The Army Motif in 'The Red Badge of Courage' as a Response to Industrial Capitalism

By Shanahan, Daniel | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

The Army Motif in 'The Red Badge of Courage' as a Response to Industrial Capitalism


Shanahan, Daniel, Papers on Language & Literature


In 1904, four years after the death of his friend Stephen Crane, Henry James returned to the United States for the first time in twenty-one years. He describes his approach to New York City this way:

... the monster grows and grows ... becoming ... some colossal set of clockworks, some steel-souled machine room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws. The immeasurable bridges are but as the horizontal sheaths of pistons working at high pressure, day and night ...(75)

This was the New York which, in the two Short decades of James's absence, had replaced the prosaic city of James's youth; this new city of motion and machines was the New York Crane had lived in as he wrote The Red Badge of Courage. It was a city that, like the country it represented, had been "seized by change" (Martin 361).

Indeed, probably nothing could better characterize the period of James's absence than the overwhelming transformation and retransformation that America underwent from 1880 to 1900.(1) And the forces behind the changes which took place in those years were largely those which underlie James's description, of New York: the impetus of capitalism and industrialization, of the competitive drive to succeed and the machine which helped make success possible. As Larzer Ziff points out, the early literary response to the social upheaval created in America by capitalism and industrialization was ambiguous -- and weak. The problem was not lack of talent it was lack of vision. As Ziff suggests of the architectural establishment of the time, writers who had grown up in pre-Civil War America "yearned to impose upon the whirl of late-nineteenth-century-America the dream of stasis, an ideal and all-covering beauty ... Static idealization of the human condition seemed to be the answer to the impossibly unaesthetic whirl of social conditions" (22). But what was needed was a vision which would unify the "unaesthetic whirl" without confining it, and to achieve that vision a writer would have to be willing to allow the whirl to emerge without bending it to his own purposes. Didacticism, ideal or apocalyptic, could easily betray the integrity of any attempt to distill the temper of the times into a literary work.

"Static idealization" was not, however, the only response to the turmoil and confusion. There had been one fairly recent instance in which an overriding national spirit had been forged into a purposive and intensely satisfying -- at least for some -- raison d'etre: the American Civil War. In the face of the rapid transformation of American social, political and even moral life, what had been to some a national tragedy of overwhelming proportions became for others a touchstone upon which they tried to base a new sense of national character, a national pride, and, above all, national direction. By the 1880s, the Civil War was close enough in time to have been the most formative national experience in the lives of men of letters, and far enough distant to have become ripe for mythologizing. As John L. Thomas says, it was common in the 1880s for

social observers, many of them New Englanders, to prescribe martial virtue as a cure for the ills of society or to recommend the lessons of the Civil War as a means of renewing national vigor ... In the years after 1880 Francis A. Walker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. -- all veterans of the Civil War and sons of New England acutely conscious of its heritage of nationalism -- elaborated new concepts of the "useful citizen" and the "soldier's faith" derived from experiences on Civil War battlefields. (61)

Two of the more popularly successful attempts to draw on aspects of the "martial" experience of the Civil War as a way of addressing the social convulsions of a society hurtling into capitalism and industrialization did not actually portray the War itself, but both rely on an army motif to evoke the social climates of nascent competition and mechanization in the fictional worlds they create. …

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