After being serialized in magazines, The Red Badge of Courage was finally published in book form in the fall of 1895 to favorable reviews. George Wyndham, writing in the New Review, stated, "Mr. Crane has surely contrived a masterpiece." Stephen Crane's literary reputation was firmly established, and the twenty-four-year-old author's imaginative genius was hailed by critics and readers here and in England. As his letters of late 1895 and early 1896 suggest, Stephen Crane's literary situation was somewhat problematic, paradoxically because of the immense success of The Red Badge of Courage. It created something of a sensation in late 1895, and before the end of that year, Crane was a famous man, an international celebrity known on both sides of the Atlantic for his brilliant and uncompromisingly realistic portrayal of war. But he also spent money and suffered some notoriety as a bohemian and social radical. When the book was published, many readers disliked it, faulting its artificial style, far-fetched metaphors, and improper grammar and usage. His literary mentors, William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, thought the book less significant than his first novel, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, which was in the realistic mode, and more in line with their style.
Crane's fame spread after his death. His work enjoyed a particular revival of interest in the 1920s, the decade of social iconoclasts. Joseph Hergesheimer, writing in The Work of Stephen Crane, called the work "both a novel and a narrative," adding, "I have an idea, too, that as it is poetry, lyrical as well as epic; no one, certainly, can deny that it is completely classic in its movement, its pace and return." The Red Badge was so original that it created many imitations of its style, and its realistic view of war.
During the 1950s, there was heavy critical emphasis on the religious themes in the novel. Crane had grown up in a deeply religious environment since his father had been a Methodist minister and his mother a devout Christian who often contributed articles to religious publications. Thus, critics equated one of Crane's characters in his book, Jim Conklin, with Christ. In particular, critic R.W. Stallman believed The Red Badge of Courage to be laden with religious symbols. In an introduction to The Red Badge of Courage, he alludes to the famous "sun-like-a-wafer" image as being particularly relevant as a religious symbol. Most of the criticism since the 1950s, however, has taken a different course, that of exploring Crane's artistic technique which blended elements of symbolism, impressionism, and naturalism.
One critic who places Crane in the Naturalistic school is Charles Child Walcutt. In his book American Literary Naturalism: A Divided Stream , Walcutt remarked that Crane "makes us see Henry Fleming as an emotional puppet controlled by whatever sight he sees at the moment." He added that Henry reacts "in a blind rage that turns him into an animal" without moral sense when he returns to war after receiving a wound to his head. Other critics focus on Crane's use of color imagery or impressionism (the use of light and color to describe an event or feeling). Another school of critics views Crane's depiction of Henry Fleming as an overly egocentric individual. His frequent ideas of his powers in war seem grandiose, but that is typical of one so young; it is difficult to see how he could tell his own war story otherwise. Crane himself was a young man when he wrote about Fleming, their ages just three to five years apart. This is a young man's novel about the...
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meaning and the nature of being young. Therefore, the education of the naive, proud man is central to Crane's intent.
For the most part, critics agree that Crane disregarded plot and character delineation in his work and that he was unable to sustain longer works of fiction. However, with the proliferation of Crane scholarship during the past twenty years, his literary reputation has grown. One of the reasons why modern critics enjoy the novel is because it deals with a popular theme today: the isolated individual and his relationship to society. If human life has any meaning, man must look to it himself, Crane suggests, in a philosophy akin to today's existentialism. One critic, American Literature contributor Robert Shulman, observed that Crane's work shows him "responding to one of the deepest tendencies of his American society, its tendency to isolate individuals, to fragment selves and relations, and to substitute technological, contractual, and bureaucratic ties for those of human compassion and community." Critics contend that despite Crane's minor flaws, his artistry lies in his ability to convey a personal vision based on his own "quality of personal honesty" and that he pioneered a modern form of fiction that superceded the genteel realism of late nineteenth-century American literature.