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Badge of Courage

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Stephen Crane loved war. His most famous novel is, of course, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1895), written by a very young man who had never seen battle. He had learned all he needed to know, he claimed, from playing football, which is characteristic of a man who saw most human interaction in terms of war. He titled one collection of his poems—or “lines” as he modestly termed them—WAR IS KIND (1899). He seemed to prefer it to most other pursuits, spending as much of his last years as he could in the heat of battle, ostensibly as a correspondent.

Biographer Linda H. Davis never really attempts to explain this obsession. It may have something to do with the early death of his father or perhaps he was just the perpetual adolescent who died too young to ever take his mortality seriously. Born in 1871, he was dead before he was thirty.

He came from a well-educated middle class family. His older brother was a newspaperman and got Stephen into that game. He wrote some very good journalism, but he wanted to understand people more than cover the news, and he bounced around among papers, unable to satisfy any editor for very long.

Though he was a preacher’s son, he never had much use for the so-called proprieties and became famous and infamous for his supposedly libertine ways. He lived in abject poverty while gathering material for his first novel, MAGGIE: A GIRL OF THE STREETS (1893), and kept some dubious company. However most of the rumors about him were fabricated by his many enemies, including Teddy Roosevelt, all of which made him a celebrity, but paid no bills.

He wrote THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE when he was just twenty-three, and in the space of five years, he pumped out a steady stream of fiction and journalism, much of it not very good and none of it paying well. Still, never shy about demanding his due, he made himself an international reputation. With England as his base, he spent his last years as a landed (and indebted) squire when he was not covering wars in Greece and Cuba. Cool under fire, inviting death many thought, he was equally reckless of his health.

No one is sure when he contracted tuberculosis, but he never took care of himself, and so it was no surprise that he died young in 1900 in a German sanitarium, where his wife took him in a last ditch effort to save his life.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar. LXVII, Autumn, 1998, p. 146.

The Atlantic. CCLXXXI, September 1, 1998, p. 137.

Booklist. XCIV, July, 1998, p. 1850

Library Journal. CXXIII, July, 1998, p. 89.

The New York Times. CXLVII, August 18, 1998, p. B6.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, August 23, 1998, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, September 7, 1998, p. 85.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, May 11, 1998, p. 56.

The Wall Street Journal. August 6, 1998, p. A13.

Badge of Courage

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her preface to Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, Linda Davis attributes her interest in Crane to The Monster (1898), a novella about a black man who is horribly disfigured by fire while saving his employer’s son. This “evoked” the death of the biographer’s own father in similar circumstances, a slightly uncanny coincidence that left her determined to learn more about Stephen Crane. Unfortunately, her book never really illuminates the more obscure corners of Crane’s genius. Like the many people who knew Crane, Davis has been seduced by his charm, which served all of his life as a shield for his mystery.

Davis begins the first chapter in 1890, with an incident from Crane’s nineteenth year during a brief stint as a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. There a group of sophomores, out for a night of hazing, broke in on the new student—to find him quaking with fear behind a gun. Apparently, this is how Crane saw himself, but he masked his fear with the many roles he played: rebellious preacher’s child, reporter, writer, cowboy, war correspondent, lover. Although he usually found a receptive audience, he remained isolated.

The Monster , for example, concerns an only child,...

(The entire section is 2,426 words.)