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Exploring Human Nature (Stephen Crane) Essay, Research Paper

Exploring Human Nature Commonly considered Stephen Crane’s greatest accomplishment, The Red Badge of Courage ranks among the foremost literary achievements of the modern era. While the novel was not universally praised, almost without exception Crane’s critics marveled at the emotional power of his vivid, visual prose. Crane’s journalistic description and ironic understatement comprise a legacy, which has done a great deal in shaping American literature as we know it. In reading about Crane, we learn that he was an American novelist and poet who was known for his pessimistic and often brutal portrayals of the human condition, but his stark realism is relieved by charm and understanding of character. The Red Badge of Courage traces the effects of war on a Union soldier, Henry Fleming, from his dreams of soldiering, to his actual enlistment, and through several battles of the Civil War. Physical, emotional, and intellectual responses of people under extreme pressure and nature’s indifference to humanity’s fate and the consequent need for compassionate collective action are the two major reoccurring themes represented in this intense war novel. Stephen Crane s impressive use of literary tools such as: Tough-minded irony, dramatic personification, powerful paradox, allusions to religion and colorful metaphors enrich the reader s experience as the story of the young recruit unfolds. Published in the autumn of 1895, The Red Badge of Courage went through two editions before the end of the year. By March of 1896 the novel was in eighth place on the international booksellers’ list and had gone through fourteen printings; remarkably enough, Red Badge has never been out of print. Early reviewers of Red Badge introduced many of the issues which have remained of interest in subsequent critical investigations of Crane’s work. British and American reviewers argue quite a bit about who should get credit for the “discovery” of Crane. English critics tended to take Red Badge more seriously than their American counterparts, pointing out its affinities with works by Tolstoy, Zola, Kipling, and the battle scenes of the Russian realist painter Verestschagin (Mitchell 13). Perhaps the most perceptive of Crane’s English critics was, George Wyndham, a Member of Parliament and veteran of the British army. Wyndham was the only one of Crane’s early critics to grasp the significance of narrating the novel from the point of view of Private Henry Fleming. Generals’ accounts, Wyndham noted, had usually been written from the “band-box” viewpoint and emphasized large-scale concerns (troop movements, tactical maneuvers, wins and losses), neglecting the much more limited but in many ways more intense experience of the anonymous foot soldier (Delbanco 115). What distinguished Crane in his effort to portray modern warfare was his use of what Wyndham called a “new device,” that of focusing on the youth and tracing the sequential impressions made by the emotional experience of war on his sensitive nature. Wyndham wrote: “[Crane] stages the drama of war, so to speak, within the mind of one man, and then admits you as to a theatre.” Crane’s reportage of the “procession of flashing images shot through the senses into one brain” combined the “strength and truth of a monodrama with the directness and color of the best narrative prose” (109-110). Early American reviewers of Red Badge were generally not as severe as Wyndham. Perhaps most surprisingly, one American critic suggests that in the novel “a serious effect seems to be intended throughout” (Kaplan 15). Harold Frederic, London editor of the New York Times, recognized Red Badge as a masterpiece. He wrote that it would likely be “one of the deathless books which must be read by everybody who desires to be, or to seem, a connoisseur of modern fiction” (116). From our current perspective we can see that Frederic was right: Crane s novel is read and reread in almost every advanced English course in the United States and throughout the world. Like many early reviewers, Frederic expressed admiration for the emotional power of Crane’s work, but he was one of the very few who recognized the boldness and originality of Crane’s technique. “The Red Badge,” Frederic claimed, “impels the feeling that the actual truth about a battle has never been guessed before” (Kaplan 116). Henry’s actions seemed the actions of the readers’ own minds. This technique made the book an astounding realistic portrayal of the horror of war upon the human individual. The English critic, Sydney Brooks, totally convinced by Crane’s depictions of combat in Red Badge, assumed that Crane had actually fought in the Civil War. If Red Badge were “altogether a work of the imagination, unbased on personal experience,” Brooks asserted, “its realism would be nothing short of a miracle.”

Throughout the novel, Crane s characters are confronted with the worst possible scenarios known to mankind; from experiences with killing another individual to the brutal madness of pre-modern warfare. Jim Wilson, a close friend to Private Henry, represents the two sides of human nature. In the beginning of the book Wilson is a mean tough guy that no one liked. This outward act of being tuff is just a cover of the true nature of Wilson. His experiences during the novel help advise Henry on the right course of action. All of the characters in the Red Badge of Courage represent some aspect of man either physically or emotionally. This connection between the characters and the reader make the book true to life and more believable. Since the characters feel so real, physically and emotionally, the reader has an easier time relating to them. Connected as a whole, all the characters form the common theme of physical, emotional, and intellectual responses of people under extreme pressure and nature’s indifference to humanity’s fate.The Red Badge of Courage explores human nature through the thoughts of a young private during a period of death and madness. Cranes stark realism is offset by his love for the character. By using the narration through Private Henry, Crane is able to capture the most basic human emotions. The young solder is unaware of the entire picture and is only able to concentrate on his immediate surroundings. The Red Badge issued in an entire new system of literary technique for American Literature. His novel helped shape the foundations for American success abroad. Until the end of education, Crane s novel will be a book analyzed all over the world for its brutal portrayals of the human condition. It s continuing success on the literary market can only be attributed to its priceless worth as one of the greatest novels of post-renaissance history.

/Consulted Bassan, Maurice, ed. Stephen Crane. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Beer, Thomas. Stephen Crane. Garden City, N. J.: Doubleday, 1923. Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage and other Writings. ed. Richard Chase. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960. Delbanco, Andrew. “The American Stephen Crane: The Context of The Red Badge of Courage.” New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986. Giese, Lucretia Hoover. Winslow Homer: Painter of the Civil War. Ph. D. diss., Harvard Hungerford, Harold. R. “That Was at Chancellorsville”: The Factual Framework of The Red Badge of Courage. American Literature (34: 4) January, 1963. James, Henry. The American Scene. New York: Horizon Press, 1967. Kaplan, Amy.The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Kaplan, Amy. “The Spectacle of War in Crane’s Revision of History.” New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986. Kazin, Alfred. On Native Grounds. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1942. Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981. Mariani, Giorgio. Spectacular Narratives: Representations of Class and War in Stephen Crane and the American 1890s. New York: Peter Lang, 1992. Mitchell, Lee Clark, ed. New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage. New York: Cambridge U P, 1986.

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