified, commodified male body” (Brown, 24). Brown suggests that the image, and specifically the photographic image, becomes the dominant and authentic mode of communicating information in the 1890s, pointing to the new prevalence of photojournalism and what he terms scopophilia on the part of the American people.

In slightly different ways, both Kaplan and Brown equate the elevation of the visual image with thematic shifts towards a recognition of warfare as a modernised and rationalised process. War photography and mass media coverage are cited as forming a discourse of ‘battle as spectacle’ that Crane’s text anticipates and participates in. However, neither critic fully explores the implications of Crane’s Impressionism in this context, taking it to be a highly visual medium, without considering the doubts about representation and the problems of distance that the practice engenders. The instability of Crane’s Impressionistic practice is nowhere more apparent than the moment in the text when the act of looking becomes utterly dominant. In Chapter 23 of The Red Badge of Courage, thematic and stylistic attention to the visual converges as Henry, now the regimental standard bearer, becomes “deeply absorbed as a spectator”(99). Crane renders Henry’s impressions of the battle in a surfeit of metaphoric images that, through allusions to mythical discourse and the anti-rationalist method of their construction, unsettle the association of Crane’s acutely visual prose with the visual bias of turn-of-the-century culture. Metaphor in Chapter 23 offers a counter-discourse that makesappeal to what may, in Raymond Williams’ terms, be described as Henry’s “residual” conception of war as “Greek-like struggle”. The visual thus becomes a site of tension between “residual” forms and the cultural “dominant” of rationalised industrial production.10

The narrative movement of Chapter 23 is not one of linear progression through space or time. Although events do unfold in a temporal sequence, the organising structure is that of a panorama or cinematic pan, revolving around the fixed point that Henry, the uninhibited witness, has become. Crane’s movement from image to image is determined not by a desire to impart the significant events of the battle but by the apparently arbitrary calling of Henry’s senses. The second paragraph begins: “Off a short way, he saw two regiments fighting a little separate battle with two other regiments”, whilst the third opens: “In another direction, he saw a magnificent brigade” (97). The repetition of “saw” emphasises the sense that it is the peculiarity of the separate battle and the magnificence of the brigade, the appeal these scenes present to the spectator, that make them relevant. The significant status of the visual is inscribed within the text by a sequence of figurations of the impenetrability of the outwardly perceivable surface. Once the initial spectacle of the magnificent brigade has been registered, it passes into the woods and “out of sight” (97). The rationally conceived purpose of engagement with the enemy is rendered only in the abstract and “unspeakable” noise of battle. This figuration of obscuring screens extends beyond the line of trees to the later description of the “smoke-wall” that the regiment’s rifle fire produces (99).

The visual logic that determines the movement of the text can also be witnessed in the autonomous image generation of Crane’s descriptive language. Figural constructions appear to take on a life of their own, forming a visual surface that peels away from its literal referents:

Once, the youth saw a spray of light forms go in hound-like leaps towards the waving blue lines. There was much howling and presently it went away with a vast mouthful of prisoners. Again, he saw a blue wave dash with such thunderous force against a grey obstruction that it seemed to clear the earth of it and leave nothing but trampled sod.(98)

In this passage the first line alludes to the image of the sea crashing against the shore through the words “spray” and “waving”. However, in both cases, Crane refuses to elevate the discourse beyond the literal, as “waving blue lines” could simply be the uniforms of the unevenly formed front row of the regiment, while “spray of light forms” suggests just enough of a sense of individual bodies to resist reference to drops of water. The resisted bifurcation prompts the appearance, two sentences later, of a more fully realised image of the sea, when Henry sees “a blue line dash with such thunderous force against a grey obstruction” (which isn’t quite a rock). The unrequited image, rather than the action of the battle, appears to generate the new metaphor. Interposed between the hint of a “sea” metaphor and themetaphor itself is the image of a hound “howling” and lunging at its prey. A hound takes a bite at the sea and comes up with a mouth full not with water or flesh but “prisoners”. In this switch from vehicle to tenor, as in the reference to “trampled sod”, the figural is unceremoniously displaced by the literal.11

