Stephen Crane, Baseball, and a Red Badge

By Burton, Rick; Finkel, Jan | Nine, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Stephen Crane, Baseball, and a Red Badge


Burton, Rick, Finkel, Jan, Nine


In composing The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane--a fervent sports participant and fan, especially of baseball and football--may have seen parallels between the challenges and fears that young athletes face and the travails of another kind of rookie--an untried young soldier facing the specter of battle. Henry Fleming (frequently called "the youth" or "he") has left the farm and joined a Union regiment before an unnamed battle now identified as Chancellorsville. His named companions are Wilson ("the loud soldier") and Jim Conklin ("the tall soldier"). Like raw recruits or rookies the young men brag about the glory they hope to achieve, but underneath their collective swagger is the question "Will I stand my ground, or will I run?" Thrust into battle and what he is certain is to be his slaughter, Fleming runs away. Ashamed, he wanders until he joins a group of wounded soldiers, but he has no "red badge of courage. He then sees the horrible death of Jim Conklin and rages at himself. Soon after, he runs into a retreating infantryman who in the confusion clubs him in the head with the butt end of his rifle. He runs into the men of his own unit, who assume that his head wound is a combat injury. Maintaining the pretense the second day, Fleming fights heroically and with another soldier saves the regiment's colors from falling. The once-noisy youth and the regiment emerge from the conflict as men--assured, solemn, and courageous.

The fourteenth and last child (only the ninth to survive) of the Reverend Dr. Jonathan Townley Crane and Mary Helen Peck Crane, Stephen Crane was born in Newark, New Jersey, on November 1, 1871, not quite two years to the day after Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game in nearby New Brunswick. Also in 1871, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was founded, making professional sports a reality in the United States. Exploring Crane's connection to sport history--especially baseball and to some extent football--informs our understanding of The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

After the Civil War, baseball was finding its place in American literature. In 1868, William Everett had published Changing Base; Or, What Edward Rice Learnt at School (Boston: Lee and Shepard), considered the first work of American fiction to include baseball. (1) Following it were Everett's Double Play; Or, How Joe Hardy Chose His Friends (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1870) and an anonymous novel The Great Match, and Other Matches (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877). (2) Baseball fiction and Stephen Crane grew up together.

In Sport and the Spirit of Play in American Fiction: Hawthorne to Faulkner (1981), Christian K. Messenger notes that "young athletes were America's 'kind' of men." (3) For Crane, claiming a place in this brotherhood was not easy because his parents equated sport with sin. His mother was an ardent supporter of the temperance movement, and his pious father had published a book titled Popular Amusements (1869), denouncing such activities as "dancing, tobacco, opium, billiards, chess, and novel-reading." (4) The good reverend also predicted the "demise of the then-new baseball, because 'everyone connected with it seems to be regarded with a degree of suspicion.'" (5) Naturally determined to play out his role as a "preacher's kid," Crane indulged in several of these bugaboos plus a few more. He played most sports, smoked enough from an early age to have nicotine-stained fingers in his late teens, knew where the bars were, hung out with prostitutes in the Bowery of New York, and spent the last years of his life in a common-law marriage with Cora Taylor, madam of a Jacksonville, Florida, house of ill fame. Worst of all, young Crane read and even wrote novels, often drawing from these life experiences.

Crane's interest and participation in sports provided some notable influence toward the novel that made him famous. Although this was the first American novel to portray war from a common soldier's perspective, Crane wrote it with no personal military experience. …

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