It’s my understanding that upon the The Red Badge of Courage’s publication in 1895, it received much praise for it’s “realistic” meditation upon the psychology of war and the personal experiences of soldiers. Stanley Wortheim says that the book is “unquestionably the most realistic novel about the American Civil War”. However, The Red Badge of Courage was published at a time when Civil War veterans were still alive and in some cases, writing personal narratives of combat or fiction inspired by those personal experiences. It bothers me that someone would think a narrative written by a non-veteran is more realistic than others written by actual veterans, so I’m going to compare a narrative written by the latter group with Crane’s book.
Of the veterans who were able to write about their time in combat, Ambrose Bierce was particularly notable for writing in a way which was both blunt and immediately devastating. His short story “Chickamauga” testifies to the unspeakable effects of war upon both soldiers and civilians, something which is most evident at the very end when the young boy is only able to utter a “series of inarticulate and indescribable cries”. We’re told he sounds like this because he is a deaf-mute, his wordless outburst isn’t unusual considering what he’s been through. After all, trauma theory states that language fails to accommodate the psychological impact of trauma. This moment in the narrative suggests that the carnage of war is so profoundly beyond description that it handicaps its witness, leaving them unable to speak of what they’ve seen. Bierce’s illustration of the Civil War is a true meditation upon the psychology of warfare specifically because it deals with the trauma of the experience.
As someone born after the war and with no combat experience at that point, Crane had no way of understanding the type of anguish that Bierce presents. The description of the decaying body in chapter 7 is graphically described, and yet Fleming’s experience of that body is limited to “a shriek” and the fear that it will reanimate. If this book was in fact a realistic description of a soldier’s experience of the abject, there would not be a paragraph-long, impressionist description of the body. In all, I think Crane’s prose style is wholly inappropriate for illustrating the mind of a soldier and it negatively reflects upon Crane’s lack of combat experience.
Crane’s shortcomings as a war writer are forgivable if we look at the book as historical fiction, so I want to be clear that my problem isn’t with the author himself. My issue is that some critics and scholars don’t recognize Crane’s privilege in being able to use descriptive language to describe war. As a non-veteran, there was no trauma nor anguish which could impede upon Crane’s attempts to describe combat. While this may make for a beautiful book, it does not make for a realistic one. A true realistic war narrative illustrates the extent of the character’s anguish by illuminating that inability to properly communicate it.
To call Crane’s book the most realistic Civil War narrative is an insult to veterans in general and especially those who were able to channel their experiences into their writing. Only they can know the reality of combat and I think it’s a serious injustice to say someone like Crane knows it better.