A further example of the autonomy of the image comes in Crane’s assertion of the visual moment over the logical sequence. The complete action of a rifle being fired can be taken as mimetic, at a micro-level, of the well-made plot. It has ‘a beginning’ in the act of aiming and pulling the trigger, ‘a middle’ in the trajectory of the bullet and ‘an end’ at the point of impact and the potential wound or fatality it inflicts. Crane takes the spectacular visual moment in this sequence, “the flashing points of red and yellow” (99), the sight and sound that are in fact an incidental by-product of the deadly causal chain, and allows them to stand for the whole action. The synecdoche is repeated so frequently in the novel that the act of shootingto kill becomes drastically abstracted. The rejection of linear progression, and of the rationality implicit in a plot driven narrative, can here, as in Jameson’s exploration of the “aleatory” in Conrad, be taken as an act of resistance.12

Images feed one another, overlap and resurface, in a process that autonomises visuality, casting its figural rendering as an end in itself. This autonomy is affirmed by the oft-cited power of Crane’s figurations. The description of exploding shells as “strange warflowers” (30), or the moment when Henry’s regiment “let drive their flock of bullets” (99), hold such poetic force that they dominate and transcend the events they are intended to represent. Citing Crane’s simile “the red sun was pasted in the sky like a fierce wafer” (46), Kaplan claims that the narrator’s visual representations “freeze the action of the battle [and] call attention…to his own power to sketch the scene with bravado” (Kaplan, 97). A dichotomy exists between the dominant conception of modern warfare as a rationalised process fully contained within the means/ends logic of nineteenth century capitalism, and residual notions of individuality, strenuosity and heroism. Kaplan recognises that “Crane’s language becomes enmeshed in the rhetoric of strenuosity” but fails to recognise the fundamental nature of this engagement, instead characterising the ultimate relationship as one of parody (Kaplan, 88). In Chapter 23, where protagonist and narrator see battle most clearly, it appears that Crane’s narrative mode does not merely engage the terms of the residual, but is governed by it.

If the poetic image becomes its own progenitor and an end in itself in Crane’s text, then this elevation of figural language renders problematic Bill Brown’s discussion of Crane’s style as one that attains to the photo-realistic and Amy Kaplan’s identification of an emergent form of war reportage in The Red Badge of Courage. Brown describes the way that photojournalism became vital to perceptions of the Civil War, both at the time and in the decades that followed. This process, and the mechanics of the photographic process, are “narratively inscribed” within the text. Retreating troops carry “an appalling imprint” on their faces and we are told that “[Henry’s] mind took a mechanical but firm impression, so that, afterward, everything was pictured and explained to him, save why he himself was there” (Brown, 43). Brown reaches the conclusion that, “photography, both as a mechanical process and as a set of views, plays such a crucial part in the novel because photography literalizes reification whilst compensating for it” (Brown, 155). The photographic and photojournalistic are methods for rationalising the process of warfare, pinning it down to the images of specific battlefields or corpses that Crane’s romantic and mystic figurations elide. Likewise, by defining The Red Badge of Courage as “a paradigm of the modern American war novel” and characterising it within the traditions of newspaper journalism and war reportage, Amy Kaplan associates the narrative with forms that, whatever their true status, adopt stylistic practices designed to create a sense of truth preservation and objectivity.

This categorisation may be evaluated in terms of James Nagel’s identification of two distinct approaches present in Impressionism:

Depending on emphasise, an Impressionistic writer can modulate his fiction between the “objective” stance of presenting sensations at the instant of reception…and the “subjective” stance of recording the internalization of sensory perception. (Nagel, 22)

