Private Fleming at Chancellorsville: The Red Badge of Courage and the Civil War

By Perry Lentz | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
Literature as Mousetrap
The Reader Caught

The Red Badge of Courage mounts an unusual and profound challenge to the enduring myth of the "value" of combat experience. The overwhelming majority of its mature readers are people concerned with the issue of warfare and steeped in the post–World War I literary response, which is almost entirely "antiwar." Why, then, is Crane's novel so rarely understood in this way?

Although overwritten at times, Crane's novel is the most stylistically accessible of all the novels traditionally considered "canonical" in American literature. Its study of human psychology is so plausible, clear, and persuasive as to be enthralling to most readers. Whether it is admired or not, that the novel portrays comprehensible and typical states of mind in its characters is not an issue but a given. Its themes are among the most common and elemental treated in literature; its narrative follows the single most pervasive structure found in the literature of the Western world. Why then has it generated such a bewildering array of different critical responses, many of the most thoughtful of which are in radical opposition to each other?

In order to address this issue and to summarize what Chapter 10 sought to establish, let us consider a short story by Stephen Crane that is widely read but, in point of fact, not very good. "The Blue Hotel" moves with the unsubtle directness of Crane's poems to its central point, when the character known as the Swede makes his way through a winter storm into Fort Romper, Nebraska:

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