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Stephen Crane was born in 1871 in
Newark, New Jersey. The fourteenth child of highly religious Methodist
parents, Crane lapsed into a rebellious childhood during which he spent
time preparing for a career as a professional baseball player. After
brief flirtations with higher learning at Lafayette College and
Syracuse University, Crane turned to writing full-time. Convinced
that he must invest his work with the authenticity of experience,
he often went to outlandish lengths to live through situations that
he intended to work into his novels. For his first book, Maggie,
a Girl of the Streets (1893), Crane
lived in poverty in the Bowery slum of New York City. Similarly,
he based his short story “The Open Boat” on his experience as a
castaway from a shipwreck.
Crane’s most enduring work, the short novel The
Red Badge of Courage, was published in 1895.
Though initially not well received in the United States, The
Red Badge of Courage was a massive success in England.
The attention of the English critics caused many Americans
to view the novel with renewed enthusiasm, catapulting the young
Crane into international literary prominence. His realistic depictions
of war and battle led to many assignments as a foreign correspondent
for newspapers, taking him to such locales as Greece, Cuba, and Puerto
Rico. He published volumes of poetry as well as many works of fiction,
including the landmark “The Open Boat” (1897).
In 1899, Crane moved into a medieval castle
in England with his lover, the former madam of a Jacksonville brothel.
Here Crane wrote feverishly, hoping to pay off his debts. His health
began to fail, however, and he died of tuberculosis in June 1900, at
the age of twenty-eight.
Ironically, for a writer so committed to the direct portrayal
of his own experience, Crane’s greatest work is almost entirely
a product of his imagination. When he wrote The Red Badge
of Courage, Crane had neither fought in war nor witnessed
battle, and was forced to rely on his powers of invention to create
the extraordinarily realistic combat sequences of the novel. His
work proved so accurate that, at the time of the book’s publication,
most critics assumed that Crane was an experienced soldier.
Based loosely on the events of the Civil War Battle of
Chancellorsville (May 2–6, 1863)—though neither
the battle, the war, nor the armies are named in the book—The Red
Badge of Courage shattered American preconceptions about
what a war novel could be. In the decades before Crane’s novel,
most fiction about the Civil War was heavily idealistic, portraying
the conflict as a great clash of opposed ideals. Whereas previous
writers had taken a large, epic view, Crane focused on the individual
psychology of a single soldier, Private Henry Fleming, during his
first experiences of battle. In this narrowed scope, Crane represents
Henry’s mind as a maze of illusions, vanity, and romantic naïveté,
challenged by the hard lessons of war. Crane does not depict a world
of moral absolutes, but rather a universe utterly indifferent to
This startling and unexpected shift drew the world’s attention
to The Red Badge of Courage, as did the novel’s
vivid and powerful descriptions of battle. With its combination
of detailed imagery, moral ambiguity, and terse psychological focus, The
Red Badge of Courage exerted an enormous influence on twentieth-century American
fiction, particularly, on the writings of the modernists. These qualities
continue to make the work absorbing and important more than a century
after it was written.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Red Badge of Courage!