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The One Hundred Novels You Must Read before You Write Your Own: Red Badge of Courage

by Shelly Lowenkopf

The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane. 1895

Stephen Crane’s dates: 1871-1900. The Civil War ran its gory course six years before the author of The Red Badge of Courage came our literary way. One more argument against the write-only-from-direct experience dictate. However Crane assembled the “experience” to write this novel, he hit it out of the park.

Years later, after I read Tim O’Brien’s 1990 The Things They Carried, and Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel The Tree of Smoke, also set in Vietnam, I realized how far out of the park Crane indeed hit The Red Badge. By then, I’d also read Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions, and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, each dealing with World War II, each in its narrative way demonstrating how war effects individuals, expanding Crane’s vision of a naïve and vulnerable narrator.

These later books have matters of technique to teach, in particular the shape of the narrative, the diversity of characters, and their individual fears. But so does Crane. Red Badge was not the only time he schooled us to begin a narrative with a vulnerable protagonist. Another of his noted works, the long short story, “The Open Boat,” put four survivors of a shipwreck into a small lifeboat, about the size of a suitable bathtub for one man. From accounts of how this was written, I’d learned of Crane’s passionate belief in the importance of tracking down the details of an event, whether a wartime experience of the young Red Badge recruit, Henry Fleming, or the survivors of a major disaster at sea, the ship, The Commodore, going down in a raging storm.

Crane’s approach: Be relentless when you track down the facts of the event and the attitudes of those involved in them. With this information in mind, I returned for a second reading of Red Badge, where I made my most significant discovery of all about Stephen Crane. His great narrative strength was his sense of irony.

Henry Fleming, the eighteen-year-old recruit in the Union Army, begins to wonder if he has the courage to match his dreams of distinguished military service. The splendid thematic detail of a squirrel, fleeing in fear from the certain reward of a large nut for his supper, alerts us to what will be Henry’s fearful flight from an attack on the enemy.

The first irony reports for duty itself when Henry, from his place of safety, hears about the victory in which he would have participated if he had not run. Now, irony double-downs, wants co-billing. Henry longs for a wound in battle, his bloody badge of courage. Soon enough, The Big Casting Director of Reality hears Henry’s wish for a starring role. Next scene shows Henry, taking one in the least glorious spot of all, the buttocks, the musket ball delivered by friendly fire, his own comrades in arms. Nothing left but to give the wounded Henry a hero’s recognition.

In its spare, choice pages, The Red Badge of Courage, gave me the gift of that one often missed dramatic element of the irony embedded within every subsequent novel that comes my way. Without a doubt, Stephen Crane flung open wide the door for irony to enter my awareness as a permanent and necessary guest.

Without Red Badge to guide me, I’d have been ill prepared to cope with the stunning effects of Joseph Heller’s definitive bible of irony, Catch-22.

A distinguished writing teacher and author, as well as the journal's poetry editor, Shelly will be presenting the novels that intrigued and mesmerized him into wishing to join the ranks of published writers.

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