If the autonomous figural sphere identified in Chapter 23 is placed alongside the photographic and journalistic tropes identified by Kaplan and Brown, Crane’s form can be seen as one of vacillation between the dominant, rationalised account of warfare, and the residual, romantic one. Regardless of whether one strain is ultimately dominant over the other, the displacement of the objective mode in Chapter 23 supports Jameson’s argument that, while apparently predicated on a pseudo-scientific predisposition towards the empirical, Literary Impressionism is profoundly anti-positivistic. While Jameson does not deny, and in fact actively asserts, the claim that Impressionism is intrinsically bound to modernisation in all its forms, the relationship is, for him, an inversion of the ‘mechanistic’ analogy made by Brown. Conrad’s “will to style” is, as a “socially symbolic act” an evasion or denial, of reification, not an acceptance of dominant conditions (Jameson, 225). If Crane’s martial containment strategy is to be read in the same light as Conrad’s maritime sphere of romance, then his stylistic Impressionism must, like Conrad’s, be seen to embrace earlier forms as least as much as it reacts against them.

The closing paragraphs of Chapter 23 describe the weakening of the regiment in the face of enemy fire:

Others fell down about the feet of their companions. Some of the wounded crawled out and away, but many lay still, their bodies twisted into impossible shapes. (100)

This appears to be an attempt to reassert the physical realities of the conflict over the abstracted images of battle that have displaced them during the course of the chapter. Henry witnesses the end product of the rifle fire, not simply its dramatic by-product. Despite this shift of attention, a fully realised connection between the spectacular means of battle, its sights and sounds and ferocity, and its logical end, the corpse, is evaded and thwarted. In these closing paragraphs, engagement with the dead body is limited to the identification of its form, its shape that is deemed to be “impossible”. This epithet may be intended to convey the horror, carnage and mutilation the human body is subjected to in war, but it also communicates a sense of the incomprehensibility of death and the inability of the individual sensorium to understand the implications of a corpse.

At this point it is useful to return to T.J. Clark’s discussion of the doubts over representation expressed in French Impressionist painting. With reference to Cezanne, Clark claims that,

[t]he task of representation comes to be twofold: to demonstrate the fixity and substance of the world out there, but also to admit that the seer does not know – most probably cannot know – how his own sight makes objects possible. (Clark, 17)

Both projects can be located in Crane’s literary style. The dead and wounded are vividly described (especially the “orderly-serjeant” shot through the cheeks) leaving no doubt as to their existence as part of the world ‘out there’, but the second task is also undertaken, as exemplified in the problem of the “impossible” corpses. The problematisation of perception is, in the work of Impressionist painters and writers alike, a matter of distance and perspective. For Clark, this relationship is exemplified in Camille Pissarro’s Coin de village, effet d’hiver (1877) where he finds that on close inspection “the pattern of brushstrokes which Pissarro uses on the right-hand side of the Coin de village…is very near no pattern at all” (Clark, 20). At close range the marks on the canvas bear little or no relation to the trees and houses they represent, instead forming a random, abstract pattern. It is only when the viewer steps back from the painting that the image takes shape. The limited epistemology of Crane’s narrative strategy appears to allow for no move analogous to this step back to the optimum position. Within Henry’s consciousness, the illogical form of the stricken body and the wider question of what war is, are consistently viewed at a distance that creates abstraction. The perceptual object is held either at a range so close that the individual moment is decontextualised, or rendered as “one of those great affairs of the earth”(3), a sweep so broad that all detail is obscured. Kaplan seeks to attribute to Crane a “realistic” perception of war as a sphere engaged in, rather than separate from, the processes of modernity. If such a position exists within the novel, the platform from which it is voiced must be founded on the distance between narrator and character.

In Impressionistic texts the relationship between author and protagonist is vital to the ideological implications of the narrative. As James Nagel states, “[i]mplicit in art based on the confluence of sensation with secondary interpretation is a necessary distinction between reality as perceived and reality itself” (Nagel, 23). Both Lord Jim and Henry Fleming demonstrate the condition, that Jameson terms “bovarysme” in honour of Gustave Flaubert’s pioneering literary diagnosis, in which the afflicted party displays an over-developed romantic consciousness as a result of early and pernicious influences out of step with their social conditions. For Emma Bovary, it is the “refuse of the lending libraries”, the novels about “loveand lovers [and] damsels in distress swooning in lonely lodges” with which she “soiled her hands” when in the convent, whilst for Jim, the culpable medium is “light holiday literature” that trades in the sea as a setting for heroic acts.13

