Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage has always been way ahead of its time. That’s one reason the book has never been out of print since it was first published in 1894. The novel has also been required reading in middle school and high school for over a hundred years. Set in the American Civil War, Crane’s novel is so realistic that battle descriptions are like live tweets from the front lines. The novel is all the more remarkable because Crane did not fight in the Civil War or any war. He was born 6 years after the Civil War ended. He wrote the book when he was 24. The magazine and newspaper accounts he read of battles were dry and factual. As a writing exercise Crane decided to create emotional passages that describe how soldiers feel before, during, and after battle. Crane wrote in a style totally different from the conventional style of 1894. The result is a novel that still seems modern and unique. Here are 3 reasons why The Red Badge of Courage is still in the curriculum:
- Entry-level Classic. The low reading level (Grade 6) makes Red Badge easy to read while exposing readers to complex themes and sophisticated literary style. Young readers have to build up vocabulary, reading comprehension, and experience with figurative language before diving into adult fiction. Red Badge is a good start. The book provides a solid bridge between young adult fiction and the more challenging adult classics. Readers first must learn to interpret irony, symbolism, and literary devices before tackling the English classics of Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes, and the American classics of Twain, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Red Badge is a good basic introduction to adult literature.
- Universal Themes. Red Badge explores what war feels like to a young recruit. The book could be about a soldier in any war who experiences courage, bravery, heroism, loyalty, and survival in the face of dehumanizing forces outside an individual’s control. Red Badge is not a historical novel full of events, dates, and battle strategies. Instead Crane zeroes in on the feelings of the soldiers who are portrayed as victims of war. The characters in Red Badge do not spout political ideology or religious beliefs. They speak of home, family, uncertainty, fear, and survival.
- Modern Style. Red Badge also serves as an introduction to modern style. Sentences are short and descriptive. Modern literary devices used in the book include flashback and stream of consciousness. The emotional and psychological reactions of characters are exposed. Crane’s descriptions of battle are surrealistic. Examples include: Tents sprang up like strange plants. Camp fires, like red, peculiar blossoms, dotted the night. The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer. The trees began softly to sing a hymn of twilight. The youth could see the two flags shaking with laughter amid the smoke remnants. The moon had been lighted and hung in a treetop.