In the opening paragraph of Chapter 23 the reader is told that “[Henry] smiled briefly when he saw men dodge and duck at the long screechings of shells that were thrown in giant handfuls over them” (97). The animistic recasting of the shells as beings capable of screeching, a sound which is elsewhere described as being “like a storm-banshee” (23), and the allusion to “giant” hands both transport Henry’s experience beyond the sphere of men and machines to engage with a mythical trope of war as the province of the supernatural. This imagery once again affirms the desire to witness Greek-like struggle, and to conceptualise war in terms of Ancient and Medieval legend. Whilst the Flaubertian model of bovarysme is relatively stable in its juxtaposition of the romantic ‘represented thought’ of the protagonist with the realist ‘narrative sentences’ of the author, Conrad and Crane display a more ambiguous engagement. According to Jameson, Conrad’s position is differentiated from that of Flaubert by “his own mesmerization by such images and such daydreaming” (Jameson, 213).

To locate Crane between Flaubert’s detachment and Conrad’s mesmerisation, it is necessary to explore the effect of ironic distance in his narrative. Does the allusion to giants come from Stephen Crane’s authorial perspective, his rendering of what Henry perceives, or the direct reporting of Henry’s thoughts? The first reading would confirm Crane’s mesmerisation and finds support throughout the sphere of Crane’s image-making. In his figural discourse, Crane appears to embrace the mythical conception of war where armies crash against each other like forces of nature, and men and machines take on supernatural properties. However, the second and third possibilities imply a narrative style that creates sufficient distance between Fleming and Crane to allow for an ironic deflation of Henry’s pretensions in the mode of Flaubert. This interpretation appears to be justified by the image of giant hands as, in the following paragraph, war is immediately refigured in the less grandiose terms of a sporting encounter:

[Henry] saw two regiments fighting a little separate battle with two other regiments… They were blazing as if upon a wager, giving and taking tremendous blows…slugging each other as if at a matched game. (97)

In this description, Crane adopts the language of spectacle and amusement that Bill Brown identifies as recurring traits throughout his writing. In doing so he fixes the account in the cultural terms of his own period, asserts the status of his concerns as a writer in the 1890s and undermines Henry’s earlier, mythical conception of the conflict. This is rationalised warfare in which the true horror is the fact that war is just like everyday life, permeated by modern conditions, rather than utterly alien to them. Crane goes on to describe the battlefield as a “pitiless monotony of conflicts” (97), thereby making explicit the reifying potential of the modernised martial environment he previously alluded to.

If the position identified here goes unchallenged, it can be argued that Crane’s irony functions to create a monologic text in which the author’s sceptical take on ‘the crucible of war’ is dominant over the protagonist’s romantic vision. But, as has already been suggested, infigural ‘narrative sentences’ written from what can only be the author’s point of view, the discourse of feudal valour and romantic images of warfare can be detected, thus creating an apparently dialogic encounter.14 The model of the monologic or dialogic text, developed by Bakhtin in his analysis of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic form may be brought to the question ofhierarchical positioning in Crane’s text. Bakhtin cites Flaubert as a practitioner of the “polished and monolithic” monologic novel where heterogeneous content “is subordinated to the unity of a personal style and tone permeating it through and through”.15 Madame Bovary is the product of the ironic or parodying mode in which the author exists on an epistemologically dominant plane to that of the characters. Kaplan propagates this view of The Red Badge of Courage, arguing that Crane, informed by an understanding of war that Henry lacks, is aloof from, and at times critical of, the martial ethos and mythological discourse of war. However, by privileging this discourse within the figural language of his text, Crane maintains an effective dialogue between Henry and the narrator, between the battlefield of the 1860s and that of the 1890s, and between conceptions of war as a space of feudal valour or a sphere of rationalised action.

In the context of the 1890s, the development of an autonomous visual surface can be seen as a challenge to dominant constructs of war as reified and mechanical. Similarly, the rejection of means/ends rationalism at the level of plot and narrative movement attests to the author’s desire to escape the ‘Taylorised’ cultural of modernity. The refusal to create a consistent distancing strategy between narrator and protagonist fuels the belief that Crane intended his protagonist’s voice to emerge, on a least some occasions, as an uncontested force within the novel, thus asserting the legitimacy of Henry’s ideological standpoint. This does necessarily make The Red Badge of Courage an act of revolt against the dominant social order of the 1890s as, explicit in Raymond Williams definition of “the residual”, is a recognition that such forms may have been “wholly or largely incorporated into the dominant culture” (Williams, 122). (Indeed a romantic conception of warfare may be seen to have aided a rationalised one as it encouraged young men such as Henry to enlist.) It does, however, call into question the deprivileging of elements of the novel outside the historical frame of the 1890s that occurs in Kaplan’s essay. The imbalance in Kaplan’s work may be attributed to “the tendency of much contemporary theory to rewrite selected texts from the past in terms of its own aesthetic” (Jameson, 17), that Fredric Jameson identifies as a pitfall of non-Marxist attempts at historicisation. Kaplan’s desire to read The Red Badge of Courage as “a narrative structure engaged in producing the spectacle of modern warfare” (Kaplan, 106), leads her to exclude the residual elements of earlier forms that inevitably exist on a battlefield containing both mortar-fire and the hand to hand combat of the bayonet charge.

University of Nottingham


[1] Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1999) 3. All citations hereafter are bracketed within the text.

[2] Amy Kaplan, ‘The Spectacle of War in Crane’s Revision of History’, New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Lee Clark Mitchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Hereafter cited as Kaplan.

[3] Lears’ argues that a mode of anti-modern resistance developed in American culture at the turn of the century. Corporate capitalism was found to be depersonalising and unfulfilling and so craftsmanship, Medievalism, Orientalism, violent fantasy and the martial ideal were all elevated as alternative spheres in which Americans could gain spiritual replenishment and “regenerate a lost intensity of feeling.” T.J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981) 142.

[4] Joseph Conrad, ‘His War Book’, in Stephen Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Maurice Bassam (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1967) 123-126.

[5] James Nagel, Stephen Crane and Literary Impressionism (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980) 5. Hereafter cited as Nagel.

[6] T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) 10. Hereafter cited as Clark.

[7] Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (London: Routledge, 1996). Hereafter cited as Jameson.

[8] “In the case of sight, it ought to be possible to understand how the deperceptualisation of the sciences – the break with such perceptual pseudosciences as alchemy, for example, the Cartesian distinction between primary and secondary senses, and the geometrization of science more generally, which substitutes ideal quantities for physically perceivable objects of study – is accompanied by a release in perceptual energies.” Jameson, 229.

[9] Quoted in Bill Brown, The Material Unconscious: American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economics of Play (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press, 1996) 129. Hereafter cited as Brown.

[10] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) 121-127. Hereafter cited as Williams.

[11] The terminology and approach used in the handling of metaphor stem from I.A. Richards’ analysis. Rather than individual words taking on “metaphorical meanings”, the utterance as a whole can be split into a primary and secondary sentence (one about a dog, the other about a regiment) that function simultaneously. By oscillating between the two sentences (or failing to sustain the metaphor), Crane creates a linguistic hybrid. I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965) 96-97.

[12] Jameson reads the generation of narrative through coincidence and accident, as a means by which Conrad is able to assert a “yarn-spinning” style that marks “the vain attempt to conjure back the old unit of the literary institution”. Jameson, 219-224.

[13] Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Alan Russell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978) 50. Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 47.

[14] The use of the terms “narrative sentence” and “represented thought” and the subsequent discussion of Crane in relation to Bakhtin are prompted by Christine Brooke-Rose’s analysis of irony in The Red Badge of Courage. Christine Brooke-Rose, “Ill Logics of Irony”, New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage, ed. Lee Clark Mitchell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986)

[15] Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984) 15.